Letter from

After the horrific massacres in Paris and the ensuing ones in Belgium that were purportedly intended for France, the French were spontaneously drawn together ...

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This year’s Jaipur Literature Festival (20–24 January) more than lived up to the Indian Ministry of Tourism’s slogan – ‘Incredible India’.

The festival was established in 2006 as a component of the Jaipur Virasat (Heritage) Festival, an arts event intended to showcase the varied and colourful Rajasthani culture. Performances of classical music and dance were held in the fore ...

The New York City Opera could not have known when they programmed a revival of John Philip Souza’s The Glass Blower just how appropriate it would be post-September 11.

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Travelling to the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) conference on the morning tram, I marvel at Melbourne’s sophistication and self-regard. In Swanston Street, new sculptures honour John Brack’s satire of Melbourne’s regimented workers, while in front of the State Library there’s a classical portal half buried in the pavement, as if the ancient world lies below. At the Trades Hall in Carlton, the framed wall directory is ‘Heritage Only’, so I follow the photocopied paper arrows to the conference venue. There’s more historical self-consciousness here than in the new National Museum in Canberra. Banners assert the importance of eight hours’ work, recreation and rest, and there is a massive socialist realist representation of good Australian workers toiling to keep the country alive. We’re in the sacred place of the Left: Frank Hardy, Stephen Murray-Smith, Judah Waten surely haunt us here. 

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Of all major South-East Asian nations, the Philippines is least known in Australia, and rarely studied, even in our universities. The material and historical differences between the two countries seem to have blinded us to the interests our two countries share. Australia did not support the long Filipino struggle for independence, as with Indonesia’s, nor actively oppose it, as with Vietnam’s. Nonetheless, both countries were part of SEATO and supported US involvement in Indo-China. Within ASEAN, the Philippines has often been the country most sympathetic to greater links with Australia, and the Philippines is regarded as a high-priority country for development assistance by Ausaid.

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Attending a poetry festival is not normally considered a life-threatening event (not even if you are prone to deep vein thrombosis from constant sitting) but when I told my family I was going to Struga, I was greeted by worried looks and expressions of deep concern. Struga is in the Republic of Macedonia. Just days before, Macedonian hotheads had set fire to a mosque in Prilip (not that far from Struga) in revenge for the death of a Prilip policeman in a road-mine explosion planted by Albanian terrorists. The hair-trigger tensions in that country were clearly dangerous, and possibly escalating.

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Sunday morning at Balgo in the Kimberley, the wind ripping past in a cold gale of dust and smoke. Wirrimanu, the name of this place, means ‘dirty wind’. White plastic shopping bags pulse and inflate, struggling against the twigs and wire that restrain them. My view down the magnificent plunge of the pound is intercepted by the gridded weld-mesh cage enclosing the verandah, and again by the three-metre-high cyclone mesh fence surrounding the compound. An insufficient barrier, as it turns out, to the entry of determined petrol sniffers. They have been in during the night and have opened all the jerry cans in the back of my car. Slippers, the dog who sleeps in the tray, has clearly made them welcome. I am carrying only diesel and water, and the sniffers have taken nothing, leaving a small stone on the lid of the toolbox as a gesture of – what? – irony, defiance, humour?

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 A friend describes the sensation as being in the movie set of your own life: everything is familiar, but not quite right. Auckland feels like an Australian city that has simply slipped a little, like the accent, to the east. There are hints of Hobart in the crisp sea and the misty sketched-in headlands. And of Sydney, in the over-abundance of harbour, the narrow streets of Ponsonby, which drop away towards the water, the houses filled with quiet light. Perhaps all Pacific cities look pretty much the same these days: here is the casino, the observation tower, the thirties picture palace turned into a Singapore-style mall, the narrow lane with outdoor tables under braziers; the same stands of Westpacs and McDonalds and Lush cosmetics stores. Perhaps what differentiates one city from another now is the sheer volume of traffic forced through its streets.

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You tend to notice things when away from home. For instance, I have always been struck by how many people on trains and buses in Paris have their noses buries in books. So when I spent a couple of weeks there in March, I tried as often as decently possible to sneak a look at what Parisians were reading.

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You are going to Singapore, they said. Yes, but which way? was the natural response. If I’m flying to the island-city, my flight should take in something with a more exotic range of scenery, perhaps even a sniff of nature. Birds and stuff. So the painter and I decided on Portugal: and why not throw in Spain? My own travels had never taken me further than Catalonia, which so determinedly is, and is not, Spain. Off, then, for the long flight west with good books and red wine; en route I looked down on Cairo for the first time in my life. The Ptolemaic map of lights spread out as though forever.

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