In Vino Veritas 13

Episode 13

Life in swinging London was in non-swing mode, not helped by my sad ‘digs’ in downtown Putney. An upstairs room in fact. In real estate parlance it would be described as a ‘builders dream’ or, depending on your situation, a dreary dump. I can still see the only form of ventilation. It consisted of one of those 15cm acrylic fans that are let into windows. Wow. What with that , the Pompeii walls and threadbare carpet, this boudoir was not quite the ticket if I could get my hands on a bit of that mini skirted, wide-eyed womankind as seen on TV. Not only that, every move I/we made would be tracked on the owners domestic grapevine. No doubt of that. This would not do. Will fix. In the meantime a trip to Wales seemed in order.

My companion was another Kiwi, male this time , and unemployed.
Two of the images from this sojourn in the mining valleys still remain. Although there is, or was, plenty of mining on the West coast of Tasmania, (including the hazards associated with this industry), they did not approach the scale of Aberfan. It must have been in late October that, by chance, we saw the massed grave of 144 people, 116 of them children, who were crushed under this collapsed colliery spoil tip. The lowering skies were a backcloth for a scene of utter devastation.

 

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The second indelible memory of this trip occurred when we fetched up at a village pub to have a couple of beers. The natives, exclusively male, were friendly, and, of course, as soon as we opened our mouths, questions of nationality cropped up.
Once the words ‘New Zealand’ were uttered, the translation was immediate.
ALL BLACKS! Then….by some strange alchemy, a good chunk of the bar was cleared, various condiment bottles and napkin holders were placed in strategic points
and a goodly group of the locals gathered and, all very silent, watched proceedings.
THEN, a spokesman intoned, in a wonderful cantabile D Thomas sort of way exactly what happened at Cardiff Arms Park when there was a DISPUTED try in an earlier Welsh/ All Black game, which the All Blacks won. The pieces were expertly moved here and there around the park as the game progressed. The date? Wait for it…1905.

Back to London. After a while, but not with unseemly haste, domestic arrangements took a turn for the better. It must have been that linen suit that did the trick.
It seems that my other New Zealand friend, female this time, she of the table tennis fame, found heavy communal living not to her liking. Thus it was decided, (not discounting my iridescent wit and charm, nor her attractiveness) to put together an alternative arrangement. So, we agreed to implement a ‘cut the numbers’ living proposal.

Our accommodation, near Wimbledon Common, was a first floor flat. Downstairs, our Welsh landlady lurked. Her countenance resembled a map of the Brecon Beacons.
She was also armed with a 3 metre (or so it seemed) broom handle, which was whacked on the ceiling if she heard the slightest noise.
But, the real architectural gem in this place was having the bath conveniently located in the kitchen. If one was wondering what was for the next meal, this could be ascertained by seeing what detritus in the shape of fruit or vegetable offcuts that were bobbing about in the bath. It also facilitated a very convenient way of catching up on the days events whilst keeping a close eye on any boiling water involved in meal preparation.

Earning an income now moved centre stage….very quickly.

In Vino Veritas 12

Episode 12

Our penultimate stop was the very pleasant Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. The visit was modestly interesting, mildly dignified by a good look at a huge oil refinery. Seen one you have seen them all. But lo!, said oil refinery is still in the news up to this very day if the splendid ‘Curacao Chronicle’ is to be believed. It seems that an American oil outfit has lifted the sanctions it placed on the refinery which has been operated by a Venezuelan state owned company. The Venezuelans have agreed to pay compensation to the tune of 2 billion dollars. One’s mind boggles at how much that would be in Venezuelan Bolivars, what with the current rate of inflation! If it was paid in cash, it could be conveyed in an oil tanker. Quite appropriate.

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After an eternity, Southampton vaguely emerged into view. Well, a thin, grey silhouette of it did.
Low cloud, drizzle, murk. A green and pleasant land lurked somewhere behind the shower curtain. Next stop London, and of course, more precisely, Earls Court. This was a well established Australian ghetto.
I wonder if the sobriquet ‘swinging London’ was, like the ‘ploughman’s lunch’, invented by an advertising agency. A ‘youth driven cultural revolution’ no less. One was attracted by the female look, ‘a mini-skirt, long straight hair and wide-eyed lovelyness’
Gosh. I certainly missed that wide-eyed bus alright. AND…a ticket to this fun- loving hedonism in a ‘shiny epicentre of style’ needed loads of crinklies. My financial epicentre lacked both shine and style.

Getting gainfully employed started on a rather low rung. Not to be confused with Dirk Bogarde, I did a spot of night portering. My movie was rather prosaic and very tiring. At 3 in the morning subservience did not sit well, never more so than with a battalion of South African guests.
Those, of the aristo variety, were cavalier, previously servant supplied and arrogant to the point of loathing. Their baggage seemed to consist of huge bags of recently minted krugerrands which had to be lugged up 5 flights of stairs. They never tipped.

Yet, moments of delight and great fun occasionally appeared.
Again, very late one night, a couple of postbellum Americans lobbed in. I dubbed them Rhett and Scarlett. Rhett glowed with a Jack Daniels tan and desperately wanted some ice for his bourbon. I explained that we had grief in our chilling department and no could do. He pressed on and on. Meanwhile Scarlett emerged from the bathroom crowned by a clutch of hair rollers whose wiring would break German radio codes. Rhett banged on AGAIN.
‘Right’ I said to him, ‘let me give you a simple questionnaire.’ ‘OK,’ he replied.
I went on , ‘If you take the **** out of ‘ice’, what do you get?’ ‘That’s easy,’ he said, ‘there is no ****in ice’. ‘That’s what I have been trying to tell you!’
He roared with laughter.
‘OK’, I said, ‘stay loose and, like general McArthur, I shall return.’ Which I did, clutching a bucket of ice which I nicked from a neighbouring hotel.
His gratitude was far more than a weeks wages, but beyond that a kind of friendship developed during their stay. As he was about to leave, with the oven -ready Scarlett, I presented him with a bottle of Haig’s Dimple. Quite right too.

In Vino Veritas 11

Episode 11

 

100 shades of nothing much.

Never mind the sun being over the yard arm (as I ordered the first rinse of the day) the sun was scarcely over the gunwales when Spiro produced one of several cold beers. Not to forget the wine. The consumption of alcohol as an antidote was not terribly clever. Where have I heard that before?

As for the good reader contemplating a tasty bookstore bodice-ripping romance, disappointment awaits. The blanket of boredom was ubiquitous, even enveloping the morose Latin lovers. My new best friend (aka Ronda, she the Kiwi of table tennis fame) was also a pretty savvy poker player. These were unexpected skills from an infant teacher.
It was 50 years, almost to the day, that I savoured the deep joy of victory in the table tennis endeavour. Meanwhile, other on-board friendships, not quite so predicated on an increasing friendly rivalry, also developed.

The boredom cavalry, cleverly disguised as Tahiti, at last made an appearance.

The island will forever be associated with Gauguin, the French painter. He is, or was, the very embodiment of the truism ‘Death is a great career move’. A concept that his part-time mate Vincent would have also understood. Of course, there was the unfortunate ‘lend an ear’ incident. Oh dear.
I can still imagine Gauguin, in his youth, trying to sell tarpaulins in Copenhagen. He was not aided much in this endeavour by his inability to speak Danish or the Danes did not want to know about his wretched tarpaulins.
His biography has been constructed along the lines of the Russian landscape…
Interminable. Suffice to say, one of his final paintings seemed to encapsulate our sailing predicament. The title is : ‘WHERE DO WE COME FROM? WHAT ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE GOING?’ Amen to that. Somebody less charitable than me has suggested that his work as a painter would have been just as good, if not better, had he stayed in Brittany. Shame on them.
The stopover consisted of a few drinks with the locals in a sort of ethnic watering hole.
The natives were friendly, but they had that sort of posing and world-weariness together with the unspoken assessment of ‘just another sad load of tourists’.

Next stop Panamá, or more precisely, Colon, the city at the other end of the canal, so to speak.
The canal (first considered as a possible goer in the 1500’s) was finally completed in 1916 by the Americans.
A momentous piece of engineering, it’s cost in lives was around 6,000
I imagine some TV gardening guru, with his wheelbarrow and spade, chatting to his allotment audience. With a confident wave of the arm, he announced he was about to shift 150 million cubic metres of soil so as he could start planting next week.
Colon was founded in 1850 as a rail head and faster route for those going to California in the gold rush days. In those days, writing copy for tourist brochures for Colon would have been a nightmare. How would you avoid words like ooze, booze, swamps, alligators, poisonous insects, floating corpses, pimps, prostitutes, hoodlums and dictionaries crammed with notes on tropical diseases. I can just see a gaggle of excited SAGA tourists lining up at the tourist info. office, itching to make a start.

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When we lobbed in, the first thing spotted was lots of pock- marked holes on the Spanish Mission walls. Was this some kind of indigenous insect nesting site? The natives were friendly, if not effusive. We certainly presented no problem, underscored by the fact that they were armed to the teeth. The insects were obviously made of lead.
It seems there had been recent disputes with the Americans over the sovereignty of the canal. At the other end of the canal lies Panamá City, acres of steel and glass, a sort of Central American Dubai. I wonder if there are any air b and b’s in Colon…

Back to the good ship Ellenis. Let’s go! Not l o n g n o w…. . .

In Vino Veritas

Episode 9

Episode 9

The lopsided passenger ratio on our luxury liner was accounted for by the high percentage of the sons of European emigre’s (mostly Greek and Italian) returning for a visit to their ancestral homelands. The gunwales were almost awash with these handsome lads, AND they oozed charisma to boot. Gloom. I had a couple of contingency plans up my sleeve, but I had not counted on being outflanked by this lot of Latin lovelies.
For some inexplicable reason (and one never to be repeated) I had kitted myself up with a suit! Not any old suit but a nice little pale linen number. The ensemble was given added glamour by the addition of a matching tie and classy suede shoes. When would I get to play this card? If at all?

Another such irresistible lure (or so I thought) was my genuine interest in the current vogue of existential philosophy. It wasn’t so much the goings on of Jean -Paul and Simone and their writings, but reading the novels of Albert Camus.
‘The stranger’ was impressive. When things were becoming unglued, I loved his concept of ‘the glorious indifference of the universe’. (my translation, others call it benign) [Editor: or “the tender indifference of the world” if you’re a Guardian reader!]

Hmmmm… Perhaps a bit heavy for a chat -up line. Of course, this combination of couture/ culture could backfire. Perhaps I might be approached by a woman of a certain age, of academic appearance, and clutching the complete oeuvre of Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics. These books would choke a horse.
She would be thrilled at the prospect of intellectual exploration and exchange of ideas that our relationship would provide for the next 30 days. I went to the library and got out a copy of ‘The Cruel Sea’.

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Back to life on the ocean wave. The good ship Ellinis only stopped at five ports on this mammoth journey. They were Auckland, Panama City, Curacao, Tahiti, and Southampton. The happenings at one of them had fairly lengthy implications, to say the least…

Formula Fun 7

Episode 7

Mumbles’ mojo seemed to be working. Weary after a day’s racing he contemplated a good nights sleep in his ‘got you figured out’ cocoon.
And thus it proved. Almost. About seven in the morning, still pretty dark in the tent, he decided to investigate some small object that had been digging into his back. What the hell was it?
Now a tentophile of considerable organisational skills, he reached for his specs that he had hung on a ceiling hook. He grabbed handfuls of air. Strange. So he looked again at the object. A LENS. Terrific. Where was the rest of his eye-wear? Under the air bed! They now looked like mangled costume jewellery or those evil wire sculptures one sees in open studio exhibitions. Couldn’t see a bloody thing without them. A job for Paul.

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Paul had three great skills. He was deeply intuitive, did not stand on ceremony and was not patronising …usually.
‘Alright, what have you done now?’ (He could also be long suffering and non- judgmental at the same time.) He studied the evidence.
‘Did you leave these in the pit lane?’ Convulsed at his own wit, his shoulders shook.
He then glided to the boot of his car, snapped it open and produced on of those Mega telescopic tool boxes, about 2 metres high at full stretch. Socket spinners, ring spanners, adjustable….and on and on and on. With this kit he could do anything from changing a gearbox to a hysterectomy. Mumbles hovered. Paul decisive.
‘Look sweetie,’ said Paul, ‘why don’t you go and sit over there, put on your ‘howdy folks, I’m aimin to sing’ hat, get out your guitar and the rest of your microwave stash and stay really loose?’ That came to pass. Mumbles drifted Into his world, Paul stayed four square in his. Later…..
Mumbles hit the final chord on his Tassie Troubadour set and felt good. He then glanced down and saw his re-built specs. ‘No problem’, said Paul ‘thank God I had some 5 amp fuse wire.’ While I was about it, he went on, I changed the brake pads and a wheel bearing on our limo. A CVJ looked dodgy but will get us home. My welding kit is giving me grief’ Mumbles had no grasp of this language whatsoever.
‘Qualifying starts soon, let’s go.’ Said Paul. ‘Don’t forget your specs.’

Episode 8: Paul has a visitor.

In Vino Veritas

Chapter 6

Meanwhile, still back at the theatre, painting scenery continued. By now I was familiar with the whole set-up . In a long narrow-ish studio, the huge back- cloths were attached to stout wooden stretchers. A gap between the floor and the wall, (together with the aid of an electric motor), meant they could be raised and lowered as and when. Painting the flats and other props was very straightforward.
If one imagines about 200 ice-cream cartons filled with every tint, tone and high colour imaginable, the whole approximating the range of a High street DIY paint retailer, then they were occupying a central table. They were maintained, in exemplary fashion by Steve, the splodger… hardly a flash job description. All water-based, of course. …the colours, not Steve.
Work proceeded well on the Viennese hell. Endless drop shadows, highlights, reflected lights, marbling, wood graining, cast shadows, all the usual old tricks of trompe l’oeil orthodoxy cascaded down. Rather similar to sucking boiled sweets.
BUT WAIT. I was admiring the job I had done on some alcove encased temptress and then became aware of a fellow admirer. A delicious exchange followed.

‘Look’, said our leader, ‘um…hmmmm…this is rather good….ummm ..’
He glanced at his watch…’could you do a few more?’ I glanced at his efforts. Rather me do them than him, I thought.
‘No problem , I said, you go and have a rinse or 3 with your mates and leave the alcoves and little darlings to me.’
Not a lot was said, but it was hugely significant.
Theatre mythology is also huge; Quasimodo, phantoms, ghosts, creaking woodwork, strange meanings, wobbly stairs, all of that.
I usually arrived first in the morning to get the studio opened up.
Up the creaking stairs. I grabbed the handle of the ancient door. Resistance. Push then came to shove.
The door opened a bit to reveal a pair of shoes stuck underneath.
Why the hell would somebody?….. A closer look. There were legs in those shoes.
According to the coroner, the death must have been agonising. Huddled in the foetal position, Steve had tried several exit stratagems, but lethal photographic chemicals had been most effective, at God knows what agony.
To complete the theatrical… because of rigor mortis and the narrowness of the stairwell, his body had to be put in a sling and lowered down on a rope.

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One reflected upon previous conversations with Steve, but there was no indication of what he was thinking. More entry into the world.

 

Formula Fun 4

Episode 4

Evening meal and so to bed…

Time for some food! In one of his epistles to the Ecclestones, St Paul outlined the cosmopolitan nature of the Silverstone cuisine. It seemed to mirror exactly the range of food available in Collins Street, Melbourne. Alas, Dodge City would cover it. Still, the food was hot and, deepest joy, the beer was cold. Mumbles would have settled for a couple of glasses of sandwiches. Back now for a good night’s sleep.

Mumbles air bed was perhaps a tad over-inflated. Any sudden movement would result in the occupant being catapulted on to the floor. This was compounded by contour problems. The air bed ridging was identical to that of a frozen deeply ploughed field in February – and about as hard. If you got stuck in the ridges, move v e r y s l o w l y .
After a while and a fair bit of bruising, the mantle of sleep started to weave a magic…then…O MY GOD!! Please say it’s not happening to me!
It was four to the floor Migraine Music, conveyed through a Nuremberg sound system. Mumbles needed a fix. AAAAAGGGHH! It was in Paul’s microwave, drying off.
Music died at about midnight, but with sublime synchronisation it blended into a raging storm. Rain hurtled down. Tent kept dry…but!
Mumbles off into a fitful sleep. CRAMP! At 3 in the morning. Involuntary spasm. Catapulted to the floor. Hits the side of the tent. That’s when a tent sheds water…on the inside. It runs down your neck and back. Jump to the other side to avoid it and it runs down your front. ‘Why did I skip RE classes’? mused Mumbles.
Grey morning arrived at last. Mumbles final labour presents itself. How to get fully dressed in a sitting position without touching the top or sides of the tent.
Seventy something bones and muscles have serious articulation problems. Back howls in protest. Eventually emerges from his cozy chrysalis. Grabs his rain soaked towel and sets off to THE FACILITIES!