Saturday, August 16, 2014

How could I ever forget Whatsisname?

The things you find when you’re throwing out old books and papers! Somehow, the other day, an old address-book from 1966 surfaced, and I’ve been surfing through it trying to put faces and incidents to the names in it. (I’m talking about a real old-fashioned handwritten address book. Younger readers can ask their grandparents what that is.)

The names are grouped by countries of residence, and some were transcribed from an earlier book. In A for Australia: Ray Hudson of Sydney, met at a Youth Hostel in Hammerfest on 12th August 1963 when I was hitching through Scandinavia on my own. (The Summer of ’63, in the Archives of January 2013.) We met up again in London that winter, apparently. And Ron Winch, also of Sydney, whom Linda and I hung around with on 19th & 20th January 1965 in Damascus. “A v nice bloke”, I noted: unusual praise. So why do I have no recollection of the hanging-around?

On the page for Austria there is an entry for Peter and Herwart Kramer, whom we visited in Vienna on 11th April 1965 for a cup of tea. Peter was the brother of Stefan Mueller of Tirgo Jiu in the Saxon region of Rumania whom we’d met a week earlier. A note says I spoke German with both brothers. That must have been fun for them.

 In The German Lesson posted on this blog in May 2012 I confessed how desperately bad my spoken German was. I can scarcely imagine how I had the cheek to impose myself on strangers in a strange land and language. Did I phone ahead (surely not!), or did we just turn up on the doorstep? “Hello. Your brother said you’d give us a cup of tea. How about it?” I can’t recall.

 Only years later did I read up about the Saxons (Sachsens), ethnic Germans settled in Transylvania from the 11th Century onwards by the rulers of Austria and/or Hungary. They had kept their own language ever since, though it would have been a distinct dialect, and probably not much like the German of the west. The ones we met spoke standard German to me: that’s all I know.

There were 250,000 or so living there at the time of our visit. One man assured us, “Things weren’t so bad during the War”. Probably not. But the community as a whole had looked kindly on the Nazi governments of Germany and Austria, and after the war the imperial Soviets relocated tens of thousands of them to other parts of the Union. The fall of Ceausescu in 1989 triggered the departure of most of the remainder, this time to Germany.

Also in Transylvania we stayed with Alfred & Inge Bauman in Sibiu. “Board & friendship – 3rd-5th April 1965”, I wrote. That was while my car was in the shop (Co-op Tehnica Mona) having a new transmission installed. That incident, I remember: but the accommodation, not at all.

Nor do I recall the pension on the outskirts of Sofia (Bulgaria) where we had stayed 25th-28th March, run by Dmitri Ctaunoh. (I’m not sure about the name; he wrote it in the book in Cyrillic script, and the letters don’t all have exact transcriptions in Latin script.) I have "Rom" beside his name, which must mean he was of Rumanian nationality and not that we spoke Rumanian together. Bulgaria came before Rumania on our itinerary. I have no recollection at all – not only of Dmitri but of the whole city of Sofia. What ingratitude, in the face of such kindnesses!

Some sights are remembered, though not always in the correct context. For decades I claimed to have inspected the stuffed body of Ceausescu’s predecessor in Bucharest, and I can see it clearly. But Wikipedia tells me I’ve been wrong all this time. The body we saw was that of Georgi Dimitrov, sometime dictator of Bulgaria, and the place was Sofia.

We queued up with thirty locals and filed reverently though the mausoleum in the main square. Thirty doesn’t sound many: perhaps there were more. We were much keener to see Lenin’s body - embalmed and entombed - in Moscow when we got there, but there must have been a thousand people waiting in a long line on a hot day, and we didn’t have the patience. If you’ve seen one dead dictator’s mummy, you’ve seen them all, pretty much.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Toothpaste and duty-free gin

We have a good relationship with airlines, in our family. I only fly twice a year – once via London to Oslo and once back. But Linda takes occasional trips on her own as well, mostly to Central America and occasionally to south-east Asia. Ross spends the odd weekend monitoring Wycombe Wanderers’ slide down the Football League rankings in England, and occasionally takes short breaks to someplace warm on the Mediterranean coast.

A few weeks ago we missed our British Airways connection at Heathrow, and the girl at the BA desk invited me to phone Ross in Norway and tell him when to expect us. That was kind. At the Oslo airport one of the greeters called Ross and told him the exact time our train would arrive at the Central Station. (The airport chap wasn’t employed by an airline, but I don’t mind giving them credit for his niceness. The Norskies are like that, anyway.)

The secret of a pleasant flight is to lock oneself into a low expectation. We don’t find in-flight meals bad, really, except the bread rolls are always stale. The hosties are invariably pleasant, and keep us well watered. Even the toilets across the Atlantic are OK, considering the circumstances. Crying babies can’t be avoided every time, but what the heck. Maybe we’re becoming a bit more tolerant in our old age. Or a bit more deaf.

Touch wood, but we never encounter drunks on board. God, I would hate that. Why on earth do airlines allow passengers to board when drunk or to drink their carry-on liquor during the flight? Surely that’s asking for trouble. Is it beyond the wit of man to re-design airports so as to make duty-free liquor available after arrival instead of before departure? No, it’s not. Oslo’s airport sells duty-free items at both ends – which gets things halfway right, at least.

Every published blog or article about plane journeys contains complaints about passengers who recline their seats. “The most offensive thing people can do!” “The person in front should sit up straight at all times even if he has to go without sleep the whole night!” “Selfish buggers!”

Pfffh! I recline my seat (as gently and inoffensively as I can), and have never been chastised for it. Lucky me. Indeed, I protest vigorously if my seat won’t recline to the full extent. If challenged – and it’s bound to happen one day – I might offer to swap seats with the complainant; or I might ask the hostie to arbitrate; or I might just tell the challenger to shut up and live with it, and hope to get away with my defiance.

Surprisingly, every published blog or article about plane journeys does not complain about the so-called security-searches. Those farcical procedures are based on three major premises.

• Every terrorist-group in the world is fixated on destroying planes in flight. Not buses, trains, trucks, vans or boats – not even transport terminals. No. Just planes, and just while in flight.
• While every terrorist in the world is trained to disable planes and crews with eyebrow-tweezers and flip-flops (separately, I mean: either-or, not in combination), he or she has no idea how to use bottles of duty-free liquor as lethal weapons.
• While every terrorist in the world is skilled in making bombs out of a six-ounce toothpaste-tube and a bottle of water from the kitchen tap at home. They are not skilled (mercifully) in making bombs with the contents of two three-ounce toothpaste-tubes and a bottle of water from a shop inside the duty-free area. Or – OR – with the contents of innumerable phials of shampoo or conditioner stolen from a hotel the night before. The bomb-making syllabus is surprisingly narrow, at terrorist training-schools.

Those of us who criticize the Western secret-service agencies must give credit where credit is due. How many million man-hours of overtime must it have taken to discover the danger we face from six-ounce toothpaste-tubes – in such stark contrast to the innocuous three-ounce tubes?

The agencies know all the dangers, of course. But I don’t, and I take no chances. In my family we practice safe tooth-brushing even at home. We don’t mix our toothpaste with water from the tap. We brush and rinse only with duty-free gin, and we carefully decant the paste into three-ounce tubes. There will be no accidental explosions in this house, thank you very much!

Friday, July 4, 2014

The last surviving player (A sporting life - Horses)

I only ever rode in a proper horse-race once in my life. At age ten, I came second in a children’s trotting race at the Hannaford Gymkhana; the prize was five shillings and a red sash. My horse at the time was a natural trotter, and it was the devil’s own job to kick her into a canter at any time. I hated her with a passion, but, well, five bob was not to be sneezed at.

Gymkhana is an old Anglo-Indian word meaning a country fair. It was an annual event in Australian bush communities – food stalls and shooting galleries and the like outside an arena where horsemanship was shown off and polo was played.

The polo ground was a far cry from the clipped lawns of Windsor Great Park, the home of the game in England. There, the beau monde bring their stables of thoroughbreds and Argentinians, and sit around sipping Pimm’s, and a spectacular festival it is. At Hannaford, sheep farmers and their station-hands charged up and down on work-horses trained to keep sheep in a bunch, and tossed down gallons of beer that were tossed up again in due course.

One year, two station-hands got into a fight over a girl who had been in my class at school; one of them forced strychnine down the throat of his rival, and sat on his head until he died. The patrons of Windsor Great Park would never have countenanced such behaviour. They kept the riff-raff out altogether, and it was only as the friend of a friend that I was there. I put on the poshest English accent I could manage, and didn’t mention The Geebung Polo Club.

The Geebung Polo Club was a fictional up-country bush club invented by Banjo Paterson, Australian poetry’s answer to Lord Tennyson. The poem was not quite The Man from Snowy River, but equally dramatic, in its way:
    They waddied one another till the plain was strewn with dead,
     While the score was kept so even that they neither got ahead.
     And the Cuff and Collar captain, when he tumbled off to die,
     Was the last surviving player - so the game was called a tie.

The Windsor polo was not the only horsey event that I ever attended in England. Besides the racing at Chepstow with local friends, there was “the following of the hounds”. My cousin Lucy introduced David and me to that during our visit to the village where my English grandfather was born and raised. (David was my chum from the boat over, immortalized – in my mind – in the “two tuppennies” story told in my blog A cupful of cold water in July 2013.) 

Lucy’s piercingly loud voice made her famous around Bath as a deranged follower of the hounds at the local hunts, and she dragged us excitedly from fence to fence in borrowed Wellies watching one of the local “hunts” do its thing.

Following the hounds is a grand old English tradition, and a surprisingly democratic one. Peasants, townsfolk and sundry others wade through the mud in a mad dash to see the horse-owning gentry and nouveau riche gallop up and down pretending to care whether their dogs caught and killed a fox or not. After the fox eventually meets its doom, all the survivors retire to their cars and eat picnics. Jolly good fun or incredibly boring, according to taste.

But it has always been flat-racing that captured Australians’ hearts, not any other horsey events. Champion horses became household words, and jockeys, folk-heroes. “You’re better stayers than Tulloch”, the father of a friend grumbled one night when we overstayed our welcome – Tulloch being a horse that had led the field from start to finish for the whole two miles of the Melbourne Cup a few years before.

A friend of my Dad’s took me aside at a party and confidentially warned me against returning via the USA on my upcoming round-the-world trip. “The thing is, you can’t trust the Yanks, Gordon. The bastards killed Phar Lap, remember.” As indeed they had, in 1932, in California where the legendary horse (yes, another Melbourne Cup winner) was in training to show the American horses how to race.

Australian doctors today are still debating who could have fed him the arsenic.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Dodging “Big Brother”



How will my grandchildren fare in a “1984” world? (By which I mean anybody’s grandchildren, really.) It’s not going to be easy for them. They’ve grown up in a world where human rights have been held up as a practical ideal, and individual rights have been respected above the collective rights of communities. 

Now human and individual rights are fading away – dismissed as a faddish fancy whose time has come and gone. The very nations that rushed to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath of the Second World War have baulked at submitting themselves to the Nuremberg Principles. Britain is a prize example: signing international human-rights treaties galore, but waging wars of aggression and occupation for commercial gain.

“1984” (the book by Orwell) described what we call a totalitarian society. But “totalitarian” is not absolutely total; there are always loopholes. Despite comprehensive domestic spying programs – even with electronic chips implanted in every limb – there will still be groups of individuals beyond the reach of Big Brother’s servants. The powerless will be of little concern to the ruling classes. Who cares what they think?

During our grand adventure in the ‘60s, and rank amateurs as we were, Linda and I managed to by-pass restrictions of one sort or another in several supposedly totalitarian nations. My blog-post Russian Roulette in January 2012 told of safe-enough exchange-control dodges in the USSR, and Checkpoint Charlie the month before reported our quasi-authorised crossing of the Berlin Wall. Ross did similar things, in his turn. We were all foreigners, but even so…

There usually is a way, for those who fly beneath the radar. So what we have to do, when or before the time comes, is teach our girls how to do it. Their parents were both hippies, to whom it is a natural way to live. Maybe hippies will be the models for everybody, when the time comes.

The society outlined in “1984”comprised a three-tier system of the rulers, their civil-servants, and the proletarians. The servants were monitored closely, but the proles – drugged, peaceful, incorrigible – were largely unwatched. (They didn’t feature in the book’s plot, so readers are left to imagine their worthless lives. I imagine them as living carefree lives beneath the radar as long as they didn’t get ideas above their worthless station. They were also cannon-fodder in the perpetual wars, but I imagine plenty of draft-dodging occurred.)

If for a moment we can pretend that the fictional story is actual history, we can remind ourselves that although history of any kind repeats itself, it never repeats exactly. The Western World’s current rulers may indeed be using the book as a basic “how-to” guide, but they are adding new stuff of their own as they go along. It will be enough for our grandchildren to learn the broad principles, not the details.

The culmination may occur as many as ten years from today. Perpetual war is already in place. The security-state creeps forward with every anti-terrorist drill. The lockdown by 6,000 paramilitary police of a million residents in inner-city Boston following the 2013 explosions was a wake-up call that failed to wake many of us. A collapse of paper currencies following the mother of all false-flag attacks would usher in the real deal – the freezing and confiscation of savings, enforced by martial law.

Hmmm. Maybe. But probably not everywhere. The internet is full of “preppers” – people preparing to flee to isolated communities when the SHTF and when TEOTWAWKI arrives. (If you didn’t know already: those sets of letters stand for “Shit Hits The Fan” and “The End Of The World As We Know It.) I respect their diligent preparations, and they may have identified the best escape route. But I think they’re mistaken.

IMHO (that one you surely must know!) the most effective escape will come from the mind. Being mentally prepared will be a lot more important than being physically prepared. When chased by a bear in the woods, you don’t have to be able to out-run the bear. You just have to be able to run faster than the person you’re with.

I’ve always doubted that the meek would inherit the earth: but the stoners might do, in a SHTF situation.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Sporting Life – Rugby League



Just recently I discovered that one of our ESPN channels shows Rugby League club-matches from Australia and England. It’s the end of a long drought for me, and I’ve been watching avidly ever since. 

There was no football of any kind in our sheep-raising district when I was a boy. My boarding-school in Brisbane made us play Rugby Union every Saturday – rain, hail or shine! Kids of my size traditionally played either half-back or hooker. Yes, I was a teenage hooker – the poor bugger in the middle of every scrum. 

But League was our game of choice in pick-up games. The rules were simpler, and anyway League was far more popular with the public in Queensland. And in NSW. In all the other States, Aussie Rules was the football game – a variant of Gaelic Football.

It was my Dad’s boast that he had been present the day the Toowoomba League team beat the England touring team in the 1920s. 30,000 people were in the ground, he said. That equalled the town’s entire population, but many of the watchers had come in from the hinterland. A very exciting game, he assured me, although the crowd was packed together too closely to let him see much. No CCTV, then. "Nigger" Brown (I blogged about him and his nickname in May 2013) wasn’t playing; he’d retired by then. Dad would have given his right arm to see him play.

And, speaking of right arms… My proud boast is that I was present at the second Test Match in 1958 (“the Battle of Brisbane”), when Great Britain beat Australia. The GB captain broke his forearm three minutes after the start, and for the rest of the game he played his arm hanging loose from the shoulder – packing down in the scrums, tackling and passing as best he could. No substitutes allowed in those days. 

Four other British players were badly damaged during the game; only the one with the broken collar-bone went off. I don’t remember much about the game, but the captain’s absurd bravery is a very vivid memory for me.

Rugby League has always been passionately supported in its home regions – basically, the north of England and the east of Australia. Rugby Union was a posh-Public-Schools game, and an amateur sport for most of its life; League was a working-man’s game. 

In recent years it has become a very “matey” sport, especially in Australia. Referees’ words are broadcast to the crowd, full of friendly advice. “Hold on, Billy: he wasn’t ready. Start that again!” “Stay behind the line, you fellows.” “Give it a rest, Jamie. I don’t want to talk about it.” To the captains: “Come over here, Michael. Josh, you too. Listen, tell your guys – Hey, Michael! Get back here. I haven’t finished yet…!”

Trainers run onto the field at any old time and squirt water onto sweaty faces. The other night I saw both trainers nursing an injured player on the ground, not waiting for the ref to stop the game. Everybody’s supposed to be concerned about concussion, but if a player gets knocked about, they wait for him to find his wits again and make him walk off the field with them. Only wusses get carried off. The spirit of the England captain lives on!

The rules have changed quite a bit since the ‘60s: some for the better, some not. The old-style scrums have been abandoned in the interests of making the game faster. Tackles are limited to sets of six, where they used to have no limit at all. Illegal passes are given the benefit of the doubt more often than they used to be. Players have to be doing serious mischief to be pulled up for offside; three or four tackles can occur before everybody is back behind the ball. As long as they're not interfering with play – no worries, mate!

In my day, Toowoomba teams used to play what was called “contact” rugby, which called for players to pass the ball pretty much as soon as they were touched. Gosh, did that make for a fast game! Naturally, it only worked with players who were light and fast, which our boys were. 

Frank Drake (our magical fullback) once caught a kick behind his goalposts and ran into the back line with it. He stayed with them, handled it three more times (or maybe four; it all happened quite a distance away) as it passed up and down from one side of the field to the other and back again, and again, and scored at the other end. That’s been as memorable for me as the man with the broken arm, in its way.