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A letter to myself at thirteen about a story I wrote

KHS

Hello young Michael

I hope this finds you well. Although of all people I should know how you’re travelling.

Gee, look at you! Your hair is nut-brown, having turned darker since you were a little blonde boy. I won’t send through a photo because the silver, err, fox you are now might scare you a little.

What a scrawny thing you are too. If I can give you a tip or two, play footy and cricket as long as you can. Giving both away when you’re around thirty seems too young. After this you’re a spectator forever.

To the story you wrote in Mrs Warry’s Year 9 English class at Kapunda High. I reckon it was in Room 42, that transportable out the back. You loved that class and the space itself was inviting and safe, but this was a function of the teacher. It always is.

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Nowadays it’s strange, but I reckon we went the entire year without a computer or watching a film. I don’t think we even had to get up in front of our friends and give a talk.

We simply read and wrote and learned.

Your story, “The Courtroom of the World” begins with the protagonist, young Barney, opening his eyes, having fallen. That you withhold the details surrounding this is excellent. It simply doesn’t matter. The intrigue only makes us more curious. Without your knowing it, dropping the reader into the middle of the action is an exalted technique that the Classicists called in medias res. Well done.

I must also congratulate you on your careful, earnest handwriting. It’s a credit to your sense of application although you must prepare yourself for the shock of what happens later. Now you write like a shiraz-soaked spider has wobbled through a saucer of ink…

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You admirably attempt a metaphor with, “rivers of blood” to describe Barney’s leg injury although some would classify it as passé. But, then again, you’re not quite fourteen, so they should be kinder. Encouragement is always the very best option. Stick with metaphors as they make stories gold-plated. Ha!

While I’m at it, why Barney? Did you know a Barney? The only Barney I recall is Rubble, and you weren’t a huge Flintstones fan, but I reckon you found Betty cute although she was no Josie of the Pussycats. Could be another mystery of adolescence.

I do like how you maintain the tension. At one point, Barney becomes agitated, “gasping in fright” for he has to be home at six and it’s already five-thirty. That Catholic compliance (guilt) can pop up in all sorts of surprising places.

In the next plot development our main character sets off with no clear plan only to descend into what, “was a cave. Being an adventurous boy, he decided to explore.” Recent history says no to this. Snooping about in a cave is not suggested. Here in 2018 I’m sure of this.

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I can forgive that, but then to shamelessly write, “Up ahead in the distance he saw a shimmering light” is disappointing. Under no circumstances should you plagiarise the Eagles and their 1976 song, “Hotel California.” Sorry, but despite how many school socials you slow-danced to it before those stark community hall lights came on, this is wrong, morally and aesthetically. I don’t care how captivating you found the final guitar solo.

I’m curious that “The Courtroom of the World” is presided over by a frog, but I guess our amphibian friends would be as suited as any beast to pass robust global judgments. Good job avoiding the obvious call of making a lion, tiger or wombat king of the planet.

The jury in your tale consists of, “The Alligator, the Snake, the Monkey, and the Seagull.” Let me ask why you thought that a seagull could offer lofty wisdom and analytical thinking? They’re really just hot-chip vultures.

Just as The Honorable Justice Frog is about to hand down his terrible, doubtless appropriate verdict, Barney’s mother awakes him! I wonder if there’s not a rite of passage about this, a compulsion that all offspring must write a narrative that concludes with a dreadful jolt from slumber.

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I look back across the increasingly fluffy decades to that classroom and consider its legacy. Even when we didn’t deserve it Mrs Warry would smile and peer at us warmly from above her glasses. She was kind, patient and offered that most luminous of gifts, considered praise.

I thank her for helping to shape me.

I recall little of the previous or following year in English. Year 9 has always enjoyed a certain mythology: an unforgettable, sharp quality. Yours, it would seem, was like this.

You’ll be saddened to learn that Mrs Warry passed away this last year.

So, young Michael, keep with it as I like what you’re doing. While I’m pretty sure you don’t have a novel or a film lurking in your bonce, there’s a couple of boys called Alex and Max who just might. They seem to enjoy a yarn and as you know, we need storytellers.

Keep encouraging them, just like Mrs Warry would’ve.

See you soon.

xxxgates

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Fruity Ale and a Fire Bucket

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Aside from irregularly charging into the charcoal chook shop on a tricky Tuesday and escaping with some cooked poultry and fried spud there’s limited chances in my cosy sphere to pretend I’m a hunter and gatherer.

But since we’ve now a fire bucket on the back patio I find myself sourcing wood throughout the wintry months, and last week in my pre-pub enthusiasm I zipped across the suburbs to a garden vendor and loaded my car with red-gum. My purchasing challenge had been made clear by the wife: don’t get stumps that are too big and don’t get stumps that are too small.

As a timber-collecting Goldilocks I surveyed the wood heap. With the drizzle tending to rain and the mud sloshing about my boots I pecked about the crumbling Cheops of logs like a fussy rooster. What I lacked in scientific application I compensated with crude, Cub Scout judgment and soon had a wagon-full of iron-hued stumps.

Easing the motor onto the weighbridge I felt an inner glow borne of a successful excursion that guaranteed I’d enjoy my subway sandwich at a proximate shopping centre. But this can be complex for I often find that a six-inch sub isn’t enough, and that twelve can be too much. Let’s all petition Doctor’s Associates Inc for a nine-inch sub!

*

Saturday saw the house lashed by angry squalls and clattering rain but the mid-afternoon fire kept us warm. Starting the blaze is acutely ceremonial and Alex was enthusiastically insistent and Max, a spirited jumper and involuntary clapper, while their Mum lit the first match to get us underway.

Gradually, there were family and friends and burgundy wine and cheese and chat and nostalgic music, and these generated a fetching glow in which I happily swam.

With a national conference looming it was an ideal gathering at which to road-test my new ice-breaker. Having workshopped it extensively with my old comrade and new-ish colleague JB, out it came, for in some ways it’s the ultimate question, and taps neatly into the endless Zeitgeist.

On “Islands in the Stream” who gives the best performance: Kenny or Dolly?

With stunning clarity, the results were revealed as a little lop-sided, perhaps in a similar fashion to that which saw Anne Shirley “Willsy” Wills (OAM) collect 19 Most Popular State (South Australia) Personality Logies. After scrutineering the votes were

Dolly- 9
Kenny- 1.

Still, as the late wrestling icon Rowdy Roddy Piper used to say, it’s about the process.

RRP

*

The fire danced and crackled and my playlist changed mid-seventies gears from the Bee Gees to Dr Hook so we added heavy chunks of red-gum and then night descended. Inside our boys and the other kids tore about and transacted in robust and efficient ways as their games began, unfolded and then collapsed, as all games must.

Meanwhile across the city, country and globe all manner of professional games were being played, and remarkably every single team in which I’ve varying degrees of investment engineered a loss. Here’s a roll-call of anguish: the Glenelg Football club, the Adelaide Football club, the Socceroos, the Wallabies, and at The Oval in London, where many years ago, we’d personally witnessed a grim result, the Australian cricket side. I should’ve bagged them all up into a hideous multi and had myself an unpatriotic if tidy earn.

But none of these irritants mattered on my birthday for there I was by a mesmerising fire with fruity ale, if not fruity conversation. Later, the dogs, Buddy and Angel, flopped on their beds and the last of the storm fronts rushed furiously by. Happily, there’d still be cheese for late Sunday afternoon.

With a sturdy click the back door was locked, and at least in my mind, I could hear the projected voice of a 1960’s publican bark across his dark bar, “Time, please.”

I was soon asleep.

willsy

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Pub review: The Prince of Wales, Kapunda

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I’d driven non-stop for over four hours, dodging kangaroos, AM radio (up next the latest from Danni Minogue!) and berserk truckies like the one in Spielberg’s Duel, and Friday-exhausted, fell into the front bar around 8pm. It was a hike from Kimba.

“Hello West Coast smack-head,” greeted mine host. “Christ you’re getting fat, Mickey.” He continued. “Are you still driving that dopey sports car?”

Welcome to Kapunda’s Prince of Wales hotel, run with gruff affection by lumbering iconoclast Peter “Puffa” Jansen.

The blunt cranial and corporeal references are like warm handshakes. These are Puffa’s way of welcoming me into his cosy pub. His is an inclusive environment: no-one is spared his jibes, and these are all part of the boisterous charm. To not be abused would be offensive.

But to understand the publican we need to know more of his curiosities. He was fond of a mid-week luncheon and these sometimes included local identities such as Norton Schluter. Norton ran the Greenock Creek Tavern: a Barossan boozer with such similar atmospherics it could be a sister pub to the Prince.

Legend has it that Puffa and some captive chaps once when out to lunch. When traversing the state Puffa preferred to sip cans. He reckoned they “travelled better.” Post-dessert they inexplicably then drove to Broken Hill in the big publican’s even bigger Falcon and returned four days later.

The Prince of Wales is a snug pub with a front bar like a lounge room. It’s this spatial dynamic which assists the natural intimacy.  The decor is spartan and the space is dominated by the beautiful, antique pub fridge with timber doors and those ancient chrome door handles. About the bar are maybe ten black-topped stools.

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Often, early in the afternoon, there’d be but a single conversation with the tethered denizens such as Roger and Matesy, and the quips would shuttlecock about the bar and there’d be volleys of chirping from in their cups.

Retrospectively, I can see that chief among its attractions was a clear-minded absence of TAB, thumping music, big-screen TVs and dining options. The Prince was solely dedicated to conversation and cups although I recall watching the 1989 Grand Final in there on, I imagine, a boxy old Rank Arena, and willing on Ablett the Elder before the clock ran out.

It was a venue for personal firsts. On a lazy Sunday afternoon I was introduced to the English public school tradition of spoofy which initially only required three coins but, if you lost, it resulted in significantly more fiscal investment, especially if there were six or seven of you in a roaring circle. And the pain of loosing to Goose or Whitey went far beyond the mere monetary.

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Also in 1989 some mates and I hired a VN Commodore wagon and headed to Brisbane for about three weeks. Of course, we set off from the Prince. Ever the social benefactor Puffa said, “Here you yo-yo’s take my radar detector. I’ve seen how you blokes drive. It might save you a few bucks. Just bring me back a carton of that new Powers beer from Queensland.” And the detector did ping numerous times across New South Wales. We delivered Puffa his slab.

I also remember old mate Trev and his band ‘Imelda’s Shoes’ playing one Sunday afternoon in the bottle-o drive way. I stood by the war memorial as the drums and guitar blasted down Mildred Street.

Puffa loved a bet. Up on the wall behind his bar, next to the clocks, was a row of coasters on which the wagers had been scribbled. It was like a silent bookie. Puffa once said to me just after Christmas, “Don’t worry about the Sydney Test, smack head. It’ll be a draw. It’ll be rained out.”

I’d seen the forecast, so retorted, “I reckon it’ll stay dry.”

Puffa then barked, “I’ll give you 4 to 1 that it’ll rain. Easy money for me, you yo-yo!”

Of course, Fanie de Villiers bowled South Africa to victory in a rare, entirely rain-free Test. After I returned from New Zealand in late January Puffa took down the coaster and I enjoyed his cash momentarily, before donating it in yet another ill-conceived spoofy final. I had a skill for that.

Although it now offers a broader range of tap beers I’m sure we only drank West End Draught in either schooners or butchers. My A3s cricket captain Kym Ryan took his lager in a handled mug, and this seemed sophisticated. In 1986, it probably was.

*

Early one morning during our last year in Singapore my cousin Puggy- called a “smack head” by Puffa as often as anyone- sent me a message to say that the iconic publican had passed away.

Trev and I called in a while back when in Kapunda for Woodsy’s birthday. We invested a vigorous hour as the pale sunlight bent through the windows, and I expected Puffa to burst behind his bar and bark, “Hello smack head!”

When next in Kapunda I urge you to visit and enjoy a butcher of West End Draught! But not a game of spoofy.

Puffa

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Cross Country

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It’s instructive, every now and again, to enjoy some sunny elevation. Not so much that you become disconnected from the good earth and its human endeavours, but just enough.

There’s a glorious, painterly aspect and my canvas bursts with sun and sky and sea. I look down the fairway, across the seventh green to the ocean and then to Brighton jetty with its abrupt pier and somewhat sinister telecommunications tower pushing upwards to transmit the city’s texts and calls and photos, and finally off towards the middle distance of the emboldened Glenelg skyline, behind which sits our modest bungalow.

I’m at Marion Golf Course on a bright Wednesday morning strolling the primary school cross-country track that Alex and a host of unknown competitors will soon tackle. Much of the running circuit is out-of-bounds for the golfers, although probably well explored by high-handicapped hackers like me whose Hot Dot is drawn to the fierce wilderness like a goat to the roof of an abandoned car.

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Later, I’m by a green with the loose knot of our boys and a tall, kindly grandfather who offers grandfatherly pre-race wisdom.

“Just do your best.”

“Where you finish is irrelevant.”

“The main thing is to enjoy yourself.”

You can imagine my surprise when he then channelled Walter from The Big Lebowski and barked:

“Dude, this is a league game, this determines who enters the next round robin. Am I wrong? Am I wrong?”

Actually, I just made this bit up, but enjoyed the generosity of his encouragement, and hoped the boys, now squirming with energy and anxiety, did too. We were, for that moment, a little community. It was lovely.

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About three dozen boys from half a dozen schools strained across the line, gawping at the official’s earnest, controlling remarks.

“Don’t sneak over or there’ll be a false start.”

“When you hear the Robin Hood horn, go!”

Alex was mid-line, tall and tense. On his left was a small lad who was sporting that most ridiculous of hair sculptures, the man-bun. Oh, dear.

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A minute or two in and a number had already surrendered to their personal galaxy of defeat and were walking, some distraught and slump-shouldered, while others, without an outward care, were happy to be out of school, and in the perky, breezy, coastal morning.

Running, of course, is the original and most pure of sporting pursuits. There’s no ball, or inferior teammates: just you, your legs and a relentless, unyielding terrain. I reminded myself that this is a gruelling event, especially for a ten year old, and requires uncommon resilience. How many young kids really want to run long distance?

On his final lap Alex emerged from the hilly scrub, exhausted, but still running. And while he’d finish mid-field it was his first cross-country race, and he showed impressive grit. I hoped that this was a metaphor for his inner character and a likely predictor for how he’d face his future. Who could tell? At that point, I was proud.

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In the car on the way back to school I offered him an apple, but he was busy with a bucket of orangey sports drink. He didn’t even mind that the radio was on Triple J.

“Dad,” he noted, “You’ll have to run faster when we go to the beach. If you were out there today, you’d come last.”

“I reckon you’re right.”

“I’m gonna train 355 times before next year’s race. So I can do better.”

Would he be an Olympian? Possibly not. Had we handed him the key to an active, participatory life? I hoped so.

From our elevated spot we drove down to the flat and into the rest of the day.

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Jetty Jumping

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Just as that shopper in front of you is oddly surprised when the supermarket cashier asks them to pay, and they go, “Oh,” spend an epoch finding their purse, and then finally pay the $42.75 with only ten-cent coins, I find it equally bewildering that folk in South Australia are astonished annually that autumn is our best season. Although TS Eliot was considering the northern hemisphere in The Waste Land when he wrote, “April is the cruelest month” down here I reckon it’s the best time of the year.

On the border of Innes National Park, Marion Bay is a new favourite. Thursday was a gold medal day with the sun lower in the sky, but still deliciously warm, and the fierce, forbidding wind gone.

Our party of eight kids and eight adults assembled early at the Stenhouse Bay jetty. We had it to ourselves and one of the dads, Andy, suitably wet-suited, jumped in and then one of the mums, Karla, bravely sans wetsuit, followed to greet and safe-guard.

The water was a fetching Greek island-blue, flat as the Adelaide Oval pitch and as clear as a Paul Keating insult.

Meanwhile, Benny cast a line and jagged a squid within moments. Landing it on the jetty’s warm timbers, our circle of kids closed and peered on, as bewitched and curious as you’d hope, given that many of their parents are science teachers.

fishing

Of course, I observed from a distance, trying to compose a haiku about squid on a jetty but failed, instead barking brashly about there being more ink than at a Port Power home game.

Our brave warrior Alex was first to leap into the Antarctic aqua. He splashed and yelped about and then hauled himself up the metal ladder. He’d go again half a dozen times.

With their eternal sibling rivalry sparking, Max was next in our family. Bravely, he went over the edge, and in, but paddled quickly back to the pylons, singular urgency on his damp dial. There’d be no treading water for him, but as is his compulsion he interrogated his world with physical and emotional strength. I beamed at both of the boys, and silently thanked their mother for this genetic detail.

In her shorts and Spiderbait t-shirt Kerry was up next, fiercely determined and commentating in her funny way. The boys looked upon their mum with awe and the frequent, inner confirmation that she’s cool. Once in the drink she laughed constantly, adrenalin and biting cold motoring her across the bay.

Other kids and their parents were casting fishing lines, and these whirled out into the tiny inlet, but the squids wouldn’t be dead for quids.

jetty

I’m not especially happy about heights, but if there’s water beneath me I’m less worried. If you tumble off the Eiffel Tower onto the Parisian plaza below you’ll splat like a bag of cat food, but have a marginally better chance tumbling and a-hollerin’ into the ocean. Or something like this.

So, in I went. And many of you will nod at the news that I was wearing cut-off jeans.

Yes, swimming jeans.

As I fell towards the icy-ness I remembered the sea-lions I’d seen at Pier 39 in San Francisco, but doubted, somehow, that I shared their sleek, natural entry.

Flopping off that pylon Benny yelled after me, in acknowledgement of my Whyalla Norrie-inspired swimming jeans, “You’ll need a XXXX when you come up.”

“Yeah, and a Winny Blue,” my voice ascended, as I descended.

*

I love a jetty. Strolling along one is good for the soul as there’s something nourishing in the relationship between water and land, people and nature, and the crisp breeze and your open face.

I think again of my old friend John Malone and his poetic ode to these beautiful structures

People lean

from jetties, dream from jetties

fishing for

tranquillity. They are

walkways into and out of

the mind. Umbilical

chords attaching us to the sea.

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Sports Day

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The past month in our quiet corner of this blue planet has been Sports Day season, and last Thursday it was the turn of St Leonards Primary School.

Striding past the playground equipment, all the swings and ropes stationary above their crimped carpet of pine chips, the principal, I hear Mr HS is making his opening remarks. There’s the compulsory coffee van, heaving cake stall, curved sweep of parents and grandparents, school staff and finally the kids all sitting on the edge of the oval, in their houses, splashed and smeared in colour: Patawalonga (green), Buffalo (yellow), Holdfast (blue) and the boys’ team, Saints (red).

It’s a painterly scene with the waving gum trees and grey but innocuous clouds down south and to the east, over those low-slung hills. Mr HS also mentions that for the first time there’ll be a Spirit Shield. I like this as it places value on fairness, humility and being a good sport, whatever this means in 2018. I reckon the kids will be able to show us through their innocent investment and unbroken quest to have fun. There’ll be no ball tampering today.

The healthy sense of theatre continues. Some of the students are bursting to move, to get up and tumble about with their mates like Labrador pups, but they remain in place. This, of course, is rehearsal for adult life and its various endurance tests such as waiting in a doctor’s surgery when you’ve exhausted the grotty stack of magazines and you glimpse the rising dark outside beyond the car park.

Advance Australia Fair begins and I’m pleased that it’s the modern, inclusive version complete with didgeridoo and clapsticks. Everyone stands, staring into the middle distance, the kids singing while the adults mouth the words in a way that would challenge the most skilled of lip-readers.

Having reminded ourselves that we’re in the most curious and amusing of arcane states: girt by sea, we then move to the second, difficult verse. I know I’m outing myself as an incurable bogan but just as The William Tell Overture instantly connotates The Lone Ranger I hear our anthem and it’s instantly the AFL grand final.

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The final act in this preamble is each house performing their chant, in turn. There’s vigorous competition, community and connection in this. I look over at Alex who shouts the cutely warmongering words to the warm sky while Max is reserved in his recitation. He’s probably thinking of funny, alternate lyrics.

It’s been an excellent fifteen minutes in which the shared venture has contributed to the endless series of signals that is school tone. Having sat in many assemblies and public gatherings I’m warmed and proud that the climate here is eager and respectful. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

There’s a strong sense of inclusion to the athletic program too. Egg and spoon races, lawn bowls, tug of war, and a STEM challenge as well as the traditional pursuits. Alex first heads to the sprints, a track of about sixty metres. He lopes like a baby giraffe but covers the patchy grass surprisingly well. He wins.

This is a good opening but there’s an entire timeslot available so he strolls back to the start and a few minutes later he races again. And again. I can feel the parents’ collective approval as they scan ahead to the post-dinner, post-bath evening and the likelihood of exhausted kids, fully cooked, and in bed early.

I then watch Max tackle an obstacle course that brilliantly combines sack race, hurdles, running and crawling, commando-style, beneath a large tarp which has been pegged to the ground, deep in the forward pocket. Bear Grylls time. Jumping into his sack, Max is characteristically unhurried in getting comfortable and balanced before bounding off, a blonde joey in the distant scrub.

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The tarp has had a long and productive life but now features a couple of long tears across its middle. Some kids exit at the first hole, others at the second. None seem to crawl the intended stretch, and I wonder if there’s a secretive psychologist on campus, taking notes for a longitudinal study on how these choices might predict future moral lives.

But, I doubt it. They’re just kids, having fun on a bright autumnal morning, and learning more about each other and themselves, while their loved ones enjoy these fleeting, fragile moments.

Suddenly, my time has vanished. Still immersed in a proud glow, I drive away, towards the city.

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