Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bob's Legend or Mine?

Perhaps the only predictable thing about Bob Dylan’s 50-year career is that he is nothing if not unpredictable. He’s spent much of his time heading in directions no-one ever expected. And in the last twenty years or so this has been particularly true of his live appearances.
I’ve seen Dylan a number of times. Football Park, Adelaide, 1978. Earls Court, London, 1981. Memorial Drive, Adelaide, 1986. And a whole bunch of times, starting in March 1992, at our ignominiously named Adelaide Entertainment Centre. Those first few were marked with a certain itching excitement, an expectation that only got worse as the date of the concert approached. Driving there, the anticipation was almost unbearable. And waiting outside with ticket in hand - well, let’s not go there.
Something happened, though, on 21 March 1992. Six long years had passed since Dylan’s last visit to Australia, and though I’d heard rumors, I simply refused to believe what the press was saying. But when Dylan emerged into the packed auditorium it was with barely a nod towards his audience. His singing was sloppy, his playing too, and he rushed through the songs as though he couldn’t wait to get off the stage. 
Yet I clung to the hope it was just a passing phase. I’d seen him during the Budokan album tour, and later with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, both times when he’d been at the top of his game. Another two concerts during the  nineties put paid to that notion. Incensed shouts echoed between the songs; for the first time at a concert I saw people walking out. With each subsequent tour the audience numbers diminished. I started wondering why Dylan bothered to tour at all. Did he need the money? Were we, his fans, poor saps who were being taken for a ride?
On Tuesday 19 March, then, you’ll understand why I was nervous. Yet, waiting for the lights to go down, I found myself considering this idea: perhaps mystery is part of the allure. (It might also be a touch masochistic.) Maybe (to fall victim to popular music lore) each performance is a unique experience, another notch in the gigantic totem of pop music history. Such is Dylan’s legend you want your concert experience to be everything the term “legend” says it should be - meaningful, a high point in your otherwise normal, run of the mill existence. 
You can see I was trying desperately hard to talk myself into having an experience that wouldn’t leave me feeling like I’d been ripped off - again.
And then it occurred to me. For Dylan, the sheer weight of his legend must be overwhelming. I began to suspect the last twenty years has been a deliberate exercise in extricating himself from it. Wasn’t it John Lennon who said the Beatles were just a band that happened to strike it very lucky? Couldn’t this thinking also apply to Dylan? 
So there I sat, me and five thousand others, waiting. And I, for one, waited with as few expectations as possible.
Yeah, right.
It’s difficult being in the same room as a music legend. It’s almost impossible - I discovered as soon as Dylan appeared - to shed the weight of history. And now I realize I’m talking, not about Dylan’s history, but my own. I was too young to witness, let alone appreciate, Dylan’s classic 1960s period. My knowledge of Civil Rights, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy, King was all gained second-hand through text books. At fourteen I somehow had Dylan and John Denver mixed into one (sorry, Bob), so that when Annie or Thank God I’m a Country Boy came on the radio I thought it was the same artist The Beatles had fallen over themselves to praise. (What the hell, I routinely wondered, were they thinking?) But then came that transformational Friday evening in winter 1976 when the Hard Rain concert was shown on television. (A class mate had nagged me about it; I knew I’d never hear the end of it come Monday if I didn’t have some comment to make.) Before even the first verse of the first song was over I was frantically gesticulating at my mother to be quiet while simultaneously trying to pick my jaw off the ground. That was the moment. I became a fan. I’ve been one ever since.
But back to Adelaide and now. I sat in the auditorium with the monolith of my own Dylan history weighing me down. The lights dimmed, the crowd brought the house down, and suddenly there Dylan was, looking smaller and more fragile than I’d ever seen him before. 
He nodded at his audience, took his position behind the keyboard, and let the music begin. And from the very first song - Gonna Change My Way of Thinking from his first gospel album, though it is Easter - I was put into a state of reverie, the visions flickering like an old Super-8 movie above the heads of the crowd. Suddenly it was 1981 and I was alone in a church in South London. With Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) I was lying on my best friend’s floor a few days after Christmas 1978. Tangled Up in Blue reminded me of how very young my wife was when we married. I relived the births of my children, our first house, my final year of university. Birthdays, weddings, funerals. Suddenly I understood Dylan’s legacy, the way it’s shaped my life. I saw how much of myself I owed to those songs.
Well, after all that, what about the concert itself? Dylan played a good show. Actually; it was more than that. He’s tried hard to rid himself of the legend, but all he did was remind me why that legend was there in the first place. I left having fallen in love with him all over again.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Service? What Service?

Lately, business leaders in this country have been vocal in their concern over the steady decline in retail sales across Australia. According to a recent report the past twelve months has seen a thirty per cent drop in sales. There are two reasons for this, we are told. First is the explosion of on-line shopping. Almost anything the Australian consumer wants to buy can be bought cheaper from overseas. For instance, I recently bought a hardcover book which in an Australian bookstore would have cost me $39.95. Ordering it through UK company cost me $19.95 including free postage - and it came right to my door. The second reason, according to our business leaders, is that the Australian consumer is displaying unprecedented disloyalty to his/her true blue Aussie store owners. In other words, we’re letting down our mates. Of course, they don’t actually come right out and say this, but the accusation is there between every word, in every pause.

All this shows just how far removed from the general retail public our business leaders are. Because the real reason behind the thirty per cent drop in retail sales has nothing to do with ebay or Amazon, or even the disloyalty of the average Australian. These are merely a symptom of a disease spreading exponentially across the sunburnt plains of our fair country. You see, our business owners have been infected by a malaise which sees them caring more for profits and less for the people entering their stores. They’ve forgotten that old equation - happy shoppers = healthy profits.

This was brought home to me just last week as I stood at a cafe waiting to be served while the barista talked on the phone to her friend. I stood, I waited, I walked away. Right into another cafe across the mall. And I vowed never to return to the cafe where I’d been so profoundly ignored.

But a real case in point - and this is happening with greater frequency - is what happened in a Subway only a few weeks ago.

First, let me set the scene. I was hungry. I was driving between the two campuses of the college where I work. I pulled into a shopping centre and made directly for Subway. That was my first mistake. The second was I didn’t walk out. Though this time it was because the incident I am about to describe, though indicative of the general decline in the arts of customer service, was just too extraordinary to ignore. You see, this Subway was not manned by people whose job it is to please the customer’s every whim; it was manned by a group of young people who made me wonder which school they’d attended and to feel sorry for the students who were still enrolled there.

In front of me were two men, both in their late twenties/early thirties. The first was being served by an incongruously-named sandwich artist who kept asking in her dull-as-a-board voice what he would like on his six-inch. Behind the glass a male and female were leaning casually against the counter talking about their weekend plans.

Suddenly, the lounging girl seemed to wake up. She lurched towards the man in front of me and asked whether he was waiting to be served. A little surprised by this, the man nodded and said, “Well, yes.”

“Oh,” the girl said, including the three of us in her gaze. “I thought you were all together.” 

To which the man jabbed a thumb at the customer at the head of the line and replied, “We walked in at the same time.” He jerked his thumb at me. “He didn’t.”

The girl was unfazed by this. She glared at the young male sandwich artist and indicated he should start earning his money. Then she picked up a cloth and began industriously buffing the glass covering the salad trough. It took the man in front of me to say, “What about him?” Meaning me. And the girl said “Oh” again and then asked me, “Are you waiting to be served?”

Meanwhile, the young male Subway employee asked in his surfer chic voice what the man in front - and he called him “man” - would like. The man gave his order and was met with the response, “What?” Twice more the order was repeated and eventually the surfer dude, his face such a blank canvas it would have made Picasso tremble with expectation, turned to the girl beside him and asked, “What’s a --?”

The man repeated his order a third time and was told by the girl, “We don’t have that.”

The man’s eyebrows pinged halfway up his forehead. He turned, pointed at a prominently displayed sign, indicated the words “Try our new sandwich” emblazoned in scorching red letters across a photograph of one of the most gorgeous sandwiches I’d ever seen.

The girl laughed in what she supposed, I assume, was her cutest most cutting tone. She smirked devilishly, batted her eyes. “That’s a promotion. Only selected stores carry it.” The condescension positively dripped off her.

By this time the man was getting flustered. “Then why advertise it here?” 

The girl shrugged, the smirk rigid on her face.

“Alright,” the man said testily. “I’ll have a meatball sandwich.”

Except Surfer Dude just looked blank again. Eventually The Smirking Girl gave him an inelegant shove and stepped into the breach.

“Sorry about that,” she said. “He’s new.”

That’s not what I would have called him.

“Meatball sandwich?” she asked, now the epitome of industry and motivation.

The man nodded and smiled hopefully.

“Is that vegetarian or do you want meat?”

At first the man was dumfounded, but then he started to laugh and began studying every square inch of the store. When he saw me looking at him he explained, “I’m looking for the hidden camera.”

When it was my turn I ordered a Veggie Delight and - you guessed it - was asked whether I wanted any vegetables on that.

What I want to know is this. Who employed those people? And what the hell were they thinking? Business leaders take note. Next time I want a Subway, I’m going on-line. It may take three weeks to get to me, but at least I won’t have all the fuss. 

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Beach Tent

We sat on the beach all afternoon under the blue-and-white-striped beach tent. The air was absolutely still, the heat dense. The clouds covered the sky so completely that the light was a murky grey colour, like twilight.
My daughters, both on the cusp of adolescence, gangled about awkwardly in the becalmed water, pulling at their bathing suits.
Robert, who was eight, asked, "Do you think it will rain?"
I looked at the sky and noticed for the first time a long angry-looking cloud stretching the entire length of the horizon.
"Maybe," I said.
Just then the girls appeared and begged to be taken along the jetty to the reef. I groaned inwardly; the problem with taking the kids to the beach was that they always wanted you to do things with them.
"Please," Robert pleaded.
I felt like saying, `I'm tired; I want to finish my book.' But I knew that after they'd grown up they wouldn't remember that I was exhausted and overworked and had looked forward to lying on the beach and forgetting everything for a few hours. Begrudgingly I closed my book and climbed to my feet.
"Let's take the boogie boards," Robert said, and I nodded.
As we were readying ourselves the tip of Robert's board caught Lillian on the calf.
"Moron!" she yelled, and to me, "Why did we have to bring him?"
"Leave him alone," I snapped, and Lillian pulled a face.
"He did it on purpose," Joanne accused. "I saw him."
"It was an accident," I said, and thought, Great!
We carried our boards to the jetty and struck out into the water, kicking and scooping ourselves from one salt-encrusted column to the next. At the steps where boats sometimes moored we paused to watch the teenagers jumping in the water, making huge splashes as they hit.
Finally at the reef we climbed out of the water, hauling our boards up behind us and leaving them in the lee of a large rock. We stepped gingerly, the barnacles stinging our feet, towards the far side. Robert almost stumbled and reaching out he caught hold of Joanne's arm to steady himself. "Don't touch me!" she screeched. "Freak!"
"That's enough," I shouted, and we all sulked. My book seemed even more inviting.
"What's that?" Lillian pointed at the sky.
Looking up I saw that the line of cloud was now much closer and even more angry-looking. A deep malicious purple, it turned over and over like a steamroller, and wisps of dark mist were gathered into it as it moved towards us.
"It looks like rain," I said, then added, "If the wind starts up we'd better head back."
We sat on the edge of the reef dangling our feet in the water. Black-and-yellow striped fish swam in and out of the rocks and seaweed, and further out sleeker-looking silver-coloured fish meandered lazily.
When I looked up again something like alarm rose in me. With its heart black and malignant, the cloud was almost upon us; it opened out like a malevolent claw, and phantom-like fingers reached over our heads.
"Let's go," I said, and all at once the wind rose, a fierce blast of cold air that engulfed the entire coast. The sea was whipped into a broiling rage, the air thick with spray thrown furiously.
We grabbed our boards and vaulted into the foaming water, heading for the jetty. A knot of people were huddled against the ladder and some men were passing the children through, letting them up first.
"Lie down when you get to the top," I yelled, and up they went - Lillian, Joanne, and Robert.
With the spindrift whipping against my back I climbed up the ladder and over the railing. There was Lillian, Joanne - but Robert? I screamed at the girls, but they thought Robert had stayed behind with me. I thought He can't swim; I never taught him! and looking over the railing I felt sick. The sea was a boiling mass, heaving and smashing against the jetty in wave after terrible wave. I knew that if he'd gone over there would be no way of finding him.
A lifeguard grabbed my arm and pointed towards the beach.
"I can't leave him!" I yelled, but then it occurred to me that Robert couldn't have gone over. It wasn't possible. He was too young to die. Terrified, he must have fled to the beach.
The girls and I ran crouched over, using our boards to shelter us from the gale. Joanne was crying and holding my hand; Lillian was pressed against me.
We reached the Esplanade in a mad rush and ran to the nearest shelter. Some teenagers moved aside and made room for us. Usually brash and over-confident, now they were frightened and vulnerable. I left the girls, stunned and shivering, and charged down onto the beach with the sand flying about me. "Robert!" I shrieked, knowing he must be there somewhere.
The wind died as suddenly as it had begun and the girls hurried to me and we went to the spot where our tent had been. There was no sign of Robert.
A little way along the beach people were standing about in a group looking down at something on the sand. "It's a boy," someone shouted. "A boy's been washed up."
My heart cracked; it didn't seem possible that Robert was gone. I couldn't control myself; I broke down and wept.
A group of men were carrying the boy's body towards the club house when I felt something tug at my leg.
"Don't cry, Dad. I tried to save the tent, but the wind was too strong."
I looked at my son, who was safe, and at my girls who, with tears in their eyes, were both grinning.
"Your book's gone, too," Robert said sadly.
I knelt before him. "It doesn't matter."

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

One Very Hot Day (2007)

Recently I drove from Adelaide to the Murray River. Lots of people do it. Personally, I detest spending more than an hour in the car and will just about do anything to get out of it. With the radio it’s almost bearable, but after you pass through the Mount Lofty Ranges the kinds of stations I prefer to listen to fade out and you’re left with a lot of static. The alternative is the sort of generic pop stations which long ago dispensed with announcing the time in preference of the same songs played at the same time everyday – exactly the same time. ‘Oh,’ you’re supposed to think, if you’re a regular listener, ‘The Police singing Roxanne. That means it must be twenty past one.’ And sure enough, you check your watch and it is! As for me, I grip the steering wheel in something akin to apoplexy and curse all things “Classic Rock”. Because how many times can you listen to Roxanne without going mad? Add it up. There are three-hundred-and-sixty-five days in a year, so if you’re consistently tuning in it means in the next twelve months you’ll hear the song almost four-hundred times. It’s my opinion that most commercial stations own approximately six compact discs which they keep on permanent rotation. And regrettably most people are too dumb to notice.

It was a very hot day – nudging forty degrees, the sweat was pooling in the middle of my back, my shirt was sticking to the car seat. I drove with just my fingertips touching the steering wheel, gingerly like it was a casserole dish taken straight out of the oven, which is exactly what it felt like. Another thing I despise is air-conditioning in cars. Whenever I drive, even in the middle of winter when it’s cold and the rain is coming at you parallel to the ground, I need the window open, to feel fresh air on my face. Cooped up in a tiny car I feel claustrophobic and soon grow irritable.

You might be asking yourself about now: Why bother driving all that way if you hate it so much? Well, it had to do with my work. I simply couldn’t get out of it. So I swallowed my annoyance, packed a small suitcase, and drove out of the city.

Going through the Ranges wasn’t so bad. There were still patches of green and plenty of shade thrown from the trees by the side of the road. But once you emerge onto the plains the landscape is flat and dusty and brown. There’s absolutely nothing to look at. The radio’s gone. You discover, as I did, that your cassette player no longer works. In short, after about an hour you’re ready – you think about this quite seriously – to lift your foot and put it through the windscreen.

So after a dismal few hours in the car it was with some relief that, just as I reached the river and was about to descend towards the ferry, I noticed a general store. I checked my watch, realised I was running early, and decided to buy lunch. The store, which was part of a small town servicing the ferry and the few surrounding farms, was just a box with two petrol pumps out front and an LPG tank to one side. There was no-one else in sight. The air was still and scorching, the sun grated my bare arms and pinched my face. I tilted my head this way and that but there was nothing to be heard. It was like one of those Mexican towns in the movies where everyone goes to sleep in the afternoon, or perhaps a place where aliens have taken everyone and replaced them with remarkable look-alikes and the first thing you know about it is when you’re ordering a sandwich and a thirty centimetre grey reptilian beast bursts out of the store proprietor’s face.

Inside the store smelled of cooking grease, that low caustic aroma that catches at the back of your throat and makes you wonder whether there’s a dead body lying behind the counter. A hand-written menu pinned to the wall rapidly diminished my prospects of a wholesome lunch. Basically my choices were limited to fast food – the deathly kind: pasties, sausage rolls, custard tarts, several varieties of meat pies – and still more fast food. But then on top of the counter I noticed a selection of lovingly-made rolls inside neatly-presented clear plastic containers. Except all the rolls were white, even the ones with stick-on labels that said things like “egg and mayonnaise on a wheat roll”. Looking closer I could see that not only didn’t the style of roll correspond to the label, but the contents of the roll didn’t either. You might order a ham and cheese wholemeal roll only to find yourself biting into a turkey and cranberry sauce on white. Except the turkey would be the kind you cut off a roll and which looks like it’s been run over by a passing road train.

In a corner of the optimistically-named dining room a man and two women were sitting at a table drinking coffee and eating cake. With crumbs scattered about their mouths and down their shirt fronts, they looked quite smug and content with their lot. The man lifted his head in acknowledgement. They were, it seemed to me, the centre of things hereabouts, kings and queens of all they survey. Gazing out the window I guessed that wasn’t far from the truth.

The man, who turned out to be the owner of the store, peered over his half-eaten Berliner, looked surprised, and said, ‘Back for more?’

More what? I wanted to ask. There was nothing to want more of. And who was this strange person masquerading as me?

‘Did you want something?’

Now call me stupid, but generally when you walk into a store it’s not because you want to enjoy the view.

‘Yes,’ I said.

The proprietor yelled, ‘Marge!’ Then he said in a quieter tone, ‘The wife’ll fix you up.’

And sure enough, wiping her hands on a tea towel, a middle-aged woman emerged from out back, turned her face to me, lifted an eyebrow and just stood there.

‘Don’t mind her,’ the proprietor said. ‘She’s a good sort really.’ If being a good sort meant someone who wants to kill you because they’ve been called away from some essential duty.

I ordered a salad wheat roll then wandered through a doorway into the variety section. It was miserable. A few items fitting into the category of personal hygiene – soap, tampons, toothpaste – and a few paltry bite-sized boxes of cereal. Most of the merchandise looked like it had been there since the 1950s.

I went back into the dining room and because I had been there more than five minutes already the proprietor decided we must be friends. Why do people assume you’re interested in everything they have to say? Some things, sure; but everything? But I guess in those parts customers were few and far between – which would explain the state of the “variety” component of the store.

The proprietor began telling me about the time a football club turned up on its way home to the Riverland. The footballers tumbled out of their tour bus and, like cavemen on a rampage, burst in. While some took bites out of every visible piece of fruit and then replaced them half-eaten into their containers, others snatched biscuits out of their display jars and, holding them in bear-like paws, took giant mouthfuls out of each one before returning them. At the same time as this was going on others, having discovered the variety room, were taking condoms from their wrappers and distributing them amongst the lollies and chewing gum beside the counter.

Astonished, I asked, ‘What did you do?’

The proprietor, leaning back in his chair, adopting a self-satisfied I’ve-seen-it-all-before expression, said, ‘I’ve been in hotels all my life.’

I tried not to look around because if I did he knew what I would be thinking.

‘You tolerate,’ he said, as though the words had been written by Solomon himself and he was merely reciting them, ‘not reciprocate.’

‘So they trashed your store and you said nothing?’

Suddenly the haughtiness fell from his face. I heard it clang as it hit the floor. ‘There were too many of them. They were animals!’

Eventually, the story continued, a naked man entered, his hands covering his genitals.

‘They stripped me so I couldn’t get nothing,’ he said. ‘I’m starving.’

The proprietor had attempted to make light of the situation. ‘It’s a safe bet you don’t have any money,’ he said to the naked man, who didn’t see this as a problem and began helping himself to whatever was at hand.

As they left the footballers took with them a blackboard sign on which the daily petrol prices were chalked.

‘Probably to flash obscene messages to passing motorists,’ the proprietor said to me.

Then we all stood looking at each other: me, the owner, and the two women – who, incidentally, hadn’t uttered a single word.

At last my roll arrived and though I knew Marge must have kneaded the dough and baked the roll fresh while I waited there was no sign of this having happened. And though the roll was quite cold, she charged me as if it was a freshly baked one. At least she charged me for the labour. Smarting at the expense, I took my roll and a Coke out to my car and began reflecting on general stores in general (excuse the pun).

Mostly they’re in the middle of nowhere, their food is crap, but because they’re hundreds of kilometres from the nearest competition – or any other place anyone would want to be – they charge the earth. General store proprietors are criminals. You walk in and, unless they’re drinking coffee and eating cake and entertaining women, they watch you suspiciously. After all, balking at the exorbitant prices, you might decide to snatch an armful of merchandise and leg it to your car, leaving a trail of chewing gum packets and Snickers bars for the bat-wielding owner to follow. But, as well as being a potential thief, you are also an outsider – what they call a Townie. (Though, such is the remoteness of the store, it’s hard to imagine anyone not directly related by blood to the proprietor not being an outsider.) In short, you’re made to feel like they’re doing you a favour just by serving you.

I unwrapped my roll, opened my mouth, bit down. You guessed it. It was egg and mayonnaise on white …

Saturday, October 11, 2008

That Crossing (2005)

What can you say about The Beatles which hasn’t already been said in some form or another? Not only already been said, but too many times to number? It seems, whether for good or for ill, everyone has an opinion. Born only two years before the release of their first album, I feel like I grew up with them. I can remember when they were on the radio – the real radio, as opposed to today’s classic mix stations regurgitating the most appalling examples of yesteryear (no wonder so many of the younger generation think baby boomers have remarkably bad taste in music). One of my fondest memories is of walking to school as a five year old and humming the tune to Michelle, which just that morning over breakfast the radio announcer had referred to as the new Beatles single. The house where I grew up in England was only a few streets from the town hall where The Beatles once played. Sadly, I was not only too young to go, I was much too young to even know about them, since they quit touring in 1966.

As a teenager in Australia I devoured all manner of Beatles music and trivia. I spent my twelfth summer riding my bicycle along the hot Adelaide streets, the asphalt sticking to my tires, humming the melodies from Yellow Submarine. My fourteenth autumn and the year of my first serious crush it was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Beatles albums are the catalogues of my teen years; each year is defined by which album I happened to receive the previous Christmas. The Beatles accompanied every formative period of my early life.

It may come as no surprise then that in January 2005 when my wife, Tess, and I visited London, on the top of my agenda, along with four days in Paris, was a visit to Abbey Road – the now legendary setting of the EMI recording studios where the Beatles recorded all but one of their albums. So much of my history was entwined with theirs I didn’t really know what I expected. Except that I wanted to walk on that crossing, the one on the cover of the Abbey Road album itself, and have my picture taken doing it. I wanted to stand where they had stood, walk where they had walked. Beyond that it was up to the ether to inform me.

We took the Jubilee Line to St. John’s Wood and, hot and clammy because the tube stations are always overheated, made our way up the stairs towards ground level where the entrance framed a dazzlingly optimistic mid-January sky. As each step took me closer to the surface I felt like I was on some kind of pilgrimage. I’d been to London before, of course, but never had I spent time chasing the ghosts of a band which had called it quits almost forty years ago. Why now? Why in my mid-forties? I suspect it had something to do with the knowledge that, against all expectations, I was growing older (seemingly a baby boomer thing, this: a sense of denial concerning the aging process). Perhaps I felt that my youth had gone, having dissipated slowly into the long midday calm of middle age. Maybe I wanted to relive a moment of youthfulness, capture a sense of exuberance and carefree abandonment. It might have been all those things.

We emerged right next to the entrance to the Abbey Road Café – the place to go for Official Abbey Road and Beatles Merchandise, according to the sign. Next to the door a life-sized cut-out showed The Beatles as they were in their early days, mop-topped and suited. They were the happy lads everyone wanted to remember, a symbol of less complicated times, when everyone was young and believed they would somehow live forever.

Excited, I wanted to keep moving, but Tess, who is a coffee addict, insisted we stop for a cappuccino. So we pushed open the door and stepped into – well – a cupboard. The Abbey Road Café was tiny – minute, miniscule, diminutive. If you wanted to be kind you might say it was petite. More accurately, it was microscopic. It wasn’t so much a café as a large closet – my grandmother’s clothes drawer was bigger – and it was made even smaller by a plethora of Beatles paraphernalia scattered about on every available surface. I had to stop myself from shrieking, ‘Don’t move; you might knock something over!’

Behind a glass-fronted counter were two extremely bored-looking girls with strong East European accents. Not only did they seem fed up, they were also exceptionally thin – though I guess they had to be. Heavy-lidded and sultry, they stood looking back at us. I expected them to say at any moment, ‘Vat you vant?’ But they just kept staring and I began to wonder whether they’d fallen asleep. Eventually we ordered two cappuccinos – sad to say, this involved me gesturing with two fingers held aloft – and the two of them slid sideways through a narrow opening into a back room.

While we waited we shuffled about the café – an inch here; an inch there – browsing the merchandise and before long I could feel myself cringing. Most of it was in embarrassingly poor taste. Actually, it was downright tacky. And it was ludicrously expensive. You can accuse me of being a whiner if you want – many people have – but if you expect someone to walk into your shop and spend their hard-earned money you damn well want to give them something that’s worth buying. I had to suppress a few hearty guffaws at some of the price tags on display. Sure, I would have bought something – if I thought it was worth it. Alas, most of it wasn’t. You see, the thing about The Beatles – it’s why they’ve managed to stay so popular for so long – is that everything they had a hand in producing was of such superior quality you just knew you were getting value for money. What this means is that for the true Beatles fan – I prefer to think of myself as an aficionado – it’s easy to spot a fake. As I perused I put each item to the ultimate litmus test – would The Beatles have authorized it? My answer was a simple “No”. Followed very closely by “At least I hope not”.

Eventually the girls returned with our coffee. They carried them very carefully, hoisting the Styrofoam cups between thumb and forefinger. There was nowhere to sit so we were forced out onto the street where despite the sun it was cold and we sat at a table squeezed between the door and a neighbour’s wall. But still, I was close enough to Abbey Road itself to smell the crossing, and during the Sixties Paul McCartney had lived just round the corner on Cavendish Avenue. I inhaled the piquant aroma of pop culture history. Ignoring the café at my back, it was everything I’d pictured it to be. Large fine-looking houses with picturesque gardens and an abundance of trees. I experienced a sense of well-being and a certain lightness of spirit. Then I tasted the coffee.

The first sign of danger was the expression on Tess’s face. She lifted her cup to her mouth and took a long sip. She compacted her lips into a threadlike line. She screwed up her cheeks. Her eyes receded into the back of her head. She actually shuddered. Then she placed her cup on the table, moved her chair back, and held her hands out towards it as though to ward off an evil spirit. Because she is such a connoisseur of caffeine – she even once criticised Starbucks – I thought perhaps she was being just a little too finicky. That is until I tasted it myself. As coffee goes it was awful. My guess is the girls used one spoon of generic brand discount coffee to make two cups and then added as little milk as possible. Oh, and they forgot to boil the water. Tess wondered whether they had some kind of farm animal out back. I can take my coffee pretty much any way it comes, but even for me the Abbey Road Café variety … Well, I’ve tasted better dishwater.

Disheartened, though not defeated, we set off along Grove End Road, a short walk past well-maintained Edwardian houses, and then, all at once, and taking us completely by surprise, we turned a corner and there were the Abbey Road studios and in front of them was that crossing.

The first thing to strike me was how small it was. That’s the thing about myth – it makes everything loom so much larger in the imagination. We stood looking at it for awhile. I walked up onto the steps of the studio where The Beatles were filmed arriving for the Sergeant Pepper sessions. I gazed at the rows of expensive cars in the car park. Then I went back to the crossing and crossed the road several times in front of passers-by who gazed at me with expressions that said, ‘There goes another git.’

And that was it. No great thunderclaps, no voice from heaven, no startling insights. I got my picture taken and walked away.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Kowloon by Default (1991)

I woke to a room so completely dark I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Trying not to collide with something I went to the window and pulled open the curtains. The light was blinding. Blackout curtains. It must have been what it was like during the blitz, the day already half over because there wasn’t enough light to wake you. My room overlooked the back of the hotel, dirty roofs and rusted-over air-conditioning units. The day was overcast. It looked cold.

The battery in my watch had expired sometime during the night. I rang down to the desk and a woman told me it was 9am. Time to get going, I thought. How lucky was I? An entire day in a foreign city and it wasn’t costing me a cent. People paid hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars to be where I was, and here I was by default.

I didn’t bother about breakfast – I wasn’t hungry. Instead I combed some water through my hair, dressed in pants, a t-shirt and jacket, and went downstairs. The foyer was so clean I could see my reflection in the table tops and in the black marble walls. At the desk I changed ten Australian dollars into HK $57 and asked the receptionist how far away the ferry was. Could I walk?

She looked surprised. ‘Oh no!’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Taxi.’

The hotel doors opened and I stepped onto the pavement on Waterloo Road. The din was staggering. Cars and busses crawling along, their engines gunning, clogging the air with fumes. Quite literally you could walk wherever you wanted to go faster than you could drive. The pavement was crowded with people and it was with a sense of wonder I realized I was the tallest person about. It was like looking out over a sea of heads. I’d never felt so tall. Or conspicuous. And it was hot. The air dank, pressing down on me. I broke out in a sweat. Five minutes later, after going back to my room and dumping my jacket on the bed, I was back where I’d started.

I had no idea where the ferries were located so I stood on the pavement with a map I’d found on a stand in the hotel, aligning myself with the four points of the compass, making sure no matter how far I ventured I would know how to get back. There is a strange mixture of excitement and trepidation associated with being stranded in a strange city. You’re free, you’re not responsible for anyone but yourself, you can go wherever the winds blow you. But no-one knows you. If anything goes wrong there’s no-one to turn to for help. I had visions of me getting lost and missing my evening flight. The stuff of movies. A stranger adrift in an unfamiliar city, taken advantage of, robbed and left for dead. But while I stood on the pavement with my arms stretched wide, peering at a uniform array of black-and-white criss crossing lines, a Mediterranean woman with thick long black hair and dark skin approached me.

‘Where is it you want to go?’ she asked in a thick accent. Unlike the Chinese I had encountered she was not smiling. Instead, she seemed to be saying, I know what it’s like.

‘The ferry?’ I asked hopefully.

She pointed across the street at a waiting bus. ‘Number seven.’

And then she turned about and, rather than disappear into the crowd, she swam through it. I could see her dark hair becoming more and more distant, her head and shoulders surrounded by a pressing mass of Chinese.

Number seven it was. I walked through the traffic and waited in line in front of the bus.

A ride across the harbour cost me HK $1.20, about 30 Australian cents. The water was choppy, even though it is only a short ride to Hong Kong island, and as we crossed it seemed there was no order to the traffic – ships and ferries criss-crossed, sometimes heading on what seemed a collision course and then veering away again. Ahead, Hong Kong Island stood tall and green, its summit hidden in the clouds. Around its base and all along its shoreline skyscrapers proliferated. This is where the money is – the Central District – all shining and ostentatious. But its obvious wealth and confidence made it also uninteresting. I bought a postcard from a kerbside stand and went into the General post Office where I mailed it to Tess and the kids. Rickshaw drivers signaled to me as I passed. I went up to a stall owner, showed him my map, asked him where the markets were. My idea was to see some of the real China – after all, I reasoned with myself, I was technically in China. But he said he didn’t know. Another stall owner, like the girl at the hotel, looked surprised. ‘They’re all over the place,’ he said, and he looked at me as though I knew nothing, which of course I didn’t. I could, I decided, spend my entire day looking for the markets, then staring at various exotic goods arranged on tables. Better to return to Kowloon and root around the tiny side streets and alleys I’d noticed on my journey down Nathan Road. So went in search of a return ferry.

As I was looking for the ferry back to Kowloon a small Chinese man stopped and said hello and offered to show me the way to ferry. He just happened to be going that way, he said. His name was Wong How Chuen and he sat next to me on the ferry back to Kowloon. He wore a dirty blue checked shirt and soiled trousers. His teeth were yellow and decaying, they pointed this way and that in his mouth, his hair was matted and grubby. But he smiled a lot and clutched a newspaper as though it were his only possession. He pointed back towards Hong Kong Island, up towards the summit.

‘Have you been there?’

I shook my head and explained I was only in Hong Kong for the day. I was on my way to London and was in his city only by accident.

‘Are you coming back when you return to Australia?’

‘Only for a few hours.’

‘You don’t have much time,’ he said, grinning and staring expectantly at me. Jabbing his finger towards the summit, he said, ‘I can take you this afternoon.’

I had a strange feeling about him. Something told me I should ditch Chuen in a hurry. His over- enthusiastic bearing reminded my of my earlier fear of being taken to some remote location to be mugged – probably by Chuen and his friends – so I said no.

When the ferry docked at the Star Ferry Pier Chuen followed me. I had made the mistake of telling him I wanted to go to the Space Museum and he was determined to show it to me. Fortunately it didn’t open until 1pm. I told Chuen I was going and he asked me if I would see him when I came back to Hong Kong in a few weeks.

‘I am very poor,’ he said, pressing his hands together.

People swarmed past us, heading towards the Star Ferry pier.

‘My grandfather is in hospital in China,’ Chuen explained. ‘The bills are very expensive.’

Chuen knew he had very little time. In a few hours I would be making my way towards Europe. He was putting the hard sell on me.

‘When you arrive in London will you send me some money?’

I must have seemed fabulously wealthy to him, jetting my way across half the world just to attend a cousin’s wedding. What I didn’t tell him was that my aunt was paying for the whole thing and that all I had was five hundred Australian dollars – a gift from my mother-in-law – to last me a month. I’d just finished a university degree. Back home in Adelaide I had a wife and three children. I didn’t have any money of my own.

‘How much do you want?’

‘Three hundred Hong Kong dollar,’ he said, without even a pause for consideration. This was not new to him. I was probably the latest in a long line of foreigners he had attempted to extract money from.

Just then a Sikh man who looked to be in his early-twenties slipped out of the passing throng and strode right up to me. Straight-backed and officious looking, he pinned an artificial red flower to my shirt.

‘Good morning to you, Sir’ he said.

I looked at the flower, then at the Sikh who had given it to me. He looked to be from another world, an age when I would have been reclining on the balcony of a hotel drinking port and smoking cigars. This Sikh, dressed all in white with his hair gathered into a startlingly white turban, would have leaned over me and offered me something from his tray.

‘I hoping you are having a nice day,’ he said in his melodic voice.

I looked at the flower again. It wasn’t Remembrance Day, which was in November, almost six months away. Then what was it for? I suspected no-one gave anything away for free. Not in Hong Kong.

‘I am from Bombay,’ the Indian said. ‘Are you familiar with it?’

I shook my head.

‘You are going?’

‘Not to Bombay. London.’

‘Perhaps one day you will visit my city,’ the Sikh said, grinning painfully.

‘I am collecting signatures for my school.’

‘You’re what?’

‘Signatures. For my school.’

What the hell did he want signatures for? And what was he doing collecting them in Kowloon, which was miles away from his classroom? Stamps I could accept. Or empty soft drink cans. Those you could convert into cash. But signatures? What use were they?

‘Are you a teacher?’ I asked as he offered me his clipboard.

‘I am student,’ he said proudly, raising his chest.

I added my signature to his growing collection. ‘Aren’t you a little old to be a student?’ But already I was starting to learn that in Hong Kong anything is possible and that not everything is as it seems.

‘One dollar,’ the Sikh said as soon as my pen left the page.

‘One dollar?’

‘No,’ he said, smiling. ‘One hundred dollar.’

I passed him the clipboard, thanked him, and walked away. But the Sikh chased after me.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘One dollar.’

I reached into my pocket, pulled out a Hong Kong dollar, which was about twenty Australian cents, and gave it to him. He wasn’t happy. He paused for a moment, staring into his palm, pondering his next course of action.

At this point Chuen, who had been standing at the periphery watching the scene develop, grabbed my arm and hurried me across the road. When we had safely negotiated the two streams of traffic and were standing unharmed on the pavement Chuen asked, ‘Will you send me three hundred Australian dollar before you come back to Hong Kong?’

Hong Kong dollars had mysteriously quintupled and become Australian dollars. But in the end I relented and said yes, if only to get rid of him. He had shown me the way back to the ferry terminal, and he’d saved me from the signature collecting Sikh. I couldn’t just turn around and walk away. The obvious and most face-saving solution was to lie.

Chuen then did a very strange thing. He stood in the middle of the footpath – people were streaming all about us – and he jerked up his arm in a salute. I looked around quickly but no-one seemed to be taking any interest in what was going on. Which made me think it must happen everyday, locals attempting to fleece unsuspecting tourists. And then Chuen was gone. The last I saw of him he was heading back towards the Star Ferry, a smile full of broken teeth across his face.

As extortionists go he wasn’t a very good one. I suppose I should have called after him, “You haven’t given me your address!” But then I was lying about my intention to send him money. In a way he had let me off the hook. I imagined him on the Star Ferry suddenly realizing what he’d done and hitting himself across the head with his rolled up newspaper.

I hadn’t gone ten metres before I was buttonholed by another Indian, this one trying to offload silk shirts and dresses onto me.

‘You got a wife?’

Obviously I had a wife; he’d seen my wedding ring.

I would be approached – perhaps “attacked” is a better word – at least twice more before the day was out, but I had already learnt to wave my attackers aside and to keep walking no matter what.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Running with the Barbarians (1991)

Inside the Kai Tak terminal we were given the news. Our connecting flight to London had left without us. We’d missed it by half-an-hour. We’d been “duffilled”. Which seemed kind of strange, almost sibylline, because on the flight from Melbourne, during one of my frequent walks around the aircraft, I’d noticed a girl engrossed by Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. In that same book Duffill, who “was old and his clothes were far too big for him”, left the Orient Express at the Italian station of Domodossola to buy provisions. He wasn’t quick enough when the train started pulling out and he was left behind on the platform. Thereafter his name became a verb.

Our flight was late because somewhere between Melbourne and Manila, high above the Indonesian archipelago, a fuel line had ruptured, meaning no fuel could get to at least one of the engines. Though the aircraft theoretically had masses of fuel, certainly enough to get us to Hong Kong, it was stuck in the tanks inside the wings. Reaching Hong Kong without landing somewhere and fixing the problem was out of the question. Of course, at the time we knew none of this. The captain spoke reassuringly of an “unscheduled landing”, he referred to a “slight problem”, we had “nothing to worry about”. Certainly the antique Chinese couple sitting next to me thought so. It was, I thought, the way to go, nodding cheerily at anything which shows a tendency towards animation. But I didn’t want the last picture I saw of this world to be two leather-faced antiquarians I couldn’t even converse with without using a crude form of sign language, who inclined their heads deferentially each time I thanked them for letting me pass in order to go to the toilet, who bared their teeth like maniacs whenever I accidentally bumped the wife with my elbow while trying to make myself comfortable. What did they think when they heard the phrase “nothing to worry about”? Didn’t they even understand that small amount of English? I pictured the captain repeating the message in Mandarin and suddenly, when he got to the crucial part, the smiles freezing on the faces of my Chinese friends, their hands clawing at their seatbelts, the wife communicating to everyone in that universal language – the scream – while the husband runs up the aisle until he realizes he has absolutely no idea where he’s going and falls to his knees in mute uncomprehending resignation.

Nothing to worry about! I’d seen enough late-night television to understand it means exactly the opposite. The only reason you have nothing to worry about is because soon you’ll be dead. Perhaps the captain’s meaning was that soon we’d have no mortgage repayments, no child support payments, no electricity or gas bills to eat into our meager incomes. We have “nothing to worry about”. The captain might as well have said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my solemn duty to inform you that this aircraft is about to go into a nose dive and impact the ground at a speed approximating five hundred kilometers per hour. Please assume crash positions.” Am I exaggerating? As we touched down in Manila the entire runway, or so it seemed to me, was flanked with fire engines and ambulances, all facing in towards the plane. And as we passed they turned to follow us, their lights flashing all the way to the terminal. It reminded me of a scene out of Thunderbirds.

The Captain came on the intercom again. I’d been listening to a Bruch symphony when the speakers in my headphones clicked and his well-rehearsed supportive tones informed me that the fire engines were just a formality, a precaution, protocol, if you will. There’s really nothing to worry about. There he goes again, I thought. And this time I refused to believe him. The Captain, evidently, was a liar. You do the math. “Nothing to worry about” does not equal a shitload of fire engines and ambulances with lights flashing. If my Chinese companions had understood me I would have pointed out the window and said, ‘He expects us to believe him after that?’

We sat inside the terminal at Manila for close to three hours. I don’t think they had the air-conditioning on because the air was stifling. I watched a young Chinese woman with a very young daughter shake out a napkin and lay it on the floor in an almost perfect square. Her husband pulled various packages out of a back pack and arranged them on the napkin. When it was all done they sat down to eat. The husband offered me a cold spring roll but, having eaten not so long ago on the plane, I declined. It was a touching moment. This tiny family unit, complete and lacking for nothing, inviting a stranger into their midst. It made me think of my own wife and children, wonder what they were doing. I looked at my watch. The children would be in bed, my wife sitting up alone reading or watching television. Or perhaps she too would be asleep. Pretty soon I was nodding off over Conrad’s dense prose.

When we finally arrived in Hong Kong we discovered our connecting flight had gone without us.

So we were duffilled. I counted about fifty of us all up. Some of us were not happy. Particularly the group of ten-or-so from somewhere in the north of England. They wore jeans and soccer shirts, they paid good money to have someone shave their heads, and the women . . . Well. When they wanted their hair done they gave a nod towards H.G Wells and Dr Who and went back to 1973 when they used to run with tha gerls. Not one, men included, was much taller than five foot. They were sturdy, this lot. Squat and chunky. The men’s stunted legs, their intimidating shoulders, and the women’s grim jowly faces made them look like bulldogs. The women were fat, but the men were all muscle – I imagined if they were so inclined they could rip a person’s arm out of its socket without much trouble. It’s probably what they did back home of a Saturday night. A quick pint or several down the local, then off to some dark alley to severe someone’s arm from their body. I stood completely still, too afraid to move lest I unwittingly poke one of them in the eye with my elbow.

The men griped out loud, only pausing for their women to tell them what to say next.

‘Ask them wha that fook they think they mean it’s gone.’

‘Wha tha fook do ye mean it’s gone?’

‘Ask them where the bloody ‘ell it’s gone to.’

‘Where the bloody ‘ell ‘as it gone to then?’

‘Ask them why did they no stop it from leavin’.’

‘Why did ye no stop it from leavin’?’

‘They’re nothin but a bunch of fookin’ slopes.’

‘Fookin’ slopes.’

All this directed towards the hapless female Cathay Pacific personnel girl. Who, I judged by looking at her, was on her first night on the job. Any moment now she would burst into tears.

I was disgusted. And embarrassed. They were the worst England has to offer. The most horrible On the Buses caricatures. Noisy, belligerent, confrontational. I got the impression they were spoiling for a fight. One pug-nosed woman, noteworthy for her inflexibility, believed the entire world should know by what degree she’d been wronged.

‘People will ‘ear about this!’ she threatened, pointing and wheezing with the indignity of it all. ‘I know people. My son works for the newspaper back ‘ome. ‘E’ll write stories.’

These people always seem to know someone. Their relatives always seem to work in professions where they can inflict the most damage – either to the mind, the body or the wallet – on someone. They always seemed ready to spring into action at the first familial clarion call. Her son probably did work for the newspaper – parochial to the last, as though there really were only one paper, or at least only one that mattered – but most likely he was a tea boy, starting his career at the bottom like the rest of us. Because another thing these types of people are forever doing – they’re always big-noting themselves.

The woman let rip with her self-righteous prattling. And the mood was infectious. Soon the entire contingent had something they wanted to prove. They had been cheated and lied to. This simple indisputable “fact” brought them together and created a clubby atmosphere, only of the most egregious kind. An element of racism crept in and soon they were strutting about like lords, adopting superior postures for the benefit of their Asian “inferiors”. They snatched hotel vouchers from the personnel girl, who flinched and took a step back, and held the rectangular pieces of card gingerly between thumb and forefinger as though they were tainted in some way. Ashamed, I wanted to tell the girl, I’m not with these people. When my turn came for a voucher I thanked her profusely and, thinking of my aircraft companions, smiled a lot.

A group of Chinese porters, grinning to the last, loaded our bags onto a trolley and led us to a waiting coach. They grinned despite the constant hail of abuse.

‘Watch tha’ fookin’ bag, ye daft twit. Cost me a packet that did.’

Next it was the bus driver’s turn to face the volley. He stood grinning and motioning us up the stairs while several of the lads, egged on by their wives, told him exactly what they thought of his bus. Colourful, filthy expletives rolled off their tongues, but to my astonishment the bus driver kept smiling and grinning. Maybe he, like everyone else who had tried to help us tonight, had experienced worse. At least with my group no-one had thrown a punch.

We were driven directly to the hotel. The city, bathed in orange light, was filthy. On many buildings the paint had either peeled or fallen away leaving large irregular segments of bare cement. The constant dampness had long ago robbed signs of their meaning. Red and green Chinese letters were only half visible. It was as though someone had come along and tore strips off the walls.

We turned a corner into a dimly lit road and passed the entrance to a night club. On the pavement two men were beating up a third, one man wedging the hapless victim between his arms while the other lunged at his stomach with his fists.

‘Savages,’ a woman in the seat in front of me said, and for the first time I was inclined to agree with her.

Though it didn’t prevent me from wanting to say, At least they dress well. Because yes, both attackers were fashionably dressed in black slacks, polished shoes, and gold button down shirts, as was the victim. It appeared to be some kind of uniform. Perhaps the altercation was the result of a work dispute.

Unbelievably, the woman’s friend said, ‘I ‘ope they fookin kill ‘im.’

Which made me think those thugs weren’t too different from the bus crowd. Every city has its dark alleys.

Within a few minutes we were deposited out front of the Metropole Hotel on Nathan Road. I made sure I was at the front of the line when the rooms were allocated. I didn’t want to have to spend a minute longer with my traveling companions. As we’d pulled up in front of the hotel they’d let fly with a fresh tirade of abuse. The hotel wasn’t good enough. It was in a seedy part of town. They should be compensated for any inconvenience. Why didn’t someone shout at them, You are being compensated, you wankers! Why didn’t I shout it? I knew exactly why. For the same reason you don’t poke a bulldog in the eye. Besides, I valued my arms. It occurred to me maybe the bus driver and now the hotel porters could take a swift walk round the block, shell out a few hundred Hong Kong dollars, and hire the services of the two brutes we’d seen only a few minutes earlier. They seemed to know what they were doing.

My room wasn’t much different to other hotel rooms I’d occupied in other parts of the world. I took a bath, closed the curtains to block out the carroty light, and crawled into bed. It was almost 3am. I opened Conrad’s Victory, but within minutes I was asleep.