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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

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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.

My wife Kerry celebrated a major birthday at the Old Gum Tree, and earlier this year Max turned six with a Sunday party. 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

 

 

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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