The Ringo Diet- egg ‘n’ chip every Thursday
Hello to all in Australia
It’s a warm Sunday afternoon in St Albans. The squirrels are out fossicking and second hand vindaloo is drying on dozens of footpaths all over town. Kerry’s just headed up the high street to get a few things so I’m using this time to pen a few thoughts.
Well we’ve been here for just over four weeks and much has happened. Overall it’s going swimmingly and we’re getting our house sorted. Despite it being reasonably furnished we’ve bought some extra furniture from the local equivalent of Freedom which Kerry has assembled with occasional confused input from me and a well-used Philips head. It’s not that I don’t wish to participate but the instructions are minimalist and heavily rely on visual/ spatial/logical skills which is the point at which I find it all a bit bewildering. If I, for example, was to individually put together the wardrobe which was delivered earlier today it would resemble something from a Salvador Dali nightmare!
We’ve finally got a functioning phone. Two weeks of nonsense- jogging down to the phone booth and ringing a range of disinterested Glaswegians (the call centre’s location) and being variously informed that the dilemma was a local one, then one external to the house, then within the property (like a horror film, ‘the problem is coming from inside the house’). I had re-named BT (British Telecom) in a range of ways this last week including Be F****** and Be Very F****** Surprised if They Could Organise a Root in a Wood yard. Still, it’s now on and we are 01727 899 082. Give us a call one day if you can.
Work is good. The Nicky B kids are friendly, lively and lazy. Two thirds are boys and a good number are, not surprisingly of Irish origin. I teach 7 English classes, 1 lesson of ICT per fortnight and a pastoral care lesson each week so the governors get good value for their sterling! Some advantages are that I do only one yard duty a week on a playing field where the boys play some boisterous football and imitate their heroes, although unlike Beckam can generally speak in coherent sentences. In one class I asked a group of kids to list what 7 items they’d like if they were the last person on earth. In the list she subsequently read to the class one girl declared, ‘Elton John’s house.’ Mindful of Elton at least maintaining London, New York and Venice houses I said, ‘Which one?’ She replied most earnestly, ‘The gay one.’
There are no yard clean ups, largely because most eat a hot dinner in the hall and there is no co-curricula nonsense if you don’t want. I don’t want. The staff is a good mixture of experience and youth with most being friendly. The head teacher is a witty, approachable and happily rotund chap who might be best summarised by a conversation I overheard the other day. One teacher said that his previous head was scary in an aloof and intimidating way. Someone remarked that our head wasn’t scary. Another then disagreed saying, ‘No Jeremy’s scary. Scary like a drunk driver.’ I look forward to witnessing his long term planning and management style. The title Head teacher worries me too. I teach English so am called an English teacher. Kerry teaches Biology so is fittingly labelled a Biology teacher. What does the boss teach? And to whom? As Sir Les Patterson says, ‘Are you with me?’ We have two caretakers and one of their tasks is to lock some of the rooms each lunch and ensure that the students quickly move outside. I’m sure that the elder of the two is channelling Butler from On The Buses when he hollers each day to the same kids, ‘Righto! I told you lot! Get. I’m warning you.’
Kerry is going well at Marlborough School (formally St Julian’s or Julian’s the hooligans). Her Year 7, 8,9 and 10 classes all love her but there are some Year 11s who are taking some time to understand how it will be. There’s been a few moments but she’ll soon have them in full knowledge of the way.
St Albans is apparently the fifth most expensive community in the country behind suburbs like St John’s Wood, Kensington and Belgravia. As I stroll down our road to the bus each morning I’m astonished at the BMWs, Audi TTs, Range Rovers and Porsches which are parked on the street! Whilst I acknowledge that cars are cheaper here, I feel a little like Nick the narrator in The Great Gatsby who is a young chap of modest means living amongst millionaires and many St Albans citizens commute to the city and work as lawyers and accountants so I am sure that this is tragically true. Despite Kerry and I earning comfortable salaries our bank tells us that the only real estate we can afford here would be a despairingly small studio apartment. This would be especially tricky with Roxy jetting over in the New Year. The humble townhouse we’re renting would set us back (if we could save 100,000 pounds!) about 250,000 pounds or $600,000 so I think we might just focus on our Australian mortgage and a few other things! We had a hire car for the first three days we were here and took the opportunity to take a drive to Cambridge which was lovely. We ventured through a couple of the Garden Cities such as Welwyn which were established after WW2. They seemed well planned and of a similar vintage to our own Elizabeth but lacking her charm, tourist attractions and low crime rate. So all things considered, we think we’re living in a nice town.
Fosters is on tap in most pubs here. More terrifying than having to continually apologise to the locals for this is noticing that quite a few disturbed types actually drink it. And it gets worse. XXXX is common too. Probably not the two Australian beers I’d chose as ambassadors but never mind. Stella Artois, Heineken and Carlsberg are my beers of choice but the imperial pints are to be afforded respect. At 563 mls one needs to show restraint and not get swept up in the excitement of it all. We had a great afternoon in London yesterday at the Camden markets, looking at lots of recycled clothing, retro furniture and trying not to get passively stoned as we wandered through the candle stalls blaring Bob Marley. Camden’s the birthplace of punk so it was curious to see 50 year old people of both genders with fading tattoos, thinning mow hawks and rusty earrings and safety pins unexpectedly jutting from wrinkles public and I imagine, private.
We earlier caught the lunchtime Thames Link from the main station in St Albans. We got spooked as we turned the corner into the station and saw about 40 police waiting outside the gate. We thought their must have been a murder or some gang violence but later learnt they were waiting for some football fans who were soon to pass through on their way to a lowly division fixture like Tooting vs Cucumber Blue at Luton. However, potentially a bit explosive like Port vs Centrals at the Ponderosa. On our way home last night we called into the Robin Hood (no sign of any Norwood footballers though!) for a quick half and happened across some likely lads who’d obviously had an intensive afternoon at a soccer match and we’re lagering with passion as only Tooting supporters can. They were singing along to some Oasis and Beatles songs in full bevy voice and it was very funny. We especially enjoyed Strawberry Fields Forever and their soaring ‘Nuff-ing to get hung up about’. It was certainly better than anything I’ve heard on Pop Idol (Australian or UK). But being mindful of how quickly it could go from to gregarious goodwill to us getting glassed we left the boys and ambled home via the off-license.
It’s thus far been easy to avoid the urge to buy a TV. Whilst the BBC broadcasts on 5 channels it seems highly polluted by dreary soaps, renovation and gardening rubbish and cooking programs. Still come winter time it may hold enormous appeal as we huddle cheerlessly in the 4pm darkness. We currently spend our evenings with the radio which holds many highlights. I have heard a little of Terry Wogan doing breakfast on Radio2. Many of you will know him as the terrifically sarcastic commentator on the Eurovision Song Contest. He’s even more poisonous on the radio; maybe he doesn’t like mornings. Jonathon Coleman of Simon Townsend’s Wonder World infamy also announces during breakfast on Heart FM and seems quite jovial too. Julian Cleary of Sticky Moments notoriety in the early 1990s recently guest presented on BBC London and was barbed and viscous as only the gay can be. I must try to catch Phil Tufnell’s Cricket Circus on BBC Radio 5 (Radio Bloke) one Friday night. I can imagine him in the studio with a significant supply of Boddingtons and Silk Cut gaspers as he tries to interview someone like Ian Botham. It would soon turn pornographic. Maybe Tuffers could talk to Shane.
On a mid-October Friday evening we’re going to one of the three local theatres to take in Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas which we’re looking forward to. A week or two after is a dramatisation of Dylan Thomas’ final days when he was on tour in the US; basically drinking himself to death. Given that we’re still enjoying the local pub culture, I think we’ll skip this performance! The Pub Landlord is coming here soon with his one man show Giving it Both Barrels. Might go to hear his view of the world. I wonder if it will be as successful as his previous tour; My Gaff, My Rules. We will also soon go to a West End theatre show but I don’t think it will be Jerry Springer: The Opera which has just opened; we might go to the one by Ben Elton which uses the music of Queen.
Anyway, must go. Hope that you’re all well and that spring is starting to behave. As a faithful servant at a Catholic sponsored school I leave you with a prayer. Dear God, Please give the righteous Brisbane enough strength to flog the heathen Collingwood this Saturday!
Love and best wishes
Mickey and Kerry
Ringo- the Greatest Beatle
Hello to everyone! It’s a crisp London morning; the boiler has just groaned to a stop and the washing machine is patiently whirling way in the kitchen as they do in these parts.
Last night we returned from our half-term/ first anniversary escape to the Cotswolds. The weather was mostly sunny although cool (about 10 most days) and calm which made for excellent walking and exploring. We stayed at the Tall Trees B&B in Stow-on-the-Wold (a fire in the sky) run by a Yorkshire woman who could see we need fattening up so each morning fed us delicious Full English Breakfast in order that we could properly tackle our days.
We booked a hire car for 9:30 Saturday morning so obviously about four increasingly shitty phone calls later our little Toyota was delivered at 2:30 by two dishevelled chaps. I told one that we’d been talking to Salvi back at the office about getting a day or two compensatory free hire and he replied, ‘You want to talk to Derek. Forget Salvi. Salvi’s an idiot.’ Please keep this in mind. A personal highlight of the drive there was passing through the pretty town of Chipping Norton which gives its name to an important horse race held during the Autumn Carnival in Sydney and famously won a few years ago by Octagonal.
Our first day in the Cotswolds was also our first anniversary and Kerry had surreptitiously organised a small bottle of Moet and two Coopers Sparkling ales for us to celebrate at breakfast. This unpleasant business complete we wobbled off to Chipping Camden and repentantly completed an 8-kilometre walk through the surrounding countryside and villages. England has a system where public footpaths criss-cross many farming properties and this access allows for great hiking. We only took a couple of wrong turns and had to cut across some cow paddocks which featured some of the most outrageous turds I’ve ever seen. You couldn’t have thrown a hoola-hoop around many and from the lofty summit of a dry one I could see the Eiffel Tower. The other highlight was filling our bottle from an icy stream, which gave the best water I’ve ever had (apart from the fifteen dollar bottle of spring water in KL two years back). I felt like Colonel Les Hiddins (retired).
We then had an attractive late lunch at The Swan in Broadway. This is a lovely village where many antique stores line the wide high street. Apparently Ronnie Barker quietly runs one since his retirement from public life. I’ll bet that he is heartily sick of people bursting in and yelling at him, ‘its goodnight from him’ in the hope that Ronnie will happily retort,’ and it’s goodnight from me.’ Our meal was only slightly disturbed by the loud American businessman trying to impress his British colleagues with a lecture on his mastery of various Microsoft programs. I had to resist the urge to tap him on his ample shoulder and quietly say, ‘Everyone in this restaurant is absolutely thrilled that you can use Word. I’ve met retarded goats that can. Kindly shut the **** up.’
Monday’s hike began at Bourton-on-the-Water. It’s a fetching village dominated by the quaint stream, which dissects it. This brook is traversed by a number of low pedestrian bridges and many also call it rather optimistically, ‘The Venice of the Cotswolds.’ I and not a few of you have sat in one or two pubs in Kapunda and talked all manner of rubbish about books and films. Should it be now known as the ‘Dublin of the Barossa?’ Iron Knob boasts some disused parkland. Please hereinafter call it the ‘Paris of Eastern Eyre Peninsula.’
Nonetheless our hike took us through two fantastically- named hamlets; Upper and Lower Slaughter. The first of these features an exclusive country hotel. Apparently guests can fly- fish in the neighbouring stream and the staff will regularly bring G&Ts as they try to catch their dinner! We dined at The Unicorn back in Stow that evening and it was great. Kerry’s lamb was very good as was my pasta. We decided not to accompany our meal with an obscenely-priced bottle of Penfold’s Rawson’s Retreat (Revenge) as it like, Fosters and XXXX, is not a worthy international (or domestic!) representative.
Instead of catching the much-advertised Australian Pink Floyd Show (the poster depicts a kangaroo jumping over the Battersea power station!) we went to a great historic site; the Hailes Abbey where we learnt much about monastic life and Henry the Eighth’s displeasure with this. For many hundreds of years it was a significant attraction for pilgrims as it housed an authenticated vial of Christ’s blood. Henry’s men arrogantly suggested that it was drake’s blood; weekly replaced and threw the vial on the fire! British bureaucracy has only declined since then.
We did a breezy open-topped bus tour of Oxford on our way home and discovered much about its history and architecture including that New College was founded in the 1300’s! The audio commentary also mentioned famous Rhodes scholars and singled out Bill Clinton and Bob Hawke who, we both noted share more than this and being elected leaders of Western Democracies. The phrase ‘mad shaggers’ may be relevant.
Being in one of the world’s most vibrant university towns meant we also had the responsibility of downing a pint and some lunch in one of its famous pubs. We wanted to sit where some of our best young minds had argued with passion and insight. We wanted to smell the privilege and the potential. We also wanted to remember the excitement of being in one’s early twenties and being in a pub bursting with uni students. So with dozens of historic hotels from which to choose where did we go? It started to dawn on us after we’d ordered. It was quiet. Too quiet. We looked at the pictures on the walls. All young buffed (well hard, as they say here) semi-clad men. I wandered over to find a student magazine to get some witty political insight. Mmmm. None on offer. The atmosphere was a little like the scene in Animal House when the boys, part way through their road-trip, call into a nightclub. They burst in and one comments, ‘Boon, we’re the only white people here.’ Yes, we’d selected Oxford’s premier gay bar.
Had a great cultural weekend a while back. Enjoyed Dylan Thomas’ enduring Under Milk Wood on Friday night, took in the hysterical British farce Noises Off in London’s West End on the Saturday and finally on Sunday in a lovely St Albans’ book shop I badly sprained my ankle tripping down the stairs between Travel and History after a terrific five pint luncheon. I think I’ll give up literature and the arts. Much safer being a piss-head.
Must rush off and email this. One of my old school-mates Chris Rohde arrives tonight. My sister and brother-in-law Jill and Barry visit for a week after Chris departs so it will be a couple of tremendous weeks. Hope that everyone is well; especially Netty, Claire and Jonesy who are pregnant. And Puggy who, by many accounts, could be.
Love and kindest regards,
Michael and Kerry
Arise, Sir Ringo
Hello to everyone.
‘Do you know Kevin Bloody Wilson?’ inquired the English bar wench.
‘Does your Dad own a brewery?’ I’m reasonably sure Kerry possibly replied.
‘We love him here,’ brashly declared our new best friend through the smoke and laughter.
11pm-ish on the Thursday of our half-term break in the White Lion (no sign of Kimba) and we were dutifully showing our first visitor, Chris Rohde, the highlights of St Albans. Two hours previous we began our solemn responsibilities at The Goat so he could sample some English ales (Old Speckled Hen is the pick) and we could talk of old friends, new experiences and Collingwood’s capitulation. As the two girls traded some of the Australian Bob Dylan’s more culturally sensitive lyrics I reflected on how music can unite people and then as they harmonised on ‘Santa Claus You ****!’ I was proud that, courtesy of Kevin B, Australia had truly arrived on the international stage. Of course it could have been much, much worse. The innkeeper’s daughter and my wife could have bonded over Danni Minogue’s songs.
Recently I saw a poster advertising a fund-raising soccer match which boasted a long list of minor celebrities. There were some former footballers (disappointingly none from Sheffield Wednesday), Coronation Street (‘Corrie’) stars and the like but the main draw card was a musical genius, a local god and an inspiration to his generation. Yes, my friends, watching the lead singer from Spandau Ballet (‘Gold! Always believe in your soul!’) bend it like Beckham would have been well worth the five quid admission. If the organisers had secured the female keyboard player from Human League (‘I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar’) we would certainly have been there on the terraces, urging on the washed-up celebrities and, as one does at the soccer, cheerfully threatening to glass the opposition supporters.
I continue to learn about Nicholas Breakspear School. Feeling sure that there would be some luminaries amongst the former students I asked a colleague if there were any noted sporting stars, politicians or media types who have passed through its hallowed dining hall.
‘Just one,’ Bazz replied.
‘Who’s that?’ I asked wondering if the name would be familiar as a cricketer (Gladstone Small or Phil Tufnell) or maybe a Tory cabinet member who’d been caught in his Westminster office wearing only chaps, high heels and a smile. His answer was interesting, in a Trivial Pursuit kind of way. He continued.
‘Do you remember the 80’s one hit wonder Marilyn?’
As I started humming ‘I Hear You on the Radio’ Bazz told me that Nicky B’s most famous transvestite graduate is now living in a rented council flat in Borehamwood and the poor chap is terminally unemployable.
My school turned 40 this year and the entire community attended a lovely mass in St Albans Abbey to celebrate. It is a beautiful church characterised by gorgeous stained glass, golden light and impossibly lofty ceilings. It was a nice way to spend a day at work and the service was performed by four priests and the bishop, who at one point majestically announced,
‘Your school is the only one in the world to bear the name of Nicholas Breakspear, England’s first and thus far only Pope.’
I’m convinced this was supposed to be the climax of the afternoon and that we were to burst into spontaneous applause and weeping. Sadly the moment was a little diminished when among the official party some low murmuring followed and the bishop hastily added, ‘The only school to bear his name, apart from a primary school in Leeds.’
After the Abbey emptied and the buses drove off the staff and one of the priests, a lovely bloke, Father Manus galloped up to the King Harry pub where, as is always the case, I heard the real story about Nicholas Breakspear. He was a local lad who rose up the Catholic Church ranks and in the 1100’s found himself in Rome as pope. However, his reign was but 3 years as he died suddenly in the most bizarre of circumstances. Apparently one morning the Pontiff swallowed a fly and promptly expired. Can you believe it? Unfortunately he didn’t think quickly enough to also swallow a spider. Being Pope meant he was probably the world’s most powerful man and England’s king at the time, Henry was feeling a little miserable so Nicholas Breakspear decided to cheer him up. And how did he do this? With tremendous off-handedness he gave Ireland to England. Of course what followed has been about 900 years of uninterrupted misery for the Irish. Father Manus summed up his view of my school’s namesake as we chatted over Hoegaarden pints in the King Harry; ‘Nicholas Breakspear,’ the Irish priest said, waving his finger, ‘he’s da *ucker who started da Troubles.’
Up the road at Marlborough School Kerry has a particularly disinclined boy in her Year 11 class whose behaviour heartily warranted a letter home to his mother outlining the various ways in which he has been a turd. Her dispatch also described the poo he’d be in if this continued. Still, she derived a certain cheeky and ironic joy as she addressed young Robert’s envelope. I think she especially liked penning the top line and leaving the tiniest gap between the words:
Mrs S Hite
My sister Jill and her husband Barry visited for a week and it was fantastic to see them. Last weekend we drove to Bath via the This is Spinal Tap theme park and hideously expensive gift shop. Some of you will better know it as Stonehenge (‘where the cats meow’) and it was impressive (most repeated phrase on the accompanying audio commentary, ‘We don’t know why it’s here’) but the artic gale proved achingly cold. It was surprising that the stones didn’t topple over like dominoes and we, along with any careless stray Druids, weren’t blown to Budapest.
Bath is a terrific town and we can see why it is one of only seven European heritage-listed cities. Like Rome it is located on seven hills and the architecture is grandly Georgian, largely built with a certain limestone which turns a lovely golden hue as it ages. The Pulteney Bridge and picturesque weir and some stunning semi-circular apartment buildings such as the 500 foot long Royal Crescent are highlights. Bath’s river is the Avon but it is not the Avon of Stratford fame as the Celtic word for river is avon and there are seven such-named waterways in England! We, along with about 97,000 people, toured the ancient Roman baths on Saturday morning and gathered a few insights into how the ancients relaxed after a rewarding day invading and killing.
We completed a circuit of Bath on a tourist bus where an amusing guide gave an enthusiastic but slightly confused commentary. She initially pointed at various buildings, told us to look left but meant right, then instructed us to gaze left but meant right, and then repeatedly mentioned numerous buildings which in the past have fallen into disrepute. I said to Jill, Barry and Kerry that Bath must have been the Knocking Shop Capital of Western Europe but later realised that she probably intended disrepair.
On our way back to our B&B one night, Barry and I bobbed into a bar to see if there might be a spare table while Jill and Kerry waited outside. It seemed a cosy little pub with about 40 men huddled around in close circles nursing wine glasses. As we strode in all conversation instantly stopped and 80 piercing eyes turned to us. If there had been a man playing a Pet Shop Boys song on the piano he would have frozen too. Suddenly we lost our thirst, sprinted with heterosexual verve back outside to our wives and promptly retired.
Next morning our host, a fuzzy little Scot named Archie proudly showed us the vegemite he had especially purchased for us that very morning. It was a thoughtful gesture but as Jill learnt, when he announced that whilst we were to eat as much of it as we liked but that we must only use a little teaspoon and not our crummy knives to scoop out the yeast extract, he meant it. When he also gruffly declared that he hoped Australia won the rugby and not ‘the *ucking gloating English’ I think that he meant this too.
It was great to have been visited by close family but we knew Jill and Barry were getting eager to return home when we were in the Three Hammers last Sunday. We were enjoying a meal and a drink (I agree with XFM’s breakfast announcer Christian O’Connell who says, ‘Stella is my king’) and Barry deliriously whispers, ‘See that bloke over there. That’s Bill Hunter.’ I admit that the grey beard and chubby face were certainly familiar but everybody knows that he would never leave Porpoise Spit, as his community and family need him there, especially now that Muriel has moved away.
Having long being subscribers to the Sunday is the best day school of thought we left Bill and his mistress and ventured to St Michael’s village and its twin free-house masterpieces; the Rose and Crown and The Six Bells where as lazy afternoon drifted into idyllic evening we again witnessed why English pubs are such fun. The Bell’s publican played an Elvis CD at volume and despite there being only a couple dozen patrons crowded beneath its low ceiling and about its crackling fire the singing was so spirited and happy (‘I caaaan’t help, fall-ling in love with you) as to remind me of soccer fans chanting as one.
We hope that you’re well and wish you a happy Christmas; we’ll think of you from Madrid and Barcelona during the festive period. All the best to those celebrating birthdays and anniversaries during December. I write a few hours after England won their second world cup, belatedly following soccer in 1966. On Monday morning I shall heartily congratulate my Pommy colleagues but will suggest that they not get overly excited. After all, Darren Lehmann, that magnificently disciplined and chiselled athlete, has also won two world cups.
Kerry and Michael
Ringo World- Opening Soon
Season’s greetings to everyone. Can you believe it’s 2004?
A quiet Sunday night before Christmas and we were listening to the radio and playing Yahtzee when an urgent knock at our door surprised our evening. Two angelic sisters, aged about 10 stood beaming on our step, prior to launching into a spirited rendition of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ Yes, our first English Christmas carollers provided a lovely and unforgettable moment. Tears glistened at the corner of our eyes as we searched the freezer to find some ice cream for our singing cherubs. We were pleased to be in a country where we could experience humble Christmas traditions. Holding hands, the girls skipped off into their cheerful night, and with happy faces and glowing hearts, we settled back to our dice and music.
About 5 minutes later, the doorbell sounded again and two pink-cheeked boys offered their joyous adaptation of the same tune. And again we remunerated our young vocalists with what were the last of our much-loved Cornettos. Mercifully, we flopped back onto our chairs and I huffed, ‘What if some other kids come a-singing?’
Kerry snorted, ‘I want to finish playing our game. Don’t answer the door.’
‘Good point,’ I declared, ‘We’ve no ice-cream left!’
I’m not entirely sure how it happened but we had gone from crying with festive joy to sulky Scrooges in about 10 minutes.
I read recently that our Poet Laureate is offering a 10,000-pound prize for the best new soccer chant. Isn’t that fantastic? Sometimes I think this is the greatest country. Can you imagine the AFL putting up serious cash for the best anti- Port Power banner (obviously best kept to monosyllabic taunts)? Or Glenn McGrath being knighted for services to sledging? The journalist then recounted his favourite soccer crowd songs. I know it’s not PC but years ago the Rangers goalkeeper was diagnosed with schizophrenia which soon became public knowledge. At the next home fixture he was welcomed onto the pitch by his own supporters with, ‘There’s only two Andy Gorans. On-ly two Andy Gor-ans.’
Madrid has much to offer. It is located on a plateau some 800 metres above sea-level which results in great winter weather. The sky is blue, cloudless and sunny. No proud Queenslander would believe me but it could be Brisbane in June. It is gorgeously calm and whilst only about 10 degrees during the afternoon, is ideal for exploring the parks, plazas and handsome wide streets. With its elevated position, central lake, and café, the Retiro is among the best of Spain’s parks. It is so well planned and relaxing that we visited twice including Christmas Day (along with a few thousand locals but not the Beckhams who, according to some girls I teach, were in Lapland). Kerry is adamant she had the best ever coffee there.
This glorious weather partly led to us avoiding Madrid’s famous museums in favour of the outdoors; no doubt also thinking of London’s grey sogginess. Near the palace we found a park hosting clusters of older men playing boules, sat on a bench and thoroughly enjoyed their banter (knowing no Catalyun isn’t a barrier), the vigorous competition and the small but powerful magnets dangling on string with which they picked up and carried their metal balls. A rustic and charming episode; which delayed our Sangria and Estrella beer whilst also proving the best entertainment is often free, local and random.
We’re fans of hop-on, hop-off bus tours when orienting ourselves to new cities and can recommend these in Spain. Whilst undertaking the Madrid monument excursion I was a little surprised that the pre-recorded commentary was punctuated by music. Some flamenco maybe? Or tunes swarthy and Mediterranean to set one’s passion alight? As we drove past the Prado museum and then the 2,800 room Real Palace what were we listening to? My apologies if you willingly played this in the last month but I don’t think I can imagine a CD which contrasts more weirdly with Madrid’s architectural elegance and urban poise than the kitsch 70’s disco stink that is Boney M’s Christmas Album.
Our Spanish Christmas soundtrack reached its curious nadir in a café by the Plaza del Sol as we dined on Boxing Day. Maybe it’s just me but if you were going to record a version of everyone’s favourite, ‘Little Drummer Boy’, wouldn’t you ensure that the final edit featured, above everything else, a snare drum? Isn’t his drumming (pa-ra-pa-pum-pum) the gift he offers when he (poor little tyke) has nothing else to give? However the song we heard as we ate our pizza and salad totally lacked percussion. It was like hearing Duelling Banjos played solely on kazoos. Surely the banjo (hence the title!) is as connected to that song as the famous scene from Deliverance of gap-toothed Southerners licking their lips and eagerly loosening their trousers.
A cable-car journey across the Camp de Caso; one of Madrid’s biggest parks was memorable. We’d avoided the park at night because our Lonely Planet told us it was quite seedy and possibly a little dangerous. So there we were Friday lunchtime when Kerry first spotted one down below. Toward one end of the park a thin road crawls through the hilly, scrubby wilderness. There they were. Long white boots, G-strings and skimpy tops. Dozens of hookers along the road making it a surreal, snaking, outdoorsy knocking shop. Many inquisitive cars quietly crept (do Goodyear make a tyre named the Brothel Creeper?) up the hill and some were parked near the trees; conceivably swaying, mid-transaction, Sandman Panel Van style. It was not many degrees above freezing and the girls were near naked so I just hoped their mums had included a thermos of hot soup in their packed lunches. Just to the north is a theme park complete with roller coasters and Tower of Terror so Camp de Caso caters for everyone’s entertainment needs. Amusement rides for the urchins and courtesy of the girls on the road, amusement rides for the office worker who has, as far as his colleagues are concerned, slipped out for a lonely lunch.
Our train ticket indicated that we would depart for Barcelona at 7:45 and in decidedly un-British fashion, that is exactly what it did. If I were to pass the rest of my days without drawing breath whilst on a bus I would be delighted. But train travel is an exciting, romantic affair. We had cosy, ample seats, headphones for the audio entertainment and a kindly attendant gave us sweets from his cane basket. TV monitors constantly updated our progress on a digital map and told the temperature and our speed which was a steady 200 k’s; quite leisurely for European trains but surprisingly quicker and smoother than a 1984 Nissan Exa. The ticket also suggested that we’d pull into the Barcelona Sants station at 1:05. We did. Splendid stuff.
Barcelona is a dynamic, invigorating city. From our motel room balcony we could see the Sagrada Familia; the astonishing church Anton Gaudi began building in the late 1800’s. He was still shaping his moderniste masterpiece in 1925 when he stepped under an accelerating tram. However the project continues with the temple’s 170-metre central steeple to be completed by 2020 (I wouldn’t book a room just yet). Therefore like much in Europe that we’ve wanted to enjoy, it is hidden behind scaffolding and green meshing. Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, Athens’ Pantheon, Budapest’s Heroes’ Square and the Watford KFC are just some iconic monuments that have annoyingly been under repair when we’ve visited.
Kerry and I rode the funicular (it sounds like a combination of fun and tubercular which is a fair description) up to Montjuic; the mountainous site of the 1992 Olympics where we walked around the main stadium. We also peered across the diving pool and towers that have Barcelona’s cityscape as a magnificent backdrop and offer a sporting vista only surpassed by the MCG scoreboard every time Collingwood is deservedly beaten.
Apart from Gaudi’s various organic sculptures, the highlight of Guell Park was a grungy Spanish busker. Her throaty interpretation of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ was a cracker despite our confidence that, whilst she was singing in English, like Yoko, she undoubtedly spoke none. But she certainly earnt the couple of Euros (coins not kangaroos) we dropped into her hat. Our Spanish Christmas holiday was wonderful.
The E.U. demands that one constantly be alert to the challenge of language. We’ve learnt many new words and the best of these is the German for slut which is the utterly delightful ‘schlaumper’. If you say it with real emphasis on each syllable it becomes almost onomatopoeic; sshh-loum-pa. A woman who speaks no German is called a schlaumper by someone and I’m sure the meaning will be frightfully clear. Only the British could publish the following; a magazine cover photo with an arrow uncharitably pointing at a former soapie star’s rather meaty upper-arm. The label? Bingo-wing.
We finally weakened last weekend and bought a TV which requires an annual licence of about 120 pounds. Now we are legally entitled to watch Coronation Street, Wife Swap 4 and Shattered, a gripping reality program involving dopey tits in competition for 100,000 pounds by avoiding sleeping for a week. Plainly we are not happy having to pay for these. However we are immeasurably fortunate compared to others and it is this which provides yet another telling insight into England’s galactically stupid bureaucracy. It is normally a given that if one is legally blind then a TV becomes an enormous, expensive and not very portable radio. Nevertheless sightless UK citizens are surely thrilled that the BBC offers them, with terrifying generosity, a discount on their annual licence of 50 percent. Bloody hell.
Love and best wishes
Michael, Kerry and soon, Roxy
Ringo to head new Iraq WMD search
A fond hello to you
The distinguished writer Henry James once confidently suggested that “summer afternoon” is the most beautiful phrase in the English language. Until moving here I freely agreed but am now unreservedly convinced that “School’s closed” gives that a pizzling. Two weeks ago a couple of inches of snow fell in London; for most European countries surely like a whirly-wind but here in Hertfordshire a Cyclone Tracy which impacts upon millions. However, Kerry, Roxy (the dog) and I took a frolicking stroll around Verulamium Park where a plump friendly moon coalesced with the unsullied snow to generate a pure, invigorating light. Between the Abbey and the Fighting Cocks pub Kerry shaped a snow angel after we assembled a dopey but adorable snowman in our backyard who boasted, in a rather cruel twist of refrigerator genetics, a carrot nose, brussel sprout eyes and a goofy smile.
“You might want to leave now if you plan on getting home,” stammered the anxious Maths teacher (surely not!) as he peered through the English office door. Joyously escaping the exam meeting and dashing outside I was at once bewitched by a virginal, silent and utterly alluring snowscape. An hour previous the school was as grey, forlorn and fetching as an abandoned Whyalla hotel. Cycling amidst the magically dancing flakes towards the Alban Way I encountered a young rider with whom I shared the Disney-like 3 mile pedal into town. We were the two strangers in a film who are united by adversity into an unlikely but compelling cinematic bond.
Pushing through the fluffy snow I was amazed by the transformation in the ordinarily dull environment. The Alban Way is a busy pedestrian trail and jovial arena for torching stolen motorcycles (as one does!) and even these blackened skeletons emanated a serene radiance courtesy of the angelic snow. Such was the luminosity that I would not have been surprised, as my adolescent companion and I wheeled by, to happen upon a gaggle of squealing Japanese tourists digitally capturing the incandescent purity of a tortured Vespa, merrily sacrificed by a gang of Ali G impersonators on criminal transit from Luton.
I waved my blizzard-partner goodbye, fed and watered my panting bike; Waikikamucau (named after the racehorse which made a career finishing second to Mahogany) and had taken maybe 5 minutes more than my usual 20 in reaching home from the harrowing halls of Nicholas Brakespear RC School. Living a car-free Amish lifestyle provides frequent advantages and the snow certainly illustrated some of these. St Albans is roughly the size of Glenelg and is surrounded by villages with the charisma of Hackam West so whilst the traffic is constipated like a cat on a cheese diet, we’ll remain pedestrians and cyclists knowing that we’re not missing much beyond the city-limits apart from colourless shopping centres and menacing bus shelters. As the snow gathered my Irish mate Paddy (real name!) boarded the St Albans bus and turned his door key 2 and ½ hours later. Some-one else’s homeward journey took until 9pm whilst another chap’s wife slept at her work. Can you imagine 5 hours driving the length of Anzac Highway? The English natter about the weather incessantly but the infrastructure can’t cope with conditions outside a narrow tolerance and when it next roars above a Venusian 30 degrees I fully expect fainting locals to litter the market-square like road-kill and the rail-lines to squirm like chip packets in an oven. Clearly panic-stricken, we had to inoculate against all of this with a medicinal afternoon at the pub on our snow day.
Never Mind the Buzzcocks is a comedy/quiz program on BBC2 which reminds me of our late and lamented Good News Week in its format and humour. It even features a jolly blubbery fellow like Mikey Robbins and a Paul McDermott-type cynical host (Kerry especially enjoyed his view of the lead singer from Europe: “poodle-headed idiot”). They lately discussed the unusual objects fans throw onto the stage at rock concerts during particular songs and one guest cited the famous ritual of chucking dozens of toothbrushes at the band UK Squeeze as they play the fabulous “Tempted” (I bought a toothbrush, some toothpaste /A flannel for my face /Pyjamas, a hairbrush /New shoes and a case /I said to my reflection/ Let’s get out of this place). The host, Mark Lamarr is the funniest person I’ve encountered in the British media and he retorted, “Yes, I like that. The crowd heaving stuff at the singer based on what they’re singing. I’m currently writing a song for Britney called ‘Anvils, Lions, Tigers and Shit.’
Brighton beckoned for the bride’s birthday! It’s a cosmopolitan city known as London-by-the-sea and is a charming locale. Our Regency Square B&B is within shrapnel range of the esplanade’s Grand Hotel where an IRA bomb killed five in 1984 during an attempt on Maggie Thatcher. This coincided with the Miners’ Strike that so angered Billy Bragg. We began our walking tour of this waterfront jewel but found the Polar gale beyond any Australian wind; including even Eudunda during U15’s football. When the facade of a cinema began disintegrating and spinning at us in a potentially decapitating style we obtained refuge in the Royal Pavilion; an Indian/Chinese influenced palace built by John Nash for George IV and meandering through it we were astonished by its opulence. Peculiarly, the Music Room was pulverised by a fire ball in a 1975 vandal attack and just prior to its re-opening the “1987 Hurricane” (I’m confident history will record us as having been in town during the 2004 Shit-Storm) devastated it by crashing a one and a half ton cement ball through the ornate ceiling and deep into the newly-laid, taxpayer- funded Axminster.
After this we needed lunch so ambled into a New Orleans (We fired our guns and the British kept a’comin/ There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago/ We fired once more and they began to runnin’ on/ down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.) restaurant. New Orleans, needless to say, is the only American football team to have never won a play-off match. Even Port Power has done marginally better than that. With this upbeat thought in mind the megaplex was next where we took in the American Civil War saga, Cold Mountain, which partly documents this most horrific of fratricides; costing more lives than all of the wars in which America has since involved herself. We then ventured into the Aussie- themed Walkabout pub with its alluring Bundy-soaked floor, aggressive ex-pat box heads and flat Fosters. One long minute later Kerry’s new boot heel was devoured by the rancid drink-slop like a German tourist by a Kakadu crocodile and we were elated to surrender, forever, our Walkabout passports to the bouncers.
Sunday was calmer so we strolled about the foreshore and Brighton’s world-famous piers. You’ll not be surprised to learn that the West Pier was destroyed by two separate fires in March and May of 2003 and these resulted in the poor girl tumbling into the juice. The neighbouring Palace Pier is home to a colourful assortment of grotty bars and tacky amusements (including a beaut dolphin racing game on which Kerry won a surprisingly life-like soft orange shark). Oddly enough, it largely survived its compulsory arson attack in 2003 but the ghost train ride was razed. Fortunately Scooby-Doo and Shaggy were not inside and the grouchy caretaker was subsequently de-masked after Velma located her glasses and promptly solved the mystery. On Sunday we caught the Themes-link train and in a thrilling contrast with our weekend’s central theme, were not victims of derailment, terrorist attack or chip-butty poisoning and so ventured home with happy hearts and curious memories of Brighton.
I can rarely believe that it is approaching six months since Kerry and I left noisy Heathrow in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster (hired) and first steered around the M25 to St Albans. Most of you have experienced the little agonies and elations of settling into a new community and I recently had a minor but telling moment at the Bunch of Cherries after work on POETS day. Having lassoed Waikikamucau I ambled in and eagerly nodded at the beer-serving lass. Can you conceive of my raw joy as she smiled at me, toddled over and inquired, “It’s a pint of Carlsberg, isn’t it love?” If I can achieve similar status at The Goat (the Darren Jarman of St Albans’ pubs. Jarman. Jarman. That will do. That- will- do!) then everything will indeed take care of itself in the Old Dart.
Our gorgeous fox terrier cross, Roxy, bravely arrived at Heathrow a few weeks back and has made our little house a home. Initially her company, whilst fantastic was also a little weird. It may be uncharitable but it partly reminded me of unearthing Coopers Sparkling Ale in the Indian off-licence on London Road or talking with the girl wearing a Crows scarf in the local library one night before Christmas. We are getting to know St Albans gradually and Roxy represents a profoundly happy facet of our Australian life so her sudden presence here in Hertfordshire proved both remarkable and blissfully unsettling. Maybe she also ignited some homesickness that the dizzying passage of time, being recognised by a barmaid or indulging in a day off due to light snow will not mend. Still, she’s recovered from her 30-hour flight and loves her walks about Verulamium and The Lake and, thankfully, has not yet been bitch-slapped by a squirrel.
We’re in Edinburgh next week. Have a happy Valentine’s Day. Enjoy the blistering heat that is February’s clockwork and we’ll talk to you soon.
Love Michael, Kerry and Roxy
Ringo-gate: Kylie’s bum confesses
Hello to everyone.
I am sure that if you were in our shoes you would have done the same. I mean, if you were similarly tempted. After all, we are, you are, we are Au-stra-lian. So there Kerry and I were, less than a month after we’d sternly vowed to never again enter an Aussie-themed pub, in Edinburgh’s empty branch of Bar Oz excitedly ordering lunch (PS-don’t tell anyone but we drank Fosters in a Walkabout too!). And what do young Aussie lovers dine on when given the chance to devour rare Southern Hemisphere foodstuffs? Main course was a bag of Twisties for the bride and a luxurious Coopers Sparkling Ale for me (its OK Mum we only do this 3 or 4 times a week) and for pudding I gulped a Milo bar while Kerry inhaled a Cherry Ripe. Darryl Kerrigan once dryly observed on the verandah of Bonneydoon, ’Ah the serenity’ and ours was this gastronomic reward for previously resisting a Scottish chippy whose window advertising boasted, ‘WE SELL MARS BARS IN BATTER’. And some cruelly taunt the British for having no cuisine.
It may surprise you to discover that Edinburgh is even more haunted than Kapunda. Multiple companies offer nightly walking tours about the city’s vaults, churches and graveyards and we’re enthusiastic converts. For about six quid each we, and sixty other punters, were informed, vaguely scared and highly entertained for about 90 minutes on a crisp winter’s evening by a big Scot who reminded me of the comedian, Dave Hughes. Despite its World Heritage listing and universal recognition as the finest British city Edinburgh, like the Port Power members club also suffered from a lack of sewerage systems. Every evening around 10pm people opened their windows, cried ‘Garde loo’; an Anglicization of the Norman ‘garde lo,’ which means ‘Watch out’ and heaved the day’s wastewater sloshing down into the street. Most locals ensured that they were safely inside at this time of night and if our theatrical guide is to be believed this practise inspired the creation of the stiletto! I especially liked his next snippet, ‘Of course you can imagine the ankle-deep filth, the giant rats dashing about and the horrific, vile stench. Little wonder then that at this time Edinburgh was known throughout Europe by its nick-name. Glasgow.’
Edinburgh was a principal centre of medical research and there existed a growing demand for bodies. Cadavers were worth about ten pounds which in the mid-1800s equated to a year’s earnings and so grave-robbing became a grisly and widespread profession and many cemeteries soon featured watch-towers to guard against this nocturnal pursuit. The most infamous Resurrectionists were Burke and Hare who, one night in the pub merrily spending their bounty after one of their acquaintances died, formulated a sinister plan to lure men to their deaths. They’d be-friend a young loner in a pub and fill him up with grog. Chillingly easy so far don’t you think? Then the promise of some extra-curricular with their busty and succulent female accomplice would lead their victim to their boarding house where they’d strangle him and this happened sixteen times before these serial killers were apprehended. Burke was hanged after Hare turned King’s evidence before dying in London after being thrown in a lime pit.
A more charming yarn concerned Greyfriars Bobby, a little Skye Terrier who was deeply devoted to his master John Gray. After Gray’s death this fantastic little dog remained by his grave. Such was Bobby’s loyalty that he even returned after being taken to Edinburgh Castle by some soldiers, who heard of his dedication and thought he’d make a great mascot. Escaping, Bobby scampered down the craggy cliffs and ran back across town (I hope it wasn’t at 10pm) to Gray’s grave. Many locals took Bobby inside when the Scottish weather was miserable but he’d howl and cry until let out so he could return to his deceased master. This continued until Bobby’s death some fourteen years later and there are pubs commemorating Bobby and even a handsome statue on Candlemakers Way. Of course Kerry and I were teary when, as they inevitably do, our commentator told us the real version. Yes, Bobby remained in the cemetery some fourteen years after his master’s passing but his allegiance may have been partly due to the affable butcher’s shop which backed onto the site. Don’t you hate it when a good story is soured by the truth?
Edinburgh Castle (not the gay pub in Adelaide) is tremendous. It looms over the city and we enjoyed it and the superb views across the Old and New Towns and through the fog to the flat waters of the Firth of Forth (much loved by the Proclaimers!). A highlight was Mons Meg, the 6-ton cannon that dominates one section of the castle which was notably discharged to celebrate the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots. Apparently, six men were required to lift the ammunition and the last time it was deployed, some 400 years ago the barrel burst and she was immediately retired. It is a little curious that overlooking Mons Meg is a tiny and serene chapel. I guess the Scots would blast the be-Jesus out of the foe and then saunter about 10 steps into the church and offer prayerful thanks for being able to lob a 330-pound missile onto their enemy’s hideous and unsuspecting head.
Six days a week the locals also shoot what is known as the One O’clock Gun so that citizens and mariners alike can accurately set the time. It is also within the confines of the castle and draws a sizable crowd who excitedly watch Staff Sergeant Tom McKay MBE, the current and longest-serving Time lord discharge his duties with precision and theatre. We squeezed into a cranny near the chapel and began the fifteen-minute countdown and I was reminded of the genuine excitement I had as a teenager when midnight loomed on New Year’s Eve. At exactly 1pm the gun gave an urgent and explosive bang and then, all collective excitement ejaculated, we scurried off to have a sandwich; well pleased we’d spent a precious second watching a cannon fire to tell us something we already knew. Isn’t tourism a strange thing? Not surprisingly, many have noted that the Scots have a One O’clock Gun and not a Midday Gun because this saves 11 rounds per day!
‘Hello sir, what are you doing here?’ I knew in Europe that I’d cross paths with at least one former Marryatville High student. I also knew that it would be in a boozer given that International Law now decrees that every Australian under 20 must pull beers in a UK pub before their 25th birthday. We happened across this young man, Lachy McLeay (one of my 1996 Year 10 charges) in the plush surrounds of the Café Royal Circle Bar as he upheld the irresistible tradition of working and drinking his way around Britain. We swapped news of some of his classmates and as I eased onto my stool, I wondered whom I might next encounter. It is a shrinking world.
The Football Association runs a knock out competition for many hundreds of secondary schools across the country and Nicholas Breakspear RC School has just advanced to the final eight. It’s quite exciting and despite my never having seen a soccer game the buzz is certainly contagious. I am keen to get to a local soccer match and as my Irish mate Paddy urges, ‘enjoy some good craic.’ Many of you know that I am known to express my concern if I notice an injustice during the football but I’m apparently comatose next to my friend, Barry.
‘When are we going to see your football team play?’ I asked him recently.
‘Well Michael,’ the Religious Education teacher declared, ‘I’d be happy to do that but must tell you that I’ve been sent two letters from my club warning me about my behaviour.’ We’re yet to confirm a fixture but I remain eager despite Barry’s startling confession. Still, we’ll save a few quid if we’re driven home in the back of a divvy van by PC Plod and PC Watch It Or You’ll Get a Kickin’, like sullen extras in The Bill.
Channel 4 screened a fantastic documentary last week featuring the Top 50 music acts in the UK based on sales of singles. For over 3 hours it showcased interviews, lots of music videos and wonderful, often comic analysis. There were no surprises at the top with Cliff Richard at No1 and The Beatles (Ringo on drums!), Elvis, Madonna, Queen and Elton following but I was amazed that Engelbert Humperdinck (4,710,328 total singles sold) made the cut at 46. This means that nearly 5 million voluntarily bought Release Me (His lips are warm while yours are cold/So release me my darling let me go). However, this did not prepare us for the sheer cultural terror of learning that the sixteenth biggest selling artist of all time in the UK is….Who do you reckon? U2? Oasis? George Michael? No, they all ranked lower than the one and mercifully only Shakin’ Stevens (over 7,000,000 sales!). As one of my Year 8 lads often asks in a cracking Cockney accent, ‘What’s that all about?’ Obviously, globalisation was in its infancy in the early 1980’s as I recollect that he only had a couple of minor hits in Australia and then I assumed that Shakin’ headed to the lucrative Western Yorkshire cabaret circuit. How could so many Brits have purchased Julie (Whoa, whoa Julie, if you love me truly/ Do you want me, Julie, to be, be your very own/ To be, to be, to be, to be your very own/ To be, to be, to be, to be your very own)? And you thought that in Australia the 80’s were boiled shite?
We are thrilled that spring is now here but did delight in the novelties of an English winter and awoke to thickly falling snow last Sunday. With memories of our recent Snow Day Off Kerry and I excitedly discussed how we would spend Monday given the certainty that every school in the county would be closed. You won’t be stunned to read that every single snowflake selfishly melted by lunchtime!
Love and best wishes
Michael, Kerry and Roxy
The Rooty Hill RSL presents Ringo
Hello to everyone, hope you had a happy Easter.
And so we were in the Three Hammers on the last day of Spring Term nursing a quiet pint and talking about fabulous names. Earlier that week I’d had a conversation with a lovely, sincere girl that went like this.
‘Charlene,’ I said, ‘did you know that Kylie Minogue’s character on Neighbours was also called Charlene?’
‘Yes,’ volunteered the wide-eyed Year 11 with Indian features, ‘my mum tells me I was named after her.’
That made my week. How reassuring that Australian culture had a global impact in 1989 and that Charlene Robinson (nee Mitchell) was an icon even then! My colleagues then excitedly discussed two graduates who also possess curious names. Life is challenging enough and these monikers are as embarrassing as Bobby Bowden’s former charge, no doubt now Whyalla’s finest son; the one and only, Dwayne Pipe. Plainly, my last wish is to engage common stereotypes and cruelly whisper of inevitable careers in pornography but I can imagine the beginning of an X-rated film starring an impossibly-breasted nymphet, a swarthy swimming pool cleaner and a 1970’s soundtrack. The credits then roll featuring two astonishing names that, I swear, sadly haven’t been changed to protect anyone. Yes, Nicholas Breakspeare RC school humbly claims both Candy Crack and Shaun Beaver.
Saturday a month ago and we left the Tube in our new favourite London precinct, Covent Garden and commenced the stair ascent, given the lengthy queue for the tiny lift. It was a spiralling arrangement and about thirty steps into our puffing journey, a helpful, BBC accent announced over the public address, ‘These stairs are the equivalent of fifteen stories or five hundred steps. Only attempt this if you are physically able. There is no turning back.’ Don’t you love good old-fashioned British encouragement? I wouldn’t have been surprised if the solemn voice also warned, ‘Thirteen people have suffered fatal heart attacks climbing these steps during the past week. Will you be next?’ Still the Underground is sprinkled with richly evocative destinations such as Hammersmith and City, Knightsbridge and Sloane Square. Stations to avoid surely include Mudchute, Barking and Tooting Bec whilst Canada Water, Cyprus and East India belong to the Colonial period. Algate, Mile End and Richmond resonate for Adelaidians whilst Bakerloo and Waterloo are simply funny.
Driving around the French Riviera is undoubtedly eccentric. The roads are ribbon-thin and ceaselessly winding and if you’ve seen the Monaco Grand Prix circuit then you’ve glimpsed what is typical throughout the Cote D’Azur. However, our touring allowed some remarkable views over the cobalt sea and the Alps which are snow capped like wedding cake. Our Renault was, of course, left hand drive and manual which when compounded by the wearisome road conditions, ensured some demanding journeys for Kerry and me. A 10-metre stretch on the freeway between Nice and Menton features competing speed limit signs- 50, 70, 90 and 110 and we, I assume, were supposed to obey each of them! If we’d previously collected a hitch-hiking sailor, he would then have blushed, coughed demurely and politely asked us to drop him off at the next opportunity given the startling and original ways in which we both used what is known in farming circles as paddock language. The physical and mental dexterity required to drive around the Riviera is such that the following feat was comparatively easier: I walked down the wet cobblestones from the St Albans market juggling an open clothes hoist, a jumbo bean-bag, six loose eggs (no carton) and a self-pleasuring monkey.
Commuting through Nice (from Nike- Ancient Greek for victory) is desperately hard work too. The roads are well maintained and there are sensible initiatives like bus and taxi only lanes yet the congestion along the major thoroughfares like the Promenade Des Anglais is agonising. Why is this I hear you ask? Double and even triple parking. If there were three or four lanes I bet there’d be cars and vans blocking these too. This practise shows more arrogance and self-centredness than you’d smell at a Collingwood supporters parole hearing. Need to buy some wine and baguettes on your way home? Don’t worry about parking your Peugeot; simply stop in the lane you’re in! Right outside the store! Don’t even consider the five hundred hysterical drivers behind you! Want to catch the new Gerard Depardieu film and don’t fancy a gruelling five-minute walk from the carpark? Fear not. Hit the brakes, switch on the hazard lights and abandon your car on the street! It’s easy. Spotted a plastic surgery advertising an April-only Two for One special on breast enlargements and don’t think you’ll be able to strut back to your vehicle, what with the fresh silicon sacks bobbling about on your pneumatic chest? Don’t panic! Just park the BMW wherever the fuck you like and don’t spare a thought for having made Nice’s traffic flow as constipated as a cat on a cheddar diet. Je-sus.
We enjoyed Nice significantly more as pedestrians and loved promenading along the esplanade in the gorgeous sunshine. Even though the last English winter was regarded as mild, we’d almost forgotten the invigorating first burst of Australian Spring that promises the excitement of finals football, checking the BBQ’s gas bottle and lunches at Glenelg and the French sun’s gentle rays induced those delicious memories. Little wonder that Picasso and Matisse made it home.
The old castle (razed by Louis XIV in 1706) offers unforgettable views over the long sweep of famous pebble beaches from its 302-foot summit and we both approve that a children’s playground now occupies the site. The eastern side oversees the Baie des Angles and fine-looking Italianate architecture, alluring restaurants and gigantic yachts. Proudly emblazoned on the stern of each is its home-port and we spotted billionaires’ boats from Stockholm, London and Venice but not a solitary tub from Port Adelaide.
My favourite writer Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda spent time on the French Riviera and particularly Antibes and Juan-Les-Pins and we can empathise as these are enchanting and classy communities. Zigzagging the narrow streets on a petit train taking photos on our new digital camera, dining in a cosy café (pizza again!) and heading home to La Lanterne along the twinkling seashore were terrific and inspired me to re-read Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night which is partly set in these glamorous villages.
Occasionally when you’re tourists out sampling the world the best day is when you forget the museums, statues and tour buses and stay put. Nice clings to the ragged lower reaches of the Alps and our apartment happily gazed down to the Mediterranean and so on the Wednesday we stretched out on the balcony’s warm chairs, opened our novels and sunned our ghostly British faces. It was fantastic. Kerry popped some Veuve Clicquot during the hazy afternoon and the local English radio station serenaded the breeze, as the hours swam languidly by. Later the golden sun sunk into the molten ocean and we lit some red candles. It made tolerable teaching some of the planet’s dumbest, rudest and most charmless adolescents (actually, most of them are pretty good).
Riviera Radio was our French soundtrack. It is 1980’s nostalgia and provided insights into life on the Cote D’Azur. We heard advertisements for exotic magazines that gaily counselled which yacht shows to attend (‘Not that one darling, they sell pleasure craft for as little as 10 million Euros) and job agencies offering crew and chef positions on various cruisers. When Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? (She sits alone waiting for suggestions/ He’s so nervous avoiding all the questions/ His lips are dry, her heart is gently pounding/ Don’t you just know exactly what they’re thinking) played for the fourth time in the week my Shit Songs Quota calculations suggested I only have to endure Rockin’ Rod’s worst tune twice in the next thirty years! Still, we liked hearing Love Is All from The Butterfly Ball by Ronnie Dio (Well, all you need is love and understanding/ Ring the bell and let the people know/ We’re so happy and we’re celebratin’/ Come on and let your feelings show).
After the balmy delights of Nice and the chic excess of Monte-Carlo, we set out in search of the mythical Riviera city of Iced Vo-Vo. Alas, we didn’t find it and the holiday ended as our Easy Jet flight descended through Luton Airport’s eternal grey blanket and we rattled home aboard the Themeslink express. We’re now off to Wales; the birthplace of Dylan Thomas to see some of Under Milk Wood’s characters like Organ Morgan, Nogood Boyo and Captain Cat.
Love and best wishes
Michael, Kerry and Roxy
Ricky Ponting- Ringo’s flipper unplayable
Alright then? (traditional British greeting)
Reaching the front of the Moon and Sixpence’s meals queue, the portly Welshman announced, ‘A chicken tikka and half’n’half.’
‘Half ’n’ half?’ I wondered, ‘What could that mean? What could you have with Indian in half ‘n’ half portions?’
The blinking-eyed tavern lass also found his order baffling. ‘Sorry. Can you explain?’
And then the bloke did, encapsulating the essence of contemporary British dining and symbolising the way proud tradition is combined with exotic cultures in a blissful union of old and modern. ‘Darling,’ he sighed, drained after a long day of golf and Abbot Ale, ‘half rice and half chips.’
Of course, I thought, just as they prefer it in downtown Calcutta. Chips. The UK runs on potato. Next time you’re in the Tandoori Oven be sure, as a loyal member of the Commonwealth, to order a dish with half ‘n’ half. After all, surely, there aren’t boorish people on this planet who subsist on rice alone? To underline my point regarding this country’s spud dependency Nicholas Breakspear’s staff (motto: why strive for excellence when mediocrity will do?) recently received a corporate gift of 2,800 bags of crisps!
Besides kindly combining culinary diamonds from Ireland and the sub-continent, Wales offers much; bottle green mountains, quaint villages and, by law, at least one castle per resident. Driving into Tintern late afternoon a blonde sunlight blanketed the snug town and through its narrow valley briskly gushed the River Wye. Standing majestically is Tintern Abbey; arresting and vast and it’s easy to see why the celebrated poet, William Wordsworth, was so inspired by this setting.
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
That ‘beautiful ugly place’ is Dylan Thomas’ description of Swansea and we agree. Its eastern approaches are gruesomely industrial and grey smoke pumps ceaselessly into a dirty sky whilst bleak rows of terrace houses cower and weep in the heavy shadows. Zooming through as smartly as our timid Renault allowed we emerged in the dishy village of Mumbles. The name, a bastardisation of mammalian (hear Frank Zappa’s ‘mammalian protuberances’ on Joe’s Garage) is inspired by the twin headland landmarks which, purportedly, remind one of breasts. After fifteen minutes of imaginative, dribbling gazing I couldn’t see it and so Kerry and Roxy (by now barking in fluent Welsh) dragged me to nearby Oystermouth Castle, built in the twelfth century.
Whilst waiting with the hound on the misty Mumbles foreshore for the wife to return with lunch a dishevelled labourer wobbled out of his breakfast pub onto the esplanade and then slurred the following at his mobile phone, ‘Mrs Smith? I won’t be able to tile your bathroom today. No, sorry. I’m stuck in traffic. I think there’s been an accident.’ Farewelling the trusting Mrs Smith he lurched back into the Fox and Hounds to his conspiratorial pint where I’m sure, in an attempt to keep his conscience tidy, he spent the afternoon accidentally getting roaring.
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobble streets silent and the hunched, courters’ and rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.
So starts my favourite play Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas and the Carmarthenshire village of Laugharne presented a pilgrimage that spring afternoon. The foreshore’s dominated by the obligatory castle and an estuary laps tranquilly below the house (now a museum) of Thomas, his wife Caitlin and their children. About fifty yards further back up the cliff rests an impressive boatshed and it’s here that Thomas wrote. Inside, a wooden table strewn with paper and brown ale bottles posed in a poignant tableau, and after several photos, we wandered through some picturesque lanes before discovering where the poet who motivated Bob Dylan to change his surname from Zimmerman also applied himself with legendary verve and tremendous energy: Brown’s Hotel.
The bar is hazy, musty and residence to sassy octogenarians. I ordered a pint and a bowl of water as two whiskery seventy-somethings enchantingly crooned ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window’ for an utterly disinterested Roxy and then claimed the rickety table where Thomas invested countless raucous hours. The tobacco-stained walls are collaged with newspaper clippings and yellowed photos of their celebrated former patron and I was smitten by an ancient advertisement for local ale whose slogan is Under Milk Wood’s opening: ‘to begin at the beginning.’ It’s marginally more elegant than, say, ‘Queenslanders don’t give a XXXX for anything else.’ Downing my Stella, Roxy and I abandoned the beery citizens to their throaty laughter and an intriguing footnote occurred shortly after our Welsh trip with the news that Neil Morrissey, of Men Behaving Badly fame purchased Browns Hotel for a few pennies shy of 700,000 pounds. If he, unlike his infamous TV character Tony, has any sense, he’ll leave it untouched.
Pembrokeshire’s Tenby is kaleidoscopically bright, fetching and perfectly explored on foot. The beaches are fabulously broad and white, the cobblestoned streets zigzag here and there and a handsome stonewall protected the old town from invading bastards like, for example, the English. Appealing to all ages with bucks’ and hens’ nights and bowls tournaments dominating its social calendar, Tenby bursts with jovial pubs, cafes and restaurants. We ambled happily about and then dropped Roxy off in our room after she bravely endured her first elevator ride; mercifully not autographing one of the lift corners. Many UK hotels and pubs are pet friendly, which is something Australia could better embrace.
After dining at La Cave, we strolled back to the Clarence House Hotel and, my eye caught by a sign proclaiming FREE BAR, ventured in for a nightcap. Now the last time I felt physical fear was playing football for the Unley Jets against the Smithfield Axe-Murderers when their ruckman took offence after a minor transgression and shaking his tattooed limb at me, bawled, ‘Watch yourself Fatty.’
‘I may be fat,’ I chirped using the old retort, ‘but I can loose weight. You, however, will be ugly for the rest of your sorry life.’ Surprisingly he then chased me and I was reminded of this panic when nearly crushed at the bar by a rugby scrum of gloriously swinging-arsed retirees whose violent desperation for free Pimms and lemonade and halves of Old Speckled Hen would not be denied by those who possessed a similarly violent desperation. Every time the frazzled barmen completed an order, the New York Stock Exchange shouting of these piranha lawn-bowlers was blood curdling.
Tiptoeing to the bride across the gluey, Achy Breaky Heart, line-dancing wooden floor I was further bruised by other ample elderly. However it’s superb to be surrounded by folk who are truly enjoying themselves and these were certainly doing that. We were tempted to stay and listen to their cackling and snorting and the so-bad-it’s-good country music but had had a mammoth day and so retreated. When we left the next day, I’m sure we were the hotel’s first guests in a decade who’d actually arrived and departed in our own car and not a tourist coach.
An unhurried drive through some showery but charismatic countryside included a pause at Llandovery where we saw a silver sculpture of an esteemed elder that weirdly resembled Darth Vader; who may or may not have been born in Central Wales. It was raining when we arrived at Brecon Friday afternoon and was still drizzly when we departed Saturday- not surprising given that seventy inches annually tumble down. Following astonishingly revolting Indian snacks from a gleefully criminal take-away, we then investigated the town centre, boating canal and River Usk banks; across which we could spy some lush green and doubtless soggy sponge-like golf course fairways. To mark the success of our Welsh jaunt Roxy dumped some celebratory poo and then we dropped anchor in the amiable George Hotel bar with wine and German beer prior to crawling home to Hertfordshire Saturday.
Sex Line Rodeo is a segment on Christian O’Connell’s XFM breakfast show when he rings an oblivious female phone-sex worker, doubtless ironing or knitting in Milton Keynes and makes completely un-sexual conversation with her for as long as possible about anything but, well, sex. Beforehand listeners try to guess the time Christian can keep her from the one topic she’s obviously expecting by talking about his recent grocery shopping, inventing a toasted sandwich-maker which can be fitted to a motorbike or him supposedly being a clairvoyant (‘Have you recently lost an earring? Check in the washing machine.’) The moment she eventually mentions matters saucy, he huffily declares, ‘I’ve never been so offended’ and hangs up; his metaphorical bull-ride over. The record is 9 minutes. It’s cruel fun.
We trust you’re well and that you backed the Adelaide Cup winner. Here, it’s possible, faintly possible that summer is approaching. Talk to you after we return from the Lakes District and a week’s hiking, relaxing and eating Chicken Tikka with half ‘n’ half.
Love Michael, Kerry and Roxy
Ringo to coach Adelaide Crows
Hello. As Ray Martin says, ‘Thanks for joining us.’
Hands up if you knew that the former Australian cricketer Tom Moody is to be honoured with a testimonial dinner next month? Yes, as I suspected. Hands up if you’ve actually heard of Tom? Guessed that too. Well, one of London’s swanky hotels is hosting this black-tie affair and can you imagine my giggling surprise when I opened an email offering the wife and me a chair each at this night of nights? Let’s firstly reflect upon the international cricketing career of Tom. Eight tests in which he was mostly invisible and capped in 76 one-day games; seemingly a healthy number of appearances but not if you consider that in 2008 Australia will play an average of 27 limited over fixtures per week (often 3 in one day) including a highly meaningful 17 match series against the swashbuckling muscle of Liechtenstein. Tom last played for his country back in October 1999 so at least his tribute evening is not a post-humous one.
The invitation also announced the luminaries who’ll be contemplating Tom and his prowess. And who better to dwell publicly upon Mr Moody’s moral centeredness and social consciousness than, wait for it, I swear this is true- Shane Warne and Ian Botham. This put me in mind of hearing your barrister say, ‘I now call my client’s character witnesses Mr Idi Amin and Mr Russell Crowe.’ You’d go from a modest fine to life with hard labour in San Quentin in about three sentences. I think even Tommy would confess that he was an unexceptional international cricketer but he definitely deserves better. Imagine Warney’s speech. ‘What can I say about Tom as a cricketer? Well, he was very, very tall. However, Tom was always willing to lend me his mobile phone if I had to discuss weather reports with my bookie or send an urgent, erotic message to the young lady I met the previous night when I wasn’t at the team meeting….’ And then the Both swaggers to microphone. ‘Tom Moody. Certainly, he was very, very tall. But that’s enough about Tom. So, anyway, Viv Richards, the hookers and I were naked in the spa….’ The T.M. festivities are only about 600 Australian dollars a couple (Jacob’s Creek wines by the bucket) but we’re busy. Anyhow, bravo Tom.
We spent a fantastic week in a cosy cottage at Troutbeck Bridge up in the Lakes District. Our slate house sat below some quietly rolling fields that were home to black-faced sheep and a sociable horse (sired by Mr Ed) and from up there, we could see across the green trees to Lake Windermere. Seventy-nine gorgeous steps from our door was a quaint pub. Ten times a day an elderly man in slippers, a white singlet and an even whiter coat of torso hair hobbled past with either a little squirrel–sized puppy that itched to slaughter every dog within Cumbria or a huge thundering hound with dribbly canines as long as your fingers but utterly terrified of Roxy’s dainty yelping.
We did much spirited strolling including a picturesque hike to the neighbouring hamlet of Troutbeck. Venturing along a shady public footpath, up and down hills and across cheerful streams we rested in the beer garden of The Mortal Man, enjoying views across a lush valley, dotted with distant stands of trees and painterly farmhouses. It is a fine public house as can be gauged by its swinging sign which reads, ‘Oh mortal man that lives by bread/ What is it that makes thy nose so red?/ Thou silly fool that looks so pale/ Tis from drinking Sally Birketts ale.’
A twilight lake cruise on The Teal was also marvellous. We feasted from the buffet as the old steamer huffed about the 12-mile lake past secretive islands and imposing white hotels. Kerry and I shared a red wine from the distinguished wine district, South East Australia; doubtless Mildura’s viticultural pearl but your honour, the pick of a rather alarming list. Still sharing some Sunraysia plonk was preferable to the rotund chap who, ten minutes after departure, shared his bottle of purple vino with his white shirt after an elbow (4 game suspension) on the staircase left him appearing both in attire and facial expression as if he’d worked a triple shift in an abattoir. We then retired to the upper deck to relish the enthusiastic stylings of a combo performing some merry standards. Hands up again please if you’ve ever listened to live trad jazz and the singer has not launched into, ‘Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear/ And it shows them pearly white.’ As Mack the Knife reached its boisterous finale, we drew into Bowness-on-Windermere pier with the 9:30pm sun still shining energetically.
Motoring through the Lakes and stopping at villages like Ambleside, Hawkshead and Coniston was grand. Coniston Water is the third biggest lake and site of Donald Campbell’s water speed record in 1967 aboard the Bluebird, which ended dreadfully when at over 300 miles per hour the nose lifted in that awful, inevitable slow-motion way, causing the craft to flip and disintegrate. In 2001, the remains of Campbell and the Bluebird were finally recovered and with a memorial service, put to rest. However when in a Coniston pub I ordered pints of Carlsberg and not the ferociously local Bluebird ale for phobia of spotting an ancient sliver of blackened fingernail or boat-hull dancing in my glass.
Flew to Amsterdam recently and from Schipol airport to our hotel, the Rokin near Dam Square; we hired a taxi piloted by an escaped person whose girlfriend sat next to him. The following distressed me; a) rocketing along at 80 miles per hour in the stratosphere just above the city, b) the car whizzing between lanes like a wildly zinging pinball, c) his steering the Dutch Daewoo of Death with only his little finger, d) the girlfriend having decided that the unmistakable possibility of a messy taxi fatality represented the Netherlands’ premium Friday night entertainment and finally, e) the driver gazing at his girlfriend for entire minutes, uninterrupted by dreary details like the fucking road.
Ambling about on Saturday, we happened upon an old brewery, opportunely re-opened in 2001 as the Heineken Experience. It was wonderful fun and, in the modern fashion, interactive. Amongst the distractions are holograms of grumpy brewers working late and lonely hours in murky laboratories, a theme park ride where courtesy of the shuddering spectator platform and a large screen displaying beer-cam we gathered several lasting insights into a Heineken’s terrifying journey along a bottling line and lastly, an exquisite room featuring gorgeous blondes dispensing the company’s creamy beverage into glasses for us to gulp whilst relaxing on stools. It is called a bar and I hope to visit another soon. Heineken is the second largest trans-Atlantic freighter after the US Army with 170 containers leaving Rotterdam daily. Gosh, that’s an astonishing volume but they do manufacture a tenth of the globe’s lager. It was an ideal digression, combining learning, merriment and, of course, beer.
Having liked the Bloemenmarkt (flower market) in the morning, we also explored the Nieuwmarkt and its bedazzling fish (herring anyone?), fruit and clothing stalls before pausing for some mid-afternoon chips from Bob’s Frits caravan. Ever mindful of Pulp Fiction’s hitman Jules Winnfield and his remarks a propos the Dutch, fries and mayonnaise, ‘They drown ‘em in that shit’ we shared a deceptively generous paper hatful- sans condiment. Claiming a nearby bench in the warm European sun Kerry and I listened to a double-bassist playing and singing jazz whilst accompanying himself on a foot-operated tambourine. He clearly understood that if he’d foolishly added a kazoo or tin-whistle he’d have immediately lost all audience respect. It’s true. Think of Bob Dylan in the 1960’s with his guitar and a harmonica supported around his neck. Genius. But give Mr Blowin’ in the Wind a third instrument like a pedal-driven drum and what do you have? An Idiot.
Amsterdam could be the perfect community. It is ideally populated at 700,000 people, has a compact city centre which is easily investigated on foot, is flat and bike-friendly so most locals travel by ancient single-geared bicycles, is stunningly criss-crossed by a net of tranquil canals and sympathetically accommodates its oddly jiggling and mottled prostitutes securely behind shop windows.
Invested some cheery hours last Friday night in St Albans’ finest pub, The Goat, engaged in Trivial Pursuit and my total ignorance regarding some of the questions led me to re-consider how enchanting it is to live in a culture that is often startlingly alien.
Radio 4’s The Cheese Assassins first aired during which decade?
On Coronation Street who accused Olive of snottle mongolating?
In 1968 what did Sheffield Wednesday’s goalkeeper Bill Mutton-Gun do with the carrot?
Never have I taken pleasure in being so ill informed, albeit retrospectively. It also reinforced that Australia is a chiefly insignificant nation and that there are billions who’ve never heard of the Richmond Tigers, Skyhooks or, surely he can’t be serious, Bert Newton. Kerry was again shown the exhilaration of English life as she had her best ever day at work, on excursion with Marlborough School. Where did they go? Wimbledon. How good is that? Her highlights were drifting from court to court sampling the tennis (obviously!), sipping a refreshing Pimms and lemonade, nibbling her strawberries and runny cream and luxuriating on Henman Hill as Little Lleyton punched his way to victory. Nice school day for Miss. Last weekend’s Guardian newspaper recounted the celebrated exchange between Glenn McGrath and the Zimbabwean number eleven batsman whose wicket was proving annoyingly difficult to claim and I conclude with a snippet from their banter. ‘Why are you so fat?’ inquired Glenn in his world-weary, pig-shooting manner.
‘It’s simple Glenn,’ he replied, ‘Every time I make love to your wife she gives me a biscuit.’
Talk to you soon.
Love Michael, Kerry and Roxy
The truth: Osama, George W and Ringo
Kerry, Roxy and I were lazing on the car park grass whilst my Mum and Dad circumnavigated Stonehenge. The Wiltshire sunshine shimmered. Summer fell on a Wednesday this year. ‘Do you mind if I ask you some questions?’ inquired the bright thing with the clipboard. Her survey sought our responses to the quality of the gift shop, the ease of finding the toilets and the user-friendliness of the audio-guides etc. It was, however, one of the final questions which seemed peculiar. ‘And tell me,’ she urged, eyes flashing, ‘when did you hear about Stonehenge?’
Now maybe I’m more worldly than I’ve previously regarded myself but isn’t it a place that most people, Texans excluded, know of from a tiny age? On the other hand, perhaps she expected me to reply with, ‘Actually we were heading to Bristol’s world-famous History of Industrial Air-Conditioning museum as it is their Wacky Wednesday promotion. You know, buy one ticket, get one free. Anyhow, we were motoring along the A334 in the Vauxhall when Doreen- that’s the wife, spies a sign saying Stonehenge and we both looked at each other and said, ‘Wonder what that’s all about then?’ We drove into the car-park past a messy pile of old rocks, not much of an afternoon tea garden says Doreen looking at the stones but we both absolutely ached for a nice cup of milky tea and a digestive biscuit so here we are.’
Dubliners love language and I happily overheard folk call each other ‘fooka’ with such affection and good-naturedness (‘Come and give us a hug, you fooka’) that this is what I’ve vowed to address loved ones as every day. Failing that, I’ll identify my boss as a ‘fat fooka’, just to let him know I’m sympathetic. The Irish love of words applies to their surroundings too. A statue in O’Connell Street was commonly known as the ‘Floozy in the Jacuzzi’ while the one of Molly Malone at the bottom of Grafton Street is the ‘Tart with the Cart’. The women by the Ha’Penny Bridge are the ‘Hags with the Bags’ and the chimneystack with the new lift in Smithfield Village is the ‘Flue with the View’. The short-lived millennium clock that was placed in the River Liffey in 1999 was referred to as the ‘Chime in the Slime’ and finally the130 metre spire that replaced the Floozy is the ‘Stiletto in the Ghetto’. My mate Barry was driving along a bumpy Irish road when a sign appeared advising ‘Slow’. A hundred metres along a second sign urged, ‘Slower Still’.
Merrily invested our Saturday evening on Dublin’s Musical Pub Crawl with a talented duo, their assorted instruments and three of Temple Bar’s finest public houses. A swarm of about seventy international punters (‘Anyone here from Finland?’) pursued the musicians to each pub where once pints were bought, Irish music was explained and played. It was splendid. We sang as requested and, I am thrilled to report, did not clap along at any point because there is nothing as annoying as a crowd of clapping dickheads who have the rhythm and timing of, well, dickheads. They sang war and love songs but Johnny Jump Up, told of a cider brewery whose product, when vastly in excess of its normal potency, is distributed to the locals with tremendous results.
‘I’m afraid of me life I’ll be hit by a car.
Won’t you help me across to the Railways Men’s bar?’
After drinking a quart of that cider so sweet
He threw down his crutches and danced in the street.
Another ditty documents the lad who lands a terrific fish, flops it into his bed bucket, promptly forgets it and then, that night, pisses on it. Stirring stuff. Their closing tune was a rollicking Bound for South Australia and misty eyed, I sang along
In South Australia I was born, heave away, haul away
In South Australia, ’round Cape Horn, we’re bound for South Australia
Haul away your rolling king, heave away, haul away
Haul away, you’ll hear me sing, we’re bound for South Australia
when Bono from U2 marched in and shouted, ‘You, young man, are the worst singer on the planet. Stop now or I’ll butt my cigar in your eye.’ Actually, he didn’t, I just made that bit up. If he’d been up the street at his hotel, the Clarence, he may have heard my warbling and wondered if the police would catch the torturers of a chubby, slightly piddled tomcat with an Australian accent.
Saturday evening in our Roman apartment, Olympics on the plasma screen. At 8:30pm, the telecast is interrupted. What could be more important? Come on, you know the answer! Italy’s National Lottery draw. And what superior theatre it was. Grinning studio audience. Po-faced officials. Circular cage with one hundred anxiously waiting plastic balls. A pretty girl of about eleven is escorted to the cage. Mama obviously spent hours sewing the dress and grooming her hair. The family beams, smiling and clapping. An angry-looking man materializes and wraps an colossal black mask around the princess’ sweet little head, obliterating both face and hair. She could now be about to face the firing squad. If it were 1943, she probably would be. Suddenly another official spins the cage. The door is opened and Mr Angry shoves the princess’ hand in. It emerges with a ball. Robot-like another official collects the ball from the girl and passes it to a humourless administrator who opens it, removes and unfolds the numbered paper for the camera sombrely declaring, ‘Quattro’ etc. Finally, he gives the ball to a buxom blonde woman whose role is to be buxom and blonde, rings a modest bell and the cycle re-commences. Such an absorbing, scrupulous process can only have resulted from profound and frequent corruption. Riveting stuff but I can’t help hoping for everyone’s sake that the girl selected the correct balls from the lotto cage…
The Euro Star train whizzed across Tuscany toward Venice and Mum, Dad, Kerry and I were in our compartment with an elderly Italian lady. We then had one of those moments when you are reminded that despite language and geography we’re all much the same. Reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Kerry reached a tragic episode and started crying. We hunted through pockets and backpacks but couldn’t find any tissues. Meanwhile our travel companion reached into her small bag and held out a packet of Kleenex. Kerry accepted and we all thanked her. Smiling dimly, the lady spoke, clutching the bag to her black dress. ‘…I …travel…by…myself.. .’ Pointing to an ancient wedding ring tears formed in her eyes, ‘…to… Trieste…..family…there….’ Now we were all weeping. It was an upsetting, lovely incident and in Venice we often talked of her, hoping she and her children were happy in their Slovenian border village.
On our last Roman evening before Mum and Dad departed for Singapore, we strolled down to the wonderfully baroque Trevi fountain, took some photos, threw in three coins and jostled with the flower and handbag peddlers. In a secluded corner of the fountain itself, Kerry spotted a man proposing to his girlfriend. They were hugging and kissing, he was crying and we clapped and with hazy eyes sauntered back to Via Del Babuino, certain that Rome is a charming, ecstatic, passionate city.
Paris’ catacombs are astounding. Consisting of tunnels fashioned from a disused quarry, it’s housed human skeletons since the chock-a-block sign went up at the local cemeteries. Queuing for thirty minutes, we doubted that we’d be admitted but eventually a winding staircase led us below. We sauntered through a dank tunnel before it broadened out into a series of looping caverns where on either side skulls and thighbones were reverently arranged in gothic/ eighteenth century ornamental patterns such as love hearts and crosses. Roxy would have loved it. It is most macabre as the tunnels stretch for miles and the bone piles are often thirty feet wide and six feet high. Returning to the Parisian boulevards, Dad and I saw a plaque listing catacombs data. We were stunned. Catching up to Kerry I excitedly quizzed her, positive that she would not guess the answer and that my statistic would be the marrow icing on the calcified cake. ‘So,’ I cockily said, ‘how many skeletons do you think are stored down here?’ Not a chance I thought. Here’s an opportunity to show what an observant and appreciative tourist I am.
‘Oh, about six million,’ Kerry responds. Bugga. Right on the button.
Dad and I travelled to Croke Park (Europe’s fourth biggest stadium and venue of International rules matches against AFL teams) for the Dublin v Roscommon All Ireland Football Championship quarterfinal. The experience was largely recognizable but possessed a healthy Celtic quality too. Taxiing to the ground, we saw football guernseys on hurrying spectators. Snap. Bursting pubs with blokes roaring and downing pints. Snap. Our reserved seats were so high in the Hogan stand that Dublin Bay sparkled on the horizon. Two nearby supporters offered observations like, ‘Our centre half forward is too slow’, ‘We’re getting killed across half back’ and ‘The umpires aren’t doing us any favours.’ Snap. The game was fluent and engaging and Dublin (my boys) won. With a degree of pride I reflected that Australian football is the only sport to reward players’ inaccuracy by allowing behinds; effectively saying, ‘Close. Give you a point for trying.’ Leaving Croke Park a youthful supporter jettisoned a splashing hula-hoop of beery vomit onto the concourse to jeering acclaim. Snap.
Today’s Independent newspaper featured the best jokes from various Edinburgh Festival comedy venues and I depart with one I especially liked. The Dodo died out. Di died. Dodi died. Dando (English TV presenter) died. Surely, Dido is just a little worried.
Farewell from St Albans, where summer is wetter than a shark’s bum. Take care, dear fooka.
Michael, Kerry and Roxy
Ringo re-records Abbey Road on solo kazoo
You had me at ‘Hello.’
Yeah, yeah well done to Port Adelaide. Hoo-bloody-ray. Fourteen months in the world’s best theme park (aka England) and we’ve missed Australian football, so eagerly shoved the grand final tape, fresh from Murdoch’s Sky Sports 3, into the VCR before relaxing into our sticky-date puddings and Sunday sofa and pressing play. We enjoyed the game and the expert local analysis of the Cockney geezer from the Bristol Dockers or Wimbledon Hawks who kept spluttering, ‘I fink Port can take it up to Lions. They is well ‘ard.’ Although immersing ourselves in Southern Hemisphere sport was sensational, a certain element lacked. Was it Bruce McAvaney’s guttural ‘That will do. That – will – do.’ Eddie’s frenzied Collingwood torrent? No. I’ve considered this deeply and what I love most about AFL Grand Final day is…. Here’s a hint. Chubby, sweating, blue-singletted types digging vast holes and wiping their brows. Yes, oversized blokes heaving fridges about to the poetry of the long dead but hauntingly eternal John Mellion.
You can get it unlockin’ the Rosetta Stone,
You can get it digitally re-masterin’ Bugsy Malone,
Matter of fact I got it now…
Whilst I would rather toss my severed tongue to piranha than drink VB, the ads are cultural treasures and school-kiddies should have to learn them by heart.
Arriving at Luton around 5am to fly to Nice is startling. Airports are complete communities and despite the dark dawn this little city was slap in the middle of rush hour, swarming with folks absconding to sunnier spots. The shops were all open. Even Tie-Rack. Can you imagine heading to Ibiza for the Bank Holiday, strolling past and proclaiming to your unshaven back-packed mate, ‘I know it’s four in the morning, but fuck it I need a Mickey Mouse tie for work. I’m sure that new blonde receptionist will be dead impressed.’ And what of the unfortunate sales assistant rising at 3am to go and flog ties to the holidaymakers of London and the Home Counties? The food court bustles and everywhere there are snaking queues, except for the calamitously closed KFC. We huddle over tea and toast and I glance toward The Shakespeare, the airport’s pub. Its bar teems with punters; a fog of smoke phantoming about them as they clutch their courageous pints. At 6am the first flight departs and is pursued every minute after by another and another; bound for Berlin and Bordeaux, Madrid and Milan. Herded like goats towards our Easy Jet plane Kerry and I are then squeezed by track-suited behemoths. But soaring into the grey I think, yet again, being a (temporary) European is truly bloody exciting.
After six frantic weeks up and down Europe, Antibes near Nice beckoned for five days of unbroken, concentrated flopping on our arses by a pool with books and beverages, our desperation for Mediterranean rays multiplied by the terror of possibly not greeting the pale British sun until next May. It was wonderful. Sprawling under a generous umbrella I discovered Riviera Rock FM, a US-based satellite station playing non-stop, ballsy, testosterone-fuelled music of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. No DJ’s or commercials; simply incessant bogan hours of Metallica, Bon Jovi, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Jethro Tull, AC/DC and so on. Outstanding. The station’s promo loudly boasts that it also broadcasts in the Middle East to US troops and I can twig how it could arouse military violence. Can you imagine storming into combat, revved up by a limpy, chinless boy band?
Later listening to some early Springsteen in the French haze Kerry inquired, ‘Do you want a beer honey?’ My reply was automatic- ‘Sir. Yes, Sir,’ and I army-rolled down the lawn and behind a strategic pine. Marching off in search of refreshments the wife could be heard singing in a voice weirdly reminiscent of an American platoon, ‘I don’t know what I’ve been told, but French booze is good as gold.’ Following a horrifying ZZ Top triple-track I needed a swim. Gracefully sailing from the diving board in exactly the same style as a hippo plummeting off a cliff, I exploded amidst some ashen-faced dog-paddlers with a screaming, ‘INCOMING’. Next time you’re in Nice or Baghdad tune in. It’s very, very good.
Flicked the box on recently to The Weakest Link. The English version is akin to the short-lived Australian series with an acidic hostess and stream of beaming contestants eager to be publicly ridiculed like this. ‘So when did you have your lobotomy? You are the weakest link,’ followed by the chirpily dismissive, ‘Good-bye.’ Here are two extracts from the Models Special.
Hostess: Thirteen is what type of dozen?
Catwalk type 1: Half.
And my favourite
Hostess: On which continent is the Danube?
Catwalk type 2: France.
You pace into the St Albans Arena, gripping your commemorative pint glass and colour programme. Dozens of wooden casks stretch up and across the auditorium walls and the stage. A hops and barley bouquet climbs into your nostrils. You excitedly survey the ale list and reaching the bar, announce your order. ‘A Trembling Rabbit, a half of Kiss Me in the Cowshed and an Old Hooky.’ Once again, you salute the British affection for metaphor and try to think of terrific Australian beer names. Draught? Swan? Tooths? Yes, you are at the annual St Albans Beer Festival and it is colossal. You are one of the few men present not sporting both a Cat Weazel beard and a psychedelic woolly jumper (think Daryl Somers circa 1986). You have also never tried Morris dancing. You hear the covers band burst into Sweet Home Alabama. The sound quality and set list puts you in mind of a Goldstar tape recorder playing Ripper ‘77 at the bottom of a swimming pool. It is perfect. You take a look at the Beer-Analia auction and are disappointed to miss out on the pre-loved beer mats and mint-condition beer coasters.
You then spot two crazy German guys, Thomas and Henrik, trying to chat up two local girls. You are reminded of the line in Don’s Party- ‘Trying to organise some extra-curricula sex with all the charm of a couple of old bush-wackers.’ Of course you strike up a conversation with some other Australians. They’ve been at the Festival since morning and their wives have just phoned to declare that their dinners are on the table. They decide to slip in a farewell pint. Again. As you stand there amidst the beer, the beards and the Beatles covers you are reminded that this is all provided by The Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA), a national lobby group based in St Albans. You remember a year ago approaching their office by bus expecting a modest shed run amateurishly by a couple of retirees named Ernie and Stan. You then heheld the CAMRA headquarters, a three-storey glass and steel complex towering over about twenty employee cars. Beer is a sober business in this country.
Nicholas Breakspear RC School is now also a Sports College and of course, everyone is meant to jog about like grinning twits, hysterically pissing their lycra shorts at this professional fortune. We are told that the 500,000 quid grant will profit the entire school community but so far there is only a jock strap of new rugby teachers and, wait for it, a PE TECHNICIAN. I can envisage his tortured conversations. ‘Hey you. Yes, you pal. Put that rake down. Walk away from the long jump pit! You’re not qualified. That rake is only to be operated by a qualified expert!’ Or ‘For God’s sake give me that football pump, you don’t have a licence!’ He commences a finger-pointing lecture. ‘In the hands of Joe Public a flat soccer ball is a time bomb! ’ But enough cynicism. I’ve witnessed the world’s best practise that will catapult (Ha-ha!) the English to the Everest of international sport like so many frost-bitten sherpas. Targets will be met. Standards exceeded. Biomechanical envelopes pushed. Aforementioned frowning PE technician now videos student performances and displays the live feed onto a large screen to facilitate athletic improvement. And the current focus of our school’s competitive urge? Rugby? Netball? Cricket? No, nothing as trivial as those mindless pursuits. These are dinosaur sports. Without fail, what do I forever spectate as I saunter through our gym? What uber excellence will surely propel the IOC to grant London the 2012 Olympics? In what globally admired endeavour has Mr Blair placed his and a praying nation’s trust? Trampolining. Spare me.
Earlier today we were sitting on one of the benches under St Albans’ principal meeting spot, the Clock Tower (circa 1412), eating Cornish pasties and sipping Starbucks coffee when a wild-haired fellow squatted unnervingly close to me, forcibly wrenched my hand and, as you do, announced the following. ‘I’m Philip Stanley-Jones. My sister Mary Stanley-Jones is married to a British Army Major, Robert Andrew Edwards. My sister is a total slut. People don’t tend to like that sort of thing these days. What do you think?’ Whilst thankful for his telling insight into the human heart I could only stare at my shoes and mumble, ‘Possibly not,’ before we scarpered into the market square, trailing cappuccino and hot gobs of beef and turnip. Rest easy people, they’re everywhere.
Talk to you after returning from a week in Derbyshire’s Peak district, York, Liverpool and The Dales. Oh, and Sunday night we’re delighting in the Beach Boys-like harmonies and Dylan-esque lyricism of one Kevin ‘Bloody’ Wilson.
Love Michael, Kerry-ann and Roxy
Posh: Bye, bye Becks, Hello Ringo!
Hello. Is it me you’re looking for?
A month on and we’re still recovering from the rush. A gargantuan week as the UK whizzed along in a mad passionate whirl. Of course I refer to October 25 to 31 which, if you’ve forgotten, was National Sausage Week. Up in the Peak District we bought and fried six sausages from Tideswell’s butcher but these gastronomic impostors were stunningly devoid of texture, aroma and flavour. The week was saved only when we strayed past a York pub window and read its National Sausage Week (NSW) testimonials. Mr W of Leeds wrote, and I beg you to contemplate this during Christmas, ‘My wife still talks of the sausage the chef here gave her two years ago.’
York is staggeringly handsome and we liked spending our anniversary there ambling among its abbey, across the River Ouse (why it belongs to all of us!) and atop the Roman Wall which smartly entraps the city. The Minster is a towering, honeyed church and humbling to behold. However we didn’t venture in as the six pound fifty ‘compulsory donation’ appeared a little, well, un-Christian. Gladly, St Albans Abbey demands no fixed fee but visitors may part with their pounds through a credit card swiping machine, positioned conveniently in the bookstall at the cathedra’s entrance. Dining in York’s improbably haunted Golden Fleece pub was tremendous, despite the ghosts! Continuing my uncertain flirting with Real English Ale I purchased a Yorkshire Terrier and straining it through clenched teeth, the taste and temperature made me wonder if every pint of this distinctively Northern brew came directly from a yapping dog’s kidneys.
Sitting hidden by undulating green hills is Tideswell whose market square is hugged by stone shops. Tindalls is stuffed with exquisite home-cooked breads, cakes and pasties and apron billowing, stood Mother beaming behind her wooden counter. Father’s glass cabinet parades black-pudding, scotch eggs and streaky bacon and in their olden store, eternally 1952, the doorbell chimes welcomingly and foodstuffs are dispatched eagerly in thick brown paper. Also noteworthy are the chippy (chip shop) advertising not opening hours but frying times and that, courtesy of the summer sun’s disappearance at 11pm, the Tideswell Cricket Club competes in Wednesday evening fixtures. How fantastic is that? Time was wretchedly against us so we couldn’t visit Castleton’s most delightful emporium, World of Icing but, hopefully, another day…
Exploring European cities aside, our preferred pastime is rambling, with Roxy, about the countryside and Derbyshire presented abundant opportunity. The hamlet of Litton sleeps in an autumnal hollow. It is hushed apart from a sporadic dog bark. Their branches blazing burgundy; trees watch its placid streets, leaves like a Hawaiian lava flow. We swim through the footpaths, our shoes drowning in swirling colour. The village green is pocket-sized and wooden stocks speak of an unruly past… A boisterous tractor roars past unexpectedly and lurches to a halt. Bounding down from his cabin, a green-capped farmer nods at us and ambles into his lunchtime pub.
Friday evening in Litton’s Red Lion was the finest pub experience we’ve had in either hemisphere. Tilly the Airedale transversed the antique entrance, a jovial fire bellowed and homely chairs creaked with rustic tales and belly laughter. We’d been in the bedroom-sized bar but a minute when Harold pumped my paw, thrust a Black Sheep at me and opened a yarn about his 1992 Australian holiday; notably punctuated by wearing his pristine Crows tie during a roasting Christmas at Christies Beach.
The grimacing Terry doles out the falling-down water in this family-run pub whilst matriarch Joyce steers her kitchen and insists on autographing her little home-made booklets of home-spun poetry. The titles are flawlessly kitsch: Re-Joyce, Jump for Joyce and the forthcoming Orange Joyce. We bought copies for Kerry’s grandma in Gympie. Retreating bar-side after some tremendous lamb shanks (a NSW pause) I’m button-holed by Joyce’s husband, thirty years my senior but insisting, Yorkshirian style, on calling me Sir. He asks of Adelaide and cricket and St Albans as if these are the most vital things in his world. Meanwhile Kerry chats merrily with the rugby-loving couple from Portsmouth who is also commemorating their second anniversary. Afterwards we retreat to our cottage and its popping, cracking fire. Perfect.
Steering the Fiat Punto at the appealingly tranquil Eyam proved fascinating for we learnt that in 1665 it lost much of its population. Shortly after unwrapping a package of cloth from London a local complained of feeling poorly. He was soon dead and the Plague again lowered its cold noose. Panicking, the minister urged his brethren to quarantine themselves in their houses and only collect provisions from designated places and mercifully this self-sacrifice partly confined the disease. Strolling the 4WD-ed boulevards we read solemn plaques describing the demise of families of eight in as many days. 350 were ultimately claimed but it is tricky to picture Eyam suffering any modern disaster beyond the Agricultural Society cancelling, due to heartless disinterest, the 1964 Strawberry and Fig Conserve Competition (Open Section).
Whilst frankly admitting to not giving a flying fuck about the Fourth Round Carling Cup encounter at Vicarage Road between Watford and Southampton I did enjoy my first soccer match. Some workmates and I sat at the Away End where the chanting was witty and musically, more fascinating than any execrable Pop Idol pollution. Early on and expectant, Southampton praised theirs in blossoming, pert tone
Sup-er Ke-vin Phillips!
0-0 late in the first half their pride remained contagious
We love Southampton, we do!
We love Southampton, we do!
We love Southampton, we do!
Ohhhh, Southampton, we love you!
Ten minutes on and down 2-0 to the second division side; so maintaining sports fan tradition they then pretended to not care…
We’re in the Premiership
We’re havin’ a laugh
A blink of an eye; 3-0; getting grubby, with the supremely spiteful,
You’re just a small town near Luton
At 4-0 the Southampton-ites ultimately turn, Collingwood-style, against their own
We’re so shite
So whilst unable to buy a scalding cup of Bovril at half-time it was a night of theatre, thrashings (Watford 5-2) and in an improbable bonus, goals.
Easyjet flew us from Gatwick to Cologne one weekend so we could explore the renowned Christmas markets. The city is largely unremarkable save for the utterly compelling cathedral; the Dom. With twin spires ascending to 515 feet, it was the world’s tallest building until the Washington Monument. Similarly astonishing is that in 1162 Emperor Barbarossa secured the authenticated remains of the Three Magi for the Dom. We drifted about its vast, almighty interior and leaving, willingly presented some Euros to a courteous priest.
Papa Joe’s En Streckstrump is Cologne’s chief jazz venue so we find our seats early for Sun Lane Ltd, a trad ensemble from nearby Aachen. Slender, smiling waitresses disperse wine and beer. Bespectacled, elderly and ample musicians timorously squash onto the picnic-rug stage. The pianist looks like a superfluous sheet has been stretched about a lumpy, wobbling refrigerator. We can scarcely see through the stinging blue smoke. Like sailors to a knock-shop, the punters still surge in.
Standing abnormally close; a gentleman suddenly clambers up and straddles me and a nearby stair as if imagining that he and I are posing for a gay fire-fighters’ calendar. I am startled. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I declare, overlooking that Europeans are bi-lingual.
As the gentleman dismounts the step and my horrified groin I mutter ‘Thank you.’
‘You’re welcome!’ my intimate twitters.
‘Say what you really want!’ adds his friend. We don’t see them again. The jazz is brisk and zestful and spilling out onto the Rhine’s bank, Nina’s 99 Red Balloons bursts from a heaving club. Lingering at the chilly Alter Markt, Kerry sips a final Gluhwein; the hot, spiced, red wine and we confirm that Cologne is hip.
Our staff room corner houses year 7 pupil information and photos. Posted earnestly, but these summaries are memorable for their crude and po-faced honesty. This one, of course, is accompanied by a hilariously glaring youngster’s face. ‘Lazy girl. Hates maths. Mum hairdresser.’ Such psychometric insight and sophistication! Now, dear friends, I leave with a question; with which six words would you summarise yourself?
Enjoy a splendid Christmas, especially if you missed National Sausage Week.
Michael, Kerry and Roxy
Tiger appoints Ringo caddy
Happy New Year!
‘How do you like my new Fes?’ asks Jerry patting the hat on his melon. Only forty Dirham and he’s grinning like a shot fox. A dozen of us collect closely. We’re in Fes’ Medina or old city and New Jersey Jerry; ever-blaring, ever-egotistic and forty-something is taking pleasure from the tasselled headdress- and his own voice. ‘Yes, Jerry it’s great,’ we chorus. Absalom is our guide. Wearing his Muslim robes elegantly and with snowy hair and trimmed beard he looks alarmingly like Kenny Rogers. He silences the Gatlin boy with, ‘Yes Jerry, it suits you perfectly.’ Through the dust and noise we lean nearer. ‘You are wearing the Fes of a young boy. Recently circumcised.’
With 350,000 people, 10,000 indistinguishable streets and 320 Mosques, the Medina is astonishing. Reaching its zenith in the 13th–14th centuries, the medieval monuments, madrasas (schools), fondouks (hotels), palaces, markets, residences and fountains are utterly engaging. About half the size of an Australian suburb, UNESCO declared it a World Monument in 1981. By morning’s end I am drained by the unbroken attack on my eyes and nose, ears and brain. Attempting to engage me, one impish boy chirped, ‘Hello mister.’ I ignored him. ‘Hola. Bonjour,’ he continued. ‘Ciao. GutenTag. Aloha. Konnichiwa.’ I laughed. Konnichiwa. In a particular light I guess I appear Japanese. He reminded me of the carpet-seller in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar who, sensing I’d rejected every rug- buying opportunity, edged up to me and smirked, ‘Is it now time to talk about carpet?’
Not all of our Moroccan exchanges are branded by affable banter. A broken-toothed Fes merchant pesters me a dozen times as we meander through the Medina’s labyrinth. I murmur no a dozen times. In a primitive attempt to persuade me of the hat’s merit, he jams it on my head. I return it. Our subsequent dialogue chills me and brings into sharp relief that ours is a polarised world; rich and poor, Western and Muslim. ‘Only twenty Dirham,’ he begs, thrusting the Fes at me yet again.
‘Look, I’m not interested,’ I say.
‘No matter,’ he hisses, ‘with all your money we buy ourselves another plane.’
In Marrakech we’re steered into an apothecaries’ souk or pharmaceutical market. Spices, roots and aromatic plants for cooking, magic and pills cram the shelving in kaleidoscopic chains of little jars. The apothecary talks about the local herbs and their various uses. We enjoy listening but of course should have known what was coming. The lecture concludes, a corps of zipping assistants gives everyone a plastic bag and the Big Sell begins. The apothecary repeats his catalogue whilst the helpers briskly dispense the concoctions. Our entourage includes Americans, Dutch and New Zealanders of every age and attitude and twenty minutes later not a medical secret remains amongst us. ‘These jars contain a potion to combat abdominal dryness,’ he announces and up fly some hands, their owners eager to spend and lubricate. Enchanted containers are urgently thrust at the grateful. He hollers, ‘Next is the haemorrhoid relief cream!’ More hands. ‘Who’d like the Moroccan herbal Viagra?’ I sit tighter on my palms. Never have I become so unintentionally informed about the private rashes, oozings and inflammations of strangers. It was like a nutrimetics party but without the collapsing paper plates of sausage rolls.
Beasts current and cooked, domesticated and dangerous were a mesmerizing aspect of our trip. The Jemaa el Fna or Place of the Dead is the gigantic square in Marrakech which functions as an al fresco circus. Street performers compete for our coins with yelling shoe-shiners and insistent henna tattooists whilst loops of snake charmers rhythmically sway with their hooded cobras. Given that she’s a biology teacher I selflessly sent Kerry among the reptiles as I captured photos and videos from an artistic distance. And suddenly a snake was writhing around my neck and a lithe wrangler rubbed its anaconda-like girth (more like a stick of spaghetti! Hi everyone, it’s the sensible one dropping in with a dose of reality) against my forehead. ‘It is good for fertility,’ he declared. I squeaked, ‘Mine or the snake’s?’
Monkeys (few self-pleasuring!) sprung about the teeming square too whilst stalls groaned with meats and dishes of arresting aromas. Curiously wry rows of boiled camel-heads were Plat du jour but disappointingly we’ve been off them lately. Rooster idolatry is popular on Portuguese china, shirts, towels, hats; indeed everything! Heading along the Atlantic coast road from Tangiers I glanced down to the sundrenched shore and what did I spy? A jaunty row of trotting chickens! Have you ever seen wild hens pushing into the breeze, bouncing along the sand? It was so unexpected yet so childishly familiar and funny that it became an African highlight. Beach chooks! Even now I can see my documentary advertised in the TV guide-
BBC 2- Sunday 8pm
Tonight Mikey Randall goes in search
of Tangier’s mystical beach chickens.
Despite the coach being guarded whilst we slept in our Tangier hotel (up the esplanade from Celine Dion Café; your heartburn will go on) it occurs at midnight. We are oblivious. From our giant ferry we witness customs police beating and kicking would-be illegal immigrants. They hide down by the waterline- frantic to flee Africa’s poverty for the nirvana that is Europe. A rolling Atlantic swell surrenders to Gibraltar’s gentler waters. Then in Spain we drive a hundred Andalucian miles and alight at a restaurant whilst Juao, our Portuguese driver, re-fuels. He hears a noise from under the bus. Two continents and an ocean later, a small stowaway escapes; having clung perilously to the undercarriage for fourteen dark hours. He slides into the countryside like a phantom.
The jagged rush of surprises makes travelling addictive. Toledo, indeed, is quite holy and El Greco’s 1586 masterpiece, The Burial of the Count Orgaz adorns a wall within the modest Church of San Tomé. The painting is marvellous but it is also startling that we could saunter in and admire a magnum opus without a wardrobe-sized guard pointing his Uzi at us. If it were displayed in a London or Paris gallery I’d probably shave three times getting to the ticket window. I love the excitement of exploring a new hotel room. Imagine my anticipation in Casablanca when I realize that the TV features Al Jazeera, the Islamic CNN. However I watch for a full five minutes and catch no new footage of Osama lounging in an Afghan cave or Osama being wacky on breakfast radio or Osama bursting into a Middle Eastern Big Brother compound. It was curious to feel homesick in Morocco with its mosques and confronting hardship and intoxicating town markets. Introduced from Australia last century, Eucalyptus trees appeared like old friends and combined with the sparse terrain to suggest the River Murray landscape back in South Australia. I love being amazed when travelling.
I had few expectations for the Portuguese capital but found it wonderful. Prior to visiting Europe my favourite world city was San Francisco and Lisbon often reminded me of its hilly charms and marine vistas. Two colossal structures cross the glimmering Tagus River; the Ponte 25 de Abril commemorates the 1974 Revolution and is strikingly like the Golden Gate; the planet’s most fetching suspension bridge. At over seventeen kilometres; we entered Lisbon on Ponte Vasco da Gama, Europe’s largest and probably the biggest bastard of a bridge that I’ll experience.
In an age when Barcelona, Kuala Lumpur and Florence are serviced by airports hours from their CBD it is remarkable that Lisbon’s is downtown; reflecting that last century the metropolis grew exponentially. The equivalent of Heathrow being in Hyde Park; it was compelling and somewhat menacing- post 9/11 to watch planes climbing and landing near skyscrapers. We loved wandering about historic Alfama and seeing the mighty Monument to the Discoveries before learning that although the world is a village chip-shop one should never order Italian dishes in a Portuguese Indian restaurant.
Seville burst into my Top Ten with a bullet and is illustrious for much; orange-trees lining the charming boulevards, the resting place of Columbus and of course, bullfighting. During summer the Sevillians stroll past the cigar factory immortalised in Carmen to the Plaza del Toros de la Real Maestranza and given that it nudged 54 degrees in August 2003 some sip Cruzcampo beer! Many stories are relayed of brave bulls. An ancient matador told me the obscure tale of an old bull and a young bull. One lazy afternoon they were gazing down at a field of attractive heifers. The young bull shouts, ‘Let’s run down and shag a few cows!’ The old bull quietly replies, ‘No. Let’s walk down and do the lot.’ True.
Talk to you after returning from Iceland’s wintry weirdness.
Michael, Kerry and Roxy
Bjork og Ringo og Snorri Porfinnson
A mid-March hello to you.
I’m going to see if I can write this letter about Iceland without mentioning Bjork. Shit. Failed already.
If all bus trips were as compelling as Sunday’s journey from Iceland’s international airport to Reykjavik then I’d like buses much, much more. Normally I like buses as much as I like, well, buses. It was an eccentric twilight- difficult to see where sky began and earth stopped. An other-worldly light leaked between the two and combined with the snow and treeless lava fields to make me think of the moons of Jupiter or a post-apocalyptic film. If a Ray-Banned Arnie had raced past our bus on a black motorcycle I would not have been surprised.
After checking in we rushed outside to frolic in the tumbling snowfall. It was familiar- Pizza houses and supermarkets but also distinctly Icelandic with street-signs like Braeoraborgarstigar and Tyrggvagata and the constant, charismatic impression that this city and country were unique.
Next morning we eat a hearty hotel breakfast whilst peering out at the dark streets. Despite it being late winter the sun rises only at 9:30am. Exploring the city we drift down to the harbour through the fluffy stuff and slush and admire the mountains lurching furiously out of the icy ocean. The devilish wind makes us say ‘fuck’ many, many times.
We amble to Hallgrímskirkja which surveys the city from a hill. This church symbolises Iceland- white, jagged and uplifting in its un-European-ness. Its steeple stretches 73 metres towards the leaden heavens whilst inside is equally fascinating in its austerity. Barren walls, no stained glass, limited religious iconography. An organist pumps his mighty keyboard and the church is bursting with sound. But not the pious and sombre stuff of German and Austrian cathedrals. The swirling, psychedelic melodies bring to mind 70’s band Yes and their album Tales from Topographic Oceans which, of course, is wholly appropriate.
Next we trawl Reykjavik for the Phallological (that’s pecker, Johnson or willie to many of us) Museum and its sperm whale, arctic fox and bull exhibits. Apparently the late bull’s appendage had been salted (that’s salted Cletus!), dried and lovingly fashioned into a walking stick. This we had to see! Tragically the museum is gone and, eyes weighty with tears, we dragged our feet towards a café and sought solace, as people have since time immemorial, in burgers and fries and cola-type refreshments.
Iceland arouses not only a young bull’s walking stick but men made ecstatic by matters volcanic. The Golden Circle tour took us on a blizzardy route past an implosion crater, Gullfoss waterfall and Pingvellir where the North American and European Tectonic plates are diverging. How many can claim to have slipped on the ice, and then their arse, right atop the chasm where the good earth itself is being wrenched asunder by the Tectonic Plates? My left cheek was in America and my right cheek; Europe. For days my bum was tender proof of this primeval terrain’s violence.
At 66 degrees North, Iceland clings to the Arctic Circle in the mid-Atlantic but the warm Gulf Stream makes it is surprisingly balmy. During our stay it lingered at freezing whilst the locals smugly boast that in 2004 Reykjavik shut down when it sizzled at a record 24.8 Celsius! Roughly the size of England, Iceland is bigger than commonly imagined but with a mere 295,000- a population similar to Coventry. Whilst more tourists visit each year, in 2004 barely 340,000 nipped by the birthplace of Bjork. Shit. Failed again. Ale was only legalised in 1989 and March 1 is celebrated as Beer Day. However with barley milkshakes rented at £6 or $AU15 a pint one learns to relish each drop as much as Fergie quivered when her toes were slurped by a balding Texan.
Geysers. Not Norf London lads but Iceland’s eco-attraction; steamy, farty gas fountains. Skating across glassy paths among boiling puddles as the horizontal rain and hail gently bruised our faces I contemplated my likely injuries. Slip on the dicey ice and break limbs or slip on the dicey ice and skid face-first into a searing geyser or bubbling mud vat from which I’d no doubt be retrieved by two rangers called Erik who’d then respectfully surrender the messy sack of my parboiled chubbiness to Kerry for dour identification. Still it was worth it. I am confident that no other St Albans-based Australian teachers own amateur video of geysers grumpily erupting, at least, fifteen glorious feet.
Back in the dry of our hotel the TV mercifully thawed us with the Jetsons. In tonight’s episode: George is promised a pay-rise by Mr Spacely! In his excitement he tells Jane, Elroy and Judy to buzz out and buy themselves a few futuristic treats. And you know what? Mr Spacely changes his mind about the raise! Poor George. Like most of the planet, Icelandic television is now a swampy morass of reality rubbish and MTV clones with endless gold chains and slow-motioned, open-topped Californian cars. Not so long ago there was only the national Icelandic broadcaster and it followed but two peculiar rules. No TV whatsoever on Thursdays and no TV during the nightless month of July. Now, I’d vote for that, wherever I live. A national broadcaster acting like your mum! On a summer’s afternoon she wades into the lounge room, snatches the cricket off the box and then shoos you out of the house for your own good. And guess what; George’s family, Rosie the household robot and Astro the dog forgave him and all ended well!
The Blue Lagoon is an outdoor geothermal spa and for three hours on our last morning we luxuriated in its calming waters- improving our wellness. Wellness. Surely one of the silliest contemporary words. It was great but odd to have a cosy, submerged body whilst one’s ears were turning blue in a blizzard! Running across the snow from spa to sauna is among the coldest three seconds of my life. An ancient Viking tradition – feasting on rotten shark meat, escaped our festive plates on this, the romantic island in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and we eventually jetted into the lunar dark. Our Icelandic Air flight is delayed because of the snow and then because Great Britain’s entire air traffic computer network crashed. How many of you have flown on a plane called Snorri Porfinnson?
During our self-guided Canterbury Cathedral tour we were politely stopped by a clerical announcement. Then delightfully mellifluous tones requested we stand wherever we were, bow our heads and join in prayer; asking for an end to war and anguish. It was arresting, devout and compassionate. Amidst the honeyed dignity of the Mother Church of England I turned to Kerry- who was teary. ‘Are you OK?’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ she replied, ‘that was much better than when beauty queens ask for world peace.’
It was then apt that we retreated for a cup. The Buttermarket pub sits in the Cathedral’s shadows and despite it being 5pm Friday offered beer tasting uncannily of rancid dairy product. We left. Down one of Canterbury’s fetching lanes is the Thomas Becket and altogether unlike its eponymous martyr- lively, invigorating, intimate. Old bronze kettles dangle from warping timbers. Like furry umbrellas, dried hops collect in gorgeous bunches. We eavesdrop upon white-haired academics from Canterbury Christ Church University reminiscing in dripping, exact tones.
Strangling my Carlsberg pint like a sailor who has not drunk since Colin Cowdry strapped on the batting pads and tucked in a stained protector at Kent’s nearby St Lawrence Ground we talked of the Cathedral. Beige information boards snaked across the exit and a name caught my eye. Canterbury evokes much that is olden and kingly. Henry II and St Augustine gaze down from the towering walls as one steps across the cold stones that collected the hot blood of Thomas Becket in 1170. I was bemused to see that Evensong would tomorrow be overseen by the Most Reverend Melanie Horton. Melanie! A handle forever connected to the Spice Girls (B and C) and, at least in my head, ditzy girls sporting blonde pig-tails. We quietly guessed that the Most Reverend Melanie Horton is the only British Melanie to graduate in decades.
A drink coaster then distracts me as does a shiny object an ADHD child. It suggests that 19-25 February is National Pub Week. Now my inner redneck loves that England promotes pubs and sausages in National Weeks and I eagerly await Watch Luton Get Thrashed 5-0 whilst Downing Buckets of Rancid Lager before Scoffing a Forgettable Chicken Tikka, Losing a Car-Park Fist-Fight and then Spectacularly Be-fouling a Taxi Week.
We know about ten Australians in the UK so glancing up from the coaster I was stunned to see two of those approaching the Thomas Becket’s bar. We share anecdotes of Europe and England and Australia and dine on plentiful fare before falling victim to the most ridiculous of concepts, ‘the smoking section’- which, as The Guardian’s Victor Lewis-Smith argues, is akin to swimming pools featuring pissing lanes.
Dover Castle preaches of Napoleon, Dunkirk and Henry VIII. A massive fortification, we invest happy but bitter hours (3 degrees without the wind chill) roving about the bold towers. The secret WWII tunnels accompanied by sound effects of bombs and blinking lights to replicate German plane attacks were a highlight. We all acknowledge Henry VIII as history’s biggest nutbag. Visiting Dover Castle in 1520 he sent forth an entourage to prepare for his 48 hour visit. How many servants paved the way for madcap old Henry? A lazy 800.
My favourite beer poster advertises Kent’s Spitfire Premium Ale and stars Churchill smiling with his arm and two fingers extended in classic victory salute. The caption states, ‘Two more pints please.’ What poetry! What imagery! I’m sure that this would meet with approval from Bjork. Shit. Failed yet again.
Happy Easter! Holidays beckon- Canal narrow boat trip. York. Copenhagen.
Love Michael, Kerry and Roxy
The One About Chandler, Monica and Ringo
And so Charles and Camilla traded vows. Will and Harry doubtless gave the sauce a ferocious hiding and Windsor’s dance floor groaned as generations of buffoons bounced to Nutbush City Limits. Right up to the gruesome point when they kissed, the wedding was threatened: the PR nightmare of the populace comparing old horsehead to Princess Di, Tony Blair dropping us into an election campaign, the Pope finally expiring and despite Spring having sprung, snow threatening to freeze the teeth off the huddling guests. Not for the first time, the Royals remind me of a Chad Morgan song.
But the bride, she died at the alter
The bridegroom died next day
The parson dropped dead in the churchyard
As he was about to pray
The hearse capsized at the crossroads
It couldn’t make the turn
And the people stood and cheered like mad
As they watched the old church burn
And then the heavens broke open
And the rain it started to fall
And the whole flamin’ town got washed away
And there was no one left at all
Leaving Braunston in a flotilla of narrow boats we inch along the Oxford Canal at three miles an hour and I’m invited to steer. With the boating bloodline of a giraffe, I’m commanding a bloody big barge and it is deeply relaxing. Thundering into the banks less and less as the miles drift by, I can hear a radio ad, voiced by the many-testicled man. ‘For the first time in this county! Tonight only! Sixty-six feet! Fifteen tonnes! A beast of diesel-powered, swan-scaring, geese-splattering pastoral insanity! Be there to witness the genteel spectacle of Boat-a-Saurus.’
The watery way ushers us through a vivacious countryside. Daffodils and cherry blossom brighten the tow-path while mist sleeps on a patchwork of emerald and bottle green. Dragonflies and heron flirt by. Our boat glides under ancient bridges as polo-shirts hack up and down canal-side golf courses. Contrastingly, the Nicholson waterways book depicts Nuneaton as ‘post industrial’- shopping trolleys, half a charred motorcycle and an earthmover brood in the oily shadows.
Honouring a fetching Welsh village, our boat is ‘Brecon’ but I imagine myself as Captain Quint, the crotchety skipper from Jaws. I consider superior names for my steel and timber girl. Purple Rain. Joelene. The long-distance trucker’s darling- Sandys Desire (sans apostrophe) but in an Ashes year I settle upon the nasal poetry of ’Bowling Shane.
Pubs dictate our daily rhythms and at twilight on Sunday we moor near Atherstone’s King William IV into which our twenty-seven-strong entourage crowds and inhales pints of Marston’s Pedigree, Everard’s Tiger and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. An hour laughs by. Most of the twenty-seven saunter back to dine on one boat! The grumpiest pub on English soil is the Old Bell in Gumley, Nottinghamshire. Like a jaded bouncer, its chalkboard barks the miserable rules:
No muddy shoes
“Why no children?’ we ask.
‘The ornamental pond,’ Mine Host curtly replies. Careful to not exhale on the wallpaper, we sulk out to their garden and sit around the tables. I gawp at the public liability risk- a feeble brown stain around which cowered some equally ornamental plastic piping. Safety issue? Nothing could drown within its tragic mud- not even a limbless flea.
Many retirees live on the canals and I’m impressed by their jolly waves, uncomplicated grins and friendly trading with travellers. A wire stand offers used videos for sale and inspection exposes each as pornographic. Well, I wonder, if not on a narrow boat then where? Unhappily I have no change so our home library still lacks its compulsory copy of Franken-hooker.
A veteran of the Icelandic Cod Wars, Bruce is a charismatically thirsty cove. Now an ex-Navy man, he’s fifty-odd and single. We like him. An evening in the pub progresses to the teenagers’ boat- often only skippered by the sexual rumblings of Led Zeppelin IV- where Kerry and Bruce conduct a drinking competition over a bottle of Stallion- 75 proof Tobago rum. Of course Bruce- don’t forget he’s a Navy man- loses and falls trapped into the shower. His spindly legs dangle from the cubicle. He slurs, ‘I’m in trouble. Help. I’m not a fucking turtle.’ My dilemma is simple, dear reader. Do I book my wife into the Betty Ford Clinic or given that she’s qualified, enter her in the Drinking Olympics?
Locks irregularly provide pulses of action during our languid days. The Foxton Staircase is the pinnacle of these as vessels rise seventy-five feet through a series of ten locks- without a zap of electricity! The Grand Union canal is a spawning site for the common toad. Fish include pike, bream and chub while near the banks, grass snakes are not uncommon, and on Friday John spots one and it’s the first English snake he’s seen. Ever.
We occasionally journey through dramatic and otherworldly tunnels. Completed in 1796, the 2,042 yard Braunston Tunnel takes us twenty-five minutes to traverse. Entering via the West Portal our single headlight reflects weirdly on the curved brick ceiling; its stroboscopic manner reminiscent of the sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey when David Bowman hurtles along the star gate toward total consciousness. Most tunnels were built with pick and shovel by the ‘navvies’ and in Yorkshire one was begun with a boy of six employed and he was still working on the project when it was competed. By then the boy was in his seventies.
The staff of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) doesn’t know the Golden Rule, which is, as you’ll acknowledge, Never Bullshit to a Bullshitter. Our lunchtime flight from Heathrow to Copenhagen is delayed and taxiing across the tarmac the PA broadcasts: ‘Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen. This is Captain Johannsen speaking. We’re just awaiting instructions from the tower and hope to be underway in a few minutes. My apologies for the late take-off. We’ve come in from Oslo and there’s been heavy rain.’ Rain? Heavy rain? Any rain? Come on, Captain Johannsen, that’s like hearing your Dover to Calais ferry is behind schedule because you’ve hit a sea bass.
Travel, it could be argued, should be a succession of little pilgrimages. We’d spent a chirpy morning on the Danish capital’s sightseeing bus and then both thought; no, I thought, as my preferred European lager is Carlsberg, that a tour would be great. Further encouraged by free beer- history alone cannot be enough- we start walking. It is a distance. Many miles. I glance at my watch. The visitor centre shuts soon. We swing our arms like soldiers. Panicking, my eyes flit about for a taxi. All vanished. We march quicker. Like Macbeth’s elusive dagger, the foaming lager hovers just beyond grasp. We then approach a Kenyan marathoner out training. We pass him. And around the next corner- Carlsberg HQ! We sit and sip. Across the crowd I spy a Coopers Pale Ale cap. I feel patriotic. We then amble back along Vestobrogade to our hotel. It’s a good afternoon.
If he’d stayed off the piss Hans Christian Anderson would have been two hundred this year and Copenhagen is celebrating. Ahhh. Thumbelina. The Ugly Duckling. The Loveliest Rose in the World. Heart-warming tales all but instead we visit the Erotica Museum. Two hours and 198 Kroner later we emerge, hair tightly curled by this often grotesque yet mesmerising cornucopia of posters, toys, diorama, and video. We learn of the curious eroticism of folks like Marilyn Monroe and Adolf Hitler. One section features animals so varied I thought I was in a heavy petting zoo. The climax- sorry again- is a wall of TVs showing fleshy films. An air-headed hotel heiress performs in A Night in Paris but we leave as we’ve often visited France.
The Boxing Day disaster affected everyone with its unfathomable horror and most have responded fittingly. Cricket clubs and village churches raised funds and in addition to a non-uniform day, my school held a fast to promote empathy. An exclusive girls’ college in Tring- also in Hertfordshire- did little to shift the stereotype that some of the local privileged are cocooned if not stunningly distasteful. Picture this. A breezy January afternoon. Holding hands, the pupils form a giant circle on their playing fields. “Come on now girls! One must do one’s bit!’ enthuse the beaming teachers. On the count of three they make their earnest, sponsored contribution to the tsunami victims. Their hearts swell with pride. They do a Mexican wave.
love Michael, Kerry and Roxy
Ringo almost buys van Gogh’s Sunflowers
Pigeon expert dies, aged 86
is why I love opening our front door each Thursday afternoon. Roxy trots down from her bed and the Hertfordshire Advertiser awaits, convulsing with similar stories. Despite this county heaving with a million folks, one lead headline blazed the engagement of a local lass to Jason Priestley of Beverly Hills 90210 fame- proving that St Albans is where Hollywood D-list dreams can come true! Time is short so I’ll just list the main narrative elements of my favourite article; this one, I swear, a genuine tale of the galactically stupid:
a video camera
secluded woodland near Hemel Hempstead
petrol-filled fluorescent light tubes (exploding)
Star Wars fans hospitalised with critical burns and lacerations.
On the hottest May day in 50 years (a humid 33 degrees) our hire car’s air-conditioning didn’t work- the vents but flatulating pigeons, we left for Scotland’s Invertrossachs. Awaking to a soggy Saturday we explored the surrounding Highlands; particularly Perthshire’s Balquhidder Church and its eminent gravestone. Rob Roy’s (1671-1734) tomb inscription- ‘McGregor despite them’ exemplifies these brusque Scots as did King Robert the Bruce at the media conference after his team thrashed the visiting opposition at the Battle of Bannockburn in the 1314 season opener. When quizzed about the victory he uttered that they’d simply sent the English, ‘home tae think again.’
Circumnavigating Loch Lomond we found acute contrasts. Whilst boats slid soundlessly across the inky depths; sky and mountains completed a staggeringly appealing canvas. However, like a reality TV show in which the public votes for the most repulsive misfits to join a freak circus, I present the village of Luss. Clinging to the Loch, this scabrous hub is infected by Special Brew lager (9%) garglers whose meaty limbs wobble with illiterate tattoos. Down on the freezing beach, gangs of these happily head-butt each other. Its pier- any waterside town’s focus – features this hostile sign
If I had a pen I’d have added
Stuff your puffy carcass with tepid snacks!
Only seven quid to buy a stylish, ‘Having a fcuking ball in Luss’ snow dome.
Now if you ever stray across the Scottish soap High Road have handy a stack of vomit bags- its exterior scenes are filmed, inexplicably, in Luss. I don’t think we’ll return.
St Andrews is superb. A gorgeous town of 11,000, it stars the university at which Prince William finished a Master’s in Geography, the ruins of a cathedral and a castle and the golf nirvana: all within three streets. Walking along the esplanade towards the Old Course my waddle became athletic, like Kevin Spacey’s Verbal at the end of The Usual Suspects. St Andrews’ golf is characterised by egalitarian openness- we wandered wherever we wanted. No security fences. No black-shirted fridges grumbling into walkie-talkies. This I liked.
Charmingly interactive, The British Golf Museum taught me that etiquette urged tee-off at eleven followed immediately by the captain’s lunch. Fines were inflicted upon members playing but then slinking off without dining; encouraging the natural order as I see it: gentle, good-humoured exercise pursued by industrial lashings of lager.
Watching behind the first tee, I was as excited as those swinging the Pings. Golfing pilgrims often win their round courtesy of a lottery and the not unreasonable 85- pound green fee- it is the world’s most distinguished walk. The awesome theatre along the 1st or ‘Burn’ (each hole has a name) is heightened by grandstands- newly erected for the 27th St Andrews’ Open. Most tee-shots tidily splice the fairway but hacker that I am takes reassurance when one Hotdot is yanked left in a violent arc to the middle of the 18th or ‘Tom Morris.’
A bracing breeze escorts Kerry and I as we stroll alongside the first, drawing in the air and 600 years of golfing history before we pause at the Ladies Putting Club (1867). Again St Andrews stands up exceedingly well to a socialist deconstruction as the LPC or Himalayas- likely to sneak onto your TV during the 2005 Open- is better known as Crazy Golf! A round is ninety pence. But the brisk showers and looming closing time deny us mini-golf majesty. Ours was a vivid, engaging day.
It’s heavy rain but we’re the only people under an umbrella. No surprise really as we’re in Glasgow and its harsh residents are customarily agreed upon only one point: the rest of the world is soft. Despite its regal name- George Square- local literary hero Sir Walter Scott (Lady of the Lake) and not a namby English king or pouncy politician is honoured with the most prominent statue.
The city and its shipbuilding docklands are now gentrified and the sandstoned affluence makes it seem astonishing that in its industrial past Glasgow had the planet’s highest lung cancer incidence. As our bus crawls about the wet-shiny streets the guide comments, inevitably, on Edinburgh- ‘Don’t waste your time going there, it’s one street and a castle.’ He closes with the Billy Connolly-like, ‘You’ll have more fun at a Glaswegian funeral than an Edinburgh wedding.’
As slaves to all things canal-boating we detour to the new millennium’s marvel of Scottish engineering; the Falkirk Wheel. Linking two canals separated by a drop of 115 feet, this rotating boat lift- resembling a shrunken London Eye- replaces a flight of eleven locks. Each giant pod or caisson can lift or deposit four sixty-foot boats in four minutes but uses no more power than is needed to boil two kettles.
So, suitably staggered, the wife sends me up a steep, grassy hill to take photos. Ascending towards the aqueduct I remember climbing New Zealand’s Fox glacier. Even clearer in my memory is peering below at the treacherous ice, when I wondered, if I slipped, the many angry Kiwis, mops and buckets which would be required to remove my sloshy stain. Back in Scotland, I tumbled down the knoll like a novice competitor in a cheese-rolling event. Hearing my tangled flailings, Kerry was aghast. Cried she, ‘Are your keys and wallet OK?’
Our Scottish digs were on a working deer farm by Loch Venachar. The hosts warned us, ‘Don’t be concerned if you see a wee carcass hanging on that shed wall.’ Spying a live stag on our road one afternoon, Roxy gave cute, deeply deluded chase, finishing many lengths behind Bambi but nonetheless paying a tidy quinella. We slept in the estate’s former kennels; a canine honour roll hanging by the door- Timmy 1912-1918, Reginald 1927-1940, Jock 1942-1955 etc. Roxy wees on it. Approaching summer solstice at 56 degrees north, first light is before 4am and dusk stretches on towards 11pm and the sky becomes a curved, blue cathedral. Our backyard is a bubbling splash of brooks and springy ferns. We dine, walk and sleep well.
Besides this Highland splendour we had Murdoch’s Sky TV and it was a fleeting novelty- virtual greyhound racing (sadly no virtual scrapping/shagging as they finish), fake gem shopping channels and acres of flyblown media poo. But the most compelling channel is unavailable. No, not one of those. The one which hypnotises me into a Never-Dead/ Zombie- the Weather Channel. Almost instantly I’m mumbling, ‘Gee it’s breezy in Mumbai,’ ‘Hot in Albuquerque for this time of year’ or I yell out, ‘Honey, it’s snowing in Vladivostok.’
Oops. I’ve not yet mentioned a pub. York is The Beatles’ White Album of pub culture: classy, avant-garde but also populist and patchy too. You could lob a smelly spud from the Minster’s spire into the Three Legged Mare and if you were Ricky Ponting, hit the tap dispensing their celebrated ale, Wonky Donkey. The ‘Mare’ was chic and colourful.
Over on Coppergate, The Three Tuns was crowded by girls whose daddies or credit cards had bought them breasts so horribly pneumatic I feared that once they’d had sufficient alco-pops they’d float up from their chairs and bounce across the ceiling like helium balloons. But our penultimate cup-house was alarming. Innocently, we waltzed in. It thumped me like a mugger. I worried for my wife but could understand it in a 1989, Oz beer-barn. But sophisticated, dishy 2005 York? Hearing
Flamingos walk, and sway in peace
Seeing this, it makes my troubles cease
The sun is hiding, leaving a pink scar
That stretches right across the sky
That’s all we’ve seen so far
And all I do is look into your eyes
For that special touch of paradise
I wordlessly grabbed Kerry’s hand and we fled that molten metal poured in your ears by John Farnham/ Beelzebub torture vortex. But yes, York is lovely.
British comedy still amuses me. This was recently on Radio 2: I’m not happy. My favourite horse broke its leg. I shot it. Now it has a broken leg. And a gun-shot wound.
I’m off to ring the local paper. I can see next Thursday’s headline-
Australian man, 38, sends email.
Michael, Kerry and Roxy
1-800 RINGO’S RV RENTALS
How you doin’?
‘Chris goes through Liverpool Street Station about that time,’ says Jane, tears starting, ‘and I can’t get him on his phone.’
‘I’m sure you’ll reach him soon,’ I suggest, feeling her panic. Those hot stabs of horror linger as I remember 7/7 and how the sprawling behemoth of London suddenly felt tiny and helpless. Texting to check people’s safety, I agonised, the seconds stretching, waiting for my phone to beep their wellbeing. Someone writes that she escapes by mere minutes. Jane, my friend from Melbourne, then gets through to her husband- having arrived at his job in the City. In Friday’s paper Ian McEwen calls the terrorists’ minds ‘unknowable’ and asks, ‘How could we have forgotten that this was always going to happen?’
Others argue that the terror is heightened by the previous day’s elation. Prior to the 2012 Olympics announcement I found myself increasingly hoping that London won the right to host the games. After all, travel should allow you to taste life as a local. At 12:40 we stop the Macbeth video and I flick on the radio. The year 7’s huddle around, each shrieking. The IOC President begins and some boys link arms in a funny, anticipatory circle. I laugh. At 12:46 pm and ‘Lon-don,’ they erupt. It’s lovely but now, I can barely believe it happened.
REM’s Hyde Park concert is postponed and on Saturday week as we board the Underground’s Jubilee line I try to think only of the great event ahead but feel my hands become clammy as our train rattles through the uneasy dark. A procession of jets streaks across the balmy sky, a full moon smiles down on 85,000 and we sit, excited, on the grass. It’s more chardonnay and sushi than black t-shirts and rebellion. Kerry buys a slice of watermelon.
We love the songs but it’s an age-indicator that nearby grandparents twist to ‘Man on the Moon.’ Mainstream elegance has undoubtedly replaced alternative edginess for REM. A climax is Michael Stipe introducing Patti Smith to guest on the evocative ‘E-bow the Letter’ and amidst swirling guitar feedback, ‘It’s The End of The World As We Know It’ closes the evening and, for us, an uncommon fortnight of euphoria, shock and dread.
Annie and Bazz from Kimba join Kerry’s folks and us in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk and then Ireland. We’re in Limerick the weekend a local woman wins the European lottery. Her mob’s rough as bags and before her lucky numbers she couldn’t afford road tax on her old Vauxhall to drive to her dreary pub job. Sorted now though- she pocketed 113 million Euro.
On a subsequent day trip to Amsterdam, we’re like the family in the Monty Python sketch- we get up before we even go to bed. Anne Frank’s House is affecting and crowded. We visit Nieuwmarkt- zigzagging about the canals and dope shops and enter the heart- or is it groin- of the Red Light district and its prostitutes behind windows. Rarely retiring, Bazz hollers across to his wife, ‘Hey Annie!’ He continues. ‘Pick out which hooker you’d like to join us for a threesome.’
Days later Kerry and I are on an airbus when occurs the first curiosity of our North American trip. The flight attendant speaks in rehearsed tones,
‘Welcome aboard this Continental Airlines flight from London Gatwick to Newark, New Jersey. We expect a little turbulence south of Greenland and our flying time today is six hours and sixty-five minutes.’
Spilling over their seats, a couple from Kalamazoo enjoys peanuts and orange juice when, I imagine, George declares to Martha, ‘That’s a pretty quick flight.’ Martha nods, ‘Yeah, I couldn’t stand being on this plane for seven hours.’
Distressingly, our Washington DC hotel room stares at the US Department of Education, festooned with banners proclaiming Dubaya’s policy- ‘No Child Left Behind.’ Why? Marginal communication skills have not impeded the 43rd President, who, with po-faced sincerity, once announced that ‘Increasingly our imports will come from overseas.’
Walking the two mile National Mall, we enjoy its bookends of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument; at 555 feet the world’s tallest structure- until the Eiffel Tower. The Jefferson and Roosevelt monuments are majestic but we’re smitten with the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool- through which splashed a uniformed Forrest Gump and hippie child Jen-nee, before embracing in front of a protest crowd. Stumbling across the US Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue is wonderful but I’m unsure if I’m chilled or amused by the Explosive Ordnance team- whose divers dispose of mines and other underwater weapons. Their motto summarises perfectly their work- ‘Initial success or total failure.’
Our first glimpse in the Smithsonian National Space and Air Museum is unforgettable. Hanging like artwork from a Land of the Giants-style classroom ceiling are authentic planes and rockets. My favourite is Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 which in 1947 became the first jet to fly beyond the speed of sound. Cruise missiles, MinuteMen and Tomahawks are strewn about the museum like toys, which, I’d advocate, is exactly what they were. Peering up their towering coldness makes me feel very small. The Apollo 11 Command Module seems minuscule and primitive; its welding, riveting and instrumentation, less sophisticated than a modern three-burner barbeque.
Years ago in Queensland, Kerry’s Uncle Alan poured me a glass of his homebrew beer- and still my mouth hasn’t offered me forgiveness. Given that he’d only just met me I was bewildered that he so clearly wanted to kill me. McDonalds’ McGriddle cakes are unquestionably worse. Naively trying one, I began convulsing; purple whirls blinding my eyes. If you’re in the US, avoid. In ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy’ John Denver enthused about ‘the sun’s comin’ up I got cakes on the griddle.’ I pray McDonalds’ McGriddle cakes weren’t JD’s last breakfast before his Cessna tipped into the Pacific.
Arriving in Manhattan I immediately ticked the boxes on two distinctively New York experiences: arguing with a taxi driver and spotting celebrities. United Airlines bumped Kerry’s parents in Washington so we caught a shuttle-bus to The Beacon on Broadway, confident that a transfer booking reference would be sufficient. It would not, my Hispanic hombre assured me and thirty dollars cash was needed. Both my receipt number and I assert that the company has been paid and yet we to and fro like a grumpy tennis match – to the bemusement of a full foyer. ‘I haav theese guy ‘ere from Inglan’- or France,’ he tells his useless office. France? Now I am upset. I think, I can stand here arguing all afternoon. You’re a taxi driver. I’ll bet you can’t.
And he couldn’t so I then head out along Broadway, into the promise of Friday evening and within a block hear some familiar voices.
“Pardon my French, but Cameron is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond,”
from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes to mind as I turn and see Matthew Broderick. His equine wife, Sarah Jessica Parker has her hoof in his hand and is braying about something. Probably sex. Or shoes. I continue through Mid-Town past the bars, the Citarella market and a Barnes and Noble bookshop. A Marine approaches. His t-shirt says, ‘Pain is weakness leaving the body.’ The Marines take nothing as seriously as, well, being Marines.
Sunday morning we’re 1,050 feet up atop the Empire State Building, squinting out into the smoggy heat and disappointingly, the Statue of Liberty is shrouded. The skyscrapers and canyons are mesmerising but, for me, the deep drone, punctuated by urgent sirens and horn blasts, is also remarkable. Maybe this is what U2 meant by America’s ‘rattle and hum.’ Surely, however, Manhattan’s most handsome is the Chrysler Building with its Art-Deco aesthetic, hubcap designs and glittering gargoyles. A soaring tribute to the wonder of the motor car, it was the world’s tallest before the ESB and possesses more charisma yet little of its fame. Why escapes me.
Grand Central Station is gorgeous. Golden light, marble and space suggest infinite excitement- grand voyages and romantic destinations and in this honeyed cavern – 120 feet wide, 375 feet long and 125 feet high, the clacking of the arrivals and departures boards exaggerates the seduction. Leaving via the sumptuous Vanderbilt Hall, we come to a street market on Madison Avenue; I have a Chinese massage that’s like eating tofu- beneficial rather that enjoyable. More amusing is the entrepreneur on Lexington Avenue sitting behind his sign
Tell me off – $2
Of course I should have yelled, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself! That’s too expensive! Why, back home folks only charge a dollar,’ but it was lunchtime and Bubba Gump’s in Times Square beckoned.
Inside is predictable but huge fun. On our table is a stand with two license plates that we flip- ‘Run Forrest, Run’ if we’re content and ‘Stop Forrest, Stop’ to grab the waiter. Sipping our drinks he quizzes us. ‘What was Forrest’s Vietnam War wound?’ We chorus like kids, ‘Butt-tocks.’ The food’s good and we buy shirts in the gift shop before emerging into the humid glare. Having paid homage to one fictitious character I’m keen to visit another mythic individual’s environs: Central Park.
Holden Caulfield is the anti-hero in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and this 843-acre space is significant in the novel. Entering, we hear percussion and whistles as the Dominican Republic parade passes like a jolly serpent and, the cacophony evaporating, we sit by the Heckscher Ballfields. As with all sports, baseball’s best moments occur when beauty thrillingly replaces danger. I like its egalitarianism- all ages, shapes and abilities strut about. Ball players talk constantly. Having struck out, one jogs over to first base and coaches the new batter.
‘Come on baby.’
‘Ducks on the pond’
‘You drivin’ this bus, baby’
The innings complete, we amble towards The Lake where Holden and his girlfriends ice-skate but the dinosaur rumbling, aubergine sky splits and we’re instantly soaking. Near the Cherry Hill fountain a fire engine puts out a lightning strike and I say to Kerry, ‘Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields.’ She replies, ‘it’s nothing to get hung about.’ In the tropical torrent, the Imagine Mosaic (a gift from Naples) and its flowers is a sodden John Lennon tribute so beneath the American Elms we scuttle. And then we slosh westward along 72nd to our hotel and dry towels, laughing, like youngsters, at how wet we are. Holden, I think, would have smiled.
I’m about halfway through our trip and Kerry suggests I close with a cliffhanger so here goes….
love Michael, Kerry and Roxy
Ringo attacks grizzly
Boston made me a fan of three things: New England clam chowder, the Red Sox and naming beer after national heroes. The Barking Crab restaurant faces the old Northern Avenue Bridge in the downtown area. Its shanty-like setting appeals to sailors and Harvard professors and we devour the tasty seafood. Leaving, I note that its billboard declares, ‘It’s the best place in Boston to catch crabs.’ Like wartime recruiting posters, t-shirts announce there are two baseball teams to support: the Red Sox and whoever beats the New York Yankees. Catching a few innings in The Bell in Hand- America’s oldest continuously operating tavern, converts me. Named for Declaration of Independence signatory, Sam Adams lager encourages me to ask why Australians fail to honour their founding fathers in this fashion. I’d love to wander up to the timber altar of my Sunday pub and say, ‘Two pints of Dennis Lillee, a jug of Gough Whitlam and a bottle of Bon Scott, thanks.’
We explore Massachusetts’ finest city by foot, trolley and boat. One guide teaches how to speak as a Bostonian. Instead of saying, ‘Park the car by the harbour,’ she holds up cards and urges everyone- especially a family from Kalamazoo: Eric, Patti and boys: Holden, Logan, Steele and Blade (no, really) to repeat, ‘Paak the cah by the ha-ba.’
Under the dappled sun, Kerry and I drift through summery Boston Common, the world’s oldest public park, dating from 1634. It’s wonderful and we enjoy Frog Pond, crossed by the world’s shortest suspension bridge; Brooklyn Bridge. When did America last claim that it had the smallest anything? It’s such a fetching space that I even appreciate the George Washington Monument; since 2001 the 567th statue I’ve seen of a man on his horse.
In Beacon Hill we see Omni Parker House; former host to a Saturday morning literary club, where in 1857, chatting around a table, you’d find Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes. As someone may have said, surely the greatest gathering of American intellect, apart from last week, when, alone in the Oval Office, George Dubaya sat eating ribs.
We spot the Old State House, from the balcony of which Queen Elizabeth addressed a crowd during 1976’s Bicentennial. A dignitary handed HRH a cheque for £3,000, representing the unpaid tax from 1773’s Boston Tea Party; when the rebellious colonists- ‘No Taxation without Representation,’ tipped their goods in the harbour (ha-ba) to protest sending yet more money to the British. Of course, the cheque was symbolic but I’m told that Liz said, ‘One thanks you very much’ and promptly spent it on brandy and fags for her Mum.
Many count the Maid of the Mist boat ride alongside the American Falls and then up to the Horseshoe Falls as the pinnacle of their Niagara visit. Certainly there’s a remarkable roar and whiteout and soaking underneath the 2,700-foot wide rim as, per second, 600,000 US gallons tumble 180 feet. I am also staggered by the mist’s wide drop-zone, where over parts of the adjacent township it’s perpetually raining and drizzling. But for me most memorable is the precipice itself. A low wall borders the river and but a few feet from the falls I stood, staring, absorbed by the silent rush of blue/green before the river plunges deathlessly over its cliff of dolostone and shale. I could only shudder as I contemplated those who, either accidentally or deliberately, had gone over the fcuker.
Whilst many hospitality workers could learn from those in North American tourism, there’s a point at which it becomes silly. I was in the corner away from the window with my eyes fixed to the floor, refusing to watch Toronto rushing downward in a nauseating blur. The CN Tower lift took 58 seconds to reach the 360 restaurant; 1,150 feet above the city. So our entire relationship lasted less than one minute, making it seem just a bit pointless that, as the doors closed noiselessly, a bright voice announced, ‘Hi, I’m Dean and tonight, I’ll be your elevator driver.’
Below us sat some cotton-woolly clouds, contrasting with the vicious thunderstorm which, minutes before, had flooded sections of Toronto. We gaze out at Lake Ontario, everlasting under the brooding skies. Earlier our TV warned of tornados so I’m subsequently pleased that we only deal with a pinch-lipped, pudge-faced waiter and not either of that night’s two reported twisters.
Our VIA train to the Rockies is refurbished 1950’s Art Deco. It’s a deeply relaxing three days to Jasper and our room has beds that drop from the ceiling and spring out from the wall. Like siblings, we squabble over who gets the top bunk and rollicking along, we also stare out from the observation deck of the Dome Car. The initial 1500 kilometres offers a singular view: endless trees and thousands of varied lakes. We learn, without surprise, that Ontario is home to one quarter of the planet’s fresh water!
Crossing into Manitoba, the woods and water suddenly cease and are replaced by vast, golden prairies. On Sunday morning we stop, somewhat inexplicably, in Sioux Lookout – best tourist attraction: a yellow, rusty car which has on its doors, ‘Rita’s Taxi.’ Reading the local paper, we discover that bear-resistant trash bins have been installed due to 46 recent ‘encounters.’ Regrettably, we’re asleep as we pass through the Saskatchewan hamlet of Biggar. Its motto is, ‘New York might be big but we’re Biggar.’
After dwelling in Winnipeg and then Edmonton- highlight: travelling parallel to Wayne Gretzky Drive- we ultimately arrive in Jasper and the Rockies! Following white-water rafting on the Athabasca River, we meet Kerry’s former workmate Owen and in the time-honoured manner, sprint to the Dead Dog Bar & Grill and over the ensuing evening, try to rid the entire national park of liquor. Maybe, we’re motivated by an imagined sign, ‘5 cents from every drink used to install bear-resistant trash bins.’ The Violet Femmes twanging on the jukebox, Owen saying, ‘I really should buy a PT Cruiser’ and a herd of bearded, check-shirted park-rangers clumsily attempting a bar-room brawl are all signs to retire. I do.
In the groaning morning as we’re escorted around Canada’s most spectacular vistas, my mind alternates between these hangover cures: chips ‘n’ gravy and sleep. With Pyramid Mountain as a dramatic backdrop, we pose for a tour-group photo. I think, chips ‘n’ gravy and sleep. Onward to stunning Lake Maligne and Spirit Island, where between snow-capped giants, our boat glides across indigo water. I think, chips ‘n’ gravy and sleep. We’re then bussed to Maligne Canyon; the Canadian Rockies’ most amazing gorge, where sheer limestone walls plummet to depths of over 165 feet. Standing on the edge I should gladly catch the spray from the thundering Maligne River and peer into the mossy depths but, instead, I think, chips ‘n’ gravy and sleep.
The middle of summer, it’s minus three Celsius and below us is nearly half a kilometre of packed snow. We’re on the Columbia Icefields which is larger than Manhattan, feeds eight glaciers and has meltwater flowing to three oceans: the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic. Arms flailing, Kerry involuntarily skates over to a stream, where we fill our bottle with the most pure water. Despite being well-travelled, Kerry’s folks had never seen snow. And, as we shivered on this polar plateau, some delicate, tiny flakes floated across our faces.
With the risk of bear attack similar to accidental impregnation by Elton John, a bus companion buys and ties to her backpack a set of bear-bells. Its only function, apparently, to rattle and jingle as constantly as she and her slap-worthy husband are late returning to the coach. Mrs Bear-Bells is a cutesy twit who believes that with each passing moment, her place in your heart is further assured. A dozen jangling bus-hours later, she finally takes her bells on a short walk. Oh, how I imagined myself in the foyer, as an ashen-faced ranger comes through the door, removing his sunglasses and hat and holding a plastic shopping bag. ‘That’s all that’s left,’ he apologises as her husband peers in at the ripe bear droppings, inside of which is a near new set of bear-bells.
Banff is impossibly attractive. A measure of its massive splendour is that Banff National Park boasts in excess of 1,000 glaciers. Isn’t that astonishing? Kerry and I walk towards our motel along Banff Avenue; taking in Cascade Mountain; achingly gorgeous and dusted with snow like a continental cake. Its perfection is beyond any Monet. Banff Gondola carries us atop the 2,300 metre Sulphur Mountain. The view is humbling. Exploring the Banff Park Museum and its taxidermy collection of animals from eagles to badgers (we don’t need no stinkin’ badgers) to grizzly bears is also great.
Our bus presses on towards the Pacific and we pause in Yoho National Park at a natural bridge over Kicking Horse River. It’s a stirring sight but I also like the waterless washrooms- euphemistically called Summer Houses; sum are for boys, sum are for girls! Canada is surprisingly graffiti-free but splashing southward, I notice some scribble on the WC wall-
Underneath is a fantastic retort
Why should I?
With ocean and mountains, sky and space could there be a better city than Vancouver? Our hotel sits within the 1300- acre downtown area and we inspect some bustling bars, CD stores and boutiques. Peep Shows- 25 cents (how can this be good?) also compete for attention. I especially like Gastown; the neighbourhood named after raconteur and Vancouver’s first tavern-owner, Yorkshire’s ‘Gassy’ Jack Deighton. Don’t you think that characters like ‘Gassy’ and not aristocratic simpletons are how all suburbs should be named? Granville Island bursts with vibrant markets, restaurants and a microbrewery. It’s tremendous fun.
On our last day in North America, with Kerry’s parents flying to California, we hire bikes and circumnavigate Stanley Park. We follow the seawall, and with a gentle melancholy befitting our final hours on holiday, some drizzle appears. We pass Brockton Oval, its cricketers surrounded by forest and friendly harbour. By Lions Head Bridge, it’s teeming. The euphoria keeps us peddling and now, happily soaking, we take the curving esplanade home. At English Bay Beach, an Italian lunch follows. Then, the quiet demands of packing as we contemplate the wonders and frustrations, the charms and curiosities of North America and reluctantly, our looming responsibilities, back across the darkening Atlantic.
Love Michael, Kerry and Roxy
The Famous Five and Ringo become untidy in Cornwall
Hello from Hertfordshire, for the final time.
The footballer Paul Gascoigne is interviewed before a match by a Norwegian camera crew about England’s upcoming opponents. The reporter concludes cheerfully, ‘Have you a final message for the people of Norway?’
‘Yes,’ replies Gazza, considering these Scandinavians’ diverse cultural legacy and, most certainly, his responsibilities as a global role-model. He gazes directly at the camera. ‘Fcuk off Norway.’
An autumnal weekend among Oxford’s dreaming spires and blonde colleges! We sauntered through Christ Church Meadows’ drifts of auburn leaves towards the Isis River and her rowing sheds and then sat, legs dangling, watching the eights gliding over the twinkling water. At their berths, narrow-boats bumped and teased whilst dumpy Goths body-slammed each other beneath the dappled elms, their urges loosened by cider. We pause at the Head of the River pub, where students celebrate matriculating, their black gowns swirling about the buzzing beer garden. It’s a great Oxford scene.
England is incessantly surprising. Traffic updates regularly announce a London suburb I’ve never heard of whilst eccentric endeavours are catered for by various associations. Love naked synchronised unicycling? A local club can connect you with like-minded types. Late Saturday in an Oxford market, we spied a curiosity. It dates from 1890. It was insured in the 1930’s for an unfathomable $US 5,000. To view it one had to seek, in writing, an appointment, which may or may not have been granted. In this illustrious university town, in a butchers’ shop, in a showcase, hangs a wizened lump of meat. Yes folks, we were staring at the world’s oldest ham.
Cornwall doesn’t look English. It is, in part, dramatically hilly and its seaside villages remind me of Mykonos and Italy’s Amalfi coast. With a tangle of cobblestoned lanes and postcard-perfect buildings, the best is Polperro. I especially like the antique fishing boats huddling like a Dylan Thomas image in its petite harbour. However, ambling along neighbouring Looe’s Banjo Pier I see a council sign whose third request reveals much about the British beach experience.
Dogs on leash
No fishing September to April
Please do not bury soiled nappies in the sand
Last summer Boscastle attracted an infamy when struck by a flood. An inch of rain fell on this fetching village within fifteen minutes and the surge bellowed along the coastal valley, churning mud and vegetation, gushing darkly through the shops and homes, wantonly collecting from the car park one hundred vehicles and roaring into the ocean. 440 million gallons swept through Boscastle that afternoon and this disaster has become, somewhat sinisterly, a tourist attraction. More than thirty cars still lie at the bottom of the bay.
It was exciting to take our latest visitors, Kay and Paul, into their first local boozer, The Cobweb. Like playing a friend a CD you know they’ll love, it’s a delight that I relish. I love walking in, eyeing the ale, lager and cider taps in a seeking out of old amber acquaintances, then like a kindly gent teaching a grandson how to bat, talking my guests through the possibilities; gently leading these innocents to a beverage decision, ordering the drinks with crisp authority and retiring to an ancient table where, pints in paw, I continue chaperoning them through the fairground of English pub delights.
Rick Stein personifies much of what we’ve loved about England. His TV series commemorates food and drink and many things rustic in a sunny travelogue, so with tingling expectations we drove through the fog to Padstow on our anniversary. Rick’s fish’n’chips for lunch! Or given that Rick’s now in Sydney for the winter, the cooking of one of his 400 employees. Our lunch was expensive but superb. The chips were large and unfussy whilst the cod’s batter was crisp and golden; unlike the brittle fish I battled last week, surprisingly enough, at Heathrow.
Our cottage in the Bodmin Moor village of Warleggan, offered painterly views across the valleys but was only accessible by barely car-width, hedge-rowed country (cun-ry) lanes. Walking Roxy one noon and still the fog sat viscous and pearly whilst on Friday night we took her across the eerie heath. Through the murk, masticating faces of ponies and cattle loomed suddenly and we and the dog bounced in alarm. However, I was disappointed not to see Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy apprehending some unshaven, common-voiced smugglers.
The Moors provoke images of windswept bleakness and chilling murder. Daphne du Maurier lived here and I pictured her taking inspiration from the landscape. Once she was walking across to Menabilly Barton farm and saw a farmer busily ploughing a field whilst above him the seagulls were diving and wheeling. She developed the idea about the birds becoming hostile and attacking him and later Alfred Hitchcock turned this into ‘The Birds.’
If I lived in Europe forever I wouldn’t lose the addictive thrill of taking a short flight to a place different in climate, culture and language. I love being in another country for dinner, so, for three pence each (plus tax and charges) we zipped down to Nimes, the French city, which, at once, is Roman, Spanish and with contributions from the Cévennes, the Languedoc and Provence.
We liked it because Australia is so car-centric that when I visit a community so obviously happy and yet hostile to vehicles, it makes me dream of a life in which I promenade with the wife and dog, carrying paper-bags of groceries- with compulsory bread-sticks, between olden, leaning buildings and exchange chirpy banter with other bread-stick carriers. If Nimes’ pedestrianised lanes weren’t rendered so ice-skate, fall-on-my-date slippery by the drizzle and every corner; polluted by a clot of sneering, misshapen youth, I could live there.
Nimes is also known for denim (de Nimes) which was first manufactured here for export to southern USA to clothe the slaves. So, to assimilate, we both wear jeans. Exploring Avenue Victor Hugo, Kerry and I sample the Café de Paris and then Murphy’s Bar prior to eating French pizza, unexpectedly topped with raw ground beef and uncooked egg! The digestion of this, I’m now sure, could only have been assisted by my emptying a Tower of Power- a triumphant metre of beer, five pints of Belgium’s finest – Stella Artois. Stupidly, I didn’t and we scampered back to the Imperator- apparently the only European hotel not haunted by Hemingway- before, as is the current French way, we’re arrested for breaking curfew or are torched by the disaffected.
Les Arenes is Nimes’ Roman amphitheatre. It seats 23,000, is well preserved and, happily, is quiet on Sunday morning. Steeples from surrounding churches watch as we marvel at its architecture. It is here that many come to witness the Spanish style ferias or bullfights that take place at Easter and during summer. Imagining the bloodied gladiators and butchered beasts I say to Kerry,’ Do you know what would also be perfect within this setting? A Spinal Tap concert.’
‘The contemplation of sex is why masturbation is a Catholic sin,’ my friend Barry explained to his Religion Studies class. In the back row a hand belonging to- you guessed it- little Johnnie, goes up and he inquires, we suspect, with the voice of experience, ‘Sir, during masturbation is it still a sin if you’re thinking about cars?’
On the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, we’re invited to friends’ for Bonfire Night. At 6:20 the phone rings and it’s Lawrence, their teenaged son. ‘What time are you coming?’
‘Come now, please,’ he begs.
Arriving, we are immediately shown their Guy Fawkes straw effigy and then he is slung onto the fire. Early November is dry and clear; perfect for backyard fireworks.
Previously, I visited Sainsbury’s to do what few Australians younger than fifty have done in their own land- I bought a box of rockets (£7.99 for 5). However, the sales assistant insisted I could only take it as I was leaving the store. In this jittery post-9/11, post-7/7 world, MI5 obviously envisioned me walking the aisles like a zombie, my dead eyes staring unblinkingly, arriving at the frozen foods in a menacing calm, selecting a plump turkey, holding it between my knees, then like a demented proctologist inserting a firework into its bum, pointing the poultry at some pensioners and lighting the fuse.
Their names are penned by earnest but failed copywriters- Waves of Thunder, Starburst, Magician. My favourite is a Catherine wheel called Howling Banshee. 30,000 crowd St Albans’ Verulamium Park for a charity fireworks event and the sky is a-glow with colourful splashes, smoky smears and Somme-like noise. At home Roxy’s not pleased and phones the RSPCA, the police and her lawyer. Meanwhile, chestnuts roast by the flames and mulled wine warms.
It’s a fun, English evening and we’re glad to be there. I’ll miss nights like that and sampling pies and sausages from the farmers’ market and spotting spring’s first bumble-bee and getting a penny in my change and riding my bike to school across ice-crunchy fields and strolling to St Michael’s village for a sandwich and a pint and lots, lots more.
Love Michael, Kerry and Roxy