19 November 2019

Most beautiful bookshops in the world

Since reading literature on Kindle and buying books via the Net are easy, normal bookshops seem less frequent now. However book lovers argue that a tradit­ional temple of books has a special atmosphere that promotes discovery, entertainment and quiet. This post has found some great book­shops in 30 Most Beautiful Bookshops Around The World; they encourage readers to ignore technology and enjoy the pleasures of real books. Plus I have added a couple of my own favourite bookshops.

1. Polare, Maastricht, Holland This C13th Dominican church became an ornate, classy book­shop. Con­verted in 2006 by architects Merk X, Polare is a temple of books that raises reading to a religious exp­erience. The 3 storey bookshelf, with staircases, elevators and walkways, is massive.

2. First built as the Teatro Grand Splendid in 1919, then a cinema in 1929, Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires in Argentina appeals to the dramatic reader. With frescoed ceilings, ornate carvings and plush crimson stage curtains, it has its original glamour; customers can sit in the theatre boxes which operate as reading rooms.

Ateneo Grand Splendid,  Buenos Aires

 3. Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice’s location along the beautiful Italian canal means rubber boot-wearing work­ers have to move books from the floor to higher shelves during reg­ul­­ar flooding. In Nov 2013, people were wading along the streets under water and the buildings were boarded up. But it was still open for business.

4. China’s most beautiful bookshop, Librairie Avant-Garde in Nanjing was built inside a former government carpark. To find their way into the 4,000 sq m Wutishan Stadium’s under­ground space, visitors follow a yellow-striped road; inside, a replica of Rodin’s “The Thinker” decorates a cash-till made out of old books, and pillars with famous literary verses carved into them.

5. Libreria El Pendulo, Mexico City offers a cultivated way to avoid Mexico’s heat. Customers can scan shelves spanning two stor­eys. Besides browsing through the shelves, visitors can enjoy stand-up comedy or can listen to live music at the café-cum-bookshop.

6. Livraria Lello e Irmao, Porto, Portugal opened in the former Chard­ron Library in 1906. Its Art Nouveau space was dom­inated by a curving staircase with ornate wooden carvings, intric­ate wall panels and columns. Stained glass windows and a skylight, showing the monogram of the shop’s founder José Lello, add to the churchlike appearance. It featured several times in the Harry Potter series.

7. Bart’s bookstore, Ojai, California A great outdoor facility was set up in 1964 by Richard Bartinsdale who left street-side book cases to sell unwanted titles. Visitors left money in a tin. Now, the shop has a million books, many of which are still sold through an honour system, as well as a courtyard & apple trees for chess-players.

Livraria Lello e Irmao, Porto

8. Book Now, Bendigo, Australia Old books are packed tightly onto shelves, laid on tables and cat­eg­orised into little alcoves; timber floorboards and stairs lead up to a book-filled mezzanine. The 60,000 pre-loved books, special­is­ing in Australian literature and history, are housed in a rural Victorian building.

9. Honesty Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye, Wales is a centre for bibliophiles. 30+ bookshops line the narrow streets, the most striking being a set of shelves around the town’s Norman castle. Cust­omers admire crumbling Medieval architecture while perusing second-hand titles; all proceeds go to the castle restoration.

10. Built in the early C17th, the Paris building was originally a French mon­astery, La Maison du Mustier. Sylvia Beach was an American book­seller who moved to Paris and founded the original Shakespeare & Company Paris in 1919. Her bookshop was frequented by Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce in the 1920s. And it was where Beach published James Joyce's cont­roversial book, Ulysses (1922).

American George Whitman opened his new Le Mistral bookshop in 1951 at a differ­ent part of Paris, renamed Shake­s­peare and Company in 1964 in honour of the late Sylvia Beach. It was a gathering place for expat and Beat Generation writers like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Pound, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and James Baldwin. Whitman even allowed impoverished art­ists and writers to sleep on small beds that doubled as benches in the day, and to borrow his English language literature books. A sense of community was very imp­ortant; he referred to his shop as a socialist utopia masqu­erading as a bookshop.

In 2002 George’s daughter Sylvia Whitman returned to Paris to spend time with her elderly father in his book-kingdom; she int­ro­d­uced the first lit­erary festival in June 2003.

Polare, Maastricht

11. Munro’s Books, Victoria, Canada. In 1963, Jim and Alice Munro set up shop in a long, narrow space on Yates Street, near Victor­ia's cinemas. Proper book shops were rare then, but the location was convenient for younger cin­ema goers, and the staff's interest in new writing trends built a loyal clientele. The shop relocated to larger premises on Fort Street in 1979 and then located in the centre of Victoria’s Old Town location since 1984.

The fine neo-classical Old Town building was first designed for the Royal Bank of Canada in 1909 by Thomas Hooper, architect of many provincial comm­ercial & public buildings. The beaut­iful coffered high ceiling resembled the porch ceiling of the great C2nd library of Ephesus. Jim Munro restored the building to its former glory, with its heritage architecture and striking artwork.

12. The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland is the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland, with 2 ks of shelving supporting 100,000 books. In 1998 Wigtown was designated Scotland's Nat­ional Book Town and this has led to a general revival in town, with many buildings refurbished and new businesses opening. The former Customs House and Bank is now home to another of Wigtown's book shops, The Old Bank Bookshop, has five large rooms to browse through.

Book Now bookshop, Bendigo 
in C19th wine and spirit mer­chants' premises

16 November 2019

The best state premier ever: Don Dunstan (Sth Australia)

Fiji born Don Dunstan (1926-1999) did Law-Arts at Adel­aide Univer­s­ity, joined the Socialist Club and became deeply comm­it­ted to soc­ial justice, cultural div­ersity, democracy, human rights and resp­ect for Indigenous people. If I’d been old enough by 1950 to app­reciate Dunstan’s commitments, he would have been my absolute hero.

Dunstan was nominated as the Labour candidate for Norwood at the 1953 election, seeking the support in particular of the large It­al­ian migrant population who’d previously been op­pressed. Dunstan won and was duly elected to the State House of Assembly.

As the State Premier of South Australia from 1967-68 and from 1970 -79, his reforming influence reached far beyond his home state. He was seen as the architect of a new kind of Australian soc­­iety, and was one of the few state premiers make a lasting mark on Australian life, the man who might have one day led Australia as prime minister.

In Don Dunstan: The Visionary Politician who Changed Australia 2019, author Angela Woollacott noted that the new Premier was re­sp­onsible for the state being the first in Aust­ralia to decrimin­al­ise homo­sex­ual­ity, making him a hero in Adel­aide's gay com­munity and in much of the straight world as well. He reformed Abor­iginal land rights, abolished capital punishment, introduced con­sumer prot­ect­ion laws, supported women's rights, relaxed censorship and drink­ing laws, promoted environmental protection and child protection reforms, and was an ardent supporter of the arts.
Angela Woollacott's biography
Photo credit: Amazon

He was rec­ognised for his role in reviving the social, art­ist­ic and cultural life of South Australia during his 10 years in office, remembered as the Dunstan Decade. He was a friend of Australia’s brilliant prime minister Gough Whit­lam, participated in national ALP social polic­ies of the Whitlam era, and worked against the obnoxious White Aus­tralia Policy. The Dunstan Decade meant South Australia saw the greatest slab of sig­nificant reforms under one premier, defining Dunstan as one of the most pro­gressive politicians Australia has ever seen. As premier, Dunstan overhauled the drinking laws that closed pubs at 6pm, and because of his love of food and wine, he later opened his own re­staurant, Don’s Table. Woollacott said Dunstan singlehandedly encouraged the emergence of a new rest­aurant cul­t­ure that made Adelaide a foodies’ delight. 

Dunstan was also a passionate patron of the arts and was respons­ib­le for cultivating a thriving live theatre scene. The Dunstan Play­house is one of Adelaide’s largest theatre venues and was named to honour his contribution to the performing arts.  In many ways the battle lines of the modern culture wars were drawn by Dunstan.

Alth­ough much loved by the public, Dunstan's career was marked by scandal about his own sex life. Journ­al­ists and photographers saw the meaning of the premier’s wearing of the pink shorts in public, as a clear act in defiance of sexual conservatism. The shorts fixed their place as the symbol of the premier’s integral role in South Australia’s democratic history, and continued with Australia’s civil rights debate about marr­iage equality. During his tenure, Dunstan’s sexuality was rumoured to be ambiguous, although he was married with children of his own. Out of office, Dunstan spent the last decade of his life in a gay relationship with Stephen Cheng. They are an important part of the history of South Australia, where people were allowed to have more freedom. His relation­ship withCheng, which began in 1988, gave personal context to his much earl­ier act of legalising homosexuality. 

Dunstan's life story helps us to appreciate just what a watershed era the 1960s and 1970s were in Australia, and to see how one small state could, for a time, lead a nation. Dunstan fought for decades against the entrenched gerrymander, ending conservative rule and introducing his vision of social democracy in one state. Dunstan captured the mood for reform, and led the way politically.

Dunstan was, and remains, remembered for his humane act for margin­alised groups. He remained a South Australian cultural icon because after a career of fighting for others that ended suddenly in 1979, he remained an outspoken campaigner for progressive social policy. He lived for 20 more years, dying in 1999.

Woollacott sugg­ested how much a biography has to offer, such as showing how growing up in racially-stratified colonial Fiji shaped his strong sense of racial justice, and his drive for policy and legislative re­f­orm, including prohibiting racial discrimination, and pioneer­ing Aboriginal land rights. I am not surprised that Bob Hawke (Aus­t­ralian great prime minister 1983–91) later said that Don Dunstan was Australia's most influen­tial Austral­ian politician in the C20th. For those of us born when our fathers returned from WW2, Hawke was definitely correct; I wept when Dunstan died.

This year David Penberthy reviewed the Woolacott biography. He asked how did such a staid state as South Australia, with its roots in Methodism and Luther­an­ism, and ruled for decades by a gerrymandering rural squattocracy, sign up with such enthusiasm for the Dunstan Decade? Dunstan did so because he stuck to his principles and brought the public along with him. It was a combin­ation of his strong convictions and a very clear agenda, and the fact that he was so good at enacting that agenda, that won. Today so many people express jaundice with the political system because politicians often seem to be driven by rivalries or by self-interest.

Thank you Angela Woollacott. 

12 November 2019

Have a reflective Remembrance Day. Remember WWI's young teens

When the book Russian ANZACs came out in 2005, I was sitting in an outdoor coffeeshop, discussing the subject with my neighbour-cousin. I knew our two grandfather had sailed together to Australia in Jan 1914, but I had no idea that the two teens had later run away to enlist in the army together. They had no car, no parents to sign consent, no savings and little English. So they hitch-hiked interstate where they were not known, and forged each other’s parental signature.

Today, Remembrance Day 2019, a new book was launched that suggested our two grandfathers were far from the only under-age boys who en­list­ed. In The Lost Boys: The Untold Stories of the Under-age Sold­iers who Fought in the First World War,  the author Paul Byrnes told their stories. I haven’t seen the book yet, so I have relied on The Sydney Morning Her­ald review.

In the 1914–18 Great War, the Australian Army's enlistment age was 21 years, or 18 years if there was parental consent. Boys under 18 could only enlist as buglers. In New Zealand, the govern­ment’s National Regis­tration Scheme required men aged 17-60 to reg­is­ter with the govern­ment.

The book captured the incredible and previously un­told stories of 40 boys and one girl from Australia and New Zealand who fought in the Great War, from Gallipoli (1915) to the Arm­is­tice (11th Nov 1918). Gallip­oli was the most horrific war site, since 8700 Australians and 2700 New Zealanders died on that rocky beach.

A unique perspective on WW1, The Lost Boys was military history made deeply personal, a homage to youthful bravery and a poignant reminder of the horror of war. The Lost Boys was fully illustrated throughout featuring stunning portraits from the Aus­tralian National War Memorial archives, photo­graphy, exquisite writing and very moving stories.

In The Lost Boys: The Untold Stories of the Under-age Sold­iers who Fought in the First World War, by Paul Byrnes, 2019 

In WW1 of 1914–1918, thousands of boys across Australia and New Zealand lied about their age, forged a parent’s signature and left to fight on the other side of the world. The book featured haunting images of the boys taken at train­ing camps and behind the lines, telling tales that were both heart breaking and rousing, full of daring, ingenuity, recklessness, random horror and capricious luck. With this unique perspective on WW1, The Lost Boys made military history that was a deeply pers­on­al,  a powerful homage to young brav­ery and to the sacrifice of war.

Les Shaw was the youngest known Anzac enlisted to go to Gallipoli, at 13.5! The former Kings School Parramatta student lied about his age and signed up when he was only 165 centimetres tall and weighed only 53.5 kilograms, to fight against the Germans. What was the Australian Army thinking?? Thankfully Shaw was discharged at 17 when it was discovered how young he had been. But after a few post-war exploits in Sydney, some prison stays and two childless marriages, he died a drunk in 1947 at 46.

William Jackson, a farm boy from the NSW plains near Hay, had never seen a train until he went to Sydney aged 16 to sign up in the Army. Jackson, who lost a hand in June 1916, still went back out into No Man’s Land to rescue mates with the severed hand tied up with string. Jackson was the young­est of the 100 Australians to be aw­arded a Victoria Cross for brav­ery. But he too had a horrible post-war life of drunkenness and police records, dying in 1959 at 61.

Now I want to know what the motive was, urging adolescents to leave home and join the army:
To serve their country in war-torn Europe?
To leave their rural home for the first time in their lives?
To earn a regular living, albeit a skimpy one?
To get away from a brutal father or an alcoholic mother?
To test their manhood?
To learn some employable skills?
Something else or some mixture of motives?

Author Paul Byrnes felt moved to write the book when he learnt some of the untold stories of the many young lads who left for battles abroad. The idea came to him while he was on a battlefield tour in Belgium and dis­cov­ered 150 graves of under-age soldiers. So he began a two-year quest which took him through Belgium, France, Sydney's State Lib­rary and Canberra's War Memorial, RSL archives and ancestry.com, tracking families of under-age WW1 soldiers. Many had tragic stories. Even of those who did arrive home alive, many suffered shell shock, all forms of addictions, broken marriages, shattered family relationships and early deaths.

Let me repeat, what was the Australian Army thinking? What a waste of young lads' lives! It was no insult to the memory of the lost boys to say they should never have been there at war, and no justification to recognise that they fought well and bravely.

09 November 2019

Sir Stamford Raffles: a scholarly exhibition at the British Museum

Young Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) was first employed as a clerk at the British East India Company in 1795 and ten years later he was posted to Malaya with the Company. Lord Minto, governor-general of India, appointed Raffles as an agent to the governor-general of the Malay States in Oct 1810. Very quickly Java was seiz­ed from the Dutch, and Raffles was appointed Lt-Governor of Java.

As governor of Java, Raff­les might have slipped back into tradit­ional colonising behaviour, but no! Instead he int­roduced partial self-government, ban­ned the slave trade, restricted the opium trade, led an exped­it­ion to re­build Borobudur and other important local sites, and ended the hat­ed, exploitative system of Dutch land management.

Raffles’ views were modern. As well as being anti-slavery and against the cap­italist exploitation of rural workers, he disliked cock-fighting and gamb­ling, distrusted missionary proselytism and despised capit­al pun­ishment. He was sensitive to, and interested in local cult­ure. Raffles went out of his way to learn the local languages, esp­ec­ially Malay. And he was a passionate collector of Javanese cul­t­ural artefacts and manuscripts. Raffles was a free trader and imperial­ist, but not an exp­loit­er of loCAL populations.

So why did he eventually lose his position in the East India Co? Raffles’ unilateral abolition of slavery in Indonesia was not going to go down well with the men. The Company forced Raffles to return to Britain in 1817, to vindicate his reputation at the end of his term as Governor-General of Java. Still, he used the time wisely, writing and pub­lishing a scholarly book: History of Java. He was no lightweight; the collections of scholarly relics and records that Raffles brought back from the East were hugely valuable.

In Dec 1818, Raffles went in search of a new British settlement to replace Malacca. Malacca was one of the many British territories that had been returned to the Dutch under the Treaty of Vienna (1815). Raffles feared that without a strategic British trading post located within the Straits, the Dutch could gain control of trade again. Raffles arrived in Singapore on board a ship in Jan 1819, accompanied by William Farquhar and a sepoy.

Javanese puppet, with ornate head-dress and costume
and limbs manipulated by horn rods. 
Photo credit British Museum

So why did he choose Singapore as the centre for the East India Co’s empire? A] The small island was geographically half way between India and China. B] There were no dreaded Dutchmen on the island of Singapore. C] Raffles believed that Singapore had once been a fine city in the original, pre-Muslim Malayan civilisation.

By 1819, the area had been little more than a village with fishing nets and some indig­en­ous Malays. So it was only when Raf­fles signed an off­icial treaty with Sultan Hussein Shah in Feb 1819 that the British East India Company had the right to set up a trading post in the new British settlement. The Sultan was handsomely paid, of course.

Raffles wanted a plan to remodel Singapore into a modern city. His plan comprised separate clusters to house the diff­erent ethnic groups and the provision of facilities: roads, schools and government buildings - Arab St, Chinatown and Little India all survive. Originally a swamp land, the areas grew into a thriving business district in the 1800s when traders brought spices, coffee, gold dust and pearls.

Raffles also devised a set of regulations for Singapore’s harbour, helping to establish the settlement as a free port. Raffles also instituted a court system and magistrates, to ensure order in the settlement. Finally one of Raffles’ priorities was the formation of an institution of higher learning to educate the sons of the Malay chiefs; to teach the native languages to officers of the East India Co; and to collect the literature on the laws and customs of the country. Raffles laid the foundation stone of the Singapore Instit­ution Free School in June 1823.

Soon after he returned to Britain in 1824 and with the Singapore mat­ter settled, Raffles turned to his passion for botany and zool­ogy. This talented man was a founder and first president of the Zoological Society of London, in 1825.

Decades later, Singapore had grown as a crucial cross­­road for trade and shipping. The British used the position as a tactical tr­ading outpost along the spice route. Established 1886, Raffles Hotel grew as one of the last great colonial-style hotels, well known for its lux­urious accommod­ation and fine food. Raffles hotel still houses a tropical garden court­yard, museum and Vict­orian style theatre.

Portrait of Raffles
painted by George Francis Joseph. in 1817
National Portrait Gallery London.

The Raffles Hotel complex also includes a Museum where artef­acts of various types are disp­lay­ed. In 1987 the government declared the hotel a National Monument and two years later, the hotel was totally renovation.


Unfortunately most of Raffles’ treasures from Sumatra, and his official and personal papers, were lost. The ship intending to take them back to Britain in 1824 sunk, along with much of its precious treasure trove. Fortun­ately, the objects that did not drown are now in the British Museum. So while not much is known about Raf­f­les’ collecting practices in Sumatra, the objects now on display provide a vital record of the art and court culture of early-modern Java. While the purpose behind Raffles’ collection related to Enlightenment concepts, the objects themsel­ves provided glimpses of the relationships between colonisers and locals. Raff­les collected wonderful cultural objects during his years away, ob­jects that may otherwise have disappeared from the history books.

Raden Andaga mask; Dewi Bikang Mardeya mask; A high-ranking monkey mask; Demon Denawa Kecubung mask.
All masks made of wood and gold. All from early 1800s.
Photo credit British Museum

This year, until mid Jan 2020, the British Museum Exhibition is presenting Sir Stamford Raffles: Collecting in Southeast Asia, the rich variety of objects from Java and Sumatra collected by Sir Stamford Raffles. From theat­rical puppets, masks and musical instruments and scul­p­ture, his collection explores C19th Javanese soc­iety and its earlier Hindu-Buddhist traditions. The show investigates how Raffles assembled his coll­ection, shedding more light on collecting and colonialism in this part of the world. And it reveal how Raffles understood S.E Asian cultures.