Retro Tuesday, And Back To The Grind

THIS WEEK marks the recommencement of a sporadic, purpose-centric need for me to hop on a plane for a day per week, most weeks, for a couple of months; not frightfully onerous — albeit a little frightening late last year — the opportunity presents to revisit Retro Tuesday with an aviation flavour, and to elicit (I’m sure) some groans and cringes from the depths of readers’ memories: if, that is, they are old enough to remember at all.

Last year — as I continued a process of rounding out the Communications side of my CV — I recommenced a university degree I abandoned more than 20 years earlier; not wishing to be pushed into careers in either journalism or teaching, and annoyed at being stopped from transferring to a law degree (a story in itself, although in hindsight I’m glad I never became a lawyer) I dispensed with the further incursion of fees, and set out in a different direction altogether.

The problem was that with two-thirds of a degree complete, and on account of the passage of time since getting that far, the only place that would recognise what I had already finished was the same university I’d been an undergraduate at in the early 1990s: and so, in a highly unorthodox arrangement, I started flying in and out of Brisbane to go to the University of Queensland one day each week.

At least, that was the theory: three weeks into the 12-week semester, I had a stroke scare on my flight back to Melbourne very late one Tuesday night; and whilst it turned out I hadn’t had a stroke (or a so-called TIA) at all — I eventually became the 24th confirmed diagnosis worldwide of the perfectly harmless ear condition Baroparesis facialis, in which air in a defective Eustachian tube expands at altitude to crush the facial nerve, looking like a stroke but in fact having no connection whatsoever to such a frightening affliction — and after a diverted flight to Sydney, a night in the Prince of Wales Hospital, and a visit to a cardiologist the following week in Melbourne, I was cleared to fly again a fortnight after that terrifying mid-air event.

And it was a good thing I was, for had I not gone near another aircraft for a while, I might still be walking around thinking (wrongly) that I had had a stroke: at exactly the same point in the climb out of Melbourne Airport that the first incident had occurred at during the flight coming the other way two weeks earlier, the same thing happened: it was the big clue my doctors needed to go looking for a non-stroke cause, and after a couple of thousand dollars out of pocket and myriad tests later, we quickly identified the unusual culprit.

Even so, a certain airline predicated on white aeroplanes that may or may not feature red tails depicting airborne marsupials refused to let me fly again after the second incident until a further medical clearance had been obtained (which took six weeks) and after my day at the Uni on that occasion, I spent two days driving back to Melbourne down the Newell Highway, and was not a pleasant encounter by the time I got my car out of the car park at Melbourne Airport 1,150 miles later.

I have always loved flying, but traditionally, it has scared the hell out of me.

I don’t know why: when we were kids, there were several family trips to visit relatives who used to live in Sydney, and I was never frightened on those; I have always attributed the later fear of flying to a 13-year gap between the last of the family trips and the first one undertaken on my own, by which time it seemed in many respects I’d never been on an aircraft.

To say I routinely fronted up at various airports across Australia (and occasionally, across the world) in a rare old state is to undersell the matter; on one occasion, after attending a wedding in Brisbane, there was some suggestion check-in staff contemplated calling security on me — such was my state of agitation.

Even trips to the UK (including landing into Hong Kong in the middle of a typhoon) failed to cure me of this totally irrational phobia.

Yet ever since the events of last August — and I’ve taken another half-dozen return trips since then — I’ve suddenly found myself so preoccupied with monitoring the state of my facial muscles that I don’t even worry about flying any more; perhaps that sounds perverse, given my observations are basically aimed at ascertaining whether half my face collapses or not, and if it does to accost flight staff for an oxygen bottle (which arights the symptoms by imitating ground pressure).

But I got through one semester unscathed in the end — and two of the nine missing subjects for my degree to the good — and it starts again on Thursday, with eight days spread over 13 weeks until the end of May, and another two of the now-remaining seven (from 24 in total) lined up to be knocked over.

My six-year-old daughter loves aeroplanes (and has already had a couple of trips to Tasmania to see my parents) and when she was very little, we used to watch a YouTube clip together just before she went to bed each night; music — and colourful images — have always been a big hit with her, so the idea of watching something together was an obvious one that was instantly popular.

One of the first was this piece…

 

…which must surely rank as one of the most uber-commercial pop songs of the 1960s; I always used to give my daughter a choice of the “air balloon” version embedded above (which, helpfully, has the words dubbed across it so you can sing along) or the “aeroplane” version, which you can access here featuring a collage of all the planes Trans-Australia Airlines used to fly before it was absorbed as the domestic arm of Qantas.

And that brings up today’s Retro Tuesday double shot: not another aviation-themed pop song this time, or something else by The Fifth Dimension, but a thoroughly cringeworthy voyage down memory lane to what once used to pass for the the very best output from the Australian advertising industry: the same industry in which I’ve spent most of the 20+ years since departing from the Uni in the first place.

Get. A. Look. At. This.

Seriously!

 

Needless to say (dating as it does, I believe, from about 1972) it looks like the archaeological relic it is; quite aside from the poor image quality (to say nothing of the quaint black-and-white format) it contains things that wouldn’t be tolerated (or permitted) these days for an instant.

The dirty businessman perving on the stewardess’ derriere as she walks down the aisle, for instance.

And it goes without saying that today’s Boeing 737s, A320s and A330s offer far more comfort and a smoother flight than TAA’s manky old DC9s and Boeing 727s ever did.

“Up, Up and Away” was also used by the now-defunct US airline TWA in television commercials back in the early 70s — which makes sense — and the TWA version made very different use of the audio track; readers can check out one incarnation of the TWA advertising here. (I believe the aircraft featured is a Douglas DC8, although someone might be able to verify that call made with not-a-very-good-look at the thing).

For mine, I’m going to ensure my kids experience regular air travel as they grow up (which, thanks to tickets today costing a fraction of what they did decades ago, is very possible) in an attempt to ensure neither of them develops a silly phobia about flying.

And for my part, another semester — which will be over before anyone can blink — has given us a perfect opportunity for a trip down memory lane today, and I hope people have enjoyed it.

For a little extra bonus, check this out: one of the best airline advertisements I can ever recall, this predates the marvellous “I Still Call Australia Home” campaign by Qantas that endured for more than a decade, and sits in the period between TAA closing and Qantas Domestic taking off (no pun intended) as an entity in its own right. I was 14 when that campaign was launched, and I still think it deserves its place in anyone’s retro call of old Australian television advertising.

It just goes to show what’s possible when the creative for an airline commercial is really, really well executed. After all, here we are 30 years later, watching it all over again…

 

Carlton vs Essendon: 2.05pm, Sunday 28 February, Princes Park

MICKEY MOUSE FOOTBALL as the pre-season competition is, the fixture is irresistibly mouth-watering: Carlton, taking on ancient enemy Essendon, in the traditional afternoon timeslot on a Sunday and at a home ground that was once the most feared citadel in Australian football. With both teams struggling — for different reasons — both are likely to field full “strength” sides in what will be the first great battle fought out at Princes Park in over a decade.

Resolutely committed to the abolition of the so-called pre-season football competition as I am whenever the subject arises, I find myself — unbelievably — very excited indeed at the prospect of an NAB Cup match this Sunday afternoon.

Like a large slice of the football public and as the traditionalist I am, I see no value in a bastardised form of the greatest game on the planet; to me, the AFL can put its “super goals” and trial rules and every other distasteful aspect of the annual four-week farce of the NAB Cup where the sun doesn’t shine, and instead tack an extra month onto the regular home-and-away season if it seriously believes its own rhetoric about providing additional value to all the stakeholders tied up in the AFL.

After all, the players won’t be asked to play more: they’re expected to play (or be fit to do so) in the NAB Cup anyway; they won’t need to be paid more, for the same reason; the season won’t grind on inexorably under a consequent injury cloud — not only do the players, again, face the expectation of playing pre-season games, but an extra bye during the season would rest bodies — and the broadcasters, who already do quite nicely from both the regular season and the extra exposure the NAB Cup provides, would in fact get a bit more bang for their buck out of extra games of “proper” football.

As cringeworthy as it is in one sense and as satisfactory as it is in another, these two sides meet — even in a Mickey Mouse game — with their prospects for the season ahead in tatters before it starts.

My own beloved Navy Blues are on their knees — again — for not the first (or even second or third) time in the past 15 years; a last-placed finish last year as the end destination of refusing to structurally rebuild the playing list over decades, preferring instead patchwork topping-up in the quest for instant gratification and glory, saw the club finally get real about the modern AFL environment.

Having 15 new players, the brightest senior coaching prospect to emerge anywhere in Australian football in at least a decade in Brendon Bolton, and other key personnel (list manager Stephen Silvagni, Football head and Premiership hero Andy McKay, President Mark LoGuidice at al) either arrive at the club or consolidate their positions means that 30 years after the VFL bolted a couple of interstate sides on and called itself a national competition, the realities of a draft and salary cap are being embraced.

Finally, a team that can contend for a flag in 3-5 years’ time is being assembled from the ground up: that will take time, and the 15 new players in 2016 are merely the first of perhaps another two substantial injections of fresh talent before the job requires only fine-tuning thereafter.

As you would expect, the team the Blues have announced for Sunday’s match has a lot of holes: it is top-heavy, as most of the new players this year are key position players; it is weak in the midfield, as Carlton’s best midfield players are sidelined this week for various reasons; it is very much an inexperienced side, not least as Carlton’s five top-20 draft picks from last year will all make their first appearances for the club; and it isn’t setting the football media on fire, although the reactive Melbourne sports press is more interested in jumping onto bandwagons rather than pre-empting their arrival, which means that any of the new names to be featured will attract sufficient attention quickly enough once they start to perform on a sustained basis.

But if all of that’s a problem, and even though the thoroughly lamentable win-loss record last year (and probably this) is offset by the big and authentic dose of hope Bolton and his new recruits have ushered into the place, a poor year on-field is a good problem to have when it coincides with the solid importation of hordes of the best young talent in the country over the next two or three years.

Essendon, of course, has other problems.

To say the God-forsaken Essendon Football Club has been a bit naughty of recent times is an understatement; now sharing the dubious bragging rights only with a Sydney rugby league club as the perpetrator of one of the worst and most widespread abuses of performance-enhancing substances in Australian sporting history, Essendon has spent its off-season trading in decent draft picks to bolster its eventual playing stocks, and trading in a batch of ageing rejects (mostly from other clubs’ past Premierships sides) to cover the gaping chasm left by the year-long suspension of 12 of its best players by the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA).

Essendon would have you believe they’re no worse than we were 15 years ago, ensnared in a salary cap rorting program for which Carlton was heavily punished (and from which some — myself included — don’t think it has ever really recovered).

But as I have said many times, a scandal around paying players under the table is one thing, not that I condone it for a minute, but a scandal around pumping illegal substances into players to give them an unfair advantage, distort the AFL competition and blatantly cheat, is reprehensible. Readers can peruse this article, from my political comment website, which was published in the aftermath of the WADA suspensions being sanctioned.

And so — when it’s all said and done, coming back to the confrontation at Princes Park on Saturday — it is fair to say there will be no love lost between the teams and their supporters, and for my part I think the only fitting outcome is to see the hated cross-town rival’s collective nose ground squarely into the sacred Princes Park turf.

And this brings up the real attraction of the Sunday “mockbuster” between two teams faring poorly, for different reasons, but which will be nonetheless dripping with spite.

When I was growing up in Brisbane in the 1970s and 1980s, God hadn’t at that time invented the Brisbane Bears (please, try not to laugh at the mention of their name) and even once he had, in 1986, the old habit of barracking for a VFL side was far too strongly ingrained for me to be remotely interested in the local add-on to the VFL, which in any case I thought had no right to even exist.

In 1982, during the football finals’ season shared by both the VFL and the various rugby codes that were endemic in Queensland, I was approached at school shortly after Carlton won the VFL flag by a posse of surly, stout beefcakes. “Which football team do you support?” they demanded menacingly.

“Carlton,” I responded, beaming, and quickly deduced that that was not the correct answer, for before I realised it I was running — quite literally — for my life, with these three clods in hot pursuit. Even now, almost 35 years later, I shudder to think what might have happened if I hadn’t managed to outrun them. It wasn’t the first time barracking for a VFL side in a rugby state got me into trouble. It wouldn’t be the last, either. But that is another story.

What I wanted, more than anything, was to be able to go to the ground these matches were played at: no small wish, given we lived in Brisbane and the VFL (obviously) was played in Melbourne; but there was always something magical about the idea of Princes Park, whether glimpses of it were caught on the late night replays VFL matches were relegated to in Queensland back in those days, or whether commentators were heard talking about it on live radio broadcasts.

It was, in my view of all things Carlton, a field of dreams.

Many years later of course, I would kiss that turf the first time I watched a match there after moving to Melbourne; even that event was delayed, for having moved south with “the wrong girl” and taken her to the football one day in 1998, the prospect of a standing room only ticket (which was all that was left when we arrived) was anathema to her, and we went straight back home.

Carlton walloped St Kilda that day, too, which made the slight doubly difficult to digest.

But with “the wrong girl” and I having parted ways at the end of my first year in Melbourne, almost every week a Carlton home game was played at Princes Park (by then, of course, known as Optus Oval) from the following year until the administration of Ian Collins sold the ground out from underneath the club as a playing venue, I was there.

I soon found myself integrated into a little group of diehard local Carlton supporters (who remain close and valued friends even now) and every week we did the trudge: either a train to Flinders Street and a tram ride up Royal Parade, or someone would drive, and we’d do battle with the draconian parking restrictions around the Princes Park precinct.

I loved the place: from being able to smoke in the stands (thank you, John Elliott) to the arcane festival atmosphere provided by Captain Carlton in his hovercraft, a dodgy old scoreboard, ancient stands, and beer and hot dogs served from truly archaic catering outlets, I revelled in the history of the place and felt privileged that even in its 11th hour I had been able to enjoy a few years of both the good and the bad that was everything Carlton on its timeless own turf.

Making up for lost time, I was at Princes Park to see some of the most memorable moments of the twilight of Carlton’s playing days at that wonderful ground.

I was there on the infamous day Geelong’s Darren Milburn knocked out club hero Silvagni with a crude high bump in round 22, 2001, and watched in horror as Milburn followed up that effort by almost inciting a riot, clapping the angry pro-Carlton crowd and laughing at it as he was dragged to the bench by his coach; the enraged chant of “Kill the c*nt! Kill the c*nt!” that rang out around the ground as Silvagni lay convulsing on the turf capped off a shameful afternoon for which nobody ever forgave Milburn. Carlton won by 70 points.

I was there, too, the Antarctic afternoon earlier that season on which a 74-point belting by Carlton flicked a switch for the miserable Brisbane Lions, who had inconsistently sputtered their way to four wins and three losses heading into the round 8 match; that humiliation on Royal Parade galvanised the Lions, who would win 13 of the next 14 games — and the 2001 flag — in its aftermath, and for the second consecutive year the Blues would finish the season wondering what might have been.

I was there the day Scott Camporeale and Craig Bradley ran riot against Port Adelaide in 2000, racking up almost 90 disposals between them in a 91-point shellacking.

I was there a couple of weeks after the Brisbane match in 2001 to see Carlton surgically dismantle the West Coast Eagles by 119 points, and remember a day earlier that year on which the Eagles’ own cross-town rival, Fremantle, could manage just a single point during a first quarter that saw the Blues boot 9.5 to lead by 58 points at the first break.

I was there in round 18, 2000 — a game billed as “The Last Suburban Battle” between Carlton and its other sworn enemy Collingwood, as a scheduling quirk saw a game that should have been played at the much larger MCG unfold at Princes Park — to see a tasty 20-goal mauling of the old foe; unbeknown to so few of us and despite a reasonable year in 2001, we were witnessing the last moments of Carlton’s glorious history for many years, as the salary cap scandal and a raft of penalties hit the club in 2002 and sent it tumbling in a spiral it has never really recovered from.

I was there every week between 2002 and 2004, as the scene of so many triumphs over almost 1,000 games became the site of so much navy blue carnage as the club fell down the ladder and stayed there, in its darkest hour, as the salary cap penalties combined with a team of mostly second-rate recruits ushered in almost a decade of misery.

And I was there, the desperately sad day in 2005 that saw us play our final home game at Princes Park, losing to Melbourne despite winning the final quarter by 40 points in what at three-quarter time threatened to be a blowout, trailing as we did by 57 points at the final change.

Whilst it wasn’t played at Princes Park, one of the final moments of glory in Carlton’s recent history was the 1999 preliminary final — which I also saw — at which the Blues terminated the season of Essendon, which thought it was going to march right over the top of us into a Grand Final and that year’s flag; even though the Bombers would do precisely that one year later, the one-point victory to secure a grand final berth, as the legendary Anthony Koutoufides led Carlton to one of its finest wins of all time, is a cherished moment both as a Carlton supporter and in a timeless hatred of a bitter adversary.

 

The last 15 minutes of that wonderful game can be watched, uninterrupted, here.

On Sunday at 2pm — a traditional afternoon game in a traditional afternoon timeslot — football, Carlton and the hated enemy Essendon all return to the best ground in Australian football for what promises to be at once a grudge match, a glimpse at the likely prospects of both sides for 2016, and a wonderful throwback to the old Melburnian tradition of a day at the football.

20,000 people are expected to turn out. It goes without saying that I will be one of them. And my six-year-old daughter — already a committed Carlton supporter — will probably be there too.

I can’t wait.

 

Retro Tuesday: The Year Celebrity Died?

FROM DAVID BOWIE to Glenn Frey, the first days of 2016 have seen an extraordinary number of well known, much-loved international celebrities pass on; the trend concurs with the ageing of the Baby Boomer generation — on whose watch the phenomenon of “celebrity” first appeared — and most of those who have succumbed in recent days are part of that generation. Is 2016 the year celebrity died?

I had intended to publish this piece very late last night, in time to catch readers over their coffee, but time beat me to the punch; in some respects I am pleased it did, although not for particularly pleasant reasons, for the day has brought the news of the passing of former Eagles singer and guitarist Glenn Frey at the age of 67.

2016 is shaping as one of those years — for all the wrong reasons — when it comes to high profile entertainment figures taking their final curtain; just nine days ago the world was shocked by the passing of David Bowie (or “Ziggy Stardust” as he was wont to be called) and since then British actor Alan Rickman and former Grizzly Adams actor Dan Haggerty have passed on as well.

All of them died in their late 60s — the generation of my parents — and indeed, some of these gentlemen were older than my own father, who will turn 68 in April. Frey is six months younger than my father. A very dear friend of mine who I unfortunately don’t see much of these days thanks to the tyranny of distance lost his own father a few weeks ago at just 66. It’s a sobering thought, and a reminder that as wonderful as life is there are some horrible certainties that come with the deal: and as those who know me often hear me remark, we’re not 18 and invincible any more. I’m 43. You never know when the supply of “tomorrows” will finally run out.

Of the four, Frey provided me with what I thought, in the flush of youth, was a song that might have been written for me: setting aside another personal epithet in the form of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (and no, I’ve never been known for an abundance of subtlety), a more positive anthem arrived in 1986 in the form of “You Belong To The City” — and I am, by my own admission and the ready assent of those around me, the ultimate “big city boy.”

The point of the passage of time is underscored by the barely believable realisation, as I write, that that smashing 1986 hit is 30 years old this year; old enough to stand on its own two feet if it were human, to vote, fight in a war, get married and have kids. Perhaps the analogy is a little silly, but the 14-year-old whose life revolved around the weekly Top 50 chart, relishing the ridicule that accompanied reading the political section of the newspaper every morning before school in full sight of school buddies to stay abreast of the world’s events, watching reruns of Doctor Who, and illicitly following the Carlton Football Club in the rugby league town I grew up in (to follow Australian Rules football in Queensland back in the 1980s was to risk a belting) seems like a kid I embodied just the metaphorical five minutes ago.

It’s hard not to make the link between the big names who have departed this month and the Baby Boomer generation, whose eldest members grew up watching the very earliest rock and roll acts in the late 1950s just as they were hitting their teenage years; these were the people whose adolescence and early adulthood coincided with phenomena such as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys — all now gone or, to be unkind, going — and whose relatively early years spanned the disco age of the 1970s and saw in the mad, greedy 1980s with its big hair, big sounds, and have-it-at-any-cost consumer culture and Yuppiedom.

In fact, it isn’t a stretch to suggest the whole contemporary cult of celebrity is a construct of, and a (dubious) legacy from, the Baby Boomer generation.

But I can’t recall the last time so many big name stars died in such rapid succession; certainly, none of these passings is in the same league as, say, Princess Diana, and the best precedent that springs immediately to mind was the passing of Australian identity Steve Irwin and motor racing legend Peter Brock, four days apart, a decade ago this September coming.

People will have their own reflections on some or all (or maybe even none) of the figures who’ve taken a bow this month, but what makes these people special — and they are just people, we must remember, before anyone ascribes immortality to any of them — is the way their work provides bookmarks in our own lives where the two overlap, in the way we remember a moment we watched a movie “with” them, or how one of their songs accurately and uncannily mirrored a certain phase, good or bad, as we went about our business.

Certainly, these people (and any who follow them into involuntary final retirement) will live on; and just as those closest to them will remember them personally, the rest of us will ensure their public faces continue to be seen and heard even after they have left the stage.

But is the cult of celebrity dying? Hardly, for I believe it’s one of the least desirable bequests our parents have lumped us with. But perhaps this is the time when a disproportionate number of its earliest practitioners disappear from the land of the living.

It’s a salutary reminder that time is marching on; and it brings up today’s double shot — giving the final word, no less, to Bowie.

It seems fitting — even as everyone seems to have their own perfect Bowie song of the month this month, and so many of them are called “Major Tom” — to put one of his more thoughtful works in motion on the subject of change; Bowie’s pithy, wistful reflections on the tribulations of life seem apt, and without further comment today, I’ll leave readers to their own thoughts as they listen to it now.

 

 

Nigella’s Busts: “Cookbook Errors” Typify Hard Truths

I’VE STUMBLED across a story from a journalist in Brisbane, who relates multiple disasters with a recipe by “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson; this scribe from the Sunshine State isn’t the first to encounter a dud from Lawson and I’m sure she won’t be the last. But it raises some interesting points, first and foremost of which is the fact that even chefs who actually know what they’re doing often publish material that is impossible to elicit a desirable result from.

I hope everyone has enjoyed the festive season break, eaten plenty of turkey, and tried to take it sensibly on the juice this summer; a happy New Year — belatedly — to all, and I don’t mind spelling out my resolution of trying to post a minimum of three articles per week on this site in 2016: more if possible. With Retro Tuesdays already eliciting plenty of traffic (if not comments — hint, hint) and becoming a bit of a fixture, a couple of extra articles on top of that here (plus the five I try to average on my other, political, site) should be manageable.

Nine times out of ten…

Yet speaking of politics (and the obligatory apologies for the segue to that subject once again), the first I’d ever heard of British TV cook and “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson was when I heard the news that Nigel Lawson’s daughter was to be the star of a new programme that was sneeringly billed at the time as heralding the arrival of the “sexualisation of food for mass audiences.”

Nigel Lawson — for those who don’t know — was the second Chancellor of the Exchequer (or “Treasurer” in an Australian government) in Margaret Thatcher’s government, holding the post between 1983 and 1989; Lawson was a Chancellor who rightly enjoyed great acclaim, and with whom only Peter Costello and Paul Keating provide any kind of Australian comparison in a rarefied class of contemporary political royalty.

There are those (and I’m one of them) who believe Nigel Lawson was not only the architect of Britain’s economic successes in the mid-1980s, but that his reforms paved the way for the unprecedented boom that country enjoyed for 15 years from 1993-94 onwards: yet he was a dour, orthodox Tory and as dry as old biscuits, so the idea of his daughter providing any sort of riveting TV experience seemed preposterous, to say the least.

How wrong I was.

Like most of the males who watched her (and in my early 20s when Nigella Bites first aired) I was captivated by her undeniable beauty, but far from finding it tawdry or smutty — as many (probably jealous) TV critics of the day were wont to describe her — I thought Nigella positively oozed class; she radiated sensuality and beauty, with that smooth velvet voice almost luring the viewer into her kitchen and to her table.

Nigella Bites was fun, and whilst much of what Nigella cooked on it left everything to be desired (ham on the bone cooked in Coca-Cola and glazed in half a ton of assorted sticky sugar products, anyone?) it was impossible as a viewer not to want to get in on the naughty little secrets and treats she turned out, week after week.

Lesson #1: if it looks as alluring as it does when Nigella Lawson does it, it is too good to be true.

Lesson #2: if Lesson #1 is in evidence, it’s wise to leave the illusion on the small screen, where it belongs.

Denise Cullen, writing in today’s issue of the Courier-Mail, retells a story of her persistence with a chocolate-cherry cupcake recipe authored by Miss Lawson, and once I got over the initial amusement of a vision of exploding cowpat-style substances soiling the insides of her oven, it struck me that I’ve fallen into the trap of cooking Nigella’s “recipes” myself — not recently by any stretch — and I can’t say I was surprised at all to learn of the frothing, diarrhoea-like “lava” that burst from the confines of a baking tin and set hard enough to take a month to chisel it out of the oven.

It seems Ms Cullen really wanted the recipe to succeed, and (to my amazement) part of her rationale seemed to be that it was a Nigella Lawson recipe: how could one of those fail? What could possibly go wrong?

After all, it isn’t as if Nigella ever won MasterChef (the British version — proper MasterChef — not that abominable truckload of crap broadcast by Channel 10 that also somehow thinks it’s Australian Idol) and it isn’t as if her name sits harmoniously with those of Marcus Wareing and Atul Kochhar and Raymond Blanc, or others among the finest European chefs at the very top of their game: to me Nigella is a cook, a very entertaining identity, and perhaps in her own kitchen even a good cook.

And it isn’t as if she boasts the kind of pedigree of Two Fat Ladies — self-taught cooks who spent years writing about food and cooking it for groups small and enormous — where the ideas might be old-fashioned, but the results were positively alive with symphonies of cooked-from-scratch natural flavour.

But a chef she ain’t.

I got the Nigella Bites DVD…oooh, it must be ten, twelve years ago…and the first inkling I had that something was very wrong — the Coca-Cola-broiled ham-and-diabetes concoction  notwithstanding — came with a decision to replicate what I thought was a great way to infuse some variety into the rigours of midweek cooking: Sausages with Lentils, which looked, innocuously enough, like a one-pan winner that would transform the drudge of “quick and simple” into the sort of thing that would inspire a longing for Tuesday night dinner ahead of hump day.

But just like the spontaneously combusting brownies, the sausages came with a catch; and just like the indomitable Ms Cullen, I followed Nigella’s recipe to the letter.

The result? We sure as hell didn’t get to have sausages for dinner, because Nigella’s recipe called for a stipend of red wine to be added to the pan at just the right moment “to cover everything in sticky goodness,” and poured in as suggested, all that sticky goodness vaporised in an instant and covered the walls, floor, the rangehood (and basically, everything within about seven feet of the hob) in a fine spray of crimson mist that took months to fully remove. Every time something in the kitchen was moved, it looked like I’d unearthed a globule of dried blood. And just like Ms Cullen’s execrable brownies, it almost required an industrial strength agent to get rid of it.

Still, I’m a believer that everyone deserves a second chance, so a couple of weeks later I found myself cooking up a preparation of pre-seared lamb shanks with water, Nigella’s “holy trinity” of spices (ginger, garlic, turmeric) and a few other ingredients. It was well seasoned, for — as Nigella had solemnly declared — “under-seasoned meat is absolutely vile.”

And it is.

But so is limp, languid meat fashioned in a voluminous mixture of rendered fat and turbid liquid with the consistency and appearance of water from the River Thames, and one bite (the obligatory taste-test even when you know the rubbish bin is the only suitable destination for the mess) was all it took to know that this was a very, very big fail.

And I can cook: certainly not in the league of Messrs Wareing and Kochhar et al, but well enough to know I would no longer be out of place in a lot of successful commercial kitchens.

Nigella Bites? More like Nigella’s Busts. And needless to say, Miss Lawson has never featured as a contributor to (or inspiration for) my repertoire since.

Cullen was nonetheless stoic in her defence to the end, God bless her, insisting the problem was that she lacked a key ingredient for her brownies — Morello cherry preserve from Sainsbury’s — and even went to the lengths of repeating her experiment when someone sent her a jar of the stuff. The result, it pains me to say, could have been foreseen.

And anyway, anyone who’s been to a British supermarket knows that what passes for “a supermarket” in the UK and what is offered by Coles and Woolworths in Australia are two vastly different encounters altogether; I’ve never shopped at one of the “posh” chains in England (Morrisons, Waitrose) but Asda and Tesco are basically what we used to know as Franklins and Bi-Lo, minus the pall of gloom and dreariness. There are options cheerily downmarket from those that make me shudder just to think of them. Sainsbury’s is very much the best of the mainstream bunch, but even then, my last encounter with it in Putney some years ago made me cringe. The notion of a jar of own-label jam from Sainsbury’s rescuing a dud recipe seems ridiculous.

But lest anyone think I’m just knocking poor Nigella, I’m not, although perhaps her shows are best left for entertainment purposes only, rather than trying to emulate them.

The truth is that all chefs (and certainly the top chefs I know or follow who publish cookbooks) do, at some time or another, put their names to something that is a guaranteed debacle just waiting for someone to try to cook it.

I have a six-year-old daughter who is totally addicted to (of all things) steak and kidney; the recipe I use is from one of my favourite chefs, John Burton Race, who I spent some time chatting to when I was in Devon in 2008. (That was before his horrible ex-wife sold his restaurant in Dartmouth out from underneath him while he was in Australia shooting I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! for ITV, although that’s another story).

For reliable ideas for home cooks, some of the simpler options in John’s books are fantastic. But this one, followed to the letter, results in little tough bullets in an insufficiently combined “sauce:” instead of simmering it for two and a half hours, John’s cooking time in the book is half that time.

Another chef, who participated in a contest to cook for the Queen when she turned 80 ten years ago, published a recipe for a lemon tart that included an incorrect oven setting so high that it boiled the contents of the pie crust and curdled them.

(A rolling boil. Not a gentle simmer but waves and turbulence. It was a sight to behold through the oven door, watching surf form on a lemon tart, I can assure you).

And speaking of the Two Fat Ladies — who first sparked my interest in learning to cook by making the food experience exciting, after I’d flubbed my way through seven years working in restaurants (including three in management) with great and misplaced pride that I still couldn’t cook a thing — Clarissa Dickson-Wright published so many different versions of some of her recipes that it was only by trialling all of the permutations one found that only one version of each recipe actually worked (Jennifer Paterson was the food brain in that outfit, but to complicate things, Clarissa contributed some of the nicest savoury dishes. Her Salmon with Blood Oranges and Red Wine, properly made, is almost worthy of killing for as a main course).

Rosemary Shrager — a sadly underrated chef in the eyes of many, who simply remember her as the cookery teacher from Ladette to Lady — has published a series of books over the years that are easy to follow, and “idiot-proof” in her words, for producing haute cuisine dishes at home that would wow any entourage of dinner guests. But without the publicist-generated profile of an entertaining bomb-out like Lawson, the books are generally only found in the homes of the most ardent aspiring cooks. In Australia, at any rate. And that’s a pity.

But in all of these cases, there’s an explanation or some redemption. In Nigella’s case, it is very hard to find an excuse that withstands scrutiny.

Of course, food-based entertainment has reached saturation point, in the UK, here in Australia, and across the world: truly innovative formats are growing harder to devise, and are even harder to make successful commercially. I’ve spent several years looking for commercial funding in my business to produce something that discards excessive styling in favour of a more authentic and attainable viewer experience, but the well, to mix metaphors, is all but dry.

Even so, those who were known when the explosion in the genre started to take off 15 years ago — and Nigella is one of them — will always command a slice of the commissioning budgets of terrestrial broadcasters simply on account of who they are, and were, whereas newer identities and ventures are forced to rattle the tin for advertiser funds directly.

The irony, of course, is that for every beautiful, smooth talker who is enjoyable to watch, another potential celebrity misses out because nobody thinks they should have to foot the bill for producing their shows, even if the airtime tied up in them (and the media deliverables that can be embedded) is worth millions to whatever company fits with the format and could stump up the cash.

I sympathise with Cullen greatly, for I’ve been ensnared by Nigella Lawson too: falling victim is one thing. Knowing when to move on and cut the apron strings, however, is another matter altogether.

But nobody is perfect, and there are plenty of cookbooks floating around by far, far better authorities on food than Lawson, all replete with their own goals and errors and fatal mistakes that are only ever going to be discovered if you set out one weekend to cook them.

Before you do, stop off at the bakery of your choice — and buy a good stash of the richest, most decadent brownies you can find — and have these to hand as “rewards” for your labours, and never mind about the explosive formula offered by Nigella Lawson.

Morello cherry jam — from Sainsbury’s or otherwise — is a strictly optional accompaniment, of course.

 

 

Retro Tuesday: Marriage And New Beginnings

A CLOSE FRIEND of mine got married yesterday, and not for the first time; coming soon after Christmas, with its messages of new beginnings — to say nothing of the lovely girl he’s married — hopes are high that this time, it will last a lifetime. A simple garden ceremony provides the impetus for Retro Tuesday this week, but in case anyone is worried I’m going to force them to sit through a video of someone else’s wedding, there are bigger fish to fry.

Simultaneously, the greatest problem and the greatest joy about us as human beings is that we’re all different; there are those narcissists who think the world would be just fine if everyone agreed with them all of the time, and if nobody ever dared to dissent or object to what they said or did or wanted. The overwhelming majority of us, however, would quickly grow bored, no matter how comfortable we might feel in our own skins.

Personally, the idea of 7 billion clones of me running around the place is enough to make me want to scoop my eyeballs out with a spoon. Just for starters.

The friend of mine in question (and I won’t identify him — and being a rather private individual, neither will virtually every reader of this column) begins his third marriage today with great hope and optimism with a lady he’s known since the two of them were children; over the years and interspersed between marriages, international relocations, and all the other changes in life that just happen, they have passed in and out of each other’s lives time and again, but it has only been in the last few years that they finally got together.

As the immortal John Lennon once said, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. Ne’er a truer word was spake, so to speak.

My friend’s first wedding — which preceded my acquaintance with him — was the stereotypical white wedding; lots of people, big church, big to-do with the obligatory realm of attendees…the sort of thing that nowadays costs the same as a small apartment to put on, and one would have to say the purchase of an apartment as the gift of a head start in such circumstances is probably the better way to spend the money, old-fashioned notions and aspirations of romance and chivalry notwithstanding.

Sometimes love — and marriage — just dies; it doesn’t have to be with a bang, or in tempestuous acrimony; it doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault, or because someone did or didn’t do something; sometimes things change and evolve as we mature as people; and sometimes things just end. So it was in this case.

His second was to a certifiable lunatic (not that anyone realised it) whose mother — unquestionably — was in charge; anyone who harboured any misapprehensions about that point was either involuntarily set to rights or involuntarily discarded in whatever manner could be engineered to be as malicious and vicious and destructive as possible.

Watching on, I could always relate where #2 was concerned, for I once narrowly escaped a fate that in retrospect I’m certain would have been virtually identical; the pliable, obedient, acquiescent daughter and the domineering mother who would brook neither opposition nor challenge, backed by a formidable familial machine of bitches, arseholes, fork-tongued manipulators and other cretinous specimens with the morals of alley cats on heat and the aspiration merely to exercise malevolent control over the lives of others. There are good reasons that people who know me hear me describe the individual in question as “the wrong girl.” It is simple shorthand for a creature and the rabid litter whence she came that collectively rank beneath contempt.

Unfortunately, most of the people I know, when they look around, know of more than one relationship within their social ecosystems that almost exactly mirrors these examples, if they’re not in one themselves; I was lucky: I was jettisoned before there could even be a marriage, and after the initial indignation and shellshock subsided (despite knowing, deep down, the realities of the situation well over a year before it ended) the relief at avoiding a fate almost literally worse than death cannot be overstated.

My friend, however, played the whole regrettable storyline out to its inevitable conclusion, and if a situation ever defined the stereotype of a horrific marriage breakdown, this was it.

So — after four years of assuring my friend that “it’s safe to marry this one,” for his third wife really is a great girl — yesterday, finally, he did, and whilst the cacophony of bullshit emanating from #2’s bunker did its best to drown out the goodwill and bonhomie and merriment that marked the occasion, it couldn’t compete with the sentiment of the track that opened proceedings in a simple but dignified civil ceremony in the hills about 70km south of Melbourne.

Horror stories and happy endings aside, the point today — apart from providing an excuse to introduce Lennon into the retro circuit in this column — is that nothing lasts forever; everything changes, and even people apparently perfectly suited in every way at one end of a liaison or marriage can, at the other, have grown, changed, or been manipulated to surrender the things they once held dear.

Some people can live together for a lifetime. Some can move silently, unknowingly and in the most congenial spirits in different directions to the point “together” is no longer a feasible word in the lexicon. Some people can implode, taking some of the surrounding countryside with them. And some can just be the kind of people whose selfishness, for whatever reason, makes them happy only if they are able to destroy the happiness of others.

With seven billion stories on planet Earth and our little human penchant for pairing off, it’s no wonder the range of outcomes is infinitely different — and the means by which they are arrived at, however variously splendid or acrimonious they may prove.

I wish my old mate many years of happiness as he embarks on the life he was probably always destined to share with his new wife: and this brings up our double shot today.

A proper British Christmas tradition each year is the contest between its major retailers to see who can come up with the funniest or cleverest Christmas commercial, or who can produce the one most adept at getting everyone misty-eyed and weepy; last year the chocolates went to John Lewis for its Monty the Penguin number, and whilst Monty doesn’t feature today, a variation of the audio track from the John Lewis offering of 2014 does.

 

20 years ago — in what must rank as one of the greatest musical bastardisations ever committed — Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, “handed over” to Paul McCartney two demo tapes of unfinished songs that were found among his effects after his assassination in 1980; Beatles enthusiasts (of which I am one) went mostly apeshit for the new “Beatles” songs Free As A Bird and Real Love that were eventually released, dubbed and modified and treated with effect by McCartney et al to the point Lennon’s lyrics and voice were almost indecipherable.

I thought they were a disgrace, and should instead have been released as part of an “unplugged” or “lost tapes” type compilation of unreleased work under Lennon’s own name, but I had (and I think, still have) the minority opinion on that.

The version I share with readers today doesn’t feature a pretty video for commercial release; rather, it is a restored version of Real Love as it existed when first recorded by Lennon, sitting at his piano; apparently, a tambourine Lennon was playing with his foot has been stripped from this version, and an earlier version that featured it (and which was originally embedded into this post) was taken down by YouTube because the guy who posted it was a bit of a dab hand for copyright breaches.

In terms of our subject, it’s a pity, but the indecipherable “Beatles” song is presented for what it was when Lennon first wrote it: a simple expression of love.

It seems a noble and fitting wish as two good people set forth on a new life together.

All the very best to them both…and a “happily ever after.”

 

Talking Turkey: Adding A Festive Dinner To The Festive Season

THREE DAYS after Christmas, as many people are confronted by the voluminous remnants of a turkey whenever they open the refrigerator, an unpleasant conundrum presents: throw it away and waste it, or do something with it? People who’ve paid top money for a good bird will incline toward the latter but many are clueless. Today I share a solution that can return the bird to the dinner table tonight.

First things first: thanks to the demands of the season, the ordinary course of business and the simple shortage of time, the feature on London restaurants I promised when last I posted has failed to appear, and for this I apologise; even so, I’m mindful that there is a glut of free-range organic turkey carcasses jamming up refrigerators all across the world today, and that unless something constructive is done with them — and quickly — most of that delicious turkey meat will become landfill at the local tip when weekly rubbish collections shortly resume.

We will come back to my selection of London restaurants in the next week or so.

I regret that I didn’t take some photographs this week of what’s become the annual Turkey and Leek Pie dinner in my house on Boxing Day, but I want to share this ritual with readers as it offers both an excellent way to use up the remainder of the lovely turkey meat from Christmas lunch and the addition of an extra festive dinner to the silly season calendar: with the stresses of Christmas out of the way and the clamour of little hands for presents sated, what I share today — despite the input of time required — will provide an excuse to invite a few good friends around on Boxing Day or the couple of days thereafter to share an unctuously naughty feed and a couple of bottles of your favourite vino.

Some years ago, someone gave me a box set of Jamie Oliver DVDs for Christmas. Now I like Jamie, but rarely use him as a source of inspiration for my cooking; somehow whenever I watch his shows, the recipes all seem to end with the addition of piles of rocket (which I thoroughly detest) that may or may not be slathered in litres of balsamic vinegar, and the end effect of that is to lose my attention completely.

But at around the same time — and as I’m originally from a sub-tropical climate, where Christmas is invariably a cold buffet — I dispensed with the practice I’d been shanghaied into of serving up three or four courses on Christmas Day to avoid both the cold buffet scenario and the aversion some in my circle seem to have of the idea of a traditional roast Christmas dinner; I started buying a turkey each year, and only through sheer luck watching the Jamie Oliver Christmas DVDs a couple of days out from the first year I cooked a turkey, I happened upon this excellent way of ensuring that none of the precious bird ended up in the garbage.

There isn’t a recipe as such for this: I couldn’t find an authentic representation of what Jamie did on his show anywhere online, so the steps I share today are basically my transcription of what I’ve seen on the DVD and adjusted through trial and error over the past three years.

Yet if you bear with me — and this will take a couple of hours to do — I promise you that not only will your turkey be fully put to delicious use, but that the double-take on your turkey across a couple of different nights may even make having a turkey cost-effective enough to get one a couple of times through the year in addition to Christmas.

So, here we go — apologies for not publishing an ingredient list at the outset, but you can easily compile one for yourself.

Get the bird out of the fridge and pick off one kilogram (a little over two pounds) of the cold turkey meat; a mix of white meat and brown is best (yes! A use for those legs and wings!) and don’t forget the oysters on the underside of the carcass. You want this shredded into little bite-size pieces, and take care to ensure no feather quills or sinews get into the meat you pick. Place into a large bowl and set aside.

In another really large bowl, chop 2kg (4-5lb) of leeks, using both the white and green parts; make sure they are well-rinsed but don’t worry about getting them dry as the water will help steam them later. Halve them lengthways, then chunk the white section, cutting the green ends a little more finely.

Take 4-5 rashers of good, smoky, streaky bacon and dice them up into a small bowl and set aside; in a separate bowl, pick the leaves off about 20 thyme sprigs and have them ready to go as well.

You’ll need a very large saute pan with a lid for this: if you don’t have one, improvise with a roasting tin and some foil.

Place the pan on a low to moderate heat on the largest burner on the stove top and once hot, saute the bacon and thyme in about 80g of butter and a few glugs of good extra virgin olive oil; after 3-4 minutes, add the leeks (I do this in a few stages just so I can stir them a bit to combine and coat in the butter) then cover with a lid or some foil and turn the heat right down. Allow to steam gently for half an hour, stirring every 7-8 minutes, until the leeks have cooked down and everything is nicely combined. Halfway through, season the leek mixture with a couple of pinches of Maldon sea salt and a few grinds of freshly milled black pepper.

At the end of the half-hour, add the turkey meat you’ve picked off the frame, and stir in until combined and warmed through; add two heaped tablespoons of plain flour and stir until the flour is cooked through a little but before it starts to colour.

Now add one litre (just over two pints) of good quality chicken stock and slowly bring up to the boil; allow to simmer gently for a few minutes to bring all the flavours together, then stir in one very generous tablespoon of creme fraiche. Season well with some more Maldon salt and quite a bit more fresh-ground pepper, then stir until everything is nice and smooth and combined.

Next, get a very large strainer — enough to hold the contents of the saute pan — and set this over a clean saucepan; tip the turkey mixture into the strainer and press down. The objective is to get as much of the cooking liquid out as possible: this is your pie gravy. Once you’ve done this, press a layer of cling film onto the top of the collected gravy (this will stop it forming a skin) and set aside until just before serving time.

Place the turkey and leek pie filling into a large pie dish; I use a large Pyrex baking dish (that normally gets used for roasting potatoes in duck fat) and spread out evenly.

Cover with puff pastry: this could be a store-bought block you’ve rolled out on a floured bench, or a couple of ready-made sheets you’ve “crimped” together to form a single piece large enough to cover the whole pie. Don’t waste your time and effort making puff from scratch for this, unless you have a pastry fetish: this recipe isn’t difficult, but it’s quite time consuming enough without burdening yourself with the need to make puff pastry afresh. Store-bought is just fine today.

Cut off any obvious surplus from the pastry, then tuck the edges under the filling so it’s all encased. Carefully score a diagonal or criss-cross pattern on the pastry with the tip of a sharp knife — there’s no need to cut a ventilation hole in the pastry — and brush well with some beaten egg.

Place in an oven preheated to 200 degrees Centigrade (175 degrees for fan-forced) for 30 minutes or until nicely browned all over on top.

While you’re waiting for the pie to cook, boil some potatoes and mash them up to have ready to serve with the pie; about 5 minutes before everything is ready, very gently reheat the gravy so it’s piping hot (but not boiling) and boil some frozen peas to accompany.

To serve, use a cooking spoon to cut out a serving of pie; add some mashed potatoes and peas to each plate, and pour over a little of the gravy, putting the rest on your dinner table in a jug for people to help themselves to more if they wish to.

This will easily feed 6-8 people — even 10 at a stretch — and also goes devilishly well with any leftover stuffing you can reheat and serve alongside.

All that’s left is your choice of poison: a bottle of Shiraz works beautifully with the rich gamey turkey, as does a good medium-dry white served well chilled; alternatively, and especially if it’s a ladies’ gathering, you could buy some Champagne or Montrachet, but remember the adage whichever way you go that good food is dishonoured by bad wine: and for such a fine post-festive treat, I’m sure you can manage something a little better than a bottle of plonk.

Is there a half-eaten turkey sitting in your fridge? If you hop to it, the festive bird can enable you to delight a selection of your friends tonight, perhaps those who don’t enjoy coming to events with your family. But who you choose to share this with is up to you.

 

Retro Tuesday: The 90s, And…

IF THERE’S A DECADE that isn’t exactly noted for the durability of its music, it’s the 1990s; even so, a little gem — masterfully reworked in an almost-contemporary context — roared back onto my radar a couple of weeks ago, and whilst my “retro preference” is to focus on the 70s and 80s, today we’re going to indulge that awful decade for a couple of great gets.

But first, the good news, or I hope it is: with a little more time on my hands over the next few weeks — just until things go off with a bang again once the silly season is out of the way — I should find the time to post a little more regularly on this new site, finally, in addition to Retro Tuesdays, which (at least) are already becoming a regular feature; first cab off the rank will be something for those heading to London at any time soon, thanks to a chance conversation I had at the weekend.

British food is wonderful — if you know where to look for it — and I’m going to share a few tips to help keep people travelling to the UK well fed and stodge-free (and yes, for those who know me, Marcus will get top billing, but that’s tomorrow’s, or maybe even Thursday’s, story).

But with the 90s on the radar today, I realise I came very, very close to committing a sin I assured readers I wouldn’t; in thinking through some of the possibilities for today’s feature, one of the first acts that came to mind was La Bouche: a dance band I was introduced to by the beautiful and free-spirited black girl I was sometimes found in the company of in Brisbane during my early to mid 20s in Brisbane, and which (even if it had been crap, which happily, it wasn’t) would have still scored highly on my scale at the time simply because it was a favourite of hers.

La Bouche, of course, is another German group, and having already featured Nena and the Scorpions in the past few weeks, I didn’t want to make it a habit; even so, before we move onto today’s double shot, treat yourself to a a retro bassline and a bit of boom and shake.

 

I guess it becomes relevant to today’s selection, for there are crossovers everywhere; since I moved to Melbourne 18 years ago next month, I have seen the lovely lady to whom I allude just twice: once back in Brisbane, and once here. It was something fated never to be, although as is the way of such things that do not end acrimoniously, I know that if I were to run into her tomorrow, the warmth and friendship — e’er dormant — would still be well and truly alive, and we’d just pick up where we left off, and have a good old catch-up. (Last time I saw her, in Melbourne, we sang karaoke at a beachside cafe in Port Melbourne — badly — with a few other friends and some cheap fried food, but it was one of those impromptu social events that “just happen” and remain fondly remembered for many years afterwards).

In fact, everything about this unorthodox girl was impromptu.

When I lived in Brisbane (and remember, this is a girl I was supposedly dating) I got a phone call at about 9am one morning; still working rotating hospitality management rosters back in those days and having been out partying the previous night on a day off — a Monday, from memory — I wasn’t really with it when the phone rang, and it took some time for the disbelief to dispel once the call was finished.

Hung over, sleep deprived and struggling to do much beyond providing simple but cogent acknowledgement of her sentences, this girl — the ultimate free spirit — had rung me up to tell me, without a hint of malice or irony, that she was going to Thailand that afternoon.

I had seen her on three of the previous seven days: not a word of it. But do you know what? She did go to Thailand that day, and it was another month before we saw her again. She said she needed a rest and to let her hair down, and to catch up with her cousin, who was also having a holiday there as well.

Most people in my shoes would have been offended, to say the least. I was. Until, years later, I realised that that was just the way she was. No plans, no ties, just whatever seemed like a good idea at the time.

The restaurant I was managing at the time had one of those $2 per play jukeboxes in it that were all the rage in the 90s; it featured a “Top 5” countdown (sometimes topped by Mariah Carey’s Hero) that generally featured a track from precursor British boy band East 17. From time to time, if no money was inserted into it, the jukebox would randomly blurt out whatever song was in the number one spot. All too often, this was it.

 

It’s funny how you associate songs and music with events in life, be they good, bad or excruciating; after a period of being sporadically informed by the jukebox that “everything’s going to be alright” when I not only didn’t think it was but found the contrary assertion rather provocative and not dissimilar to the effect of a red rag being waved at a bull, I started feeding it $2 coins to push another song — that was neither the East 17 number nor the God-forsaken arpeggio-fest of Carey’s — to the top of the countdown and keep it there.

At least a burst of something disconnected would stop me brooding.

Of course, my lovely black girlfriend and I didn’t last, didn’t make it, and didn’t walk off into some mythical stereotype of ochre sunsets and flying horses; a benignly anarchic, liberated, ethereal free spirit of the most unruly and unpredictable kind and a city creature as thoroughly urban as I was were never going to last. I used to liken her to the girl in The Sound of Music (you know, “how do you solve the problem of Maria? How do you catch a cloud and tie it down?”) to which my best mate, the redoubtable Mr Oxford, retorted that if I ever bought the 3-Series I had been casing out at Brisbane BMW (I didn’t — like any good Scotsman I jibbed at the price tag, even though I could afford it once upon a time) I might find it a bit hard to load her, and her cloud, into it at the same time.

When she announced she was moving to England (again, at extremely short notice, although more than the few hours’ warning I received about the field trip to Thailand) I hastily concocted a scheme to race off after her, armed with a large diamond, and bring her back: it really was all right in the end, because I was dissuaded from doing so, and poetically enough, that dissuasion also came at almost literally the last minute possible to abandon the plan.

The happier outcome in this instance was the disjointed but enduring friendship with a perfectly lovely yet truly unique individual; but others walk away into the sunset — and this brings up the double shot of East 17 today, and the contemporary rebirth it enjoyed in 2011.

Monarchists and republicans alike were captivated when global mobile telephony giant T-Mobile landed a cheeky marketing strike to coincide with the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton; some colleagues and I found ourselves talking about it a couple of weeks ago, and you can enjoy their handiwork here.

 

One’s life is for sharing…which, in some respects, is the point of this column: I trust readers have enjoyed another little story from memory lane woven around some old (if socially awkward) soundtracks. More will follow next week.

But the pretext to talk food, finally, has fallen into my lap, so in the next couple of days, it’ll be two of my favourite subjects in the world: food and London. (And anyone from the Ministry of Culture who sees value in hiring me as an ambassador should feel free to contact me…so long as the job comes with an entry visa and serviceable salary 🙂   )

 

Retro Tuesday: Christmas And The Marching Of Time

I’M NOT IMMERSED in the whole “Christmas Spirit” thing most years until a lot closer to Christmas Eve than we are now; usually — and certainly as busy as I have been these past few years — Christmas is on top of us before I get to it. A reminder of how Christmas and the march of time lobbed onto my radar last week, and today’s musical flashback reflects the fact that ’tis the season: in more ways than one.

But I have, I must say, gotten a little better with all things festive in one sense: if you’ve got friends and/or business associates abroad (and I have both) and you want to send them Christmas greetings, organisation is key.

There have been times I’ve sent a handful of Christmas cards off to Britain in the full knowledge they’ll be lucky to make it there by the new year, and last year — with almost a dozen cards to send to London, some to friends, some to people I’d worked with in my media business, and some who fit both categories — I decided that such tardiness simply wouldn’t do, and from memory it was about now I posted them all (it was when my mum came to visit Melbourne for her birthday, and this year her birthday is today, so happy birthday mum).

One of my London friends (and I will be careful not to identify her) who I know through more political avenues (yes yes, I know, there’s that link again) conducted — about mid-year last year — something of a social media debate on the merits (or otherwise, in her view) of Love Actually, that Christmas-themed multipolar British rom-com that hit cinema screens worldwide back in 2003; “Miss Apples” (as we will refer to her) was the first to alert me to last year’s excellent Christmas commercial from British retailer John Lewis (and you can see that here — believe me, you’ll love it) and when she got my Christmas card sent me a picture of it, on her desk, with “mini-Monty:” John Lewis sold out of genuine Monty the Penguin toys in record time, of course, but she’d found something comparable, and it gave me some satisfaction to see that for once, my Christmas cards had actually made it to their destination by the middle of December.

I tell this story — one friend in London, the cutesy TVC I connect with her, and the spirited charge against Love Actually she led on Twitter — because the Fairfax press carried a piece last week on Olivia Olsen who, as those who know Love Actually will know, was the 11-year-old who appeared in and sang a ripsnorting rendition of Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas near the end of the film.

Unlike my friend “Miss Apples,” however, I love Love Actually, and this Christmas Eve staple in my house will again get a viewing once the turkey has been prepared for the following day.

 

It’s hard to believe that Olivia is all grown up, as readers will see from the Fairfax article; the pretty little kid who starred as Joanna, the love interest to the gorgeous Sam, is now 23: she has grown into a beautiful young woman, to be sure, but for tens of millions of Love Actually devotees will be forever etched in time as Joanna, singing that song.

And it’s a reminder that just as Christmas is a special time of year, it shouldn’t be taken for granted; that quirky British film was 12 years ago, and the speed with which the passage of time has rocketed ever since is scary, to say the least.

Today’s Retro Tuesday is a relatively quick one. How much can you say about Christmas, really, without getting really silly about it in a column like mine? But for a double shot today, I have chosen a second track from the same movie, and this is one that should be played as loud as you can get your system to play it.

 

I’ll be back in the next couple of days, and we’ll talk about something that has nothing to do with Christmas; but in the meantime, enjoy these couple of pieces from memory lane; and if you don’t already have one, go and get a copy of Love Actually to watch on Christmas Eve once the kids have gone to bed: as silly and corny as it is in some ways, it’s a great rollicking yarn, and with Brady movies coming out of the woodwork at this time of year, I know what I’d rather be watching… 🙂

 

A Man Called Boris: What’s In A Name?

Today — as I always do on a Saturday — I headed out mid-morning with things to do: post a parcel, go to the Prahran Market, get a haircut, buy cigarettes, and multiple sundry little jobs; one of my stops, if the journey takes me to Southland, is the Boost Juice bar, either en route to JB Hi-Fi to buy DVDs, or as a punctuation point for refreshment whilst navigating the rest of Westfield’s monolithic answer to eastern suburbs rival Chadstone.

It struck me this afternoon, as I chatted with the girl on the counter who recognised me from previous visits, that an ancient old party trick I had invented many years before really was becoming old hat; they don’t even ask me what my name is at Boost at Southland any more, because they know who I am: or they think they do, at any rate.

My name is Boris.

Before anyone thinks I’ve gone barking mad, I should explain.

I have never really had a nickname as such, not that it bothers me; there were those during my high school years who decided to call me “Sledge” on account of my penchant for complete bluntness and candour — often perfectly innocent of any tact, too, just for good measure.

Fortunately, one mellows with age 🙂

But before the 1996 federal election (and no, we’re not going down a tangent to discuss politics, never fear), I spent some time working at Liberal Party headquarters in Brisbane, helping out with the nightly telephone polling the party was conducting in marginal electorates in and around Brisbane and near the Sunshine Coast, where there were a couple of seats the party was looking to win as well.

I had never really felt comfortable calling what I presumed were strangers, saying “Hi, it’s Yale from (fabricated research company name); would you have a couple of minutes to answer some questions about the coming federal election…” as first, I am cursed with one of those names that is not only distinctive, but very rare; Murray and Tracey and Susan had the cover of relative anonymity, but I was…well, me.

Secondly, the polling company we said we were calling from didn’t exist; the director of the Liberal polling outfit found a listing in the White Pages for an organisation by the same name, and it goes without saying that this was a source of great mirth and merriment.

It also went without saying that it sure as hell wasn’t us, ensconced in our Liberal Party bunker on Lutwyche Road.

And thirdly, my suspicion that sooner or later one of these presumed strangers would turn out to be someone I knew (and potentially knew well) was confirmed with a jolt one Tuesday night, when I was handed a call sheet with the name, address and telephone number of one of my high school teachers on it to canvass.

I don’t intend to identify her, of course, but there were a couple of female teachers the senior boys found rather appealing, if I might put it like that; this one was the “appreciation point” of choice for those of us with rather higher IQs and more sophisticated outlooks than, say, members of the football team. Not that there was anything wrong with the footy side, mind, but this sassy, stunning, smart, pouty, attitude-exuding spunk, with her sports car and her chic outfits, was someone quite a few of us wondered openly — and naively — about her marital status.

Boys will be boys…

I knew what this disarmingly forthright girl would say if anyone called her — that she was a Labor voter — but this was someone I knew from the 1980s, before the ALP ran off the rails to pander to inner-city elites as a foil to the Greens; most teachers voted Labor, and I knew for a fact that this one certainly did. However, and despite the fact my own affiliations were well known by all of my teachers at school (moi? A conservative voter? Really?), I doubted whether I would get any further than the headline “voting intention” question if I called her myself.

So I passed the call sheet off to the guy sitting beside me; he called, she deigned to have the conversation, and the affirmation of her intention to vote for Paul Keating was so emphatic that I heard the word “Labor” from a distance of five feet. As I suspected she might, she kept my colleague chatting for about ten minutes, and — with not so much as a word to him before the call of the background story I have just shared with you — when he eventually hung up, he remarked that she sounded like an awfully good sort.

That was it though: from that moment, I couldn’t call anyone as a pollster and tell them my name; there was a copy of the Courier Mail sitting on the coffee table in the middle of the room with a picture of Boris Yeltsin on the front page, and before I knew what I was doing, my next call started out, “Hi, it’s Boris calling from (silly company name)…” and the really silly thing about that is that nobody flinched.

Of course, Boris needed a surname; someone suggested “Boris Kalashnikov” as a suitably well-heeled moniker for a fictitious Russian exile, but eventually — after a fair bit of discussion in the tearoom — the decision was made that “Boris Farkovski” was a better fit, owing to the fabricated nature of the research company, because “Boris” was, in fact, just a piss-take, and on account of the response that was all too often forthcoming when some unknown resident of the boondocks we were calling into grasped the fact that we had the nerve to demand to know who they voted for.

Boris has had his uses over the years, I assure you all, and he has also come in handy when people simply don’t listen, but more on that in a moment.

But all my life — on account of my name — I have had to endure the same handful of conversations hundreds, if not thousands of times; people who might in fact be showing some genuine interest, but who instead are actually demonstrating just how dim the great herd we all belong to can really be.

Yes, it’s just like the University. Ha. Ha. Ha. Yes, I am very secure at night, thank you very much: how obliquely predictable for you to causally mention Yale locks. Me? Do I do my fair share of heavy lifting? Pull my weight? Of course I do, because there’s a forklift company named after me.

Never mind the fact the name is from Old English, and means — get this for special — “a sloping hill.” Even if anyone found that interesting at all, it’s no match for stupid gags about universities and forklift companies. If I had a dollar for each time I have heard them I would — quite literally — be a millionaire. There’s nothing original or amusing in it. It just illustrates how deep stupidity can really be.

Around the kids at school when I was younger, I quickly learned that “Yale” rhymed with all sorts of things. I got told I was slow because I was a snail. I must have been very ill, for I was always getting told I looked pale. Apparently one hell of a blowout must have happened that I sleepwalked right into, because I also resembled a whale. You get the picture.

By the time I got to high school, someone must have imagined National Socialist tendencies of me that could only be the result of hallucinogens or hard narcotics, because all of a sudden I was hearing “Heil Yale” wherever I went, replete with that ridiculous fascist salute made famous by dickless criminals in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

And my best mate, since we were both 10 years old in 1982, was and continues to be a rather sterling fellow with the surname “Oxford.” And if anyone asks me — as they asked the pair of us too often all that time ago — where Cambridge is, I will come through their screen and garrote them.

For a time after I left school, I seriously flirted with changing my name: not to Boris, of course; he was still some years away from entering the picture.

But I contemplated “Howard” — after my favourite 1980s British singer, Howard Jones — very seriously; so seriously, that for a solid portion of the few years I spent working part-time in a chain of well-known all-you-can-eat restaurants as a student, I had a name badge with “Howard” on it. Some of my Uni friends even knew me as Howard.

But I began to retreat from the whole name-change thing when I realised that rather than listening to brain-dead gags and spelling my name out for people who simply didn’t listen when I told them (and I speak very, very clearly), I would instead spend most of my life explaining why I changed it.

And when people began to suggest “Howard” had something to do with John Howard — then still a few years away from reclaiming the Liberal leadership and going on to beat Paul Keating in 1996 to become Prime Minister — rather than Howard Jones, the decision to abandon the plan completely became final, and irrevocable.

Sorry about that, HoJo.

 

I’ve always sympathised silently with those other poor unfortunates who, like me, got names that put them in the firing line, and there are many who fared far worse in this respect than I did.

I’m talking about those awful, awful bogan names that screech “I’m from Dandenong/Woodridge/Liverpool!” (select the appropriate option for your state) in crisp, compact soundbursts like Jaxxen, Rybekkah, D’mel and Kaydence. The worst one I’ve ever heard of was a girl called “Abcd,” which — apparently — is pronounced “absidee.”

Quite.

No, if people who can’t clean the shit out of their ears (or simply don’t listen) when I tell them who I am is the worst thing to worry about, I’ll take it. Especially when there are others walking around permanently branded as trailer park trash every time they identify themselves, courtesy of well-meaning but fuel-fumigated parents in beanies and sheepskin boots.

Which brings me back to Boris.

I have a rule: if some customer “service” policy at a quick service food outlet, meticulously followed by some kid who doesn’t really care anyway, means I have to give them my name so they can herd me back out the door in land speed record time, I tell them I’m Boris.

After all, it saves them the time and trouble of asking me to repeat myself. It’s simple, unmistakable, and doesn’t rhyme with anything except “Doris” and “Horace.” I’m not a girl, and anyone who gets Boris and Horace confused has a problem with themselves that extends well beyond impaired hearing. I figure I can’t go wrong.

And it saves the efficient, officious kid the trouble of typing “shale oil fracking implement” or something else they think they might have slightly misheard into their system if they simply opt to use their initiative, and decide that to be the lesser evil than asking me to say my name again just so they can be sure they’ve taken their customer “service” duties as serious as the policy manual says they have to.

Next week, when Boris turns up in his Carlton Football Club shirt for his usual smoothie order on his way to JB Hi-Fi, he’ll be greeted — as always — like an old friend. And secretly, on the inside, I’ll smugly allow myself a little smile.

 

Retro Tuesday, In Times Of Great Change

AS ANOTHER MONTH passes, and Christmas becomes a matter of just another few weeks, 2015 draws toward its conclusion after the world has witnessed tumultuous upheaval and change; in fact, change seems to be everywhere you look, and from where I stand an awful lot more seems likely to follow in 2016. Today’s musical flashback continues the theme.

First, a piece of good news: readers of this (and my other) column will be pleased to know that late last night, I finished off work on one of the big drains on my time that has hampered the time I have for posting comment; publishing content in these sites must come second to those commitments that generate revenue (for these do not) or are otherwise critical for whatever reason, but the upshot is that I’ll have quite a bit more time for writing articles than I have had for most of the year.

For the next three months, that is — until what I finished last night recommences for another year.

Yet even this is a pointer to the theme of Retro Tuesday today, for change is everywhere; the extra commitment (beyond a job, a business, my established political commentary column and this new one) has been the resumption of a long-ago abandoned degree that I left somewhere between half and two-thirds complete back in the 1990s, and which I have now locked away the first tranche of work to finish.

Contemplating a sometime move from one branch of the behemoth that is the media industry to another, I suddenly need the degree I stomped out of the university 20 years ago without finishing because doing so was the only way to avoid certain careers.

I left it so long that the only institution that recognises the 15 (of 24) subjects I did back then is the one I studied them at: the University of Queensland, and in practical terms this has meant weekly day trips to Brisbane to go to the university, which despite the cost of the airfares and factoring in fees still works out four years faster and about $4,000 cheaper than starting something from scratch, studying part-time, here in Melbourne.

I had a little mishap — something hit me on the flight home one night that looked suspiciously like a stroke — and I was responsible for diverting a plane full of people to Sydney so I could be rushed off to hospital: but never fear, the “stroke” turned out to be a perfectly harmless ear problem that is very rare, but when subjected to altitude pressure causes half your face to collapse. (If any readers have been ignoring mildly sore ears that won’t completely unblock as I did for months, go and have them looked at if you’re thinking of flying anywhere, especially long haul — there are some parts of the world you don’t want to be hospitalised in, believe me).

But harking back to the early 1990s — when I was “really” a university student — provides a great segue to our blast from the past today.

Let me assure readers that it is purely by accidental coincidence that I’m featuring a West German band in consecutive weeks, and the first two weeks of publishing this segment at that, but have a listen to this.

There seems to be change everywhere right now; some of it — like the reordering of things I’m doing personally, and finishing something I should have completed decades ago — are good; yet in the bigger scheme of things, the world is changing too, and not necessarily for the better.

Climate change, whether you believe in or not (or whether you believe it’s man-made or, as I do, think it’s part of an eternal natural process that’s been going on for millennia). The rise of Islamofascism, and the threat it most immediately poses to Europe. The rise of a belligerent, militaristic Russia, bristling with modernised weaponry even as its people starve, capable of obliterating anything it wants to. The world is growing less certain, and in some ways less secure, although this just makes the idea of living every day to the full that much more important.

Ironically, some of the changes in today’s world are a mirror image of the “winds of change” that blew across it 25 years ago, when Winds of Change was released; the collapse of the Soviet Union, the removal of the Iron Curtain across Europe, and — particularly salient where the Scorpions, the West German band I’m highlighting today, is concerned — the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, in a sequence of events that brought so much hope and freedom to people who had been tyrannised and repressed for so long.

I’ve got a friend getting married to a nice girl in a few weeks; that event will close the circle on one of the most vicious marital break-ups I have ever witnessed, and the only person unhappy about it will be the seething bubble of hatred who walked out on him in the first place.

I know people who are headed in the opposite direction — right into trouble and the divorce court — and some of them are the last people you would ever expect to see there. Yet such is life.

I’ve shared a few bits and bobs from my own story at what I sense is a time of great change; and change isn’t something we should fear. The key thing is to make sure it’s the right kind of change, although — as a favourite TV character once proclaimed in exasperation, you can plan until you’re blue in the face and things just happen: it isn’t possible to control everything, nor avoid the bumps that come with the highs.

And rather than talk about myself or my mates until the cows come home, I’d just ask every reader to pause for a moment and look around their own little worlds: a lot is changing, isn’t it? Perhaps not everything, and not all at once, but nothing lasts forever. Right now, I see change everywhere I look. It seems to be one of those phases.

Enjoy the track from the Scorpions; and as music worth listening to is only worth listening to loud, crank it up. The double shot today comes not from the Scorpions themselves, but from a British band that had a hit with the same name as another song recorded by the Scorpions, and if this doesn’t evoke embarrassing 1980s-era memories, I don’t know what will.

I’ll be back with something else in the next couple of days; Retro Tuesday will return again next week. Seven days closer to Christmas, will the rapidly approaching festive season influence my choice of entertainment?

Come back on Tuesday and find out.