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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.

Willunga

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”. Although I was drawn to the song upon its release, and taught it (and Radiohead’s “Karma Police”) to year 10 classes, it was our move to England early this century when it took a profounder hold.

Kerry and I each took ten CD’s with us and Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits- Songs from the South was the first I packed along with Jeff Buckley’s Grace and The Beatles’ Revolver. Settling happily into a village rhythm I’d cycle home on Fridays post-pub, and put it on in our townhouse after the dark had already stolen through our patio windows.

At this moment I’d then fly homeward, down across the land and ocean. Its melodic panorama contrasted with the claustrophobic British winter and the unforgivable 4pm nightfall. We spent a first European Christmas in Madrid, freezing under a pale sun far, far from Australia’s burnt dirt.

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.

Hay Plains

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 our 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.

 

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Jesus was born at Christmas, and died at Easter: what’s the odds?

hugh

Of course, you’re all a-blubbin’ watching festive favourite Love Actually, and by the film’s finish in Heathrow with “God Only Knows” on an endless loop, and all the happy folk hugging and crying you’re a cheerfully sodden mess.

Me too.

My first story is also set in Heathrow and features not one but two, sodden messes.

Many hate it, but for me, London’s biggest airport’s a place of excitement and marvel, forever connected to the thrill of exploring Europe. 700,000 people fly out during the holiday week.

Christmas Day, 2005 was our final day living in England, and having visited the Cathedral in the morning to hear the carols, and taken our last lunch at The Spotted Bull we speared down the M25.

In one of many airport queues they presented themselves quickly. Two women: stinking of smoke, shitty wine and undying stupidity, attracting the attention of Terminal 2 with their selfish behaviour. Let’s nod to Dr Seuss in calling them, with appropriate affection, Slapper 1 and Slapper 2.

While they unknowingly auditioned for Heathrow’s Most Horrific Harpies (coming soon to Channel 9) I whispered to the wife, “Gee, I wouldn’t want to be on the same flight as those two.”

sign

Boarding our overnight plane to Bangkok we left S1 and S2 to their unholy squawking and drunken flailing. I anticipated a meal and a beer, a film, and a long sleep as we slipped across Eastern Europe, Turkmenistan, and India.

I heard, and then smelt them before I saw them. Not only were they on our flight, but they were in the seats directly behind us, now an aeronautical Ground Zero, and dumping their fetid carcasses the trouble, as the English say, kicked off, when S1 thought it within her Lutonian rights to not only bang our chairs, but having detached her grog-soaked shoes, she plonked her gangrenous feet on top of the wife’s seat, right by her ear, and asked to remove these hoofs, both S1 and S2 made some throaty, threatening remarks infused with toxic spittle, tooth decay and, at least to my mind, a lingering, unconscious displeasure at their own massively moronic selves.

This continued for several horrendous hours.

Flying over the Black Sea, after BA belatedly moved us for our own safety, the flight attendants mentioned potential police action so I can only hope both were booked into a Thai prison with cockroaches for festive company. Cheers!

gift

*

At 4am we’re all awake. Our Singaporean body clocks reckon it’s midmorning. The room in Munich is tiny and we’ve enjoyed more space on a Tiger flight, despite it being a well-known chain I won’t mention, but I’ll give you a hint- it rhymes with Novotel.

To sedate the boys, we try TV and of course flick past innumerable soft-porn channels so beloved in the Fatherland. I take them to the hotel playroom, but their noise and energy are seismic. Continental Europe seems too small for us.

After a Bavarian week, it happens. Is anything better than falling snow? On Christmas night, after an unusually warm spell, it cascades down, and bedspreads the city and us. It’s bliss.

Rushing down to the carpark there’s dancing flurries, and these swirling, silent flakes form a carpet across the pavers. All is now magic. The boys shape a snowman. We heave some snow about, and at each other beneath the tumbling sky.

airport scene

We’re a long way from baking and dusty Australia, and getting here has been significant, but for this enchanted hour, in the dark of a Munich Christmas, it’s simple, joyous fun. I hope the boys remember this. I will.

Later, with Alex and Max asleep, Kerry opens a window, thrusts her paw at the ledge, and makes a vodka and fresh snow! You can’t buy one of these from a Peel Street mixologist. Our snowy pilgrimage is complete. It’s the perfect coda to our week in Munich.

*

Christmas across the globe can be memorable, but back in Australia I’m especially looking forward to this one. Stretched, languid days; too much ham; staccato splashing from swimming pools; a good book; backyard cricket with a fuzzy tennis ball; kindly blue sky; and afternoon naps as the Boxing Day Test wanders along.

love actually