This was a minuscule walk, and what follows is mostly about ballet.
The cause of my recent silence? On Christmas morning, I awoke with my lower back in spasm – severe nerve pain brought on by the slightest movement. A fortnight of walking in the pool and swimming, and acupuncture/moxibustion, and hobbling with a stick ensued. Just when I thought I was cured, I went out and sat wrong for a couple of hours, and found myself back at square one.
I did write something during the gap: my annual opt-in Christmas letter.
The need for a ballet book
On this rainy, muggy day, I dragged Dac to Queanbeyan because I’d found there – via Abebooks – a secondhand copy of a book I wanted. The people who were selling it (Klanhorn) operate an Internet-only business, but they made an exception and let me buy it direct. This saved me the cost of postage and them the hassle of wrapping and posting.
The book was No Castanets at the Wells by Lorna Hill. I’d been thinking about Lorna Hill’s Sadlers Wells series for weeks, since I saw the exhibition Ballets Russes: the art of costume (showing at the National Gallery of Australia till 20 March 2011).
Despite not being much of a ballet fan, I found the exhibition remarkable, and was awed by proxy proximity to legends such as Diaghilev and Nijinsky.
“Raising every aspect of performance – dancing, choreography, music, stage and costume design and publicity – to an equal level of inventiveness and excellence, Diaghilev unleashed a torrent of creative activity on European theatre, placing the formerly moribund art of ballet into the Modernist framework of early 20th century design and culture. “
“Bearing the sweat of the dancers and the ravages of time, the surviving costumes are tangible reminders of the craft of their designers, makers and wearers.”
– from the National Gallery page about the Ballets Russes exhibition
Trailing round reading the signs, I noticed that some of the composers and librettists were great names, and many were obscure. Like opera, ballet is more than the sum of its parts: a ridiculous story isn’t a problem; unremarkable music can seem to rise above itself.
It was seeing the names of the ballets at the exhibition that reminded me of Lorna Hill’s books. For me, the names started out as nothing more than words on her pages. Later some of them became associated with music. A very few of them I actually saw as ballets eventually:
- Giselle (a student performance in Canberra)
- La Boutique Fantasque (I have a memory of seeing a black & white film, but I can’t find any information about it online)
- Daphnis and Chloë (could have been a performance by the Sydney Dance Company, with motorcycles on the stage of the Canberra Theatre)
The Sadlers Wells books were what would be described by the ACT Public Library as YAF – Young Adult Fiction. Not that the library turns out to have a single Lorna Hill! The series was written between 1950 and 1964 and would no doubt be regarded as very dated now. No Castanets at the Wells is fourth in the series, but it’s the one I read first, when I was about ten (1960). There was a copy at my grandmother’s house – a lovely hardbound book with a characteristically pretty dance illustration on the dustjacket.
It must have belonged to my cousin Beverley. My trusting young imagination identified with the dancers, despite my obvious problems with co-ordination and size. I proceeded to seek out every book in the series that I could lay my hands on.
Originally, when I looked Lorna Hill up on AbeBooks, I had thoughts of buying the whole Sadlers Wells series. One of the curses of having mostly had to borrow books is the near-impossibility of reading a complete series, let alone reading it in order. Most of the copies for sale were in the UK, and quite expensive, so it seemed like a sign when almost the only Australian holding was No Castanets at the Wells, in Queanbeyan.
We found ourselves looking for number 30 in a street where the numbers skipped from 28 to 34. Then we stood in the rain, propping Dac’s iPad up against a fencepost so I could reread my email from the booksellers and discover that their number was a multiple of 30. Saved from the dire consequences of a wicked error by the wonders of modern technology!
Once I’d got my book, we parked in the main street of Queanbeyan, Monaro Street, and strolled along till we found a place to have morning tea.
Queanbeyan is over the border in New South Wales, but it’s no further from the centre of Canberra than many Canberra suburbs. Many RiotACT posters are fairly scathing about the place (“Struggletown”) and its residents. There wasn’t much sympathy when, on 9 December 2010, Queanbeyan was struck by serious floods.
Some people like to be sparing with their sympathy for others; excuses for not caring trip off their tongues. “Serves ’em right for building on a flood plain.” Personally, I wouldn’t have a clue what a flood plain looked like, and yet I’ve had the temerity to buy places to live in, trusting that they were durable and habitable. I’ve also bought insurance trusting that it covered me for the risks I was likely to encounter. And yet I don’t think of myself as a fool who deserves disaster.
Queanbeyan has been a town since 1838 and a city since 1972. It has a different character from Canberra because it’s older: it’s a proper New South Wales town, with plenty to investigate if we ever finish the Canberra Community Walks. When I was at university, poker machines weren’t allowed in the ACT so people crossed the border to go to the Queanbeyan Leagues Club. I crossed the border to register my car. Houses are cheaper to buy, and places are cheaper to rent. Queanbeyan offers some goods and services that Canberra doesn’t, and has its own cultural venues and productions.
When I was working on the review of the National Capital Development Commission, our American chair wanted to know why Queanbeyan didn’t just become part of the ACT. After the shocked silence and the smirks, the idea was dismissed without much explanation. Some possibilities follow.
- States don’t cede territory
- NSW has already given up enough to the ACT
- Interstate lack of co-operation is compulsory
- They wouldn’t want to join us
[Canberra is loathed everywhere else in Australia because the media persist in using its name to refer to the Federal Government: “Canberra” is to blame for everything.]
We ended up at the Central Cafe for a substantial late breakfast.
I hadn’t taken my camera but we saw some notable dogs, rather like these:
By לאירא ִArieljonatan at he.wikipedia [Public domain],
from Wikimedia Commons
And then we came home. I was so exhausted by hobbling a couple of hundred yards that I reclined for the rest of the day, reading No Castanets right through. I was glad I hadn’t decided to buy the whole series. It was class-ridden, predictable, and a bit syrupy – not characteristics I noticed at all when I was ten.