Black and White Columns

There are half a dozen images of Cairo minarets in my album of 1940s photos. One in particular of the citadel in Cairo shows the thin twin minarets that are less like the towers on other mosques and more like pencil-shaped columns. I looked for a structure where I live that resembles them, in order to see what kind of black and white photo it makes. The Australian-American Memorial is good for comparison:

The minarets on the citadel in Cairo are thin and columnar, like the Memorial. Both images illustrate the power of a tapering column soaring into the sky, visible from far away, and indeed more impressive from a distance. The memorial in Canberra, affectionately known as the obelisk, the Eagle, or the chook on a stick, is prominent in the background in my previous black and white post about towers.

The modern digital image on the right highlights the cloud detail while the 1940s image better shows the decorative sculpture of a minaret rising into what appears to be a clear sky. My photo of the monument in Canberra was taken at about 11 am with the sun behind the top of the column so its detail is not as visible; it’s more of a silhouette. For a better black and white photo I should return to it one afternoon. One thing I noticed immediately is the sharpness of the windows in the newer photo, the clearly visible cars and trees in the background, compared with the soft blur of the older photo, which is actually more charming (to me). Not knowing exactly what’s in the blurred part makes me linger longer and wonder.

In contrast to the Turkish-style minarets with vertical grooves and tiers, the memorial is a hollow octagonal column covered in aluminium sandblasted to look like stone, quite featureless except for the eagle and sphere on top. Here they are, in the photo below, and for readers who’d like to know what we’re called to remember when we see it, here’s a photo of the plaque:

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365 Unusual Things: 36-42

36. Saw hundreds of anti-vax, anti-government protesters in cars, trucks, vans and on foot heading towards the city centre and Parliament House, hooting, beeping, calling out and playing music over loudspeakers, disrupting traffic flow, making people late.

37. Visited a lake that has an algae problem like my local pond. Several floating wetlands have been installed to eliminate the algae and seem to be working.

38. From the National Film and Sound Archive site today:  ‘It has been said that digital files last forever — or five years, whichever comes first.’

39. Had my hair cut by a girl named Paris who tried to learn French but was no good at it and gave up.

40. Camilla, wife of Prince Charles, has, it is said, embodied the Queen’s ‘never complain, never explain’ attitude.

41. At the National Library café today I was one of 7 customers. It’s usually packed but all the public servants have been asked to work at home, so there were only us retirees. I could sit where I wanted, which was next to one of the stained glass windows by Leonard French. Usually I can’t get near them.

42. Made myself a birthday cake today. First time ever. And made it with leftover Christmas mincemeat, which I just discovered is the proper term for fruit mince. Made from fruit. Not from minced meat, which is the proper term for meat put through a mincing machine.

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365 Unusual Things: 29-35

29. In the large medical centre where I’ve just had my Covid vaccination booster, every door was open to the fresh air. Unusual in these days of air conditioning everywhere.

30. Saw a swamphen building a nest out of bulrushes.

31. Saw two ibis killing time by the pond, one of them making a 180 deg turn and expanding its wings for balance. I had a good view of the wing structure.

32. Visited a neighbour and saw she has an old chiming clock identical to one my father brought home from the Middle East in 1942.

33. Today’s date is 2-2-22.

34. Saw an apartment with a sale sign outside: “Buy me for Xmas”. It’s still for sale.

35. Had dinner in a restaurant offering an 8.88% discount on any Asian-style meals on their menu during this Chinese New Year week.

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Black and white towers

After comparing two black and white photos of bridges recently, I’ve looked at other images from my 1940s collection, particularly of structures that are eye-catching in black and white. Again I’ve taken one of my own photos and removed the colour to see if it impresses in a similar way.

On the left is a photo taken in about 1942 of the Beirut clock tower, built in 1934. These days, four new clock faces with Roman numerals have replaced the faces you see here, and the tower is no longer encircled by concrete, but flower beds. It was a sunny day, judging by the strong shadow of the clock tower, so the sky must have been blue.

On the right is an image of the National Carillon in Canberra which I took last year. A carillon is a pitched percussion instrument played with a keyboard, in a tower. This one consists of 57 cast bronze bells, each weighing between 7 kg and 6 tonnes. Our Carillon is presently under renovation, greatly delayed by Covid restrictions, but normally there are organised concerts drawing audiences who sit in the surrounding park to listen. It also chimes the time every quarter hour.

The soft blacks, whites and greys of the 1942 image allow us to fix the image in time, it puts us back in those war years. Yet enough detail is visible to locate the architecture, which I needed to do after reading my father’s caption beneath the photo, ‘Tripoli’. Searching on Google images showed me the clock tower is not in Tripoli, Lebanon, but in Beirut.

The dark blacks and greys in the carillon picture are not as romantic, though there are sharp edges and more information in the image. This one works well in black and white since the only other colours in reality are the green of the vegetation and the blue sky behind the clouds. The lake that day was grey, and the tower, the obelisk and the building on the left are all stone colour, so there’s not much loss in converting the image to black and white.

In Canberra, and in Australia generally, carillon is pronounced carillion, like million. But it’s a French word that should be pronounced a bit like carry on. Consequently, an artist has played with this tendency of ours to pronounce foreign words so they resemble English words, and produced this card which a relative gave me:

Designed and printed in Canberra by Laura Staker.

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365 Unusual Things: 22-28

22. In my garden there are hundreds of newly hatched harlequin bugs. Never seen them before so I thought they were tiny red lady bugs. Turns out they’re destructive sap-suckers.

23. Walked down an unfamiliar lane of garages and saw one set up as a bar, with bar stools and bar decorations and two friendly blokes who greeted us and almost invited us in.

24. In Postcrossing, a postcard club, I received a request for a birthday card to arrive on 11th February, but not in advance, because in Germany this brings bad luck. Apparently. If it arrives early and she has a bad day, will it be my fault?

25. One of my begonias is a temperature indicator. In the cool of the morning it is bright green but in the afternoon heat it turns pale and needy.

26. It’s Australia Day today. I had lunch with a friend from Cameroon in a Vietnamese restaurant.

27. In the Australian Open tennis semi-finals today, five Australians won and will compete in the finals, one in the women’s singles and four in the men’s doubles. This has never happened before. Usually there are no Australians in the finals.

28. Saw the worst algal bloom in our local pond which is almost covered in it, leaving little space for birds.

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365 Unusual Things: 15-21

15. Asked a French publisher a question by email (second question in two weeks) and she replied, ‘As I told you … ‘. Funny how this structure is normal in French, but abrasive in English.

16. Saw a huge woman in a bikini come out into her garden and lie on a sun lounge. Bikinis are not seen in Canberra, even now it’s summer, except at the pool.

17. What I thought was a small bird landing on my tree was actually a large swallowtail butterfly.

Orchard swallowtail butterfly

18. This morning I translated Claude Aveline’s comic reworking of the story of Jonah being thrown off a ship in a wild tempest, and an hour later a student asked me to teach her The Wreck of the Hesperus, a poem about a ship wrecked in a wild tempest.

19. A sign that a neighbour made for a garden seat outside her house – Lockdown Garden 2020 –  reminded me we can’t predict the future.

20. From a free library I picked up a tiny children’s book, 3 x 2 inches, 1/2 inch thick. It contains 3 copies of the same story, Feathers for Phoebe by Rod Clement.

21. Had dinner at a local golf club where the golfers were leaving the course, no doubt because kangaroos had moved into their space.

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Black and white bridges

Following a news story about Sean Walker, a man with a severe form of colour blindness called rod monochromatism, meaning he sees only in black and white, I thought of the days when all our photos and films were only in black and white. Sean says that the world in black and white is beautiful.

When I was a child, I used to look at an album of photos my father had brought back from the Middle East in 1942, but though they were not colour photos I never doubted there was beauty in the Cairo architecture, the Nile, the pyramids, the camels and their handlers. He took some of the photos himself, while others were taken by fellow soldiers and were shared with him.

I looked at a few photos that I’ve snapped of architectural subjects similar to those in the Egyptian photos, then I removed the colour and placed them side by side. Here are two bridges.

I like the soft edges in the old one, and I like the details visible in the new one. Sean Walker says that people look at his photos and put their own colours into them. My original photo of the new and old bridges at Batemans Bay in New South Wales shows a clear blue sky over equally blue water, the greys of steel and concrete bridges, green vegetation and a red crane in the background, whereas for the image of the Imbaba opening bridge over the Nile, I really do have to imagine the colours. Yet it’s a great photo, perhaps because of the perspective and the straight lines.

As Sean says, black and white is much more than the absence of colour.

The old opening bridge at Batemans Bay was pulled down a few weeks after I took this photo. Sniff. Many of us were sad.

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365 Unusual Things: 8-14

8. Went to check out Canberra’s water supplies in the Cotter Dam and Corin Dam with Gibraltar Falls in between. They’re all connected. What’s unusual? We’ve never seen so much water in them. The trees look like they’re growing out of the water. And at Gibraltar Falls, people (just visible in the photo) dared to swim in the rushing waters at the top. The bottom photos show a comparison of my earlier visit to Corin Dam in 2014 when I could walk on the dirt banks.

9. At the local golf club, a bridal party entered and sat in chairs to have photos taken, all wearing masks. The bride’s was white, the groom and his men wore black, the bridesmaids wore matching masks and dresses.

10. Read in The Land Before Avocado by Richard Glover that in 1970s Australia, avocado growing was considered an industry without a future. Now we eat 3.5 kilograms of them per year. I eat it every day on toast.

11. Walking beside the pond, a small girl with a long red braid hurtled past me on roller blades, towed by two small greyhounds training for a race.

12. At the neighbouring house where the Merry Christmas sign was back to front, a large bald man was sitting on the ground filing his toenails.

13. At a local pond a juvenile coot came swimming towards me, squawking and expecting me to feed it because some people do. I didn’t.

14. At the house where the man was filing his toenails, a woman collected her wheelie bin after the garbage truck had emptied it, and she took it into her house, through the front door.

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365 Unusual Things:1-7

Every day this week I’ve been taking notes about things that made me look or listen, not quite believing what I was seeing or hearing. I’m pretty sure I’ll observe uncommon things 365 times this year. Here’s one thing from each day of this past week:

1. A neighbour has a back to front Merry Christmas sign on his door. Every time I walk past I ask Why?

2. I saw Lake George today, an endorheic lake that’s usually dry due to evaporation, but after months of rain at the end of 2021 it is now full.

3. I’ve received encouraging gifts from students, Russian chocolates from a Ukrainian woman, and Japanese ice cream from a Chinese woman.

4. At my local pond the authorities have put up a sign telling us NOT to feed the birds. Now a graffiti artist has written Feed the Birds on a nearby sign.

5. A pharmacy experiencing overwhelming demand for Rapid Antigen Tests had a sign in its window: SORRY NO RATS.

6. The local bakery is selling hot cross buns, two weeks after Christmas.

7. I bought a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a world map. The image on the box has Australia and north-east Asia covered with other images. This is the only image to use as a guide, so how can I finish it?

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Nine books I’m reading

Since taking up literary translation about ten years ago, I’ve read many more books on a daily basis than ever before. Always within arm’s reach is a combination of English-language books, French-language books and books translated from other languages. On any day I can name roughly eight books I’m currently reading. There’s one in my backpack, one on the coffee table, one beside my bed, one under my bed, one on the breakfast table, one on my desk, and one in my tutoring bag. I gathered up all of today’s books and took a photo.

Today there are nine. I’m surprised.

Here’s a bit about each one, whether it’s a translation, whether it’s in English, why I’m reading it (and whether I’ll finish it) :

1 Les contes bleus du chat perché. In French, by Marcel Aymé, a collection of children’s stories (told to the author by a cat perched in a tree) and first published in the 1930s. I’ve read each story quickly and three of them again, slowly. I’ve translated two, and one has been published, ‘Le Loup’, ‘The Wolf’, in Delos Journal in 2018. Two small girls live with stern parents and farm animals that talk. Love it. Les contes bleus is on my desk.

2 Les contes rouges du chat perché. In French, by Marcel Aymé, more stories from his collection. I’ve read each story quickly and one slowly, the one I translated which has not been published. Yet. More talking animals. It’s on my desk.

3 Aymé. Nouvelles complètes. In French, by Marcel Aymé. All his short stories. I’ve read about half of this book. Every story is quirky but quietly clever. It’s beside my bed and is often the last book I read before sleeping, and in the wee hours when I can’t sleep.

4 Biblical Literacy. In English, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Interesting notes on the Hebrew Bible books, teaching me things I never knew. For instance, loneliness was the first thing that God saw that was not good: ‘It is not good for man to be alone’, Genesis 2:18. I’m not Jewish but I like the author’s approach to studying the old texts. It’s under my bed.

5 David Copperfield. In English, by Charles Dickens. My husband and I read a few pages to each other every night. It’s long but we’ve never grown tired of it. Dickens deserves his reputation as a gifted writer. It’s on the coffee table.

6 Gould’s Book of Fish. In English, Australian English, by Richard Flanagan. You could be forgiven for thinking Richard Flanagan is the title of the book, so large is his name and so ridiculously small is the title due to this publishing trick to get us to buy it. This book is dreadful so far, but I’m only a quarter of the way through it. One of my students asked me to read it with her, to help her learn English. There are horrific descriptions of what people did to people in the colonial days of Australian history, so I skip the disgusting bits when we read it together. It’s in my tutoring bag. Possibly won’t finish it.

7 People From My Neighbourhood. In English, by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from Japanese by Ted Goossen. A Christmas present from a relative. A small thin book that I read at breakfast every few days. Not bad, the stories are very short and often don’t go anywhere. On the breakfast table.

8 The Thurber Carnival. In English, by James Thurber. A book of American short stories. Very entertaining, but some stories are better for me (not being American) than others. Lent to me by the relative who gave me number 7. I read it most days. It’s on the breakfast table. Possibly won’t read every story.

9 Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? In English, by Hans Fallada, translated from German by Michael Hofmann. One of the 50 small Penguin Moderns that come in a long rectangular case. The stories are not bad, but the book is handy should I have to wait somewhere for someone. (I don’t read my phone.) I carry it in my backpack because it’s almost weightless.

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Which of the nine would I recommend? David Copperfield.

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