Sunday, October 29, 2006

Melbourne Days

Woolly Days is just back from a long weekend in Melbourne. The queen city is in the grip of racing fever with the Spring Carnival in full flow. With the Aussie Rules football season finished and the cricket season yet to take off, the carnival dominates the sports pages of Melbourne’s media. Yesterday it was Moonee Valley’s turn to take centre stage with the running of the W.S. Cox Plate. Fields of Omagh won the race by a nose in its final start. It was the horse’s second victory in the race having won in 2003. It is a mighty achievement as racing experts consider the Cox Plate to be Australia’s foremost weight for age race.

The Moonee Valley Racing Club is in the northern suburb of Moonee Ponds (home also to Dame Edna Everage, reputedly). In 1882 it was farmland north of Melbourne. William Samuel Cox took out a seven year lease on a property with the intention of creating a racetrack. The first meeting in 1883 had nine horses lining up for the Maiden Plate. The race resulted in a dead heat between Eveline and Pyrette. Cox held the position of Secretary of the Moonee Valley Racing Club until his death in 1895. In 1922 the racing club decided to run a weight-for-age race in honour of the course’s founder. The first Cox Plate had a prize of one thousand pounds. The imported English horse Violoncello won the race. Yesterday, the owners of Fields of Omagh took out $2 million of the total prize money of $3 million.

While the WS Cox Plate is the important race for the aficionados, it cannot compare with the Melbourne Cup in the affections of the masses. The race that stops a nation is on the first Tuesday of every November and merits a public holiday in Melbourne. It forms an important part of Melbourne’s sporting triangle between Grand Final Day and the Boxing Day cricket test. The first and last of those three events take place at Melbourne’s premier sporting arena, the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Site of the 1956 Olympics, the 152 year old MCG is holy soil. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, its all time record crowd of 130,000 were in attendance for a Billy Graham revivalist meeting in 1959. Redeveloped most recently for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in March, it now holds around 100,000 people. The ground’s owner the Melbourne Cricket Club has almost 60,000 full members and another 37,000 restricted members. There is a waiting list of 160,000 people and with 10,000 new members taken on each year it takes 16 years to become a member.

Not far from the MCG is the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road. It was founded in 1861 which makes it the oldest public art gallery in Australia. It is also the largest gallery in the country. The name of the gallery is confusing to many as Victoria is not a nation. However the gallery was named 40 years before Australian federation when Victoria was a self governing British colony. In the 1990s the NGV became so big it needed a second building to house its collection. The Ian Potter Centre was opened on nearby Federation Square to house the Australian collection while the original building holds its international offerings. The international collection is world-class and contains works by Blake, Canaletto, Constable, Cranach, David, Delacroix, Delauney, El Greco, Gainsborough, Magritte, Manet, Modigliani, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Poussin, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Steen, Tintoretto, Turner, Van Dyck and Watteau.

Another 15 minute walk further down St Kilda Road is the Shrine of Remembrance. It is a massive war memorial built in memory of Victorians who died in World War I. It is the site of Melbourne’s annual observance of Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. In August 1921 the city set up a committee led by war hero John Monash to examine the idea of a memorial. They proposed a large monument off St Kilda Road directly visible from the centre of the nearby city. The shape of the shrine was inspired by one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus. Monash was one of the great leaders of the war, a rare officer not hidebound by military traditions. He brought his great energy to the shrine project and pushed it forward despite great criticism from the press due to its ornate design and cost. The criticism caused the government to abandon the project in 1926.

Monash hit back and turned the 1927 Anzac Day march into a 30,000 strong de-facto protest in favour of the original idea. The government quickly retracted its position and started to build the monument in December that year. Monash was trained as a civil engineer and he took charge of construction. He died in 1931 before the monument was completed. A remarkable man, he also led the State Electricity Commission to great success in his later years. Under his leadership the SEC developed Victoria's brown coal reserves as an electricity source and, by 1930, extended the power grid across the whole of the State. Despite his death and the depression years work continued on the monument. The shrine was dedicated on Remembrance Day 1934 in front of a crowd of 300,000 people. Inside the shrine is the Stone of Remembrance. The stone is aligned with an aperture in the roof so that a ray of light falls on the word LOVE at exactly 11am on 11 November, marking the hour and day of the Armistice which ended World War I. Thanks to the combined skills of an astronomer, a mathematician and the surveyor the Ray of Light will continue to do so for 5,000 years at least. However their preciseness was undone by legislation. The introduction of Daylight Saving meant the ray landed at 10am instead. To fix this, the Board of Trustees installed a mirror in the roof to ensure that the word is highlighted an hour later. Love reigns at the right time in Melbourne.

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