Living on top of the world

TrioIn the late 1990s, a Brisbane developer was briefing me on the future for the city’s yet-to-happen apartment boom. The empty nesters from Clayfield and Ashgrove (old suburbs, big houses and yards), would be the first to opt for the high rise apartment with views of the Story Bridge, he said. But not all of them would stay.

Living in an apartment is not for everyone – there are the benefits of lifestyle, location, security, city views and, for the busy professional, compact living with minimal housework. The body corporate takes care of all the maintenance issues and the utilities. All you have to do is pay and obey the rules. But downsizing comes at a price.
My developer contact was explaining how when the empty nesters sell their large Clayfield or Ascot family homes and move to a three-bedroom apartment with plasterboard walls, the reality starts to set in. What will we do with our antique mahogany dresser, the Yamaha baby grand, the eight-piece walnut dining table and matching chairs? We can get gallery wall hangings for some of the paintings and family portraits, but it’s not the same, somehow. And now that we’re in this apartment, which cost a pretty penny, let me tell you, what will we do with the garden tools and the ride-on mower, given we have been allocated one car space with about 5cm to spare on either side?

This is where the self-storage business comes into its own. Australians move house every seven years on average and typically the person on the move will be going interstate for a job on a two or three-year contract and renting an apartment when they get there. So they put most of their “stuff” in storage and pay at least $250 a month for the privilege.
So after a year or of living above the city and tiring of the traffic noise and nightclub doof beats floating up to the balcony, our typical empty nesters will sell and move to a ground-floor townhouse which is in the suburbs and has bigger built-ins, a small yard and a two-car garage.
The next wave of apartment buyers would be ambitious urban professionals, our developer continued; 32, childless and match-fit to work 16-hour days as the job demands it. They finish work about 8pm, walk next door to the Japanese restaurant, then take the lift to their apartment, where they collapse into bed until the smart phone alarm demands at 5.00am that they go downstairs to the lap pool and the gym. They are in the office by 6am and the whole circus starts again.

Queensland’s capital city was slow to get started building high rise apartments. First came David Devine’s medium-rise, affordable units in the heart of the city’s nightclub precinct, Fortitude Valley. From the year 2000 onwards, Brisbane City Council allowed more development amongst the city’s office towers. Now the tallest buildings in the CBD are either residential towers or a mixture of residential, office and retail.
In Sydney, where we spent couple of nights this week in a friend’s apartment, low to medium-density apartment blocks are proliferating in the inner western suburbs. Sydney town planners are bowing to the pressures of population growth, decreeing that medium density living is the best use of land along major traffic routes like Parramatta Road.
We took advantage of the inner city location to stroll from our friend’s apartment through Annandale parkland to the harbour, joining city workers and their dogs taking their daily exercise in the daylight saving hour. In this area, Sydney’s former trotting arena, Harold Park, is fast becoming unrecognisable, as listed developer Mirvac progresses its series of low to medium-density apartment blocks and terraced homes. The first stage of these, Eden, was launched in 2012 and sold out in hours, at an average price of $1.7 million. The Harold Park master plan is for 1,250 dwellings – one, two and three-bedroom apartments and the aforementioned terraced houses – 21st century versions of the old walk-up terrace house, some running to three levels.
The Trio apartment project, on the site of the old Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, has been developed since 2007 into 11 medium density apartment buildings, each with two or more levels of secure basement parking. Trio sits within a landscaped environment of walking and cycle paths with restaurants and cafes just a few minutes’ walk away.

You’ll need $810k to buy into this dream

If that all sound attractive, good luck with the mortgage. The median apartment price within inner city Sydney is $810k, with prices rising 4.4% last year. Real estate folklore has it the only way to make some money along the way is to buy off the plan (before the building starts), sell at a profit and do it all over again.
By far the biggest participants in this market are Asian investors who often buy more than one apartment in the same building. Typically, their young adult children will live in these spaces while studying law, dentistry, architecture, engineering or medicine at one of our fee-paying universities. Their shrewd parents don’t mind making this kind of investment, as they will probably make a profit along the way or just hold for the next generation.
Now that we’ve been living in a country town for more than a decade, Sydney’s fast-paced, noisy, impatient atmosphere can be a little wearing. There’s a huge buzz about the city; you can eat out anywhere at any time of the day or night. (It is said there is a café somewhere in inner Sydney that closes only one hour per day (4am to 5am) for cleaning). But as its population of 4.57 million continues to grow (78% of the NSW growth rate in 2013-2014 was in the Greater Sydney area), it is clear to see why the city planners want real estate to go up and not further out.
As you might have read, the median house price in Sydney is now $1 million, which explains a bit about the demand for inner city apartments. The alternative is to buy a long way out and commute to work. Thousands of people already commute from places as far north as Wyong (93 kms) south from Kiama or Jervis Bay (100kms) or west from Katoomba (101kms).

Living in smaller spaces

While apartment dwellers enjoy proximity to the city heart, they have to get used to living in a compact space. Apartments are getting smaller as designers learn how to make more with less. One bedroom studios are rarely more than 50sqm, two-bedroom apartments around 85sqm and three bedroom units range from 100sqm to 125sqm. Compare that with your two-level McMansion in suburbia (300sqm is common). But apartment-dwellers can choose to do without a car, find time for a fitness schedule, stroll to theatres, cinemas or restaurants and become expert at using the synchronised public transport system. And they don’t have to mow lawns.
All this will come back to us, I’m sure, when driving down the 97m driveway to our two-level brick home on half an acre after being away for two weeks. The hedge needed trimming when we left. Hope we can tidy it all up before the house concert on the 29th!

Henry Lawson and a plague of locusts

Australian poet Henry Lawson on the old paper $10 note.

We were softly singing ‘Andy’s Gone with Cattle’ somewhere out near Sofala (western NSW), while picking out dead locusts from our radiator and various parts of the vehicle’s front grille. It was the Mike Jackson version of Henry Lawson’s classic poem we were humming, about a drover gone a-droving, with his missus and his dog pining for him. Mike told us he wrote his tune (one of many versions) in a minor key, as he read the song as a lament and felt the underlying melancholy of the minor key suited it very well.
We were driving across the western plains of NSW on our way to the Blue Mountains Music Festival when we ran into what some journalists would term “a locust plague of biblical proportions”.

Farmers out this way have been reporting swarms of locusts since late January and it seems they are still about. The cosmetic damage locusts inflict on vehicles does not compare to the damage they inflict on cereal crops in Australia.
Australian plague locusts reached such numbers in late 2010 that the world’s media picked up on the story because (a) it made for great television and (b) the statistics are sort of scary. A swarm of locusts one kilometre wide can chew through 10 tonnes of crops in a day. These ugly insects can consume up to a third of their body weight, so even low density swarms can wipe out an emerging wheat crop in a couple of days.

We arrived in Gulgong with a messy windscreen, planning a visit to the Henry Lawson Centre. Gulgong claims Lawson as a famous son, as he spent his childhood and early teens in locations between Gulgong and Mudgee. The environment and the experiences of these years greatly influenced Lawson. The Henry Lawson Centre walks the visitor through the phases of the writer’s life, from his birth in 1867 to his death in 1922.

As it turned out, a coachload of tourists beat us to the 10am opening, where they were being given a talk by Hazel, a local volunteer. Hazel let us know a few things we did not know about Lawson (e.g. he had a very productive period while living in New Zealand) and the things everyone should know – his influence on justice for workers, his advocacy for a republic, the plight of the poor, and support for the emancipation of women.

The Gulgong museum has some macabre artefacts of Lawson’s life, including a bronzed “death mask” of his right hand and the forceps a dentist used to extract all but one of Henry’s teeth (leaving him with the means by which to grip his pipe!).
There is also a first day cover from 1949, when Lawson’s image was emblazoned upon an Australian stamp. His craggy features also adorned the $10 note until the introduction of polymer currency in 1993. We need to reinstate Henry’s image on an Australian bank note. My suggestion would be to replace the Queen’s portrait on the $5 note when we become a republic.

I was amused and informed upon reading Lawson’s letter to the Bulletin magazine in 1903, the subject being his (temporary) sobriety. Problem drinkers could do worse than read this stark baring of the soul; the contradicting internal arguments, the ironic humour. You can find this on the Internet easily enough, which will save me breaching the “fair dealing” provisions of the Copyright Act. Lawson proclaims he is “awfully surprised” to find himself sober. He goes on to discuss drink and drunkenness and ask why a man does it to himself.
“I get drunk because I am in trouble and I get drunk because I’ve got out of it.”
“I get drunk because I had a row last night and made a fool of myself and it worries me, and when things are fixed up I get drunk to celebrate it.”
I spent an hour or so looking into Henry’s oeuvre, as I was fairly sure he had not written of locusts, but if he had, it would have been with the stark honesty he described his experiences in the bush. Lawson was often the bad cop, telling it like it was, whereas good cop A.B Paterson overly-romanticised the bush.

Lawson was sent out to Bourke by the Bulletin’s owner J.F. Archibald, the hidden agenda being to dry poor Henry out, as he was a perpetually broke drunk who often fell off the wagon. Lawson came back from western NSW with graphic images of the drought. In “Up the Country” he begins: “I am back from up the country – very sorry that I went.” He describes “burning wastes of barren soil and sand,” “barren ridges, gullies, ridges! Where the ever maddening flies – Fiercer than the plagues of Egypt – swarm about your blighted eyes.”
Henry Lawson’s work has often appealed to composers and folk musicians, who latched on to the easy meter of his ballads, the immaculate scansion and the succinct use of language.

The Gulgong Lawson Centre’s collection of CDs could do with some updating; the readings by Jack Thompson and Leonard Teale and the Slim Dusty album are just a representation of what has been produced.
At the very least, they ought to find a copy of Chris Kempster’s 1989 collection, The Songs of Henry Lawson (a second edition was released by the NSW Folk Federation in 2008). And former Redgum front man John Schumann and his Vagabond Crew are known for their Lawson album released in 2005.
We saw the Vagabond Crew perform this work at the Gympie Muster, when they engaged veteran stage actor Max Cullen to play the part of the ghost of Henry Lawson. The shabbily-dressed ghost, with battered hat and stick, would emerge from the ruck of the band as the song finished, reciting a poem and giving the audience a glimpse into the peripatetic life of one of our favourite literary sons.
There are many versions of Lawson’s poems set to music – ‘Andy’s Gone with Cattle’ and ‘Scotts of the Riverina’ in particular.
I have often marvelled at Lawson’s knack for observing whole landscapes and human longing in a handful of words.
“The gates are out of order now, in storms the ‘riders’ rattle,
For far across the border now Our Andy’s gone with cattle.”
“The old man burned his letter, the first and last he burned
And he scratched his name form the Bible when the old woman’s back was turned.”
(Scotts of the Riverina)

Poor Henry, chronically poor, deaf since childhood, not ever in robust health, pursued for maintenance by a needy ex-wife, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage, aged just 55 – an age which today is considered to be the prime of life.
Lawson’s life could become a major Australian movie, proceeds of which should go into trust to support promising writers; to help them get started, to send them to the Buttery if they fall off the wagon, and to stop ruthless publishers ripping them off.
Not that this is ever likely to happen under a conservative government or a monarchy.
“Wait here, second class.”


??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????So I’m at the IGA checkout buying three or four organic items, as you do. The young woman behind the till has a Trainee badge on her shirt. “Plastic bags?”

“It’s OK, I brought my souvenir Fred Smith ‘Dust of Uruzgan’ cotton bag,” says I, with a subtle hint about a splendid house concert coming up on the 29th of March.

“Community benefit number?”

“Umm, it starts with a 2…”

“Savings or credit?”

“Credit,” I say, as it is four more days until the Centrelink payment hits the bank account. I sneak a look at a card inside my wallet where several pins are cleverly disguised as phone numbers. I know, I know, the banks tell you never to do that – in fact, if my account gets hacked, some clever Johnnie at Bobsbank will be on to me, claiming poor card security on my part – and he may have a point.


Pardon? Oh, yes. Surprise – it works.

“Extra cash out?”

“Well, if you’re handing it out, yes.”

She has a literal sense of humour – frowns and thinks to herself, “He’s just like my Dad, always a joke or a pun and he expects you to get it every time.”

So I leave the Supermarket and head to the Post Office, only then remembering I parked behind the IGA. It’s a fairly new car and it looks like every other faux four-wheel drive on the road today. “What’s the Rego number?” I say, searching my memory bank, but the bank’s empty.

And now I have become a “webmaster” which these days can be applied to anyone who bought WordPress for Dummies and just jumped in (as I did).

One of the major drawbacks of being in charge of a website is that you need to know and maintain a half-dozen logins and passwords, all of them combinations of letters, numbers and symbols, with the aim of keeping eastern European hackers from turning your pretty little folk music website into a den for Hot Russian Brides.

At last count I had 63 logins and passwords stashed away in a “secure” corner of my computer and another 130 logins, account numbers and passwords on an electronic diary guarded by a master password. In case I get sudden early onset, I have scribbled that master password down for She Who Knows Where To Look. (Don’t count on it – I have enough trouble remembering where mine are. Ed)

About five years ago when it because apparent that this could be a problem, I made a spreadsheet, pasted it to a word document and copied it on to a CD. Unhappily, I password-protected the word document then forgot the password! Alas, it seems the only password-protected document types which can’t be opened by password-busting programs like Brute Force are simple word document passwords. This I know, because in a fit of Scorpio-like secretiveness I password-protected a 56,000-word novel I was working on and now can’t open it because I forgot the password. I think it was about losing your memory.

Transactions over the internet are becoming more and more common for the majority of us. When was the last time you received a bill in the mail and either mailed a cheque or walked down to the Post Office to pay in cash? A whitegoods repair guy came and did a job on our dishwasher recently, then emailed the invoice to She Who Knows Where To Look, who promptly got on to internet banking and paid the money into his bank account.

The good things about this kind of transaction – they’re quick, easy, and there’s an electronic paper trail if there’s a dispute. The bad thing is that every day we hop on to the Internet, we run the risk of having someone with IT skills and bad intentions gain access to our bank account, investments and phone and computer accounts. Not to mention Centrelink, the Australian Tax Office and Medicare, all of whom are hell bent on having us create an online account and a complex password so we can logon to update the data that (a) they should be updating and keeping secure and (b) should be keeping people in jobs.

If you have become drawn into the online way of doing things, consider having a periodic house-cleaning. The first thing to do is unsubscribe from lists you don’t want to be on. Sometimes this is not as easy as it ought to be. I recently bought a book from an online bookshop which kept sending newsletters and other exciting announcements about “specials” when I clearly do not recall ticking the boxes to say I wanted them.

To unsubscribe from this list I had to log on (with my password), and go through several steps to get off their pesky list. This is a bad way to do business, as is the tactic of pre-selecting choices that you as the consumer should be free to make.

When we flew to north Queensland for Christmas, I hired a car, not noticing that the option to purchase a 7-day travel insurance policy was pre-ticked.

In the interim, She Who Approaches Such Matters with More Caution had already bought a travel insurance policy elsewhere (with a Seniors’ discount). The car hire company did cancel the policy and refund me, but it underlines how careful you need to be online.

There is a protocol when you send out emails to more than 20 or 30 friends, as I do every week. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) require you to advise recipients that if you don’t want to be on the list, just email back “unsubscribe”.

If someone wants to unsubscribe, I just open my Excel spreadsheet and delete the person’s name and email address. I suspect that this does not happen when you decide you don’t want to hear from Cheap and Nasty Hotel

The electronic database is a scary thing – your local takeaway pizza joint, for example, has your home number, mobile number, home address, probably your email address and, moreover, whether you are susceptible to up-selling (do you want Pepsi-Max and garlic bread with that?).

Our email addresses, home addresses, full names and DOBs are floating around inside dozens of databases, hardly any of which have ASIO-level security in place. Increasingly this data is being exported to the “cloud,” a nebulous place where organised crime is busy working out how to make said cloud rain money.

Web browsers like Internet Explorer and Firefox aim to make things easy when you’re online. You can choose to save your passwords on your computer and the Web browsers slot them in as required. But I was horrified to find just the other day, that you can not only open the place on your PC where these logons and passwords are stored, you can also make them visible! I was less unhappy when I found you can’t select-all and copy or print the list out.

Or so they reckon!

Ah, just what your cash-strapped Grade 10 kid with advanced computer skills and a dope habit was looking for – go to that old writer fella’s PC – he never locks up.

What’s next for the humble CD?

Pix and Bob2My sound engineer Pix Vane Mason (left) depressed the hell out of me last December when he predicted the demise of CDs within the next two years.
“But Pix,” I said. “I just ordered 500 of the buggers!”
Whether you can still sell CDs today comes down to the demographic segment which is most likely to buy your music. A famous singer whose fans are mostly in the 70+ category, sold out of CDs on a recent tour of Queensland. But that may well be the exception to a rapidly changing rule.
The Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) says digital music revenues overtook physical sales in Australia for the first time in 2013. Digital music revenues accounted for 54.7% of the market, bringing in over $192 million, while CDs, DVDs, and other physical media made up the remaining 45.3% share. Paradoxically, vinyl is back in favour, with LP sales up 40% to 6 million in 2014, according to Melbourne-based Artists favouring vinyl (usually as another sales avenue), include Madonna, Nick Cave, Mark Knopfler, Bjork and ex-Oasis singer Noel Gallagher.

Swimming in the digital stream
Billboard and Nielsen Soundscan say the big music trend has been a 54% rise in on-demand streaming, with 164 billion song streams played by consumers in 2014. Meanwhile, physical music sales in the US continue to decline, with compact disc sales dropping to 62.9 million, from 78.2 million in 2013.
Gen Xs and Gen Ys, with the possible exception of DJs, who have whole suitcases full of CDs, almost exclusively download music direct to their smart phones, Ipods, Ipads and computers. Or they pay to subscribe to music streaming websites like Pandora, Grooveshark and Spotify. Streaming audio gives you access to a vast database of music; you can play it through speakers in your house, but you can’t download it. The download option is great if you are looking for a must-have song you heard on the radio or at a live gig. This typically costs $1.99, although independents can charge what they like. Some digital music sites like ‘band camp’ give customers the option to pay what they think the music is worth.
The big plus for independent musicians is that once their music is uploaded to an Internet ‘shop’, there are no overheads, apart from the fees taken by the website. You may, however, read about how little musicians get paid by the proliferating streaming services. They get massive exposure but earn less.

Remember when CDs cost $30 and imports could cost $35 or $40? It doesn’t seem that long ago (1982), since Billy Joel released 53rd Street on compact disc, coinciding with the launch of Sony’s first CD player. CD prices have dropped sharply in the last couple of years as retailers fight to keep their market share.
In a perverse way, the now old-fashioned compact disc favours independent artists who have dipped into their own funds to create a work of art. It not only sounds good, but has interesting artwork; it comes signed by the artist, you feel warm and fuzzy about supporting someone you might actually know, and it has the one quality digital music lacks – collectability.

Truth be known, true music lovers and audiophiles want the whole cake – their expensive Bose speakers dispersed through the house, they play CDs, stream music via Spotify, play songs from their vast Ipod database and, after they’ve been out for an evening drive in the vintage Torana, the old Van Morrison tape hissing away, they’ll come home, slip on their archivist’s gloves, ease the mint copy of Dark Side of the Moon from its sleeve, gently place it on the Denon turntable and settle back with a nice glass of red (log fire crackling in the corner…but that’s probably laying it on a bit thick).

Bob’s been making a CD, did you know?
So yes, we (The Goodwills) have been producing a new recording since May last year. These are all songs written over the last three years which had been burning a hole in my belly since I first wrote the list on a whiteboard in January 2013.
It began with five months’ pre-production (home demos) so that when we got to the studio, we would know what we were doing. (Ha!). It’s important to have an empathic relationship with your sound engineer. Pix and I started each session with a hug and a coffee and a half-hour discussion about what music we’re listening to and why. Multi-instrumentalist Steve Cook offered to help develop the songs. It is a gamble to let someone else interpret your songs, but it can also take them somewhere unexpected. After a month or two of bedding down instrumental tracks and guide vocals, it was time to bring in other instruments for colour and tone.
There were interruptions, creative differences of opinion, a momentary funding hiccup and of course the momentum was disturbed when we took three months off to tour around Australia.
It looks like this
We remain enthused about the 13 songs that emerged from this process, their possibilities augmented by the talents of Silas Palmer, Steve Cook, Rose Broe, Erin Sulman, Tim Finnegan and Mal Webb.
Once we were happy with the “mix”, the album was uploaded to a mastering engineer David Briggs. If you don’t know what a mastering engineer does, when you hear a song on the radio and the singer’s voice floats above the instruments – that’s mastering.
Then it was time for the artwork – designing a cardboard wallet and a 16-page booklet. Someone (that would be me – ed.) had to type out all the lyrics and the commentary about each song, source appropriate photos, come up with ideas and engage a graphic artist (Steve Cook), to make it all work. Once that was done, the whole package was sent to a replication firm which printed the artwork, made 500 copies and delivered them to our door – on time, but a tad over-budget.

The Last Waterhole cover CD BabyIt looks like this

At this level, making an independent CD can cost considerably more than $5,000. So to break even, it has to be good, and/or you need generous friends and acquaintances. So tomorrow we’ll launch ‘The Last Waterhole’ at the New Farm Bowls Club and again on Sunday at the Old Witta School near Maleny. We’ve convened a four-piece band for the occasion.
The album will also be available for download on CD Baby. There are people we know who live elsewhere on the planet who might just do that, instead of adding $7.40 postage to the cost of the album.

But as for the five boxes of “physical product” under the bed, as Jeff Lang once teased an audience at the Byron Bay Blues Festival:
“Do any of you want a CD? I’ve got thousands of them and I don’t f’ n want ‘em.”

Footnote: Our new wordpress website should “go live” on Sunday night.