Legends from our own lunchtimes

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why I don't shop for groceries

When we were first married we lived in a poor inner city area heavily populated by a curious mix of (very) aged single females of Australian heritage, and widowed first generation migrants also well beyond retirement and whose children, being what would now be termed "upwardly mobile", had moved to newer prettier suburbs to raise their own children in environments which better reflected "their own" success, and to be truthful, to be a little removed from the strong ethnic cultural ties which had perhaps placed restrictions on them in their own youth.

At that time the grocery shops were still exactly that; shops with a grocer in a grey apron behind the counter. They were places where you could buy fruit and occasionally rabbits, from the front while in the shop the walls were lined full height with shelves of goods reaching to the ceiling. One or two of them even had rolling ladders to enable the grocer to reach cans from the tallest of top shelves. These ladders were marvellous feats of engineering, hanging on wheels from a rail well above door and window height.

There was a supermarket almost as we know it as well, one of the old-style ones called "Cash and Carry" with a thing called a "check out" counter and laid out very much in that new fangled self service mode, with shelves that didn't reach the ceiling with the intention that almost everyone could reach every thing.

Therein lay the beginning of my no love lost affair with supermarkets.

As I have already mentioned, most of the population was female and very aged. Perhaps "ancient" would be a much accurate description than aged even, and being born as they were at sometime in the nineteenth century, before nutrition had even been invented, and when available protein was at a level significantly less than those growing up midway through the twentieth century had experienced, it is fair to say they were to a lady, quite diminutive in stature. In fact it is equally fair to say that, having apparently shrunk somewhat with age, and combined with the stoop that each had seemingly acquired through reaching down to rest on their tiny walking sticks, as one was walking round the supermarket one had to be careful not to step on them.

The "Cash and Carry" as this supermarket was known, was the subject of what would later be called an Urban Legend as at least a quarter of it's shelves, although the legend said a third, were stocked with canned pet food which in itself was a relatively new commodity at the time, and it was said that this product was sold in great quantity because of its economy, to pensioners, who enjoyed in on toast, and "wogs" for whom it apparently was an essential ingredient in dishes lashed with olive oil and plenty of fresh breadfruit from their backyards.

The truth behind the legend was simple enough, these poor old customers had no man in a grey apron, and no ladder on wheels, so that any product on a shelf which was higher than about my waist, was out of reach to all but the most nimble of them.

The only thing the poor old dears could reach without assistance in the whole store, was the bottom third of the shelving, where the pet food was displayed, and of course this lead to a surprising boost in sales of that product, which in turn led to the store stocking it in greater quantity, further displacing product from the lower shelves. Not surprisingly this further boosted sales of pet food as by now the culinary options for an entire generation had become rather severely curtailed by the simple fact that all else was beyond its physical reach.

Being somewhat less challenged in the height department than anyone else in the suburb, I could easily reach the top shelf without standing on tip toes, and so it was easy for me to oblige when the odd request for assistance was made by a diminutive shopper.

The problem was there was never an "odd" request. I was asked to oblige about seven hundred times within a minute of entering the store. Even if my shopping list was tiny, I could rarely get out of the place before late in the following day.

From the moment I clacked my way through the wobbly chromed turnstile designed with the single intent of preventing an early escape, I was besieged by tiny old ladies waving their sticks. They'd come after me in swarms, like children following Santa Claus at a kindy Christmas Party, calling their demands, some more politely than others.

Sorry for them though I was, it was an inconvenience that in short order became something bordering on traumatic for me, and as time went by, and goodness knows, heaps of it did every time I found myself in that forsaken place, I got to the point where I could no longer walk through the door because there was a very real chance I would starve to death before finding an escape route to some semblance of a normal life.

After only a few errands, I found myself making any excuse not to be within hundreds of metres of the place.

Of course with the passage of time, that generation has been replaced by a newer, fitter, taller range of elderly customers, and cleverer forms of retail merchandising placing less reliance on the upper shelves, and sales of pet food have plummeted accordingly, but the impact of those times has left an indelible mark on my persona.

That is why, to this very day, I don't shop for groceries.


Monday, May 26, 2008


While travelling in all sorts of exotic locations with our friend Trevor (gidday Trev) who is a construction manager, we couldn't help but observe that not all building sites were subject to the same rules of engagement that we had become accustomed to in Australia and Britain respectively. In some instances, such as the bloke working on the fifth floor balcony pictured above, we simply called them "Workplace" as there was no hint of any Health or Safety provisions whatsoever.

As we journeyed we talked about it often and long into the night. The Workplace Health and Safety regulations are a relatively recent phenomenon and we wondered how between us we'd survived for a hundred years in the construction industry without being killed entirely due the absence of a reflective safety vest for most of our respective careers.

While the pendulum may have swung a long way too far, there was a time when perhaps I must begrudgingly admit, safety was for girls.

It started as far as I can recall in the late sixties, when workers were inadvertently dropping off steel framed high-rise buildings at a rate of knots that some politician (and doubtless a bunch of bereived wives, mothers and assorted next of kin) deemed undesirable. The first regulation that I can remember was one that enforced a scaffolding structure no more than three floors below the work face. I wondered at the time if a three storey landing was any more pleasant than a ten storey one, and supposed that at least it saved considerable cleaning up.

I have no issues with a requirement for safety railings to prevent falls, nor for that matter with a requirement to ensure that electrical wiring is properly tested to prevent accidental electrocution, but I do think there are some things which would be far better left well alone, where nature should be allowed to take its course.

One of those times occurred not long after we had bought our first home, and were purchasing some second had timbers from a demolition yard.

There were great piles of flooring and weather board all around the yard, with prominent nails poking out in all directions, waiting for a gang to remove them and stack the timber a little more tidily. An older chap, I don't know how much older as at the age of twenty-one, anyone who was older than forty could have been a hundred, but he was quite a bit "older", came out to assist, and was soon scurrying over the nail-mines looking for the bits that we needed.

When he returned with the first stick, I noticed to my horror that not only was he completely barefoot, but his feet were covered in a rash that looked as though he was midway through a dose of chicken pox. As a student of architecture I knew very few symptoms of any disease, but I knew enough to know that chicken pox doesn't usually effect only the tops of the feet, and apart from these scores of scabs he seemed to be a picture of health and fitness.

Slowly it dawned on me that the rash, was not a rash, but the result of him standing on dozens of boards with nails so long they had penetrated the entire thickness of his feet.

I couldn't stay silent. I was shivering at the very thought of what I had just discovered, a nasty cold sort of shiver at that, so asked politely, why he didn't wear shoes at least?

"Ah mate," he started,"I've got so many holes in my feet, it's just unlucky if the nails hit anything."


Thursday, May 22, 2008


Brian was one of the first people, if not the very first person we ever met who was building a boat for himself. Actually he was fitting out a bare hull and deck he'd bought, and like most people he wasn't overly endowed with a ready source of income to provide for his new habit.

Unlike most people he was a man of the cloth, a minister of religion, and while not sworn to celibacy or poverty or anything quite like that, the boat was evidence of a human attachment to "stuff" which didn't sit at all comfortably on his shoulders.

In trying to deal with his angst, he sought counsel from a senior minister within his organisation, who offered him the following advice (or words to this effect):

"Possessions in themselves are not the issue. It's attachment to possessions which is the root of all evil."

Not entirely convinced, Brian struggled with himself, his tools, his budget and to find the time for a few more years, until finally the boat was complete and ready for launching.

He invited the same senior cleric to accompany him on his maiden sail, which as is often the way, was to take place on a day in which the conditions were severe enough to be verging on being entirely unsuitable for such and event.

There is something in the mind of man worthy of serious study, which enables him to take two or three years, or even longer to build a boat, yet won't allow him to delay the launch for another day until weather conditions are suitable, but once again I digress.

After the initial rigging was completed and the boat launched, the outboard was started and the boat began steadily making its way out of the harbour mouth. All was going swimmingly, until the very moment it caught the full weight of the breeze, no more than fifty metres short of deep water, and abeam of the last of the harbour rock wall, and the crew were preparing to hoist sail for the first time.

The motor inexplicably stopped.

Silently the boat drifted sideways towards the wall, joggling in the chop, until it was so close that both the skipper and the crew could hop off onto the jagged rocks.

As the pair were standing amid the oysters on the rocks, desperately pushing the bucking hull against the wind and wave to keep the it intact, with thoughts of mere damage to the paintwork by now very secondary, the more senior of the two looked quietly at his boat-building colleague and enquired:

"Tell me now Brian. How detached do you feel?"

For us, that neatly summed up a balance between having things we need, and wanting things we don't.

Brian's boat survived, and is the case was replaced by a bigger one, and then bigger still. He never did buy a house, and last time I saw him, which was thirty years after the original launch, he seemed quite happy, if still a little detached.


Monday, May 19, 2008


It's not that I don't like grass, or even lawn for that matter.

I think lawns are marvellous things if they are impeccably kept and watered and tended to and cultivated even if they have signs on them telling me to keep off, which I never do.

We'd never been good at lawns really, but there came a time when we were renting a place which came with acres of the green stuff and it's attendant bother. Happily for me that time coincided exactly with a time when the lady of our house decided that mowing would be her newest hobby.

Sadly for me, the time that she preferred to partake in this odd hobby, was Sunday afternoon, just after lunch, when I was at my busiest with one of my other hobbies - the Sunday Snooze.

I, being only slightly less devoid of strength than she, was called upon with monotonous regularity, to "start the mower", usually at exactly the moment I had succumbed to the deepest form of repose, a place to which after being so rudely interrupted, I would rarely be able to return to until the same time next week.

Lack of snooze notwithstanding, the sound of someone else mowing was far better than the sound of me mowing, so I dared not complain lest the arrangement should be changed. That is not to say however, that a slight modification to the routine would not have been capable of producing mutually satisfactory benefit.

We eventually moved to a new place, with an entirely more respectable amount of lawn. So respectable was it, that I managed to convince her goodself that to maintain the same level of fitness that she had attained mowing at the last place, with this new reduced amount of green, we should really invest in that wonder of modern machinery, the engine-less push mower.

All went well for months, perhaps a year, and I was able to get quite a bit of practice on my own preferred Sunday activity. I became so good at it that I could be pushing up Zeds within minutes of her pulling out the mower, which was exactly what I was doing on that fateful day when she woke me to help her "Start" it.

I had woken from a deep sleep, and her request made no sense, given that we hadn't owned a mower that required starting for some considerable time, so I asked her to confirm her request. Sure enough "Could you please start the mower".

I rolled over, reminding her that it didn't have an engine, so go away and stop being a silly woman. She persisted, until I was compelled to investigate, to discover that something had jammed and that's what she had been attempting to communicate.

I was beaten.

There was simply no way to maintain a consistent quality of Sunday repose while ever we had grass that needed mowing.

That very day I began making arrangements to replace every blade of grass in our yard with plants and paving, and that's the way life was for over a decade.

It still would that way be too, even in our new place, if it weren't for Don, the mower man who comes on Fridays.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


We had a budgie once, a blue one.

Poor Alex, named after a block of flats in which we almost bought our first apartment, didn't really live the life of luxury and love that one reads about in some accounts of pets and their owners.

It's not that she was badly done by, she travelled often, was fed well and her cage was cleaned regularly, she shared a lot of our adventures, but somehow she just never fitted in.

One of our most enduring memories of pet ownership came one Friday evening when we were driving down what was known as the goat track between Tamborine and Canungra. In those days the goat track really was, and we were in our Bongo Van, not noted for having a comfortable ride on smooth highway, but on a rough dirt descent it was easy to see how the Bongo got its name.

It was getting a "bit" uncomfortable for those travelling in the front seats firmly fastened by seat belts, and there was an awful lot of banging and clanging of stuff in the back, even though it was well secured, and mostly in the lockers under our mattress. Clearly audible amid the din, the ringing of the budgie bell and the clanging of the door of the cage which was secured between the ceiling of the van and the front seats, began to arouse our attention.

We looked over our shoulders, and there was Alex, full of Vita Budgie, with triceps pumped, straddling the gap between flailing swing and cage, trying valiantly to hold the swing still enough to resume her spot.

Sadly, as is inevitable, although after too few years of journeying with us, Alex eventually succumbed.

She passed peacefully, (we think) after a reasonably mid-length life.

My beloved, not wishing to touch her frail little corpse, decided to let me do the honours.

Being the observant type, even though I had apparently been informed, which I deny of course, I failed to notice a distinct lack of activity from within the cage, let alone the fact that the former resident of the budgie cage had taken to sleeping on its floor.

It was a day or maybe even two later, when we had a surprise visit from a dear Aunt, who it has to be said was one of those budgie fanciers one reads about, used to lavishing love and luxury on her hand reared bird, chatting incessantly to it perched somewhere on her person, and so it was with barely a nod to us on this fateful day, that she found herself cooing by the cage of the sleeping Alex.

The emotional scars caused by that moment have deeply impacted on my dearest, and since that day, any new pets, rare though they may have been in our household, have been viewed at best with a suspicious tolerance and issued with a quiet but terribly stern warning, to the effect that they are welcome stay for a bit, as long as they don't drop off their perch while we aren't looking.

"Or else!: .....


Monday, May 12, 2008


One of our neighbours was employed on a chook farm.

I've never really contemplated before the meaning of working "on" a farm, as opposed to "at" a shop, or "in" a business, but I am fairly certain that he worked "on" the farm.

Probably it was more a general poultry farm rather than one specialising in one particular type of bird because as a special treat one year, he brought home a gosling and a few bags of fat-inducing grain, with the intention of fattening it up for Christmas.

Once again, I interrupt myself to ponder how one fattens "up", surely with the best of intent, one would fatten "out"?.

This small goose-like contraption was allowed to roam freely in the yard, and as geese are quite territorial creatures, and as it also had it's wings clipped severely, there was little, or actually no risk of flight.

Now in addition to having a wife and a small goose, the neighbour in question also had a small child, a daughter of perhaps three, who developed a special bond with the two legged downy creature. Each morning we'd watch as they walked together inspecting the yard, and she'd talk incessantly to her "Duckie" who'd appear to be listening intently to every word.

As Duckie grew the routine changed only slightly. Sometimes she'd appear dressed in a doll's dress, like a literal representation of Mother Goose. Often she'd be riding in a doll's carriage.

Always the chatter between Duckie and her adopted mother was incessant, although very little was emanating from Duckie's direction, she did listen with a politeness verging on intensity.

As weeks turned into months, the special fat-inducing Grain was having a serious impact on Duckie's ability to wear those doll's dresses, but she'd still appear wrapped in toile or a rug, and even as she grew to almost the size of her mistress, the two remained inseparable.

As Christmas loomed closer, the man of the house became concerned. Dinner was walking around with his daughter, they would have been arm in arm had the goose had arms and it was clear that he was having some difficulty coming to terms with explaining to either party that Christmas dinner for Duckie could well involve lying amid a bed of baked potato covered in lashings of Mum's special gravy.

While we can indeed confirm that Duckie lived to see at least one more Christmas, we can only surmise what the scene may have been inside that house that fine sunny Christmas day.

We can happily imagine Duckie taking her place "at" the table, as opposed to "on" it.

Dressed as she no doubt was, in her special Christmas bonnet, was she blissfully unaware that her role in the festivities was somewhat different to that originally intended, or was she congratulating herself on her well hatched plan?


Thursday, May 08, 2008

Mothers Day

When we were first married we lived in a poor inner suburb which was at the time the centre of Greek immigrant community in Brisbane. Living among a bunch of "wogs" was fantastic, and we had many cultural and culinary experiences which were simply not available elsewhere in 1970 Queensland.

Many of the older generation spoke little or no English. Most, if not all, clung to the particular traditions of the community from which they had come.

Gardens as we knew them, "just for looking at", were non existent, if they had anything growing at all, it was for eating, grapes and eggplant and strange vegetables that didn't have a name, to supplement their basic diets.

If there was some soil that didn't have anything for eating growing in it, it was concreted over. Every front yard was similar except for the one rather more run down place than most on Boundary Street quite near the shops. It stood out particularly because it's whole front yard (all one and a half metres of it) was planted with Chrysanthemums, although we didn't know what they were until they started to flower. They were just a mid green, sparsely leafed shrub that hovered improbably above the ground in contrast to the concrete and bean crops in all the other yards.

By late April the house was like a white postcard, a beacon that shone above all others.

Actually that is a dreadful exaggeration. The elderly owners of the house weren't much chop at flower production, and the few withered stems that produced flowers were in contrast to the hard bare earth that they was their background. It all seemed such a shame that they'd gone to so much effort to produce not so much as a meal. Then, the sign appeared on the gate, carefully painted with a shaky hand in Silverfrost on a bit of old fibro:

"Mothering Day Flowers On Saleing Now"

We smiled and understood.

We never bought any but we loved that sign and everything it stood for.

We still smile nearly thirty-five years later, at the resourcefulness, the quaintness of the language, and in admiration of the fact that an elderly Greek lady could write six more words in our language than we can in hers, even to this day.'

It's Mother's Day here on Sunday, so wish your Mum a happy one from me!


Monday, May 05, 2008

Santa's Alley

Each year, when Manly was truly a Harbour Village, before the renewal which people like ourselves created really took hold, Manly Village was truly a country town and each year it celebrated Christmas with a one-evening show, by turning its little main street, Cambridge Parade, into "Santa's Alley".

Less than 150 metres from Santa's Alley, we had plans to build on a small, vacant allotment neighboured by an ancient, not even elderly lady whose unhappiness with life manifested itself occasionally in a severe dressing down of anyone who happened to be passing her front door, which was located just a few footsteps from her footpath.

If the unsuspecting passer-by happened to have a dog in tow, the vitriol could be specially unpleasant, and if the dog so much as looked like crouching to relieve itself within cooee of "her" footpath, actual violence threatened. Her protectiveness extended to the entire boundaries of our lot including any part of the walkway in front, and it was not uncommon to see people cross the street, or pull their hats down over their faces before scurrying past.

We on the other hand had a somewhat more relaxed view of life and relating to strangers than perhaps she expressed, and so it was that when the organisers of Santa's Alley needed somewhere to unload their livestock trailers, so that the three wise men and the baby Jesus could be suitably conveyed during the proceedings, that she found it a bit disconcerting.

We were afraid we'd killed her that first year though.

As ever, she'd been watching every move on our lot, through the slot in her kitchen window, so narrow that one wondered how she breathed, let alone managed to scan the neighbourhood with such precision, alternating between there and the front door which she habitually left slightly ajar, so that she could keep an eye out for errant dogs in need of a good hiding.

One of the Wise Men, began leading his camel down towards the marshalling point of the parade. As it drew level with her front gate, and under her steely glare, the camel did what camels do after taking the first few steps after a period of incarceration.

Judging by the sheer volume of its deposit, one could assume this camel had been incarcerated for quite some time.

Perhaps since the last time it was at an Oasis in fact.

History does not record what happened to that Camel, nor it's attendant Wise Man. Perhaps they disappeared in a puff of nuclear powered acrimony, but we are pleased to report that by the time we returned later in the evening the noise had subsided, and there was not an atom of evidence remaining.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Lost Soles

Recently I've noticed another spate of shoes over powerlines, and I've been moved to think of all the injustices they represent.

Firstly there's the thought that some some ungrateful sod, simply didn't like them, and instead of popping them into a charity bin where they'd at least do the rest of the world some good, they've simply slung them over a power line, and presumably lied to their parents about where they left them.

For those among us who have lived in a different economic clime, when shoes were things that were barely affordable, the waste is intolerable.

The next option is even worse, because it involves the big kid. The big kid steals the shoes off the little kid, the little kid suffers the indignity of having his shoes stolen, then watches in horror as they are slung beyond reach. He goes home miserable, but not game to tell his parents what really happens, suffers a second dose of misery, while plotting his revenge.

If the big kid doesn't lay off, the little kid's resolve hardens. One day the little kid grows up, and notices the big kid is asleep.

Behind every pair of shoes hung on a powerline, there's an axe murderer in the making.

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