Legends from our own lunchtimes

Monday, October 27, 2008

The National Anthem

I saw an interview recently with Professor Graeme Clark, the inventor of the Bionic Ear and watched fascinated as he told the story of the first person implanted and how all data relating to the first hearing experiment was lost.

They played single tones into the device at first, and then a tune which was well known at the time.

Sadly, it was "The" National Anthem and as soon as the patient, who had lost his hearing some years before, heard it, on reflex stood to attention, accidentally unplugging all the data leads on the way up.

Of course "The National Anthem of Australia" in those days, wasn't the the song about Girt that we all know so well, rather it was the cheery "God Save our Gracious Queen", and it is a testimony to our commitment to put Commonwealth before country that it was taken as seriously as it was.

No public function of any kind was ever commenced without a stirring rendition of the thing played by a brass band, a recording of the Queen's guard playing it, or perhaps the Humpybong Municipal Band at a pinch. Our morning parade at school featured a recording so scratched that we were blissfully unaware that the out of time clicks that occurred just before the second lot of "dadada dum dum dum dum de-dums" weren't actually part of the music.

It is with just a touch of embarrassment that I recall the last time I stood for that particular version of our national anthem at a public event.

I can't remember the name of the Cinema, but it was in George Street near McDonnel and Easts and the movie was "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" which means it happened some time around 1964.

We all waited silently for the show to begin as the lights slowly began to dim.

The projector began to roll and the image of the bearskin hat of one Her Majesty's finest could clearly be seen projected on the red velvet curtain as it began to sway.

As the curtain was drawn, the drums began to roll, and the audience dutifully stood to attention.

This is where things went slightly awry.

Instead of rolling into the well known anthem (minus clicks), the band played another marching tune as the camera panned to a platoon of Guards drilling in front of the palace.

The audience stood, bemused.

A few more beats and it became clear. This was an advertisement for Grenadier Cigarettes!

Some chose to stand hopefully, waiting forlornly, willing the anthem to come next. It never did

Some shrunk back into their seats hoping no-one would recognise them in the darkness.

A snigger rippled through the theatre, but no one spoke.

Grenadier Cigarettes disappeared shortly afterwards along with cigarette advertising, and I haven't seen the national anthem played in a cinema since, but if it were to happen, perhaps I will be forgiven if I'm a little slow getting to my feet.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Getting a message across

When I was young, "chalking" of walls, gates and pavement was considered to be a heinous crime against society. There were no pressure pack cans of course, and serious graffiti was usually very serious indeed, executed with a brush and whitewash.

What appears in the photograph above to be a witty piece of chalk graffiti was actually executed if that’s the right word as temporary poster art above the first level frieze of the Art Gallery of NSW. Having seen Bill Posters at work a few hours earlier, it seemed a bit lame to me that someone would draw mock graffiti on a building with chalk, no doubt while its owners looked on arms crossed an smug smiles all round, all the while donned in elaborate safety harnesses and fluorescent orange vests and under the watchful eye of a workplace health and safety inspector.

I’m not sure about those orange vests either. When you are working on a ledge on the first floor of a building, what possible hazard can there be that requires you to be highly visible?

As a piece of street art, I think it's message was lost entirely, simply because by the time one has enough of a profile to draw on a gallery wall under supervision, one probably already owns a Mercedes.

It succeeded in one sense though as it reminded me of another angry message I once read. This one was in the mid seventies, and while spray cans were available, they were clearly too expensive to use in this manner, as the writing was in a heavy brown brush.

It was on a retaining wall at Bondi Beach, where the water was often fouled by a sewerage outfall which deposited its cargo in exactly the wrong part of the current in prevailing breezes, and was the subject of much public angst.

The message read simply:

Are you really going to swim here?

... or just go through the motions.


Monday, October 20, 2008


Being the eldest in our brood, it’s not surprising that I was the tallest child for the entire time that I was growing up. It’s a matter of fact now, that I was also the tallest because that’s just how it turned out to be. In looking back through all those old photographs it’s astonishing how many times I was actually too tall for the camera.

For reasons that don’t seem particularly clear, but may well have been related to the quality of hair cut my mother used to provide, there’s often, if not mostly, a goodly chunk of yours truly cropped out of any photo which featured more than one person including myself.

Where most children have a complete photographic record of their changing facial features, my legacy seems to be a chronology of what surely were the least attractive knees in primary school.

I had a brother in law once, who came from a country which is often the brunt of stereotypical jokes about people whose perception are apparently quite different from our mainstream. Without wishing to cast aspersions, a lot of the attendees at his mother's seventieth birthday party had names like Seamus, Paddy, Patrick and Sinead and it was one of those who had the duty in that time well before digital photography had been thought of, to record the event on film.

All seven rolls of film were duly processed after the event, and to the complete horror of all, each and every one of the one hundred and sixty-eight borderless glossy photographs featured at least one headless person.

The initial reaction from the photographer was an outpouring of pure anger, in an accent that could only be described as something of a heavy brogue:

“I TOLD you we should have got someone taller to take the photographs!”

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Making Ducks

My dad made a duck.

He used to make all manner of things for our kids, in the same trademark “folk” style which could never be mistaken for the work of someone for whom the fun of the project was in fine finishing and exquisite detail rather than in the sheer joy in the doing and in watching the end user at play.

His simple duck had three moving parts, commonly called wheels, and two other bits somewhat rudely carved and clear varnished. The back wheel had an eccentric axle so that as the duck was pulled along, it’s tail bobbed up and down, giving the impression that it was waddling, at least when it was on a carpeted floor. When it wasn’t it didn’t work, but that never seemed to be noticed by anyone pulling it along.

I am my father’s son in that I seem to share his uncontrollable urge to build things that could easily be produced in a factory, but I just can’t seem to manage the same simplicity and timeliness that he achieved.

I always need to overcomplicate things, or make them “better” when there’s no need. So when I make a duck, it isn’t a duck, it’s a “seabird”, and it isn’t made from a total of five pieces, mine has twenty-four parts and they all had to be assembled in a particular order. All of that means of course that it didn’t actually get finished in time for the first birthday as planned, it took a mere extra year!

It does have a head that wags from side to side with a satisfying clatter, but it seems to have a strange vulnerability at the very point that pivots. I suspect that thirty years from now, it will by my father’s version which will have survived another generation complete with it’s one broken eye or perhaps by then with two, to be copied by one of my grandchildren’s parents for their own next generation.

Incredibly Sebastian turns two this week, and he’ll have a duck of his own, a mate for his mother’s, and she’ll have hers back after a few decades of slumber in a box in our ceiling!

I wonder who will be the most impressed.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Taking Care of Business

When I was young, Barbecues, weren't just a means of charring sausages, they were an event.

A huge event.

Enough food and drink to feed a family at least four times the size of ours would be prepared, the fire would be lit early, to allow sufficient time for the cooking plate to be evenly heated, and we'd all be dressed in our going out clothes before marching into the back yard to eat. We'd even take paper serviettes as they were known before they were called napkins.

My father and I would also have to don silly outfits, chefs caps and aprons with slogans like "What's Cooking?" on them to ensure that we didn't get any grease on our going out clothes. I'm not sure what my parents were thinking to subject me to the dual embarrassment of watching my father dressed like that, while being similarly attired, but it did have something of a lasting impact on my sartorial habits.

The reason that my siblings, being just enough years younger than I to have avoided the need to don funny hats while eating outdoors, have apparently made their way through life with substantially fewer emotional scars than I, can probably be deduced from this one photograph alone, but as if to rub salt into my already gaping wounds, there are plenty more where that came from!

The whole barbecue thing gathered quite some momentum in the early sixties, at a time when the greater Brisbane area was undergoing what today would be called infrastructure works, but in those days was simply described as "being sewered". Houses were being connected to a trunk sewerage at a great rate of knots and the old "outhouses" were being replaced often with purpose built lean-to's accessible from within the house envelope, with a special indoor WC compartment.

We moved into a house at exactly the time that the barbecue movement reached something of a crescendo and to add to the excitement, "the sewer" was going in as well. It wasn't going to be good enough to have a simple hot plate and some painted rocks in this house apparently, so my father took advantage of the mess being made by the installation of the sewerage pipes and levelled the new barbecue area. He spent more than a few weekends building a monster construction out of concrete blocks with some screen "breeze" blocks in the end and it's own flue in the centre. Together my parents made a canvas cover to fit the rotary clothes line, so we could even barbecue when it was raining. No stone was left unturned in the quest for the ultimate backyard experience.

My grandfather didn't understand any of this modern stuff, which he thought was surely turning life as he knew it on its head.

"In my time", he said "we used to 'do our business' in the backyard, and cook in the house."

I'll bet he didn't get dressed in his going out clothes for his trips to his backyard.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Apartments Mooloolaba

I love this place because its colours reflect the essence of a family holiday. They inadvertently evoke memories of fibro beach shacks casually maintained with whatever paint that could be found.

Neighbouring buildings from a similar era similarly provide life in the side streets, and may well be destined to become the fibro shack vernacular of the next half century.

In the morning they are mellow, a little faded, and easy on the hangover, but in the light of the setting sun the buildings fluoresce like a sunburnt backpacker ready for another big night on the town.

I particularly like this photo (now!) because it actually made it onto the judges long list in the "I love this place" competition. I suppose a long list is only once removed from a very long list, but did make the exhibition!

And just this once, I didn't run out of words.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Esplanade Mooloolaba

I love this place because of the contradictory messages it sends.

Families armed with buckets and spades bustle among latte sipping sophisticates and pretension disappears as bare sandy feet meander across polished marble floors.

Sirocco, like many of the apartments on “the front”, is architecturally crispy white with modern glass and polished finishes by day, and a facade that mimics the fluidity of the headlands and the the waves opposite.

By night it dons blue lipstick, a princess all dressed up and nowhere to go.

Mooloolaba by night, silent but for crashing of the waves.

Sadly this was another of my entries in the National Trust "I love this place" photo competition. I say sadly because while I sort of love the photo, I merely quite like the actual place, and in a sense I'm quite relieved that there were many better photos in the pool so that I wasn't forced to live the lie that is fame!

Part of the brief was to create a description in 100 words or less, completing the sentence beginning with "I love this place".

This of course left some room for creative license including taking liberties with the word "love" which I've heard many times has many meanings.

Sadly there was a bit that I had to leave out because I'd run out of words. Had I been allowed just ten more, the description may very well have continued, and the fate of the photograph may well have been very different:

"Mooloolaba by night, silent but for crashing of the waves on the sand, and the sploshing of last nights imbibement on the shopfronts beyond. "

Thursday, October 02, 2008



Until the early 1960’s my grandfather and his brothers ran a white metal foundry which once made specialised bearings for large steam engines of the type used in factories for milling cane or powering ships at sea.

Life had been kind to his father while there were steam powered engines and ships at sea, but by the 60’s new technologies had pretty much overtaken all that, and the foundry was limited to casting odd job lots, and street numbers for the Brisbane City Council to issue to ratepayers.

These were the days long before China had been invented as a supplier of all things cheap and practical, so among other things they used to melt down bits of war surplus aeroplane and cast the numbers in sand moulds with a suitably curved oval background, complete with screw holes for mounting on any handy gatepost.

When they were finished they looked exactly like the one in the photo from last week.

Except that before they looked like the picture, the black bit had to magically appear.

Since a metal foundry is set up for melting metal and making moulds of sand, and is really not set up for any kind of fine art work such as painting a black background on street number plaques, that task fell on my grandmother who used to enlist the help of her two eldest grandchildren. At school holidays and sometimes on weekends I would sit with my cousin Judith and we’d paint black backgrounds on those plaques with artist brushes and enamel paint. It was our first paying job, and while I can’t remember how much we received, it seemed like something in the order of a penny per four or five million numbers painted.

We’d have a table set up in the fernery of the original “Wilmaur” which was a bit like one of those conservatory type rooms the do it yourself makeover tv shows produce today, except with a concrete floor, full of hanging fish fern and maidenhair and diagonal lattice walls, but in those days it was just a nifty way of connecting to the outdoor toilet without going outside.

It wasn't really a sweathouse, but recollecting and analysing my part in the enterprise fifty years later, one could be forgiven for drawing remarkable comparisons to any number of pictures of third world enterprises today. I suppose that's more to do with the technology than the conditions, but certainly there are similarities. My grandmother was a stern taskmaster who used to provide us with very weak milky tea or even weaker orange cordial to sustain us but never ever smiled, not even when we finished painting a plaque without going over the lines.

Perhaps she did occasionally, when we let her win at dominoes, but whenever I try to remember all my mind can conjure is a sort of "I'm going to be sick now" grimace that came close to a smile but not quite.

She was a stern taskmaster, and with the benefit of rewriting history I could surmise that quality time with grandma was all about the money rather than the relationship!

Grandad on the other hand, was a different sort of stern. He was made of the unbending stern stuff that family heads were supposed to be of, in that post Victorian era, but as is so often the case he had a centre as soft as a Caramello. He never went anywhere without wearing a tie and starched collars on his shirts, his long boots laced up to his shins and were old fashioned even for those times and he wore long underwear no matter what the temperature.

Every time we visited, he'd stand erect at the door as we left, like a preacher after a service, and as we passed he'd press a penny into our hand, sometimes threepence. On a good day we could double our earnings just by leaving!

It's all got me thinking about what sort of an impression I'm leaving on my own grandchild. Perhaps I should at least tuck my shirt in, or put something on my feet, and give him a sixpence (taking inflation into account) as he's leaving.

What will the world make of my board shorts fifty years from now?
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