3

Paul Kelly’s “How to Make Gravy” and me

songs from the south

My favourite Christmas song is twenty-two. But it seems as though it’s been around forever. Like Love Actually, which premiered in 2003, they’re both part of the festive furniture, and signal the season’s arrival.

It’s the 21st of December and our protagonist Joe, freshly imprisoned and hotly anxious, reaches out to his brother. But is “How to Make Gravy” a letter or a phone call? Initially, the form seems spoken- “Hello Dan, it’s Joe here,” but then moves to a written mode- “I hope you’re keeping well.” Which is it? I don’t know.

Over four and a half minutes, this mystery of the medium continues while we meet the brothers; Angus; parents Frank and Dolly; Joe’s wife Rita; his kids; sisters Stella and Mary; Mary’s former boyfriend, the olfactorily-offensive one (just a little too much cologne) and, of course, the almost missable Roger.

Although most are only mentioned once they’re Australia’s first family of Christmas song. We feel like we know them. Despite these skeletal sketches, they’re writ large. Dolly’s the uncrossable matriarch. I can imagine having a beer with Angus, and if he were alive surely Bill Hunter would play Frank in the film version, all gruff wisdom and barbeque tongs.

‘How to Make Gravy’ begins with opening chords similar to Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ but its guitar riff by the recently-departed Spencer P. Jones almost nods in homage to the British band’s late-sixties hit song. This might be partly why Kelly’s tour de force seems like it’s been around longer than 1996. It’s deep in our musical tectonics.

Across the top and also underneath is that doleful slide guitar, foreshadowing the anguish to come. Exhilarating, it’s suggestive of outback space and tropical heat and melancholic veranda conversations.

The next surge is when Peter “Lucky” Luscombe’s drums kick in with an electrifying jolt at, “I guess the brothers are driving down from Queensland and Stella’s flying in from the coast”.  I was drawn to the song upon its release, and taught it (and Radiohead’s “Karma Police”) to year 10 classes.

I’d only considered it as a stand-alone song until I read this from the singer: “I’m sort of aware where certain songs are written a few years apart from each other – ‘To Her Door,’ then ‘Love Never Runs on Time’ and ‘How to Make Gravy’ – I’ve got a feeling it’s the same guy. He keeps coming back.”

Here Kelly’s created a fictional universe, or at least some intertextuality, especially as the line, “Tell ’em all I’m sorry, I screwed up this time” indicates a wider backstory, an extended narrative, featuring our central character and his wife Rita.

And what of that famous recipe for gravy?

“It’s a real recipe of my first father in law, which he used and which I still use. When I make gravy for my family, that’s the recipe that I use, and now they always make me, make the gravy. It’s my job now (laughs). When I made up the song it wasn’t my job but it is now. Sometimes art influences life or the other way around.”

I love how the song’s acknowledged with today, December 21, declared national Gravy Day. There’s even a hashtag- #GravyDay.

A portrait of timeless Australia, it’s as evocative as the timber pylons of the Port Willunga jetty; a backyard cricket match; the ribbon of road unrolling across the Hay Plains.

As the boys splash about in the twinkling pool on Christmas morning, and I sneak my first piece of ham I anticipate that plaintive strumming and forlorn slide guitar and hearing, yet again, Joe’s confessional.

0

Ten Terrific Films- Part Two

lantana

5. Lantana
Great line- What are you doing here? Most of the guys in this place aren’t much older than our son.

This is a mesmerising, sumptuous mix of sex and death with a stellar cast including Barbara Hershey, Geoffrey Rush, Anthony La Paglia and Russell Coight Glenn Robbins. Written by South Australian resident Andrew Bovell it’s mysterious and gripping and sad. Paul Kelly provides the suitably atmospheric score.

Set in Sydney the film engages us visually and aurally, and I can almost feel the uncomfortable humidity of both the setting and the relationships.

groundhog

4. Groundhog Day
Great line- Ned… Ryerson. “Needlenose Ned”? “Ned the Head”? C’mon, buddy. Case Western High. Ned Ryerson: I did the whistling belly-button trick at the high school talent show? Bing! Ned Ryerson: got the shingles real bad senior year, almost didn’t graduate? Bing, again. Ned Ryerson: I dated your sister Mary Pat a couple times until you told me not to anymore? Well?

With its themes of redemption and finding joy in every moment this is a favourite among Buddhists, and as cynical weatherman Phil Connors, arguably Bill Murray’s finest performance.

A magnificent comedy the film also appeals with its life-affirming messages although it’s impossible to now hear Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” without an involuntary twinge.

Not only is Groundhog Day- February 2- my wife’s birthday, but I recall legendary Australian sports-caster Bruce McAvaney struggling uncharacteristically to say the name of a race horse called Punxsutawney Phil (a gelding). It’s the only time I’ve heard Bruce frustrated. The horse had a mercifully short career.

It’s a film I like to see annually, just to luxuriate in the fun of a Pennsylvanian town called Punxsutawney. Last February 2 a British pay TV channel showed the movie. On a loop. All day. Genius.

goodfellas

3. GoodFellas
Great line- You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it’s me, I’m a little fucked up maybe, but I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?

I know we’re all supposed to love The Godfather, and I do, but GoodFellas is my favourite mob movie. Again, it’s a film with a great, laconic narration, by the doomed protagonist Henry Hill, and based upon a true story, which concluded in witness protection as these things often do.

In a curious tribute one of The Sopranos producer called this movie his “Koran” and I love Scorsese’s soundtrack. His rule was if a scene was set, for example, in 1973 then it couldn’t feature a song from after then.

There’s a gruesome montage with bodies turning up in cars, garbage trucks and a meat freezer van set to the gorgeous slide guitar and piano coda from “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes. The disconnect between image and sound emphasises the absurdity and horror of this barbaric landscape.

With Aretha Franklin, The Who and The Rolling Stones the soundtrack evokes the broad historic sweep of this magnificent movie.

Now

2. Apocalypse Now
Great line- Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.

In many ways this is beyond a war movie as it’s a journey into the deep horror residing within our human condition. The physical action is set within Vietnam and Cambodia but the real conflict occurs within the psyches of the characters and us.

Among the questions it asks and demands we also ask is who has the moral supremacy? Kurtz? Willard? Kilgore? Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist? It also asks questions of American imperialism and war.

The mythology of making this film is a story in itself that nearly approaches Coppola’s epic. Hearts of Darkness documents the troubled production with the health issues of both Sheen and Brando; typhoons; financial blow-outs and more.

The Doors’ “The End” has been used in many films but none approach the impact it has here.

Years ago, before our boys arrived I went to our local cinema on a Sunday night to see the then newly-released Redux version. For a thrilling, brief interlude, I thought I would achieve that geeky nirvana: I’d have the entire theatre to myself and would take in the 180 minute spectacle in a private screening. Yeah, I know.

But, as the film finally opened two other punters came in, broke the spell and took their seats. Oh, well.

For the record this version is inferior. Coppola got it right first time as none of the additional scenes contribute to the original. It’s a film for a murky, wintry afternoon.

Pulp

1. Pulp Fiction
Great line-
Jules: Tell him, Vincent.
Vincent: Royale with cheese.
Jules: Royale with cheese. Do you know why they call it a Royale with cheese?
Brett: Because of the metric system?
Jules: Check out the big brain on Brett. You’re one smart motherfucker.

I’ve only ever seen one film three times in the cinema. Pulp Fiction. Upon seeing it in January 1995 it stayed with me for weeks and months. Key in this was the Elmore Leonard-inspired dialogue with its pop culture references that was at odds with the on-screen action of gangsters and violence. The film lived and thrived in this space and, to this day, colours many of my conversations.

One Sunday when we lived in St Albans just out of London we were visiting friends. The boys Joey and Laurence, had had a big night out, and had just finished their midday breakfast. I asked them what they’d eaten.
“Burgers,” came the reply.
That was my cue. “Burgers. The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast.”

While not invented by Tarantino the technique of chopping up the narrative so the story is delivered in a way that heightens our response to the characters and plot. So, instead of the film ending with Butch and his girlfriend riding off on Zed’s chopper just after killing Vincent Vega it concludes triumphantly after the coffee shop hold-up.

Like many I also bought the soundtrack and maintain that Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” splicing into Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” is the most exhilarating opening credits and frames the movie perfectly.

Thanks for reading.

7

Pub Review: The Bunch of Cherries, Hertfordshire, AL4 0XG

bunch

Telling stories in the pub.

A distant Friday.

Staff from Nicholas Breakspear RC School (named for the only English pope) around a sticky table, torn crisp packets, glasses up and down like Eiffel Tower elevators.

Fiona, my beautiful, now departed friend tells the story of a study tour to Russia. She was a fine raconteur: comical, self-deprecating, a contagiously animated narrator. At school, Fiona had been assigned as my mentor. I was in good hands. I miss her.

Local sixth form students. Saint Petersburg accommodation in a grey block, the building sinister and cavernous. Unshaven men, whispering in hoarse conspiracies, Stalinist treachery lurking like toxins.

Fiona then recounts this conversation with a pair of students, both eighteen, both built like men, but with boyish hearts.

“Where did you two get to last night?” Fiona asked, in that direct, yet gentle way she had.

“Well, Miss, Billy and I went for a walk, you know, around the motel.” Henry kicked at the frozen ground.

“Then we somehow ended up in the basement.”

Fiona was curious. Not mad, just yet. “What was in the basement?”

“Well, Miss, there was a club. Yeah, I guess you’d call it a club,” Henry offered.

Fiona continued. Still not mad. She rarely got mad. Everyone loved her. “And what happened next?”

“There was a huge man at the door of the club.”

“Like a bouncer?”

“Yeah, Miss.”

“Henry, was it an adult club?” Fiona had a way that quietly extracted the truth. She made the kids feel safe.

“Well, yeah, Miss. It was a strip club.”

“Henry, this is a problem.”

“Yeah, I guess, Miss. But the bouncer let us in for half-price,” he chirped, pride swelling his chest.

“Why?”

“Because we’re still at school!”

*

I lived in St Albans, just north of London, in Hertfordshire, and there were eighty pubs! The older ones, in the city centre, are charismatic, and gorgeous. Simply strolling through a door can be a celestial experience.

The Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, down the hill from the Cathedral, dates back twelve hundred years. It’s the country’s oldest pub. Others like The Six Bells are enticing antique taverns, with exposed beams and squat ceilings and rugby murmurings.

six bells

My Friday afternoon pub, The Bunch of Cherries, up the road from my school, was built in the 1950’s on the outskirts of town. Architecturally, it had less allure than an abattoir. It was of a style that could be called “Red Brick Hideous.”

But, for the thirty months I lived there, I loved it.

I recently found a yellowing receipt from one of those Fridays during June when life was freshly abounding. With the transaction complete and diverse glasses plonked on the table, I fell into my chair: physically, psychically and fiscally powerless to speak or sip. In time, I recovered.

six bells bar

It was tremendous fun.

As you will note, it was an elongated shout, and offers insight into this ample and eclectic crew-

Two pints of lager (Carlsberg)
Two pints of Real Ale (Black Sheep Best Bitter)
A half pint of lager (Stella Artois)
Two glasses of New World Chardonnay (South Eastern Australia)
One glass of Old World white wine (suitably vague)
A rum and coke
A nip of brandy
Two bottles of orange juice (small)
A house champagne
A gin and tonic
Three ginger beers (diet)
A mineral water
A pot of black tea
Six packets of crisps
One chip butty

I can’t recall if there were TVs showing football replays, or piped music (doubtless Robbie Williams, the Bug-Eyed Yelper), or other distractions. This, of course, is high praise for the Cherries, as conversation is the ECG of a merrily functioning boozer.

Beyond several tonnes of pork scratchings, Walkers crisps, and peanuts I didn’t eat a meal there, ever. It wasn’t that sort of pub. There was a wobbly, self-imposed curfew which barred the communal breaking of bread. So, I can offer no analysis of its bangers and mash; nor its scampi, chip and peas; nor its gammon steak and eggs.

Home was by Verulamium Park, three miles away by bike through Fleetville, The Camp and Cottonmill. I’d take the Alban Way, a former rail line and now cycle path, popular among misshapen youth for torching stolen Vauxhalls and scooters. Seared metal skeletons are oddly attractive when covered in snow.

Alban Way 2

But, at 4pm of a Friday with the summer sun still high in the pale Home Counties sky, or with the sleety dark rattling the Christmas windows, it was a bright place to invest a jovial hour with the folks from work. Folks with whom I shared a vivid, momentary corridor.

*

Nearly a decade after leaving I visited one January with our boys, who tore about in the pub as boys will do, to the constant horror of their parents and the indifference of most others.

Only the red brick exterior remained. Inside had been renovated, but in a disingenuous way. Now superficially stylish and too polished, as if it would soon have souring aspirations, it had been renamed The Speckled Hen.

My disenchantment was exaggerated for it was a Tuesday. For me, the Friday stories at the Bunches of Cherries were long finished. But they had been magnificent, a cheery symbol of an enchanted time.

Of course, the worst pub in town just might have been the best.

glasses

0

Wunka: The Greatest Joke in the World. Ever.

Verulamium Park

It’s a summery afternoon. A day when just north of London life bursts with promise and elemental excitement, and the good earth itself buzzes with obvious health.

Close your eyes. You’re standing on an ancient, attractive street, watching a parade. There’s innocent sound, and a kaleidoscope of floats and performers.

Then down the St Albans’ high street it comes, still fuzzy in the distance. It nears and you realise. Like a diorama, or comedy sketch, or somehow, you’ve been granted three witty wishes, and here’s the first going past right now. Right in front of you, it’s your favourite ever joke, made material.

Instantly, you’re crying with laughter. Tears of the most spectacular, rare joy and neither you nor your wife can speak.

crying

Yes, it’s a bear on the roof of a car. It’s a moment.

*

I often think back to those first six months in St Albans. When our hire car eased into a most English town we’d never visited. We later learnt it was home to Stephen Hawking. And Benny Hill.

Renting a cosy townhouse at The Brambles just across from Verulamium Park, we had no mobile phones, no Internet, and no TV. In 2003, how did we live in such a spartan way?

Because we had no need for these as everything was new and thrilling: our life in England; our rejuvenating jobs; our fresh marriage. Possibility was everywhere.

Brambles

Each night we’d sit at the round table in our cosy living room. I’d put Jazz FM on the radio and we’d talk of our schools, our European travel plans, and our family and friends across the dark ocean.

It was great.

There were thirty million people within an hour’s drive, and we were in a continent of 727 million.

But, all we needed in that former Roman city was just the two of us. It was an enchanted, alluring time.

*

Up north. A distant age.

The gruff father announces, “Alright, lad. It’s your birthday. What would you like to do? It’s your day!”

The wide-eyed boy chirps, “Really, Da’? Anything! Can we go to fair?”

“The fair it is! It’s your day!”

And so off they went, Da’ and lad, in their little family car, to the village fair. Once there Da’ declares, “Here we are at fair, lad. What would you like to do? It’s your day!”

The boy beams, “Wow. Can I have toffee apple?”

Da’ nods. “Yes, you can. It’s your day!”

Strolling around the fairgrounds with the pale northern sun falling across them, the boy eats his toffee apple. It’s sticky and sweet. Da’ then asks, “What would you like to do now, lad? I want you to ‘ave a good day. It’s your day.”

The boy looks about and points excitedly at sideshow alley. “Da’, Da’, can I go on knock ‘em downs?”

Da’ nods and says, “Of course. It’s your day, lad. I want you to ‘ave a good day.”

The boy runs to the stall, Da’ trailing behind him. The boy has a go on knock ‘em downs, and with his final throw, he wins a giant teddy bear. Da’ says to the boy. “Well done, lad. What will you call ‘im, lad? What a good day!”

The boy screws up his face. He then looks up at his Da’ and says, “I call him Wunka.”

Da’ looks down at the boy, pats him on the head and says, “Alright then. It’s your day, lad. I want you to ’ave good day. Wunka it is.”

After a good day they return to their little car. The shadows are long on this northern earth. Da’ and the boy soon realise that Wunka is too big for the boot and won’t fit inside the jalopy either. A man with practical skills, Da’ gets some rope and ties Wunka to the roof of the car.

They set off for home. Indeed, it’s been a good day.

But the road is potholed and the track to the farm is too rough for the little car. The rope holding Wunka on the car roof starts to loosen.

The car then hits a large bump, and out of the corner of his eye the boy suddenly sees a blur as something bounces behind them. “Da’ Da’!” he cries. “Wunka’s off! Wunka’s off!”

Da’ answers, “Come on lad! You’ve had a good day.”

bear

1

On Sunday we went to a lovely lunchtime wedding in a park

bee gees

I reckon for many of us it’s about a decade. It begins in your mid-twenties and drops away as forty looms like a stop sign. I speak, of course, of weddings.

I attended lots of great ones in little country churches surrounded by paddocks of waving wheat, on golf courses, by the beach in Victor Harbor, at large suburban places of worship.

The receptions have been in country footy clubs with the catering done by the matronly pillars of the community, no nonsense women. Pubs, backyards, function centres and more than I can count have been at Ayers House, in the middle of Adelaide which I think is somewhat compulsory if you live here.

One Saturday we had four weddings and as we’d both been given a duty, I went to the one in the Barossa and Kerry, another in the city. She was a bridesmaid and I was asked to do a reading from Corinthians 13. You know the one-

I may be able to speak the languages of men and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell.

Sunday’s affair was special. The boys were invited, and it was their first. The last wedding we’d been to was in Singapore over three years ago at the Fullarton overlooking the harbour and the heat.

It was in a park along the Torrens with the reception in a community hall. It was one of those great days where the sun shines and everyone enjoys it knowing it could be the last time before winter’s rain and cruel wind forces us inside.

The ceremony was lovely and people smiled and took photos on their phones but also held hands and cried when the groom choked up as he said his vows and I paused and thought of the many things for which I should be grateful.

Max sat on the grass right at the front listening intently and drinking in the language, and his special treat of a can of lemonade while Alex sat on the nearby wooden fence looking about the trees and sky but also concentrating.

After the knot was tied the new bride sang along with Tina Turner’s “Simply The Best” which will weld these two together whenever I hear this song. This is the job of a song.

Central to the catering was that most 2017 of experiences, the food truck. Parked on the fresh bitumen behind the hall, folks lined up and ordered Argentinian burgers. We had the steak, the chorizo and the chicken. They were great. Alex had some pumpkin soup, but it wasn’t as good as Nanny’s.

People sat inside or out in the sun on plastic chairs. There was music, mostly from the sixties. I’d finished my lunch and was talking with the celebrant about St Albans and London. On her second glass of Bird In Hand bubbles, from across the table my wife winked at me. They then played one of my favourite all time songs, the Bee Gees, “To Love Somebody.” I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye.

There were other kids and pregnant women and older folks too. A widower got in my ear with lots of detail about the vans and dogs he’s owned, but I didn’t mind. There were reminders everywhere of the richness of life. Max and I went for a walk along the linear path. Alex flopped his gangly self about the playground. For the last hour we sat in the sun on an ornamental rock with old friends who’d visited us when we lived in England.

Around mid-afternoon we drove home through the lazy Sunday traffic and I took the dogs down to the Old Gum Tree where there were two or three gently swirling groups also enjoying life’s landmarks.

It was a wedding. A gentle, affirming wedding.

sun

12

Park life

cocks.png

Tell me about your perfect park.

Rambling, grassy expanses? Babbling brook? Ornamental lake? Roman ruins? Golf course? One of the planet’s oldest pubs? Yep, I hear you. Just over a decade ago this was our local park.

Verulamium Park is on the site of the Roman city in St Albans, north of London. We lived a short walk away, and most weekends we spent time there. We’d take our dog Roxy on a lap of the lake, and on summer Sundays we’d sometimes throw out the picnic rug and an hour or two would drift by.

Every now and then when we had visitors from Australia, I’d pump up my Sherrin and take them for a dob. This would telegraph our nationality, and more than once a passing voice would holler, “You boys from Australia. Melbourne?” We’d shake our heads and retort, “Adelaide.”

Around Christmas the lake would freeze over and tapping the glassy plane by the bank I’d marvel at the thickness of the ice. On Sunday mornings pub teams played soccer, and I’d wonder about how different life might be if I’d grown up in this compact, beautiful city.

And now five paragraphs in I turn to the pubs. On the western perimeter of the park is the village of St Michaels and the neighbouring inns: The Rose and Crown, provider excellence of club sandwiches, and The Six Bells into which we took Roxy one February afternoon as the Six Nations rugby flickered on the television. There, waiting was a bowl of water. She ignored it, and raised her leg instead.

The Ye Olde Fighting Cocks dates from 793AD. Bill Bryson once wrote of his expectant joy at turning the key to a new hotel room, and I always felt a similar frisson strolling into the Cocks. The huge fireplace and the tiny nooks in which to sit with a pint. Not only is it a pub, but it’s a museum, and a theme park. It’s my favourite real-estate.

*

And now back in Australia with two boys and two dogs? A half wedge from home? Newly renovated? Fully enclosed?

The Old Gum Tree Reserve is now, again, our local. During the three years we were in Singapore the former Catholic Church and long-empty school were purchased by the council, and half the land was added to the existing park while the rest now hosts six houses. I reckon this is terrific.

Among the inclusions is a flying fox, and Alex and Max love it. Of course, simply going up and back holds marginal appeal and they’ve devised methods of use which maximise personal danger. Did I mention that within a two year span they collectively broke their arm on four occasions? All in playgrounds- Bali, school, our condo and under the Singapore Flier. I could affix a google map, but won’t. Alex is especially proud of a manoeuvre he calls the “Fettuccine of Doom.”  No, he couldn’t explain it to me.

Probably inspired by a desire to escape our seemingly endless winter we had a BBQ in the park one recent Thursday. A simple affair, snags on the gleaming hotplate while the boys surged about, and the dogs Buddy and Angel raced around also learning how to interact with others. I supervised with tongs and beer in hands, like Arnie but without an Austrian accent.

Soon this evolved into a weekly event. Is it possible to have too much ritual? I doubt it. The first over on Boxing Day, Derby Day’s opening race, and the entire secular religion accompanying AFL grand final day. Our petite cycle can sit alongside these.

The seasons roll on and we move from cricket to footy to bikes. Alex and Max wait for the fruit to ripen on the mulberry tree, and steal a few berries before the birds vandalise the rest. More than any other space, private or public, I reckon parks instruct us to ignore the past and the future, and the heaving complex planet, and live only in the moment.

With summer stretching out before us, I’m sure we’ll be down there twice a week.

*

Saturday in the park,

I think it was the Fourth of July

Saturday in the park,

I think it was the Fourth of July

People dancing, people laughing

A man selling ice cream

Singing Italian songs

Everybody is another

Can you dig it (yes, I can)

And I’ve been waiting such a long time

For Saturday

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Mnw9uiYggU

vp

0

Dylan Thomas and the mammalian protuberance

sixpence

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 employee also found his order baffling. ‘Sorry. Can you explain?’

And then the bloke did, encapsulating the essence of contemporary British dining, the way tradition is combined with the exotic. ‘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 New Delhi. Chips. The UK runs on potato. Next time you’re in your local 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 only on rice?

Besides combining the culinary, Wales offers much: bottle green mountains, picturesque villages and at least one castle per resident. Driving into Tintern late afternoon blonde sunlight blanketed the town, and through its narrow valley gushed the River Wye. Standing majestically is Tintern Abbey: arresting and vast, and it’s easy to see why William Wordsworth was inspired by this setting

Once again

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

Dylan Thomas described Swansea as that ‘beautiful ugly place’ and we agree. Its eastern approaches are gruesomely industrial and smoke pumps into a dirty sky whilst 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, is inspired by the twin headland landmarks which once reminded folks of breasts. After fifteen minutes of gazing and slack-jawed dribbling I couldn’t see them, and so Kerry and Roxy (by now barking in fluent Welsh) took me to nearby Oystermouth Castle, built in the twelfth century.

After, waiting 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 slurred the following at his 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.

Hanging up on the trusting Mrs Smith he lurched back into the Fox and Hounds to his conspiratorial pint where I’m sure, 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.

So starts my favourite play Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, and the Carmarthenshire village of Laugharne presented a pilgrimage. 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.

Up on the cliff rests an impressive boatshed, and it’s in 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 applied himself with tremendous verve: Brown’s Hotel.

The bar is hazy, musty and residence of sassy octogenarians. I ordered a pint and a bowl of water as two whiskery retirees enchantingly crooned, ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window?’ for an entirely indifferent Roxy. We claimed the rickety table where Thomas invested countless singular 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 endless self-amusement. An intriguing footnote occurred shortly after our Welsh trip with the news that Neil Morrissey, of Men Behaving Badly and more impressively, Bob the Builder fame purchased Brown’s Hotel for a few pennies shy of 700,000 pounds.

*

Pembrokeshire’s Tenby is kaleidoscopically bright and explored perfectly on foot. The beaches are fabulously broad and white, the cobblestoned streets zigzag here and there, and a stonewall once protected the old town from invaders like, for example, the feckin’ 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 initialling one of the lift corners. Many hotels and pubs here are pet friendly, and this is something Australia could better embrace.

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 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 still drizzly when we departed Saturday- not surprising given that seventy inches annually tumble down.

Following Indian snacks from a gleefully criminal take-away, we then investigated the town centre, boating canal and River Usk banks across from which we could spy some lush green and soggy sponge-like golf course fairways.

Back in Hertfordshire having concluded our holiday we ordered some chicken tikka and half ’n’ half from our local Indian restaurant up on Holywell Hill.

We’d assimilated.

bob

 

0

Sausage FM- less talk, more pork!

bsw

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 British Sausage Week.

Up in the Peak District we bought and fried six sausages from Tideswell’s butcher, but these gastronomic impostors were devoid of texture, aroma and flavour. The week was saved only when we strayed past a York pub window and read its British Sausage Week (BSW) testimonials. Mr W of Leeds wrote, and I ask you to contemplate this during the festive period, ‘My wife still talks of the sausage the chef here gave her two years ago.’

Sitting hidden among undulating green hills is the village of Tideswell. Its market square is hugged by stone shops. Tindall’s is stuffed with exquisite home-cooked breads, cakes and pasties, and apron billowing, stood the matriarch, beaming behind her wooden counter. The glass cabinet parades black-pudding, scotch eggs and streaky bacon and in their store, eternally 1952, the doorbell chimes welcomingly and foodstuffs are dispatched in thick brown paper.

Also noteworthy is the chippy (chip shop) advertising not opening hours but frying times. Courtesy of the summer sun’s disappearance at only 11pm, the Tideswell Cricket Club competes in Wednesday evening fixtures. How fantastic’s that? Time was against us so we couldn’t visit the other delightful emporium, World of Icing, but hopefully, another day…

We love rambling with our dog 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, 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 is among the finest pub experience we’ve had in either hemisphere. Tilly the Airedale traversed 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 pint at me and told me 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 I’m button-holed by Joyce’s husband, thirty years my senior but insisting, Yorkshire 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 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.

*

York is staggeringly handsome and we liked spending our anniversary there ambling through 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, back at home St Albans Abbey demands no fixed fee but visitors may part with their pounds through a credit card machine, positioned conveniently in the bookstall at the cathedra’s entrance.

Steering our 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 as 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. Hundreds were claimed, but today it’s tricky to picture Eyam suffering any modern disaster beyond the Agricultural Society cancelling, due to heartless disinterest, the Strawberry and Fig Conserve Competition (Open Section).

*

2017 will be the twentieth year of British Sausage Week. Check the website for details, and remember to tune in to Sausage FM: less talk, more pork!

autumn

 

2

My best pubs

 

Love a list. Love a pub. Don’t you?

This week the Footy Almanac sought opinion on our favourite pubs. I instantly penned a digital love letter to some cracking watering holes. How could I refuse?

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks- St Albans, Hertfordshire

England’s oldest and most charismatic boozer. Ceiling so low it made me feel like a centre half-forward when I walked in, and most certainly as I left. We lived about a Par 4 away, and invested some time there on weekends. When we returned in 2014 it was the only pub in town we visited twice with Alex and Max.

cocks

The Magpie and Stump- Mintaro, Clare Valley

Gum trees and vineyards; idyllic beer garden. No aural pollution from within or without, just birdsong. Happily by its bar on a rainy Sunday morning before the SANFL grand final I first heard a publican say, “Another cup of tea, Vicar?” which amuses me more than it should.

Prince of Wales- Kapunda, South Australia

Hometown favourite. Colossal former mine host. When I lived five hours away in Kimba, and would visit, he’d greet me with, “Hello, West Coast smack-head.” I knew then that he missed me. Also home of spoofy.

The Kings Inn- Mousehole, Cornwall

Redolent of pirates and rum, romance and treasure. Of course, it’s pronounced Moz-all.

kings

The Exeter- Rundle Street, Adelaide

Eclectic perfection. Once, this happened: Dawn’s closer than dusk. Only Nick and I remain, our Doc Martins moored to the floorboards. He’s from a farm in Shea-Oak Log. We met in school. Years ago, we saw the Rolling Stones at Footy Park.

ex

*

Honourable mentions

The Goat- St Albans, Hertfordshire

The Taminga- Clare

All Nations- Richmond (frequently home to Mick Molloy and Bill Hunter, drinking in concert)

Greenock Tavern- Barossa Valley (mine host Norton, and then Mick)

Lemon Tree- Carlton (sadly now gone; snuck in there when in Melbourne during my mulleted 1980’s)

Seacliff Hotel- Adelaide

*

What’s your top battle-cruiser?

*

The original Footy Almanac post is worth a look and you can find it, and other great stuff here-

Best pubs of all time?

 

 

 

4

Voices

foghorn

 

I wrote this memoir about a decade ago. It won me a trip to Darwin for the national English teachers’ conference the highlight of which was sneaking off to Adelaide River and seeing the jumping crocodiles.

Of course.

*

Classrooms, for me, are largely about voices. These voices shout, whisper and demand. Guiding some to sing roughly in tune and gently handing a microphone to the shy student who just might sing like an angel are among our challenges. Now more than ever, it’s vital that students and teachers have voices that leap into laughter. As often as possible.

Many years ago, to conclude SAS English, pupils were invited to write a so-called ‘warm report’, summarising their successes. One student, for whom spelling was difficult, triumphantly declared to me that, ‘he had enjoyed improving his pubic speaking.’

Whilst in the UK a Year 10 class and I were crawling through an endless media unit from which the authorities had untimely ripped all the joy. One morning, instead of asking, ‘Sir, are we doing media today,’ one girl mistakenly said- without irony- ‘Sir, are we still doing mediocrity today?’ I could only reply, ‘Not just today, my little hombre, not just today.’

I’d just returned some coursework to- my fingers are trembling as I type this- a streamed, bottom-set Year 11 English class. One boy- I’ll call him Edward- began loudly announcing, somewhat curiously, that he’d gotten a G (Yes, it’s true, the UK system utilises the esteem-crushing F, G and U). His classmate Kyle started hollering, ‘A G! A G! Edward! What is wrong with you? You’re so thick.’ Kyle then glanced at his own work and with an utterly honest face, enquired, ‘Sir- is an F better than a G?’

Following their SATs, Year 9’s in England sometimes assemble a course work folder for internal moderation. On the accompanying coversheet, each writes a paragraph in which they reflect on their year’s achievements and a sweet, amenable girl concluded, ‘I have learnt not to use words that are unnecessary- and not needed.’

Recently, a boisterous lad was growing restless and distracted during his classmates’ oral presentations. I asked him, as you do, to concentrate and focus. Instead of replying that he’d promise to be more productive; he looked me in the eye, nodded and with total sincerity said that, in future, in class, he’d, ‘try to be more reproductive.’

At the school farm a healthy chicken became, unfortunately, a deceased chicken when a student unintentionally jumped on it. Days later, the boy lingered after English, glum-faced with notoriety and asked, ‘Did you hear about what I did the other day?’ Saying that I was sorry for his troubles, I added supportively, ‘So, how are you going?’ With a philosophical giggle, he said, ‘Well, much better than the chicken.’

Once I heard a Triple J announcer enthuse that educators, ‘create lives’ and I’ve tried to make this the chorus in my teaching. Spoken and written voices are the mesmerizing soundtrack of our schools and to create lives, our shared spaces must resonate with the music of golden laughter.

Thanks to Larry Sellers of The Big Lebowski for this (rather poor) homework.

 

larry

 

0

Posh: Bye, bye Becks, Hello Ringo!

sausage

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 British 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 British Sausage Week (BSW) 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 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).

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 British Sausage Week.

cologne-cathedral

This story is from the collection I call The Ringo Tales which chronicles our travels during 2003- 2006 when we lived just north of London, and spent time in Europe and North America. It can be found on this blog at https://mickeytales.com/2014/02/22/the-ringo-tales/

0

Hertfordshire: Harry Potter and the Cheeky Half Pint

Ling

In St Albans I thought about two of its celebrated citizens, Benny Hill and Stephen Hawking.

Yeah, you got me. Just Benny Hill.

Colonised by the Romans, who called it Verulamium, it’s just north of London. It’s pretty and historic. When we lived there it had eighty pubs.

*

On the way to Watford is the Warner Brothers studio tour. Once the decade of filming Harry Potter wrapped, someone gasped at the tracts of wizardy robes, giant spiders and the Great Hall, and murmured, “What will we do with all this lot?” In the first week of January, we found out.

Alex and Max loved the blue screen experience. Their Flying Ford Anglia zipped high above the Scottish countryside, and their racing broomstick swooped low over the Thames. As a mate noted,

Nothing is better named than the Nimbus 2000.

An enormous challenge was the Quidditch scenes. These were filmed with skydiving, industrial fans and Russian swings launching body doubles like bungy jump mishaps. I’m staggered by the collective imagination.

An inanimate star of the franchise is the huge model of Hogwarts Castle. When the time spent designing and building is totalled, it took seventy-four years to construct. That’s even longer than watching all of St Kilda’s footy trip highlights!

Lastly, of course, you are cast adrift in an oceanic gift shop, reminding you that while this is fun, it’s primarily commerce. As the mortgage is finalised on two wands and a Gryffindor scarf, I spot a man in the kit of the previously secret, fifth Hogwarts house, Fremantle.

The purple haze of the Dockers? Here, in this magical kingdom of spells and free-flowing football? As Hagrid would attest, the Geelong hoops are distinctly Hogwarts. After all, who didn’t love Cameron Ling’s performance as pureblood wizard Ron Weasley?

*

cocks

One of my favourite patches on the planet fits on an Adelaide oval or two. Our tour begins at St Albans Cathedral, which is 551 feet along its immense and picturesque nave.

Alban earned his sainthood by sheltering and then substituting himself for a local priest. It was a Roman version of the Fine Cotton affair. Unlike the horse, which lived to the impressive age of thirty-two, Alban was beheaded.

Expertly detached, his noggin started a-rolling, and moving appreciably from leg to off, bounced to the bottom of the hill. At this spot, legend suggests, a well instantly began gushing, and is named Holywell.

Surrounding both the former monastery and Roman city is one hundred acres of gorgeous expanse, Verulamium Park. When the first shafts of pale spring sunshine coax the temperature into double digits, cider-guzzling locals strip down to their waists, and hoof soccer balls about with splendid inaccuracy.

The concluding locale in our painterly excursion is the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. Built in 793AD, it’s England’s oldest pub. It’s superb.

As an Australian Rules footballer I was a rover. Sorry, kids, that’s a primeval term for midfielder. So low is the pub ceiling that about a thousand years ago, if I was picked for the Verulamium Caesars, in the derby against the Londinium Scurvy Knaves, I obviously would’ve rucked.

I used to love walking in there, proudly but pointlessly ducking my head, and pretending I was Shaun Rehn, minus the knee braces. And this, before I’ve even had a beer, is every pub’s function: to help us feel unrealistically good.

With exposed beams, snug nooks and an enticing lunch menu, it’s like we never left. The boys sit by the dancing fire. There’s the Belgian strawberry beer, Fruili, to which Kerry utters, “Yum.”

Trickling by the pub and the ornamental lake is the diminutive River Ver. An energetic hour in the tavern means even from a stationary start, and into a breeze, most males would carry it comfortably.

But cathedral, park and pub make an exquisite spot and now, exploring with our boys, it still is.

*

Inside the abbey we lit votive candles at the tomb of St Alban. Max immediately told Alex what he’d asked for. And vice versa. As kids do. Their innocence contrasted with the entrance’s Thatcherite ultimatum,

Your four-pound donation (each) ensures the upkeep of the cathedral.

Since the ninth century a cobblestoned square has hosted twice-weekly markets, offering fish, meat, olives and much else. Beyond the kaleidoscopic colour and movement, and sausage and beef wafts from Charlie O’Brien’s butchery, its soundtrack is bustling fun.

“Pound a bowl,” bellow the greengrocers. We’d often buy a bowl, and later home in the kitchen, wonder at its catholic contents: parsnip, carrot, ear of corn (no eye of newt or toe of frog).

The spruikers are still there, with voices rumbling about the fourteenth century clock tower, sounding like jauntier versions of Ray Winstone,

Get me the money for those potatoes by Wednesday, or you’ve got yourself a little problem. Me.

*

Who could resist visiting the house they lived in a decade before? Taking a left off Holywell Hill, the Peugeot halts, and I turn down XFM. Why, it’s tiny! Wasn’t it bigger? How has our world again shrunk?

I stole down the path, and looked over the gate like a burglar in a telemovie. The scruffy hedges have been replaced with charmless, pine fences. Also gone is the shed, in front of which, during warm mornings, our precious, now departed terrier Roxy would sun her honeyed fur.

Why are we always disappointed when cherished spaces change, even for the better? We walk under the barren tree. I put Alex and Max in the car, and drive away.

*

After twenty days in Europe, we make our glutinous, anticlockwise way around the M25, towards Heathrow. Farewelling the icy winds and trains and ancient cityscapes, our A-380 soars to Dubai.

Then, we skim down to the equator, and Singapore, in its muggy summer.

ron

0

Football in London: Who took the jam outta your doughnut?

BTT

At the football I thought about Vinnie Jones.

A midfielder, his first club was semi-professional Wealdstone, in North London. Moving to Wimbledon, they won the 1988 FA Cup.

His Guy Ritchie film phase followed, including Snatch, in which he played Bullet-Tooth Tony. Becoming president of the Hertfordshire Agricultural Society in 2005, Vinnie showed what a community-minded fellow he is. Just like Bullet-Tooth.

Glancing about the ground I don’t see anyone likely to be in cinematic demand as an underworld thug. At least, not on the pitch.

I’m at Wealdstone on the first Sunday of the year, for their Conference South clash. Floodlight mingles with the fog. I’m on the terrace with Barry.

Hemel Hempstead is known as the Tudors. Their city’s famous for an infrastructural oddity, the Magic Roundabout, and Roger Moore, universally acclaimed as the fifth best James Bond.

I last saw Barry in 2008, and he’s now married with a son. He befriended me when we moved to St Albans, and after work on my first Friday he took me to the Bunch of Cherries. He sees you as you’d like to be seen. Spending time with him makes me buoyant. It’s his gift.

We slip into our comfortable way of yakking, and turn to sport. “I don’t love football,” Barry reveals at kickoff, “But I love Wealdstone. I don’t care about the Premier League.”

*

For the final game of 2004/5 we travelled to Salisbury in Wiltshire. Pausing for lunch at The George Inn in Middle Wallop, we failed entirely to acknowledge that a BBC adaptation of Miss Marple was filmed locally.

Nearby are the villages of Over Wallop and Nether Wallop. I’m reminded of Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter in the Cotswolds. The rural counties promise abundant violence.

From the football I see Salisbury Cathedral’s 404-foot spire, which has attracted travellers since its completion in 1320. But our pilgrimage is one of simmering anxiety. The locals are teased

I can’t read and I can’t write

But that don’t really matt-er

‘Cause I’m from Salis-bury

And I can drive my trac-tor.

Wealdstone was walloped 3-1, although the perilously late goal meant they evaded relegation. As a life event it ranks highly for Barry, and the next day he texted (repeatedly) as if in thankful, blunt prayer

one effing goal

*

During the last World Cup qualifiers, Ireland played Kazakhstan in Astana, and won 2-1. Over 12,000 attended. Forty-seven away tickets were sold, and as a zealous Irishman, Barry’s brother Shawn was among them.

Today, Wealdstone FC looks to be in Kazakhstan. Like Warnie tutoring three buxom nurses, Hemel Hempstead threatens bedlam. 1-0. The keeper alone stops it becoming catastrophic. “He’s good,” I offer. My feet are torpidly cold, and could undergo major surgery, without anaesthetic.

Barry says. “He used to be the Under 21 keeper for Wales.”

“Impressive,” I observe.

“ Yeah,” Barry qualifies, “but the second choice was a sheep.”

*

There are two types of football fans. Those who sit, and those like me, who stand. It’s my country upbringing. Boofy clumps of men standing on the wing, bantering like goats, and bellowing at the opposition, their supporters, and the umpire. This, vicar, is how the congregation behaves.

At work I flop into a chair constantly, but will stand at the football all day. Conversation is easier. Hanging stuff on your Port Power mate about his dental status is harder if you’re squeezed into a row next to Nanna and her tartan thermos.

As ball sponsors we enjoy boardroom hospitality. There’s coffee and sausage rolls at halftime. Roast beef, winter vegetables and Yorkshire pudding after the match. It’s better than a Famous Five picnic. Someone within the club prepared it, and not an external caterer. I can tell.

This connects to cricket in the Barossa. Surrounded by vines sagging with fruit bound for Dutschke Wines up on Gods Hill Road, the Lyndoch Cricket Club always provided an afternoon tea of egg sandwiches and refreshments. It invested those days with graciousness. As a young uni student from Kapunda I probably needed help in this.

*

On the frozen terrace there’s a haiku-like economy in the way Barry and his friends talk. Together, they’ve had countless Wealdstone moments. They’ve no need for elaboration, but I hear warmth in their words. Football’s only part of their pact.

“Take the Metropolitan Line,” suggests pub DJ Chris when I say my digs are near (not in) the Tower of London. I love the passion Londoners have for the Tube. Apart from the Womma station, Adelaideans care little for their transport. “Yeah, but make sure it’s an Aldgate train,” clarifies Barry.

The Underground is London’s cardiovascular system, and its lexicon is evocative. Hammersmith & City. Bakerloo. Jubilee. “Don’t get caught in Tottenham Court Station,” is the final tip. “It’s shut ‘til next Christmas.”

Unlike Henry VIII, the Tudors don’t execute cleanly in front of goal. Wealdstone dominates possession, but is timid in attack. Coming from behind twice, 2-2 ensures they’re undefeated in their last ten outings. However, they’re precariously close to the drop zone.

With the whistle Wealdstone exits the pitch to hearty applause. I’m not sure if it’s ironic, daggy or great, but Pilot’s “January” then bursts into the fog

January
sick and tired you’ve been hanging on me
you make me sad with your eyes
you’re telling me lies
don’t go
don’t go
January
don’t be cold

As my train speeds south I see Wembley and its colossal arch. In the dark western sky it’s a cathedral. It’d be tremendous to take Alex and Max there, but I’ve had myself an afternoon at a tiny match, which matters only to a few hundred devoted folk.

Besides, I doubt Wembley offers home-cooked roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Wembly

0

July 2005: It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

bus

I stop the Macbeth video and flick on the radio. My Year 7’s leap around, shrieking and pink-cheeked. Ties are flapping.

IOC President Jacques Rogge begins, and with delightful, British style, the boys link arms and make a circle. Their camaraderie is catching. I laugh. Either way, we’re about to have a moment.

At 12:46 pm and ‘Lon-don,’ they erupt. England to host the 2012 Olympics! It’s lovely, and I’m happy for them, but the day after, I can barely believe it happened. A terrible contrast was coming.

*

‘Chris goes through Liverpool Street Station about this time,’ says Jane, tears starting, ‘and I can’t get him on his phone.’

‘I’m sure you’ll reach him soon,’ I offer, her panic cloaking me. Texting to check on friends, I agonize, the seconds stretching, waiting for my phone to pronounce their safety.

It’s July 7. I’m at school in St Albans, where news of the suicide bombings rushes upon us. In our desperate and sightless ways, we try to tether ourselves. The stabs of horror come quickly, as just to our south, London is wounded. This bespoke violence makes home seem mercilessly remote.

Emerging from her Hammersmith train, Juanita messages in that cheery way Australians often have during a crisis- “all good mate.” She’s only escaped by minutes. Jane gets through to her husband, finally. He’s arrived at his office in the City.

We lived twenty-five miles north of the Themes, in cloistered, handsome Hertfordshire. That evening our answering machine blurts a succession of messages from Australia. Our parents; hotly anxious, friends; fretful, and even people we’d seldom talk with have called.

The day is draining, and forces a deep, pounding introspection. It’s our twenty-fourth month away.

In his remarkable Guardian op-ed piece* Booker prize winner Ian McEwen calls the terrorists’ minds ‘unknowable’ and asks, ‘How could we have forgotten that this was always going to happen?’

*

REM’s Around the Sun concert is postponed because of the attacks, and on Saturday week as we board the Jubilee line I try to think of the fun ahead. It’s our first Tube journey since the unspeakable awfulness, and my hands become sticky as our train crashes through the uneasy dark. My fear races like gas. My eyes zip incessantly.

A streak of jets howls across, the full moon beams, and here we are with 85,000 folk, just across from The Serpentine, in Hyde Park. It’s chardonnay and sushi, not black t-shirts and insurrection. It’s wonderful. Kerry buys a slice of watermelon.

For me, today again confirms London as the planet’s finest theme park. Just walking about is compelling theatre. Send me out on foot for the day, let me meander, and then late afternoon, tip me into a boozer like The Moon and Sixpence in Soho. Sorted.

Twilight falls. REM begins. The concert’s more gorgeous picnic than Glastonbury. Mainstream’s replaced alternative edginess for these Athens, Georgia natives.

Jangly pop doyens, they also have picturesque moments. “Electrolite” from New Adventures in Hi-Fi is one, and I’m thrilled to hear it. It’s their tribute to an often unloved Los Angeles, but the joyousness applies, right here, right now

You are the star tonight
You shine electric outta sight
Your light eclipsed the moon tonight
Electrolite
You’re outta sight

Unhurried and summery, it’s threaded by Mike Mills’ jaunty piano and Peter Buck’s banjo, and insulates us, fleetingly, against our broader catastrophes.

Michael Stipe introduces punk iconoclast Patti Smith to sing on ‘E-bow the Letter.’ It’s her sole appearance on the tour, but in that quotidian, London way, she’s in town. After, with a coda of swirling, Sonic Youth-like guitar feedback, ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ closes their show.

The wife and I zip through the crowds along Oxford Street, and then turn towards Kings Cross. An accusatory light blazes out at us. There are police everywhere, and yellow police tape.

It is Tavistock Square. On the street beneath the light is a silenced double-decker bus, untimely torn by the bomb that detonated ten days ago. Our musical buzz vaporizes.

This tableau’s between University College Hospital and Great Ormond Street Hospital, but for those on the number 30 Stagecoach, both were too far. How could this occur in Bloomsbury? Once associated with arts, education and medicine, and now death. We go home.

July 2005 continues, as it must. Lance Armstrong retires after winning a seventh consecutive Tour de France. Mumbai receives forty inches of rain within a day, and its city decelerates massively, but like London, cannot be halted.

And later, as witness to the gargantuan persistence of this capital, the cricket! Yes, the slow, strange cricket in which we find sanctuary commences with the opening Ashes Test at Lord’s. While Australia wins this match, the longer narrative develops astonishingly, and reminds us of all that’s decent and affirming. In Yorkshire and Cumbria and Cornwell, summer’s in bloom.

We stumble on.

ashes

* http://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jul/08/terrorism.july74

2

AFL Round 10- Adelaide v Carlton: The Pogues or Paul Kelly?

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Our eldest son lost his front tooth yesterday. Already dangling, the other is now lurching across his gum. He is six.

Smiling, he is a little like Shane MacGowan, the lead singer of The Pogues. You know, the one who somehow maintains a pulse. Despite his sustained dedication to not, over these last four decades.

With the annual, happy promise of snow, a big Norwegian spruce in Trafalgar Square, and BBC Radio 2 being obliged to play “Fairytale of New York” every fourteen minutes across December, England does Christmas better than Australia.

It just works better in the dark and the cold.

“Fairytale of New York” is a superbly bleak song. Marrying misery with a rousing melody, the doomed couple bicker and snarl, and of course, it ends badly for them.

Which connects to both Carlton and Adelaide, except that it is only May. For much of the first half, the football goes back and forth, perversely suggesting the call and response form of the duet between Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl

I could have been someone

Well so could anyone

You took my dreams from me

When I first found you

I kept them with me babe

I put them with my own

Can’t make it all alone

I’ve built my dreams around you

While this festive ode is euphoric, Sunday’s MCG fixture was dour, and for much of it, lacking music. There would be grander joy within an afternoon spent shopping in Luton. At least there’d be the chance that your umbrella might be picked up in the sleety gale and speared into a Bedfordshire oak tree.

In their peculiar tribute to “Fairytale of New York”, The Crows continue to set their watches to Christmas Island time, well behind that in Melbourne, chronologically and in humanitarian/football supporter terms. And so they only have two goals at the major break. Adelaide’s pre-season strategy of starting in an excruciating way persists into a tenth week. John Farnham has enjoyed shorter retirements.

Norwood boy and Crows fan Paul Kelly’s “How To Make Gravy” is our finest seasonal song. Like The Pogues’ tune, it is jubilant in its despair. Both are anchored in familial misfortune. Each begins with a gentle, welcoming melody, and then erupts into a torrent of regret.

Living in St Albans, just north of London, Paul Kelly’s tour de force was my umbilical cord to Australia. Its evocative power, and fraught, jailed brother were overwhelming. On many a Friday evening I played this song in our tiny townhouse, after beers at The Bunch of Cherries, The Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, or The Goat.

When Peter Luscombe’s drums kick in at

I guess the brothers are driving down

From Queensland and Stella’s flying in from the coast

They say it’s gonna be a hundred degrees

Even more maybe, but that won’t stop the roast

I’d be a goner. The heat, the ritual, the anguish. There I’d be, on our couch, blubbing away, wondering what the feck we were doing half a world from home, having, in a sense, voluntarily imprisoned ourselves. Both songs signify Christmas and the end of the year. Although winter has not begun, 2014 is already finished for The Blues and The Crows.

Yarran and Betts have some electric moments, while Thomas for Carlton and Laird for the vanquished, contribute meaningfully. Kade Simpson appears to roam about unchecked and collects a mammon of disposals. There are more clangers than a Chinese gong workshop, and Adelaide’s sixteen behinds is telling.

I’d like to say that the second half was artistic and masterful like Paul Kelly and The Pogues, but I can’t. The error and turnover rates fell. Each team kicked eight goals. It was close.

Within a few weeks, our son will have a new front tooth, and his smile will again be complete.

Adelaide needs to stop its decay, and stop it urgently.

pk