Brushes with Fame
10th Aug 2011
There’s a game called ‘Brush With Fame’. It involves retelling a story of a brief encounter with someone famous.
The first brush with fame I recall was at the age of nine, when I was in a milk bar near Gundagai Primary School. I’d gone in for some mixed lollies and a slightly built man in a hat gently pushed me to one side saying, ‘Excuse me, kid…”. I think he ordered a chocolate milkshake. Anyway, his name was Ronald Ryan, and he was the last person to be legally executed in Australia (hanged in 1967).
The rules to ‘Brush With Fame’ are simple. A ‘brush’ cannot be from ‘knowing’ someone famous, nor can it be just being in the same room or aeroplane as someone famous. It must involve interaction, and asking for an autograph doesn’t count. An example. My friend Peter Hewett’s father Lloyd was in Thailand, floating on blow-up ‘li-lo’ in the pool at his Bangkok hotel. The American singer John Denver was also in the pool and also on a li-lo. They floated past each other – “This is the life, eh?” said Lloyd. “Sure is,” replied John. That is a true ‘brush’ with fame.
I have had a couple of ‘non-brushes’ with fame.
I once stood in a taxi queue at Sydney’s Regent Hotel behind Monty Python’s Michael Palin, one of my comedy idols. I thought it would be dumb to blurt that out, so the moment passed without interaction. And if I had blurted it out, it would have been more a case of grovelling and flattery than a ‘brush’. A brush would have been something like:
“Don’t taxi queues get on your goat?”
“Yes. Unfortunately I left my goat in the room.”
I guess I could have been a total prat and said, ‘love your work,’ and then recited the dead parrot sketch for his benefit.
I was at the Regent on that occasion because Doug and I were commissioned to write material for the Grand Opening, which was to be televised on Channel Seven. In order to disguise the fact that it was a three-hour advertisement for the hotel, a gala concert was the premise with comedic cutaways to show off the various parts of this palatial pub. Noeline Brown presented these advertorial segments (“Look, this place is so posh they give you real coathangers, not those dicky little ones that slot in a hole and aren’t worth knocking off!”). The concert featured the likes of Tommy Tycho, the Daly Wilson Big Band, Jackie Love and Glenn Shorrock. Because I was working with these people, no brush with fame for me counts, but the other half got a wee brush. When Annie heard that Glenn Shorrock was on the bill, she gave a small swoon. She had been a fan from when he was lead singer with Twilight and Axiom in the early 1970’s through to his Little River Band days. I took Annie in to a rehearsal so she could meet her idol, which turned out to be a slightly disappointing ‘brush’ because she didn’t know that Glenn is short. A nice guy, and a fine voice, but a little height impaired. Incidentally, Glenn Shorrock lived in London in 1974, after Axiom broke up and during the period Annie and I visited London, separately… and that geographical coincidence is the only other thing the three of us have in common. Annie and I can’t sing that well.
I have one very famous non-brush with fame. During my secondary school days I attended church at St Stephen’s in Macquarie Street with Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth but that doesn’t count because she didn’t single me out for a chat.
In the late 80’s, I attended a radio industry award night where Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, was the special guest. I won an award that night and at a break in proceedings, decided to take a short cut through the kitchen to a bathroom that wouldn’t have a queue (I’d discovered this during rehearsals as we also provided part of the entertainment, ironically doing live political satire). The PM’s minders also knew of this short cut and on the way there I pushed open a swinging door, into to the face of a returning Prime Minister…
ME: Sorry, Bob…
PM: Arrrgh, it’s okay, no damage…
I’d call that one a nice brush…
A not so nice brush… near Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles I saw someone I recognised leaving a restaurant. Thinking she was someone I knew from back in Sydney I said, “Hey, how are you going? What are you doing here?” It was Michelle Pfeiffer and a case of mistaken identity and acute embarrassment isn’t really a brush worth bragging rights. Especially as I didn’t even think that the bloke with her would have been her husband, David E. Kelley, one of America’s best TV writers! Other brushes that don’t count are the myriad interviews I did for Kid Zone! Magazine with the likes of Blondie, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Wilde, Alice Cooper and Ernie Dingo.
One small brush was doing a rehearsal of Kingswood Country at Channel Seven’s Epping Studios. I was standing between the two bays that would soon play host to the studio audience when I noticed a bloke standing close behind me. He said, “Funny stuff.” I said, “I’m pleased, I’m one of the writers.” He extended his hand to shake. “Mel Gibson.” I already knew it was Mel Gibson because, as a member of the Australian Writer’s Guild, I had just voted in the Best Screenplay section of the Australian Film Institute awards. David Williamson’s script for the movie Gallipoli won hands down. Peter Weir got Best Director. The film won Best Picture and the fresh-faced Mel Gibson won Best Actor. This is a complicated trio in the Brush Game. I have never met Weir, but love his direction skills (Witness, Dead Poet’s Society, Green Card, The Truman Show, Master and Commander etc). We did, however, attend the same secondary school. Is that a ‘brush’ by extension? And David Williamson is by far Australia’s most successful and respected contemporary playwright but I sort of got to know David when he was President of the Australian Writers’ Guild for many years and I once wrote a speech for him (and rehearsed it) for a televised fundraiser. That crossed the ‘brush’ line methinks. I’ll take Mel as a legitimate one though. And around that time, in the corridors of Channel 7, I passed an American actor called Alan Alda. I nodded and said, “G’day”, he nodded back and said, “Hi.” I think that’s an exchange of pleasantries, not a ‘brush’. Damn, I wish I’d commented on the weather!
My only London ‘brush with fame’ was in 1978. It was a rainy night in London’s West End, waiting at a taxi rank. I had just been to see Tom Conti’s marvellous performance in Whose Life Is It Anyway? I was standing in the queue, silently singing a bit from Jethro Tull (“I saw her face in a tear-drop black cab window”) when I noticed that the Irish comedian and practising atheist, Dave Allen, was standing next to me (also not a tall man). Dave was starring in his own one-man show in the West End and had obviously just finished performing.
“Good show tonight?” I asked.
”Yeah, went well,” he replied.
“Sorry I wasn’t in the audience. It was a toss-up and I went to see Whose Life Is It Anyway?”
“I’ve heard it’s brilliant. Gotta make time for that.”
A taxi pulled up and Dave beckoned me towards it.
“No, you take it,” I said. “Thanks for the laughs.”
Dave Allen died in 2005, aged 68. I wonder if he ever sat around at home, playing a game, and saying, “I once met that TV writer from Australia at a taxi rank. God, what was his name…?”
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THAT WASCALLY WABBIT…
8th Aug 2011
Allow me to tell you a story about writing for an Oscar-winning rabbit. Then writing partner, Doug Edwards, and I were commissioned to write a radio series to help launch Warner Bros Movie World on the Gold Coast. Called The Looney Tunes Radio Show it would consist of 65 episodes of mayhem with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the gang running amok in Australia. It was voiced by Keith Scott, who had taken over many of the cartoon voices following the death of Mel Blanc. The series was an audio cartoon aimed at adults. For example, on arrival at Sydney airport Daffy was taken to a room for a strip search. On emerging, Bugs asked the duck, “Did they find anything?” and Daffy replied, “Giblets!”
The show had the desired result for Warner’s advertising agency and Doug and I decided to give America the opportunity to share in our enormous writing talent. We re-recorded radio segments using American voices and made appointments with radio syndication houses in Chicago and New York, and with Warner Bros in Hollywood.
We arrived in Los Angeles and were given a somewhat VIP welcome with a guided tour of the Warner Bros backlot (below) before our scheduled meeting at the studio offices with one of the programming executives.
Arriving at the foyer high up in a shiny glass and chrome building we were greeted by an effusive Afro-American receptionist who made us welcome with iced water and took us to the boardroom. The magnificent views over LA told us that we were about to meet someone important. The important, young, suited executive arrived and he was also effusive – he loved the Looney Tunes radio concept and would be pitching it at the programming meeting the following Tuesday. That was perfect for our timing because we had appointments across the country and would be back in LA on the Monday evening.
In Chicago we received a luke-warm reception in our meeting with three radio people so Doug decided to play them a couple of episodes of How Green Was My Cactus suggesting that a political satire may be what they were looking for. That move was death on a stick. Those five minutes seemed like five hours watching blank faces that didn’t understand the accents, the politics, the characters or the humour.
On to New York and time out for a bit of sightseeing – the Empire State Building and Manhattan – and we stayed at the famous ‘writer’s’ hotel, The Algonquin. Writing-wise we received a much better reaction there – we had sent some sample sketches ahead and the producers were impressed – so much so, they were able to quote many of the lines. We were ‘funny guys’ who would make a great addition to their writing team – and we could fax jokes from Australia no problem (email hadn’t been invented). Then they told us how much they paid for material and it was about half the rate we worked on back home. So much for a Hollywood lifestyle.
Back to Los Angeles to Warner Bros Studios for the board’s decision. At the designated meeting time we rode up the lift to the executive floor only to be greeted by a non-effusive Afro-American secretary. She rushed toward us, turned us around and accompanied us to the ground floor. It was best we leave, she said, because the executive who put the radio concept forward had been fired for even thinking that the radio series would enhance the Looney Tunes brand. I have a feeling the airport body search that found giblets might have been the clincher. It was an expensive but interesting week but we did get to see Pretty Woman in flight. Twice.
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Of Cornwall & Yorkshire
6th Aug 2011
One of my favourite towns in England is Fowey, in Cornwall. My father’s secretary, Dorothy Farmer, was born in Fowey (pronounced ‘Foy’). It is a charming town with houses huddled above the harbour with bobbing boats below. The Fowey Hotel is one of the finest pubs in Cornwall and offers accommodation, without advertising that one of the rooms is haunted with the ghost of a murdered pirate. ‘Pirate’ accents are still part of the town. If you ask the barmen for a ‘point’, he will serve you 20oz of beer.
There are also a number of Bed & Breakfast establishments in Fowey. The one I stayed in, on a number of visits, was owned and managed by a charismatic and garrulous chap called Derrick. Think of windswept thinning hair, a knotted scarf around his neck, an open neck shirt, some distinctive eye lines thanks to squinting into the sun and laughter with the wicked, rollicking smile of a pirate.
Derrick was an accomplished artist and he gave me free lessons on how to paint boldly in watercolours. Watercolours don’t have to be wishy-washy. Derrick had studied at the Royal Academy in the 1950’s under the then elderly but still much revered artist, Augustus John.
Augustus John was renowned for portraits of his famous contemporaries like Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). His most famous portrait, however, is of fellow countryman, Dylan Thomas. Thomas also wrote about the artist:
On Saturday Augustus comes, bearded
Like Cardy’s bard, and howling as Lear did.
A short stay only but oh, how nice.
No one more welcome than the oaktrunked maestro
Augustus John’s portrait of Caitlin Thomas is also stunning and captures the fire and gypsy in her soul. They were also lovers at one time. While Derrick and I were knocking back ports next to the open fire in Fowey I had no idea his mentor had done the definitive portrait of the scribbling mentor who would lead me to pursue a career in what Thomas described as “art, or sullen craft”.
Derrick’s other hobbies included fishing and drinking, two pastimes I was also fond of at the time. After other guests had retired for the night, Derrick and I would be the last to head for the stairs, preferring to stay chatting by the open fire with port or brandy.
I had fished in the estuary and harbour but the most memorable day on the water was out in the open seas in Derrick’s boat. We pulled in a lot of fish and, on the way back to shore while gutting them, birds swarmed like something out of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds. I offered to pay for the day on the water but Derrick would have none of it. I discovered why at dinner. Fish was on the menu, the guests paid handsomely for the meal and he charged me as well.
The Birds had its inspiration in Fowey, as it was home to Daphne du Maurier. The author lived in a lovely brick cottage on top of a hill above the other houses clinging to the hillside. The house overlooks the ferry crossing and can be seen from the scenic walk. On my visits she still lived there. This is the author in the 1920’s…
In the Fowey bookshop I purchased a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte. Haworth, in Yorkshire, was home to the literary Bronte family and on my list of places to visit. While paying for the book I asked the assistant if she knew the author. She laughed and said that everyone knew Miss du Maurier and that she had, in fact, just been standing next to me in the shop. The assistant pointed out the window and a little grey haired lady in an overcoat was heading up the cobblestone street in a hurried stride, like Mrs Marple on a mission. This is the author, age 70, taken the year before I visited Fowey…
Hanging on my office wall is a painting I did of the huddled houses and harbour in Fowey. It won first prize in an art competition at the Gundagai Show.
Dorothy Farmer was not only my father’s secretary but also, as the years went on, a close family friend. She was intelligent, independent, highly mannered and had a great love of books. I only knew her as ‘Mrs Farmer’. And even though she and my mother were close friends, they also referred to each other as ‘Mrs Farmer’ and ‘Mrs Heydon’.
I always enjoyed dropping in to her house in Otway Street, Gundagai, as did Annie. Mrs Farmer kept corgi dogs and exuded good ‘karma’. Mrs Farmer ‘was part of the furniture’ and one of the few people outside family I enjoyed giving a gift to at Christmas. It always included bottled raw, pickled ginger, a tin of shortbread and an interesting book. Finding the book was the enjoyable bit. This is the house in Otway Street. Mrs Farmer lived upstairs.
Mrs Farmer arrived in Gundagai as a refugee during World War Two. She and baby daughter, Lesley, were British expatriates, evacuated from Hong Kong via Singapore when the Japanese invaded. She never saw her husband again and assumed that he was killed by the Japanese. She never forgave them and even had a hatred for the growing import of Japanese made cars.
“You would think that they won the war.”
She never remarried but, for a time, lived with a gentleman friend. That was before my memory but I think his name was Joe Wotnar. Apparently Joe was a sweet-talking and loveable scoundrel who ran up a large amount of debt around the town. One morning Mrs Farmer found a note on the kitchen table that said, “Gone fishing.” She never saw him again.
For the next few years she managed to pay back all the money Joe had borrowed and having done that said, quietly, to my mother, “Mrs Heydon, I can now walk down the street with my head up.”
I have always liked to choose a reason to travel, a purpose as the destination if you like, and have usually found that the journey there is as every bit as interesting as reaching the goal.
Haworth village in West Yorkshire, as mentioned, was on my list of ‘must see’ places, simply because I found the lives of the Bronte family fascinating. I wanted to see where the Bronte sisters grew up and gained their inspiration for the literary classics Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I also wanted to have an ale in the pubs where their tormented brother, Branwell, once drowned his sorrows.
The Bronte children grew up in The Parsonage (below), adjacent to the church where their father was minister. The Parsonage is now a museum and holds some fascinating Bronte exhibits like the miniature hand-written novels written by sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily. In those days writing novels was not something women ‘did’, especially racy novels that featured hot-blooded, passionate suitors like Heathcliff or the brooding and fiery Edward Rochester.
To get the books published initially the sisters chose androgynous pseudonyms that could pass as male names – with the surname ‘Bell’, Anne become ‘Acton’, Charlotte became ‘Currer’ and Emily became ‘Ellis’.
Visitors to Haworth can stroll across the wild and windy moors to the ruins of Top Withens, which inspired the setting for Wuthering Heights. An enlarged photo hangs on a wall in our home today. The visit was surprisingly haunting, especially when the mist began to descend. Kate Bush was in my head, out on those wiley, windy moors.
Perhaps it was the air of the moors that gave the Brontes their desire for passion because Haworth also seemed to have absorbed some of that in 1978. One morning I was admiring the equestrian talents of a young lady through the window from our B&B over breakfast. She was the owner’s daughter and was, indeed, highly attractive. The mother sat next to me at the kitchen table, poured a cup of tea and said, “She’s a pretty thing, isn’t she?” Before I could agree I felt a hand run up the inside of my thigh. She smiled and looked deep into my eyes. Maths will tell you that, as I had been admiring the daughter, this woman was old enough to be my mother. While she may have been a well-kept forty-something ‘cougar’, I made my apologies, saying that time was short with the sightseeing list long and made my way to the car.
That evening Peter and I found a lively pub with a good band and fun people. We were feted as some sort of celebrities. They didn’t get many Australians up that way, although the band had a rock version of Waltzing Matilda in its repertoire. We drank and danced and then I found myself walking arm-in-arm down the mooncast cobblestones with a rather pretty young lass. She said that she lived with her parents but they wouldn’t mind if I was there for breakfast. I silently planned to make an exit before the bread could become toast.
One of the parents was waiting up. Her father was a short man with a waistcoat, a neatly trimmed moustache and a handshake that could crack walnuts. He beckoned me into the parlour.
“Good to meet you lad, like a drink?”
“Oh Dad, not the liquor cabinet,” sighed the young lady.
“Aye, must be hospitable to guests, lass.”
The lass gave an exasperated gasp and ran upstairs. From behind a slammed door came her voice, as clear as if she were next to me.
“Don’t be long!”
This was a workman’s house, attached either side to other workmen’s houses, with two rooms upstairs (the bedrooms), two rooms down, an outhouse out the back and walls as thick as paper.
“Now, have a look at this, lad,” said my new ‘best friend’ as he opened the liquor cabinet. “All liqueurs and all types. Crème de Menthe, Curacao, you name it. I make them myself.”
“No, thanks, but I really must be going.”
“Don’t be silly lad. Won’t be long till you can go upstairs and go at it. Try one of these, you won’t pick it from the real Baileys.”
I downed the drink quickly, asked him to thank his daughter for a wonderful evening and made my second escape for the day.
It was an experience straight out of Monty Python.
As they say in Yorkshire, “there’s none so queer as folk”.
I recall not sleeping well that night, being on guard in case the equestrian’s mother was in search of company. She wasn’t. Nor was she in Peter’s bedroom, or at breakfast. She hadn’t come home that night.
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All Greek to Me
4th Aug 2011
Athens is crowded, noisy, polluted, chaotic and lovely. I’ve been to Athens a few times and would love to live there. It has an enticing rhythm and sense of self. Ignore the economy. The city from the Akropolis…
It is a city rich in history, proud and determined with a joie de vivre that outstrips the French. I don’t know what ‘joie de vivre’ is in Greek, I can only say hello, order two beers and inquire as to the cost of a room with a bath.
I think, however, that I may have been Greek in a past life. Annie sometimes calls me Iannis and it feels right.
I particularly love the Plaka. Yes, it caters to the tourist, but you can absorb the centuries and, with little imagination, become ‘Greek’. Drink ouzo (with a wee dash of water) and play backgammon with the locals, slamming the dice and moving the pieces with flair. You can take a siesta and return for dolmades, mousaka, kalamaris, bouzoukis and dancing.
Late one afternoon on the first visit, in 1978, I found myself in the Plaka, enjoying the company of Americans in an outdoor taverna. The sun set on the wicker chairs, loping cats and bold geraniums. More drinks, a meal, and more drinks. The owner of the tavern had lived in Melbourne, so he was our ‘adopted’ Aussie mate. Midnight passed and the owner was tired. Rather than ask us to leave, he threw me a bunch of keys, told us to help ourselves to more drinks, leave the money on the bar and, when we finished, lock up and push the keys through the postal flap at the bottom of the front door. The Americans had no understanding of how Australian ‘strangers’ can bond. We just do. And, can you imagine that happening in your part of the world? Needless to say, a couple of hours later, the place was locked up and a healthy tip was left on the bar.
Above the Plaka is the Akropolis. I studied the Parthenon, the Erechtheum (above) and the other outer buildings in both Ancient History and Art. I can still recite the dates they were built, not because of rote learning but because of my interest in the era. I think it is, quite simply, the world’s best tourist attraction. To date anyway.
The amphitheatre of Herod Atticus sits below the Akropolis. In 1987 Annie and I took a picnic and wine, sat on the ancient steps and enjoyed a performance by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra with the well-lit Parthenon above us. There are moments that make travel so worthwhile. Here’s the Herod Atticus…
I have enjoyed things Greek like the Daphne Wine Festival (twice), the Corinth Canal, Cape Sounion and a visit to the lovely town of Naphlion to experience The Clouds by Aristophanes in an ancient amphitheatre (and in Greek, of course)… but the Greek Islands are ‘Greece’ for me…
On my first trip I discovered the arid but raw beauty of the Cyclades Islands – the whitewash, windmills and wild bougainvillea of Mykonos… the little churches, tethered donkeys and olive trees on the party island of Ios… the rugged, eerie beauty of Santorini.
Annie and I also made this journey in 1987. The plan was to fly to Mykonos and hop ferries from there but fog had grounded planes leaving Athens airport. Rather than updating the crowd of travellers waiting in the terminal, the employees just closed the shutters on their booths and ignored the waiting tourists. No angst on their side of the counter. If you stick your head in the sand, you just can’t be concerned about what is going on above.
It’s Greek, it’s irritating, but it works.
Annie and I played cards and waited. As the fogs cleared, the shutters began to reopen. Not for flights bound to Mykonos though. With no information as to whether the fog would lift and a desire to move on, rather than head back into Athens, we went to the check-in booth labelled “Crete” and parted with a bit more money to change destinations. Such decision-making can have major consequences and I still wonder what would have eventuated if the fog on Mykonos had cleared.
We only had a night on Crete in a pleasant enough hotel and hopped a ferry to Santorini the next morning. The seas were rough. Very rough. And we decided to head from our seated area below deck because of the smell of vomit. It’s a smell that can be contagious. Up on deck it was probably rougher, but the salty winds were refreshing. We heard a cheering and yelling from the stern and curiosity took us there. A bunch of Australian yobbos were making the best of a bad time. With Heinekens in hand they were in the lifeboats, ‘surfing’ and ‘singing’ the guitar chords from Bombora.
“Ding dang ding dang, ding dang-ga-dinga dang..”
That’s a great thing about Australian travellers – they never let a bad experience get in the way of a good time. In the South Pacific tourism industry this is well-known. If a resort property finds itself with a double booking they always ‘bump’ the Australians to another room or another resort. Americans will stand their ground, loudly, and demand their ‘rights’. Give an Australian a few beers or a bottle of wine as compensation and, ‘no problem’.
Annie bought a t-shirt in Greece that had that same motto on the front – ‘No Problem’. I have a photo of her, wearing the t-shirt, drinking gin and tonic through a straw with a wad of bandages strapped across her chin.
On Santorini we did something many tourists do. We hired mopeds to explore the island, with few riding skills or knowledge of the roads. This memory is almost slow motion – Annie heading towards a gaggle of Greek women in black, swerving to avoid them, catching one handle bar on a tree and the other on a wall and being flung over the bars, face first into the gravel. Locals rushed to our aid and Annie, propped against an ancient wall in shock, was unaware that her chinbone was poking through the blood and gravel.
Relief was all I could feel as we were ferried to the hospital by a helpful local man. The hospital wasn’t quite as sterile as the ones we were accustomed to. In fact, I asked the lady sweeping the dirt floor if she could leave the dust to settle until the doctor could attend to our needs. Eventually this happened. Dr Alex Kalekeridos was the attending doctor’s name. He looked at the wound, shook his head and asked me to leave the surgery. I said I would rather stay. He insisted, saying that he was understaffed and didn’t need a husband passing out to add to the situation.
I don’t know where he dragged the skin from to stitch the wound, but he did and, following a tetanus injection he drove us back to the Hotel Atlantis in his black BMW. It was the only BMW on the island and we figured he was sitting on a goldmine stitching up tourists who hire mopeds. Within ten minutes we were sipping gins and tonic (Annie through a straw), watching the sun set and Thira, the active volcano, in a shimmering Aegean Sea. No problem.
All the accident really did was slow us up a little, which was not necessarily a bad thing. From Santorini we went to Paros for a couple of days and then on to lovely Mykonos… touristy but wonderful – the maze of narrow whitewashed streets with bright blue doors and vibrant bougainvillea… the windmills, the fishing nets, bouzouki and the clack of dancing… dinner and wine at Little Venice, the waves slapping below…
Annie had the stitches removed on Mykonos, by a doctor who had practiced in St Ives in Sydney. Greeks like Australia, too and, outside Athens, the city of Melbourne has the next largest Greek population on the planet. Following the doctor’s advice we took out a second mortgage (well, it cost a lot) to ring friends in Australia and asked if they could find Sydney’s best plastic surgeon and make an appointment. The Mykonos doctor thought it would be a good idea to attend to this as soon as possible.
‘Home Sweet Home’ and back in Sydney we met the appointment. The plastic surgeon had rooms in Bondi Junction and the doctor examined the wound with a torch and magnifying glass. He then sat back in his leather chair.
“Dr Alex Kalekeridos,” he said. “Best in the business. He studied under me. You won’t have a scar.”
And he was right.
One day I hope to experience Greece again and I am quietly envious of a fellow MSer, Roz, who teaches English and lives on the island of Lesbos. Roz sent me this photo of her postman. Okay, I’ll own up… loudly envious.
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GUNDAGAI – A TRACK WINDING BACK
31st Jul 2011
There’s a track winding back
To an old-fashioned shack
Along the road to Gundagai –
Where the blue gums are growing
And the Murrumbidgee’s flowing
Beneath that sunny sky –
Where my daddy and mother
Are waiting for me
And the pals of my childhood
Once more I will see.
Then no more will I roam,
When I’m heading right for home
Along the road to Gundagai.
(Jack O’Hagan – 1922)
You can see Captain Moonlite’s grave in the Gundagai cemetery from the graves belonging to my father and mother. You can also see it from the grave and memorial to Senior Constable Webb-Bowen, the policeman shot and killed by Moonlite. Before Moonlite was hanged, he requested that he be buried in Gundagai near his friends, James Nesbitt and Augustus Wernicke, who had died in the shootout with the police. This request was denied for 115 years.
Captain Moonlite was born Andrew George Scott and he preferred the spelling of his ‘stage’ name to be ‘Moonlite’, because he had lived in America for some time and thought ‘lite’ was a lot classier than ‘light’. Some beer companies have had a similar thought. Scott was also an Anglican parson in Victoria before the lure of gold rushed to his head.
Gundagai was a thriving, bustling place during the gold era and has been celebrated in verse and song. It was the halfway stop for Cobb and Co coaches travelling between Sydney and Melbourne and that alone was an attraction for bushrangers. Many of the town’s streets are named after poets (Sheridan, Byron, Shakespeare) and today it is a sleepy country town, home to some 2000 people, which has been bypassed by an expressway.
The Dog on the Tuckerbox still sits five miles (9km) north of the town. Frank Rusconi sculptured the famous Dog but cemetery headstones were his bread and butter. His crowning glory is his Marble Masterpiece in town at the Information Centre in Sheridan Street, just across the road from the weatherboard house I grew up in until the age of eight.
My father, Harold Heydon, was the Gundagai Shire Clerk from 1942 to his death in 1970. He was one of the youngest to hold the office of Shire Clerk and while I am a committed republican, I look on his decorations and Royal correspondence from Buckingham Palace with some pride and nostalgia. Dad was an intelligent, gentle man with an infectious laugh. He was very much part of the community being actively involved in Rotary, the Presbyterian Church, the Ambulance Association, the P & C and the building of Australia’s first Travelodge motel.
His funeral was the first I had attended. I was fifteen.
More than 600 people filled the street outside tiny St David’s church and a police escort led the hearse to his final resting place. There were many tributes, one came from a former Shire President, Bol Stribley:
“Harold excelled most of us because he was a gentleman – in these days a rarity. No individual possessed higher principles or ideals. He instigated and organised many notable events, and I recall two, the winning of the Bluett Award and the formation of the Tumut River County Council. But to those of whom he touched along the way, we will always be able to say with justifiable pride, we knew him and there indeed was a man.”
I wore my school uniform to the funeral and at the time thought about the school motto – Utinam Patribus Nostris Digni Simus – “May We Be Worthy off Our Forefathers”.
I have tried but there’s a bit more work to do.
My mother never ‘worked’ but was a devoted wife and mother. She was always busy, bottling fruit, baking sponge cakes, attending church street stalls or pouring boiling water on any snake that ventured too close to the house.
I learnt to swim in the Murrumbidgee River, collected mushrooms in an old, tin billy, dangled a piece of cotton and rancid meat for yabbies, reeled in the occasional trout and shot and skinned rabbits.
It’s what rural kids did in the 1960s.
We rode pushbikes to school, ate hamburgers with beetroot, drank milkshakes from metal containers and gazed in wide-eyed wonder at airbrushed Man magazines that someone had knocked off from their father.
On Saturday nights we’d go to the pictures, share an underage bottle of Brown Muscat and sober up over a Coke and a chat in the Niagara café before heading home around midnight to a house that was never locked.
One of my fondest memories of growing up in Gundagai has the earthy smell of a flowing river and the sound of a sinker breaking the surface – ‘plonk’ – just sitting, fishing for redfin with Kevin McAlister at Johnson’s corner, where the Murrimbidgee River does a left hand turn and heads towards the Murray.
Gundagai by the way, in Aboriginal, means “cut in the back of the knee with a tomahawk” because of that bend in the river. The Sheahan Bridge wasn’t there when we were kids.
On my last visit to Gundagai, in 2002, our kids picked wildflowers for their grandparents’ graves and we wandered the cemetery for a while, with me remembering the living faces of others buried there and the children picking up a bit of history.
We walked down the dry, grassy slope to the graves of Webb-Bowen and Moonlight and I told them of how the original town was flooded in 1852. The death toll of 89 would have been far greater but for the bravery and stamina of local full-blood Aboriginal, Yarri, who tirelessly fought the raging current in his frail dugout canoe. Yarri plucked 49 people from the waters and the rooftops and paddled them to safety.
The Gundagai Times of June 29, 1879 reported that “A gentleman, who passed through South Gundagai on Monday, complains that he saw some individuals whom, he supposes, would expect to be considered men, maltreating and teasing an unfortunate blackfellow, whom he subsequently ascertained was ‘Old Yarri’.”
Yarri was originally buried in that cemetery, too. In an unmarked grave.
We dropped into the Niagara café for lunch. Vic and Jack Castrission owned the Niagara from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. In the early days it was hailed as “one of the finest cafes in the country” and, following the opening ceremony by the Hon W.F.M. Ross MLA in 1938, the brothers donated the day’s gross takings to the Gundagai Hospital. That’s Vic on the left…
In 1942, just after midnight, Jack was locking up when there was a knock at the door. He opened it, prepared to tell an unwelcome visitor where to go, to discover Prime Minister John Curtin. Curtin tipped his hat and said he had a couple of mates in the car and they were all hungry and freezing. The ‘mates’ were future Country Party leader, Artie Fadden, and future Prime Minister, Ben Chifley. Vic cooked them steak and eggs and they ate around the warmth of the kitchen stove.
“How’s the war affecting you?” Curtin asked.
“Our ration of tea (28lbs a month) runs out real quick,” Vic replied.
For the rest of the war the Niagara received 100lbs of tea and the Prime Minister always dropped in for a cuppa when he was passing through. In those days there was a big difference between corruption and repaying a favour.
On that last visit in 2002, the Niagara hadn’t changed that much (it is Heritage listed). I remember the date, January 5, because we were sitting in a booth, having a burger and a milkshake, when a Greek Orthodox priest in his robes emerged from the kitchen, splashing holy water about. It was the day before Epiphany. I got talking with the new owner, Nick – well, he was ‘new’ to me, even though he’d taken over from the Castrissions 19 years before. We chatted about Greece, about Gundagai and about racehorses. I asked about the Castrissions. He stroked his unshaven face, shook his head and told me that the last remaining brother, Vic, had died at 10:00am that morning in the Gundagai hospital.
I’m so glad we took time to stop.
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THE IBIS HAS EXPLETIVES (PREFACE)
31st Jul 2011
This journey begins with an ending.
Jim was crook.
With 111 years of inexperience between them and a quarter of a century since their last brief encounter, old school mates, Swami Kriyatma and ‘The Poet’, hit the road.
The quest – to find a little place on the Queensland map called Westmar, then turn right, drive 28km further, and have lunch with Jim.
That road led to this book.
The Poet’s story.
And some of the Swami’s.
Here is a photo of Dave Burgess, who also goes by the name Swami Kriyatma. The preface above has led to over 100,000 autobiographical words so far. The journey continues.
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