Blooming with Gabby

Bloomsday in Dublin

It’s on again this Thursday – Bloomsday, when groups of otherwise sane men around the English-speaking world will don bowler hats, drink black beer, fry a lump of kidney, wander around town a bit, lunch on port and gorgonzola, confront various demons, come to grief at the sight of a young girl’s knickers, have a bowel movement, philosophise and try not to think about wifely infidelity. And much more besides.


Why should anyone seek to relive the (fictional) odyssey of Leopold Bloom around Dublin on 16 June 1904, as told by James Joyce in his monumental Ulysses?

Gabrielle Carey now 2Well, I suppose everyone has his reasons. I know I have mine, which we’ll come to in a minute, but I was surprised to find a woman doing Bloomsday. Ulysses is a very male piece of work. Gabrielle Carey (right), writing joyously in the Review section of the Weekend Australian newspaper, tells us that on Thursday she’ll be “re-reading Ulysses – aloud – with a group of fellow Joyce junkies around my kitchen table. We start with strong tea and end with wine. In between there are lots of laughs”.

Thing is, that’s pretty much what I’ll be doing, too. The little band of deep thinkers with whom I co-habit at my club will be sitting down to a proper lunch, with table service, but that aside we’ll be reading, joking, laughing, too. I am something of a reluctant starter because I am not a huge fan of Ulysses, but I’ll be there – sans bowler (a flat cap will have to do) – mainly because I enjoy the company of the fellows with whom I’ve been doing this for some years now.

It all began for us before The Time of the Great Pestilence, on 4 February 2016 to be precise, when we came together at the suggestion of a couple of Joyce scholars to read Ulysses as a group. The thinking was that, although many of us would like to read Ulysses, few actually would last the distance with it or even get beyond the size of the volume and the reputation that preceded it. But with one another’s support, and no doubt a dose of male competition, we would get through it – reading aloud in turns and, guided by the scholars, discussing as we went. Even then, it was a ridiculously difficult read.

Gabrielle Carey, having loved Joyce’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wanted to get into Ulysses, too, but was daunted like us: she “assumed that I would need at least a PhD in English literature before I could even approach page one”. Twenty years later she discovered that what she needed was not a doctorate so much as a doctor, “a patient husband to read aloud to me every Sunday morning from the comfort of our warm bed”.

Here she learned what our little group learned: “The secret was not to read Ulysses but to hear it read, to transform the individual experience of reading into a communal and social one, or even a sexy and loving one. And that is the reason why, every year across the globe people gather in pubs, in streets, in halls, in libraries, in homes and even under messy bedcovers to read extracts from the book . . .”

Well, of course leaving out Gabby’s Sunday morning exercises (which filled me with a certain amount of nostalgia), that’s what kept our Joyceans group together for two years struggling with this monstrous production. There is music in it when read aloud. We didn’t go through all of it – meeting monthly for two hours at a time made that impossible – but, with the editing and guidance of the scholars in our midst, I think all of us can claim to have read Ulysses.

What happened next was even better. Apart from the annual Bloomsday lunch, we didn’t disband. We decided the Joyceans would transform themselves via another saga, Anthony Powell’s 12-book A Dance to the Music of Time, into the Dancers. We didn’t read all of that as a group either, as many of our number grew bored with it, especially since they had a TV series to carry them through the story. After that, as the Gerties, we read a new translation of Faust (Part II) – which was fun. But our Joyce scholars were getting restless and, inevitably I suppose, we came back to the expat Irishman, reading both Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We’ve now left Joyce behind for good – Finnegan’s Wake is deemed by even our Joyce scholars as a step too far – and we’ve dived into Laurence Sterne’s 18th century romp, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Our leader describes this as a huge shaggy dog story, and I think he’s right. I’m enjoying it immensely.

To some extent Ulysses is a shaggy dog story, too. The influence of Sterne, with his long digressions, wordplay and jokes, is apparent. Gabrielle Carey notes that Joyce was disappointed at the pomposity and solemnity of much of the criticism Ulysses received: “They had missed the point, he felt, and wished that more of them had realised that his book was essentially a comedy.” What would he make of Bloomsday and the great school of Ulysses scholarship it’s built on?

james-joyceI think he (left) would be just as pompous and solemn about them as his original critics were of his novel. Ulysses is one sprawling mess of a book constructed around an appropriation of Homer’s poem and designed to demonstrate Joyce’s own vast knowledge and his Shakespearian command of the English language. Oh, it’s an odyssey all right – a voyage around and through Joyce’s ego. But before I go any further, be under no misapprehension: The man could write. The confirmation of that, though, is not Ulysses; it’s his earlier works.

The short stories in the Dubliners collection were written around 1905 when Joyce was just 23 (and, shamefully for those who rejected them, not published until 1914). If you didn’t know anything about the author you would think them the work of a much more mature man. It’s a pity I didn’t come to them when I was much younger. Portrait, Joyce’s first novel, was published in 1916 and for me it is sensitive, funny and terrifying all at once. Having read Ulysses before I read Portrait I could see as I went where the style developed in Portrait was leading. The difference is that Portrait has a restraint, even in its excesses, that keeps the reader gasping for more.

Ulysses gives you the “more”, as Joyce, voluntarily exiled from an Ireland he couldn’t abide, tells them all where to go, and in spades. It is in parts overwritten, boring and pretentious. In other parts it is brilliantly evocative, sordidly hilarious and hilariously sordid. Difficult in those parts, true, but great, as Portrait promised. Portrait, for me, is the complete masterpiece: Ulysses is a collection of pieces.


Carey and LetteThose of my readers of a certain age will remember Gabrielle Carey (she’s the one on the right) as the co-author with Kathy Lette of a 1979 rites-of-passage novel, Puberty Blues, written when they were both teenagers, about the goings-on among the young surf set on Sydney’s northern beaches. It was a sitting duck for a T&A movie, and that’s what duly happened. Carey is now a respected EngLit academic (with a Joyce specialty) who freelances for various publications. I always like her stuff when I come across it because she retains a singular voice, not just parroting the accepted wisdom of whatever’s trending. Her idea of a Sunday morning threesome with a book of choice carries a nice, warm vibe.

Bah, humbug!

It’s winter here Down Under, which should surprise no one, except maybe climate freaks. And just as in every winter of the half-century I’ve lived in the south, having migrated from Queensland, I’m whinging about it. I hate the cold, and I hate those who insist on looking forward. Cop this, you lot.


Bloody Shelley! Percy Bitchy Shelley,
I blame him for soppy seasonality:
If winter comes, can spring be far behind?
Bah, humbug!

I’ll tell you what if winter comes:
Cold and damp and miserable,
Gloom and doom and coughs
And sneezes spread diseases.

Dark at dawn, dark at noon
clouds the mind and burdens the soul,
constant misty rain it freezes
the blood in vein and marrow.

Oh, let me go north; nay, send me north
Where light is bright and like a feather,
Where warmth is just the weather.
And spring? Ho!

Spring is what you have in your step,
Shelley is a pearly beachy strand.
If winter comes? I’ll tell you what:
It doesn’t!

Hoaxers hoisted

I was reading my bedtime story the other night, as usual, when a memory from the dim distant past crept into my fading consciousness. It was about an April Fool’s Day joke I’d pulled once – a recall, you might say, which is not surprising given today’s date – but I’ve been through nearly half a century of Aprils since then and hardly ever given this little prank a moment’s thought.

What had pushed it past all my other memories just at this point could only have been what I was reading. That it was coming up to April Fool’s Day was just a coincidence. You see, my reading material that night was the culmination of a matter I’d been thinking, writing and talking about intermittently for months, yet my joke had lain dormant among all my snapping synapses until just that moment propped up in bed.

I think what did it was the crystallisation in this book of the idea that out of fakery can emerge real art or truth, or both, because in a very small way that’s what happened to me.

In 1978 I was working as a sub-editor on the business section of The Age newspaper in Melbourne but I was trying my hand as a writer as well. I had a little irregular column as an (unpaid) sideline, and I wrote other occasional pieces. So in the approach to April Fool’s Day I wondered what I could do to join the fun (in a milieu not noted for such stuff).

Diamonds were hot – prospectors were fanning out across the Kimberley in Western Australia looking for the source of the alluvial stones discovered there. Companies were being floated on the stock exchange to mine speculators’ bank accounts. That decided me: I would create a yarn about diamonds being found rather closer to home, in the offshore oil province of Bass Strait operated by Esso, and see what happened.

Under the name of Jim Brady, I reported in dead-pan news style that Flinders Overseas Offshore Ltd, headed by S.O.P. Arman, had discovered scads of diamonds just lying on the seabed and the company planned to scoop them in with giant suction dredges manufactured by the Korean Hoo Va corporation. I dressed up this outlandish proposition in spurious scientific and financial detail, and concluded with some quotes from S.O.P. Arman that the prime market for FOOL’s diamonds was Burma, keen to replace the stones filched by tourists from temples there.

“They are down to their last 1000 or so,” Business Age readers were informed. “In fact the famous Cyclops Buddha on the road to Mandalay has even had its giant eye stolen from its forehead.”

diamonds hoax clip

The section editor had a chuckle, my colleagues a bit of giggle and we put the paper to bed. When I hit the office the next afternoon I had a few phone messages waiting for me (no mobile phones, of course). It took me no time at all to call back and discover the joke had come unstuck big time – seabed diamond deposits were huge in South West Africa (now Namibia) and they were in fact mined by suction dredges. Ouch!

But that wasn’t the end of the affair. One of my callers was a chap who wanted to tell me not only about what I hadn’t realised but also about a French philosopher named Teilhard de Chardin. I gathered that M. de Chardin believed all knowledge swirled around the planet in a kind of ether (my word) and you could tune into it. My caller reckoned that’s what I must have done. My memory is that he thought we should get together to discuss this profound insight. I thought not.

I did look up de Chardin at the time, probably in an encyclopedia (the internet, although only a dozen or so years away, was still science fiction). I don’t know what I read then but it must have been just as mystifying as the Wikipedia entry I turned up after I chased my memory around the internet and retrieved Diamond Jim Brady’s story from The Age archives. All I know now is that, between my caller and me in 1978, the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin became horribly garbled and oversimplified.

Nevertheless a core idea remains. One recent commentator I came across on the web likened the internet to my “ether”: information of all kinds swirls around its electronic pathways and can be tapped at will, albeit with a few keystrokes, which most of us now take for granted, and not a fevered nodding head. I’m not going any further down that philosophical rabbithole, though. We could be here until the end of time. Instead, I want to return to the beginning – I was reading a book in bed.

Heyward book coverThis was The Ern Malley Affair, a 1993 tome by one Michael Heyward, now a distinguished book editor and publisher. This is the fullest account I think there will ever be of Australia’s grand literary hoax, perpetrated in 1943-44 and still alive today both at home and abroad. Dear old Ern has transcended his time and place to be a prime navigation point in the literary firmament.

For those who don’t know, what happened was that two young, but accomplished, poets, James McAuley, nearly 27 at the start of the affair, and Harold Stewart, a year older, hated the modernist movement in poetry (essentially free verse and stream of consciousness) and the main carrier of such works in Australia, a magazine named Angry Penguins. This mag was edited by 23-year-old Max Harris, an aspiring poet himself, and published by him in company with three pillars of the modern art establishment, John and Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan.

One Saturday afternoon in October 1943, Jim and Hal decided to strike back. They had been recruited into a special unit of the Australian army to study odd topics for the army and write reports about them. They had plenty of time to think about things. This Saturday they finished their work for the day, gathered the books on their desks – a dictionary, a book of quotations, a Shakespeare, stuff like that, and a report on anopheles mosquitoes – pulled bits and pieces from them and concocted 15 “poems” in the modernist style. They modified an unpublished McAuley poem to open the show with a ring of verisimilitude, contrived an explanatory intro and added a few tea stains and a bit of dirt to the ripped-off paper they had scribbled on. They named their work The Darkening Ecliptic and attributed it to Ernest Lalor Malley. Later they invented a sister for Ern, Ethel, who was to send the poems to Harris under a covering letter explaining that she’d found them in a suitcase she was going through after Ern’s untimely death at age 25, and wondered whether they were any good. He could have them for nothing.

Harris duly received his package at the end of October, immediately became entranced and decided to publish all of Malley’s poems in Angry Penguins, which he did in June 1944, under an original cover painting by Sidney Nolan (reproduced on the Heyward book cover). It wasn’t long before the hoax was revealed. Harris was mortified; the hoaxers jubilant – a grand jape indeed . . . the upstart Harris and modernism had been stopped in their tracks.

Harris, however, dug in. He believed the poems, however they had been written, had real literary merit and he roped in some heavyweights to agree with him. McAuley and Stewart to their increasing chagrin were forced to explain themselves – this wasn’t a joke, they said; they were conducting a serious literary experiment. And so the debate has rolled on over the decades.

At the end of last year, the small band of deep thinkers to which I belong at the Melbourne Savage Club revisited the Ern Malley poems. What did we reckon – nonsense or art? Well, of course, there could be no decision. We were as divided as the literati. Then in February I led the same group through a discussion of the real work of McAuley and Stewart. The idea was to ignore Ern and focus on their poems. Of course, it was impossible.

McAuley and Stewart are solid citizens of Australian literature; their poems are still widely read and studied. But Ern is always with them, and the questions. Did they succeed too well? Did they unconsciously create great art by applying their undoubted spirit and skills to their organisation of random words and phrases? Each in their own way came to loath Ern.

Heyward did a splendid job in his book, gathering for the last chapter the opinions of living poets, such as Les Murray (“nonsense”) and John Tranter (“bizarre power”). I think Judith Wright put the case best, neither approving nor condemning: “A poem cannot be made out of isolated brilliant images. But the whole cadence and management of these verses were obviously expert, even without the images.” Heyward’s verdict: “The hoax is the most decisive piece of literary criticism ever produced in Australia. But it was more than two people pissing on modernism, as they could have done in an essay – it was a creative act, no matter how tendentious, which became part of the idiom it satirised.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was what caused my brain to spring open my memory box, to lay out in all its embarrassment how I had been skewered by my own imagination.


Those whom Heyward quotes as claiming Ern Malley set back the cause of modernist poetry for decades really are too narrow in their outlook. Modernism was resisted in the arts generally around Australia until well into the 1970s. Heyward’s book, while expounding at great length on the importance of the Ern Malley affair in Australian literature, fails to place it in the broader context. In 1937, then Federal Attorney-General Robert Gordon Menzies led a group of heavyweight Australian painters in establishing an Australian Academy to hold back the advance of modernist (read “abstract”) art. It lasted until 1946, during which time, of course, McAuley and Stewart did their thing. The anti-modernism movement in painting was plotted out largely within the walls of the Melbourne Savage Club, where Menzies was a member (1925-1978). Menzies was Prime Minister in 1939-41 and then again from 1949 to 1966. He was also president of the Savage Club from 1947 to 1962.

Copies of The Ern Malley Affair by Michael Heyward, published by University of Queensland Press in 1993 (and later by Faber & Faber), can still be acquired in hard and paperback via a giant internet retailer.

Oh, and by the way, I must say I lifted an eyebrow or two when I went looking for The Age archives in the internet ether. This database was in the hands of an international group called, which was surprising enough, but what actually did bowl me over was the masthead of this site’s proprietor  . . . yep, Ancestry, the prime genealogy  go-to operated by the Mormon Church.

What a blast!


Sometimes I wonder how serious historians get any work done. They must be distracted all the time by fascinating oddities they come across in old documents, especially newspapers. But with discipline and dedication, I guess, they manage to keep their minds on the main game. For a dilettante like me, though, the temptation is irresistible.

Heaven knows, my faithful readers (if I have any left after my months of inaction), you have seen the results many times, and, I like to think, benefited occasionally. How else would you have learnt that the British Empire was brought down by mixed bathing on the beach at Brighton, or as a corollary that international mails today are no faster, nor more reliable, than 100 years ago? Or that public health measures and the authorities who are administering them in this time of pestilence are as primitive, uncertain and outright bad as they ever have been? Or that people used to go and sit in public halls to listen to gramophone records? Etc and etc.

Now you’re about to learn that the medical profession, or at least one doctor in Melbourne, Australia (as opposed to the one in Florida), had a solution 130 years ago to the cocaine blight.

Bulletin DaishIn the 15 January 1896 edition of The Bulletin (now extinct), on Page 25, appeared the following par, no headline, stuck (as circled, right) between pars on a “grand literary institution” and an invitation to visit Dr Rasmussen on Page 23 of the same paper:

“The morphia and cocaine habits are largely on the increase in Australia and constitute a most serious danger. The less we accustom patients to the use of the hypodermic syringe the better. For this reason I would urge the use of ethyl chloride [which needs no syringe], where possible, in place of cocaine.” — Dr. Daish, at Melb. Medical Association.

Dr DaishThere are at least three curious matters in that short paragraph, but let me first give it a little backstory. I came across it because I was researching the life of Dr William Christian Daish (pictured in 1899), a founder of the Melbourne Savage Club, of which (as I have mentioned before) I am a member. Inserting his name in the Trove search engine of the Australian National Library’s newspaper database produced this par among many stories about the good doctor of Collins Street, Melbourne. I am unaware of any other Dr Daish in Melbourne in 1896, although there were plenty of Daishes. The par seems to have come out of a paper or a talk he gave to the Melbourne Medical Association but I cannot tell you what he said before or after that snippet – therefore no context, no nuance, no qualification. I can find no reference to Dr Daish’s talk in the Melbourne press, which is curious in itself but not what I wish to draw to your attention.

The first of those matters is the apparent easy recognition that 130 years ago Australia already had issues with morphia (morphine) and cocaine. How Dr Daish, a general practitioner, knew “Australia” had a drug problem I can’t say – I know for a certainty that in 1896 he had never travelled beyond a Melbourne still rejoicing in the title Marvellous (coined, incidentally, by a journalist founder of the London Savage Club). He would have been well aware that, under the skin, Marvellous Melbourne possessed a dark underbelly, although as far as morphia and cocaine are concerned not necessarily criminal. It’s possible that the growing use of which Dr Daish warned was to be detected in his own surgery. He probably prescribed morphia, and the dentist along the corridor in his building probably used procaine (novocaine), a cocaine derivative, as a anaesthetic.

Back then, and deep into the 20th century, drugs that are banned today, or restricted to approved medical uses, were freely available. Dr Arthur Conan Doyle had his great detective Sherlock Holmes stimulating his thought processes by shooting up cocaine. As late as the 1920s, Doyle’s cricketing teammate, P.G. Wodehouse, wrote a story in which he mentioned cocaine as part of the arty scene. And let’s not forget Cole Porter in 1934 invoking cocaine in a song that has given a kick to millions of us over the years (incidentally, that was in the show Anything Goes – libretto co-authored by PGW).

Which leads me to the second matter I find curious . . . and that is Dr Daish’s opinion that the growth in morphia and cocaine use could be attributed to increasing familiarity with hypodermic syringes. In other words, people were becoming less and less apprehensive about having needles stuck in their bodies. I remember hearing something similar early on in the current war on drugs – restrict needles and you therefore limit drug-users’ ability to use injectable drugs. Of course, as everyone is painfully aware, public health and law enforcement thinking has gone in precisely the opposite direction. That’s a debate I’m not getting into. My interest is that Dr Daish’s diagnosis is yet another issue we’re grappling with today that is far from new (however much we’re told something is “unprecedented”). For example, see my post, A story fit for mass consumption, of 24 May 2020, at the start of the hysterical and tyrannical Covid-19 lockdowns.

In 1896, the technique of injecting drugs with hypodermic syringes was less than 50 years old, and the widespread practice much younger than that. According to a paper published by the University of Queensland, the first hypodermic needle was probably made by a Francis Rynd in Dublin in 1844. But it seems Alexander Wood in Edinburgh in 1853 was the first to combine a syringe with a hypodermic needle to inject humans (with morphine in that case) and probably should be credited with inventing the technique that has essentially stayed the same ever since, albeit with much refined technology.

It’s unfortunate that we have only this isolated paragraph from Dr Daish’s talk, for he might have elucidated for us alternative methods of getting a quick fix. Even in this drug-addled age, with hitting-up a common sight on TV and in the streets, we might have been surprised, although I suspect he would have provided us with another case of there’s nothing new under the sun. What is astounding, however, is his offering of an alternative to cocaine.

It is curious, is it not – and this is my third matter – that a doctor should do this? Dr Daish seems to have believed demand for drug-induced stimulation to be inevitable, so let’s make it less dangerous. The key point, though, is not so much Daish’s attitude – shared by many today – but his approval of ethyl chloride as a substitute for cocaine solely on the basis of its freedom from the needle.

Ethyl chloride, known scientifically as chloroethane, is a volatile compound of hydrocarbon and chlorine, once widely used as an additive to petrol. Plenty of information about it can be found on the internet but, boiled down, in this context it is clear Dr Daish was recommending to coke-heads that they switch to what we would recognise today as petrol-sniffing or chroming, a scourge among poor kids especially in remote communities. Ethyl chloride is not quite as dangerous as the substances used in those practices, apparently, but risky enough. To be fair to Dr Daish, ethyl chloride in his day would have been a fairly innocent compound. He would have used it as an anaesthetic – all of its other uses were developed in the years ahead.

I don’t know whether, following Daish’s advice, chemical suppliers in Melbourne were hit with a sudden rise in demand for ethyl chloride but, in the spirit here of “plus ça change”, in at least one other large city of the world it is the drug of choice among the less-favoured inhabitants, especially at this time of year. I refer to none other than Rio de Janeiro and its favelados. At Carnaval, that pre-Easter explosion of excess, I’m informed by Dr Google that inhaling scented, cheaply produced ethyl chloride, known as lança-perfume, is as much a tradition as drinking and dancing. Cole Porter-style, there’s even pop music about lança-perfume.

Ethyl chloride fell out of use as an anaesthetic because of the risk of arrhythmia, a potentially fatal disruption of the heart beat. Medical experts report it also causes a loss of motor co-ordination, tremor, dizziness, speech slurring, loss of feeling in the legs, drowsiness and hallucination.

Well . . . it would, wouldn’t it? Gentlemen, and ladies, that’s the whole point. Dr Daish told us so nearly 130 years ago.

New social trend recorded

A hundred years ago, face masks and gowns, closed borders and quarantine, panic and fear were being discarded as the Spanish flu receded into history. Australians were ready to enjoy themselves – and a bright kid in Sydney had an idea how he could help them do just that. He created the record club.

I don’t know whether record clubs still exist in Australia. They did in my day, half a century ago. My bet is they’re still around. After all, The Australian newspaper publishes a record column weekly, and I suppose others which I don’t buy have similar sections. Any clubs would have different forms of course, following the technology, but they would be discernible as clubs nevertheless. I have no idea what’s out there on the internet, and for the purposes of this yarn that’s irrelevant anyway.

A century ago . . .

In April of 1924 the old Daily Telegraph newspaper (which had as much in common with today’s Tele as bread has with damper) introduced to its readers a new column called The Phonograph. This elongated piece of unillustrated type reviewed recorded music. In the custom of the times, it carried no byline (only recognised expert contributors, like the wonderfully named composer G. de Cairos-Rego, were given that privilege). I have a pretty fair idea, though, who the writer was.

For the moment that’s not important – the significance is that the Tele recognised a serious social and commercially profitable trend. Recorded music was on the air. The first Australian radio station had opened in Sydney the year before and, after something like 30 years of development, the technology to make and play records had reached such a degree of fidelity that phonographs had become consumer goods. More and more of the Daily Telegraph’s readers were becoming exposed to recorded music, and more and more of them were gaining the capacity to buy the technology to enjoy records in their own homes.

That, as I say, was in April 1924. A couple of months later, on 16 July, The Phonograph, under the headline “Clubs in England. Why Not here?” told readers:

It is to be wondered that, with the phenomenal advance in popularity of the phonograph in this country, some action has not been taken by enthusiasts to form phonograph societies similar to those which have for some time been instituted in England.
In the Old-country these clubs are well established, and are proving valuable features in community life. Their activities embrace, among other things, the discussion of new phonograph records, their comparison with other records of the same numbers, both musically and scientifically, the formation of record libraries, the conducting of tone tests in which the recorded voice is compared directly with that of the living artist.
In introducing this subject, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ gives assurance of its support in the event of the inauguration of such a society, and invites its readers to forward opinions and suggestions for publication in its weekly review of the records.
When the public pulse has been felt, steps will be taken to convene an inaugural meeting of phonograph lovers.

On 30 July, the game was afoot. The Phonograph announced in a box within the column that a meeting was to be held with “the purpose of creating a phonograph society”. The paper, it said, had received many letters confirming the popularity of the idea, among “both musical and technical enthusiasts”. It wasn’t until October, though, that The Phonograph could report success in its promotion. A meeting of recorded music enthusiasts had agreed to form the Phonograph and Gramophone Society of NSW. This was the first such organisation in Australia, and therefore the first expression of the organised record clubs that have flourished over the past century (amid, no doubt, myriad informal interest groups).

Enthusiasts form society head

The meeting attracted “enthusiasts from not only the city and suburbs, but also from Newcastle”, according to The Phonograph, and “agreeably surpassed the expectations of its organisers”. The chairman, Mr. Hal Eyre, said: “Our object will be, broadly speaking, to interest ourselves in the mechanical reproduction of sound.” A Mr. H. L. Thompson detailed a broad program, “pleasing all tastes by mixed programmes, preferably made more interesting and instructive by notes and remarks by demonstrators [of phonographic equipment]”. Recordings of serious [not pop] music would be studied, along with “demonstration and comparison of needles, sound-boxes, tone-arms, amplifiers, etc”. The society went on to hold public recitals at venues including the Sydney Conservatorium.

Having lived through the era of music on disc, the techo stuff about needles and the like still resonates with me but the scenario outlined above encompasses a few mysteries. Why did the society hedge its bets with both “phonograph” and “gramophone” in its name – weren’t they the same things? What was a “gramophone recital”? Who are these people?

gramophoneEdisonPhonographThe truth is I’m not quite sure about the answer to the first question, even though I’ve scanned the usual sources for an easy explanation. So without turning this into a history of recorded sound, I think the difference between “phonograph” and “gramophone” in 1924 was that “phonograph” was a kind of generic term for all record players – either of wax cylinders or hard black discs (a cylinder player is the left of the two pictures). The discs, however, were played only on gramophones. Both terms were current but, even then, cylinders were rapidly being replaced by the more robust and more easily produced discs. “Phonograph” would gradually fade out of use in favour of gramophone as the generic. That wasn’t to be known in 1924. Barely a month passed before aficionados in Melbourne noticed Sydney had got one over them and launched their own society called, yes, the Phonographic Society of Victoria. (For any non-Australian readers who are still paying attention, this is yet another manifestation of Sydney-Melbourne rivalry – a constant of Australian society, like that in the US between New York and Boston.)

As for “gramophone recital”, it is a little difficult in this era of recorded music streaming into our ears anywhere and everywhere to come to grips with the notion that people paid money to go and listen to records being played by a knitting needle stylus on a wind-up turntable through a speaker with a strong resemblance to a megaphone. But they did – it was the only way until radio became widespread that music lovers en masse could hear world greats perform outside of concert halls.

The Phonograph reported “an unusual musical recital”. A company called Home Recreations Ltd had played records in its concert room on the “Salanola phonograph, with pianoforte accompaniments”. The two instruments, the story said, had been tuned-up together before each program item, resulting in “the experiment being generally successful, the recorded accompaniment being submerged by the actual”. I can’t say I’m exactly sure what the tuning-up might have entailed but you can get an idea of the sort of thing a phonograph society might do.

In Melbourne, a theatre-full of people was treated to a famous female singer performing live. Midway through her song the house lights went down, the song continued but, when the lights went up again, the audience saw she had been replaced by a gramophone. “The puzzle was to know when she had left the stage,” the Herald reported. “No more exacting test could have been given than that to which the machine had been subjected, yet the audience was delighted with the recital.”

hal eyreSo who were the major players in the first foray into organised record clubs? The chairman of The Phonograph’s meeting, Hal Eyre (pictured), was the Daily Telegraph’s political cartoonist, and he was duly elected president of the society. His vice-president was R.B. Smith, a well known inventor who had patented a number of “sound reproducers” for use with phonographic records and automatic “stop” devices for gramophones – whatever those bits of gear might be. Richard Bartholomew Smith, however, is much more interesting than that. I’m not going down that long road here – click on instead. I couldn’t find anything about K.L. Thompson. My focus is on the hon. sec., Mr Robert C. McCall.

You have met this man before. Last April I introduced him to you in “A flash of bomb-mots” as the author of a series of book reviews in 1945-46 that I had stumbled across while researching his wartime exploits at the British Broadcasting Corporation on secondment from the Australian Broadcasting Commission. I had also passed over some biographical notes I obtained from the ABC which told me: “At age 16 cadet journalist on Sydney Daily Telegraph. Interest in music led to forming gramophone club which held recitals at Sydney Conservatorium and then to writing music column for the Telegraph.” But as I started writing about what he did in London, I grew increasingly interested in how, apart from being sent, he came to be broadcasting amid the bombs of the London blitz, and that led me back to his beginnings and this piece of obscure social history.

The key metric, as jargon goes these days, is McCall’s age. I referred to “a bright kid” in the first paragraph of this story. In 1924 Robert McCall was still only 19, and it’s clear to me, after reading about the conception and birth of the Phonograph and Gramophone Society and putting it together with what I already knew about him, that young Robert, the hon. sec., was not only the anonymous author of The Phonograph column, but most probably the originator of the proposal for a phonograph society, and possibly, for that matter, instigator of the column itself. (The ABC note-writer got the sequence of events back-to-front.) The ability to conceive an idea and bring it to life, such as he demonstrated at age 19, powered his subsequent career through the recording industry and broadcasting (and not a little writing).

Robert Clark McCall went from upstart 16-year-old cadet journalist to senior executive appointments in the record business and at the ABC and the BBC. He died in Northern Ireland in 1970, aged only 64. As far as I am aware he left no memoir. This piece, the earlier one and the story I am writing for the Melbourne Savage Club, where he was a member, will have to do.






A glass-and-a-half of humbug

Cadbury ad 1

This has been bugging me for months. I’ve tried to ignore it but I can’t stand it any longer. I have to put it out there.

It’s those TV ads for Cadbury chocolate – the ones with doe-eyed kids looking into the camera, all sweet and cute. Aaaah. Break your heart, don’t they?

No. Every time I see those ads I shout at the TV: Why don’t they eat the chocolate? I must have seen those ads a thousand times, probably more, and not once do those insufferably smug urchins take even the merest nibble. Nor do their mums. They don’t even hold the wrapped chocolate bar precariously between thumb and forefinger, brand name square on to the lens, and nip off a corner with their perfect front teeth, like they do in other chocky ads.

What’s wrong with Cadbury chocolate? Isn’t it any good? Maybe they’re afraid the famous glass and a half of full cream dairy milk will pour out all over place.


Let’s back up a little. As far as I can tell, three different Cadbury ads are going around on Australian TV at present. One features a 10-year-old (or thereabouts) naughty boy who sneaks out at night to hose (yep . . . with water) a giant Easter egg out of a tree to give to his younger sister who’s laid up with a broken leg or something. Sis and mum think that’s sweet, while smugly grinning boy pretends to be asleep.

cadbury ad 2Then there’s the one where a smaller boy is toying with the familiar purple-wrapped bar while sitting on a bus with his mum. Generous mum says he can have one square but then he spots a young female-looking person in the next seat who is apparently crying – well, anyway, she’s sad. He wordlessly offers her the purple object. Next shot, she’s adopted a Giaconda facial expression and the kid is looking, you guessed it, smug.

Finally, a little girl, maybe five or six years old – cute as – asks a kindly, bearded shopkeeper for a bar of chocolate for her mum’s birthday and proffers a handful of buttons and other bric-a-brac in payment. (See above.) Kindly shopkeeper beams a little and gives her a large block of that full cream goodness, plus a small green unicorn as change for her buttons. Aaaaah. She runs off and he glows, yes dammit, smugly.

I mean, these are not terribly unusual expressions of the adman’s art. Little fantasies. Fables. Cuteness. Warm and fuzzy. Sickening. These are stock-in-trade in adworld. But usually, for example, when you are treated to a wonderfully happy family lining up at a famous fast food outlet, they get stuck into the product as enthusiastically as anyone has ever been about anything. Or cars – everybody in new SUVs goes haring all over the countryside, up mountains, through creeks, before dropping off little darlings at their kindy. Or cosmetics – ever see any of those gorgeous, apparently female persons refusing to splosh some allegedly new unguent on their pocky but perfectly formed facades? Etc, etc and etc.

Not in Cadbury country. The cute kids, the kindly mums and the benevolent beards are happy just to hold the purple jewels. A glass and a half of offensive cuteness. Or maybe a glass and a half of cute offensiveness. Either way, they still don’t eat the stuff.

Back in 2018, when Cadbury premiered the girl and the beard, the London ad agency responsible, VCCP, reckoned the vignette was “just honest real life”. A Cadbury exec rejoicing in the fabulous name Benazir Barlet-Batada was quoted on the Adsofbrands website: “In today’s world it’s easy to overlook those small moments of authentic human generosity . . . We want to shine a light on these genuine acts of kindness and true moments of human connection that are occurring every day.”

Give me a break.

What’s happening here is they are selling the sizzle, not the sausage. You have to ask why. The slogan “There’s a glass and a half in every one” offers a clue, I think. No mention of milk, full cream, dairy or otherwise, just a graphic of a white substance being poured. “Full cream dairy milk” disappeared from Cadbury advertising many years ago, along with the quarter-pound block of chocolate to which it was attached because, clearly, whether the line was true of the quarter pounder or not (and I doubt that it was), it could not be in 100 or 50 grams. In any case, the only actual liquid milk likely to be anywhere near chocolate production would be that in the factory’s tearoom fridge. The milk in milk chocolate is powdered or condensed.

Add to that woke sensitivities. Dairy products, especially with, shudder, cream, contribute to childhood obesity and mental distress, as do sugar and fat, of which there are plentiful supplies in chocolate bars, whatever the brand. The sources of chocolate itself are anti-social – cacao beans are grown mostly (two-thirds) in west Africa and harvested by children in slave-like conditions. And don’t mention the industry’s contribution to climate change. Keyboard wowsers would be chock-a-block – oh the pain!

So it’s no wonder adland’s cute kids and their maternal carers don’t eat the stuff on camera, nor that their friendly neighbourhood drug dealer doesn’t keep it in plain sight (he probably sells tobacco as well). The irony is that, according to internet know-all Wikipedia, 100 grams of milk chocolate per day is a good source of essential vitamins (riboflavin and B12 – 19 percent of daily requirements) and minerals (manganese, phosphorous, zinc, calcium, magnesium and iron – 10 to 19 per cent).

Cadbury and its agency, Very Cute Consumer Piffle, well know that is not why we like chocolate. We like chocolate for all those things the nutrition nazis and the woke warriors hate. For crying out loud . . . eat it, enjoy it, smile broadly . . . stop snivelling hypocritically around with cuteness and enigmatic grins.

Real life? Bah, humbug!

A stinking lie

The Times left off worrying about the end of the world last week to tell anxious readers that Queen Isabella of Spain did not stink. The news must have given grieving Poms great comfort: civilisation would probably survive The Pestilence and the death of Prince Philip.

Isabella died in 1504, which, as European royalty goes, I suppose is almost yesterday (and pretty much a scoop for The Times). She was reputedly Spain’s greatest queen but said to be not too flash on the personal hygiene front.

Now researchers rummaging around her dressing table have uncovered documents which historians have pounced on to pronounce “Propaganda!” The powerful odour that has persisted down the years they say is a nasty Muslim Moor calumny. The inventory of Isabella’s perfumes and cosmetics revealed in the documents disproves, it is being claimed, the “black legend” that her personal aura smelled not so much of greatness as of BO.

Hmmm, mused I, my nose twitching sensitively, the find suggests to me the opposite might be true. Maybe she needed everything musk, anime, benzoin, amber, orange blossom oil and rosehip oil could give her because she was a strong woman in more ways than one.

If so, an overbearing natural self would have made her a standout in the 15th century and, indeed, in any century up to the mid-20th. But, as we know, the best propaganda is based on enough of the truth to make it credible, and so I wonder what the Muslims put around about her that made the population puke in a generally putrescent age.

Picture this. A troupe of Muslim Moorish minstrels strolls into a bar – no sorry, they wouldn’t do that – strolls into a coffee house in, oh, I don’t know, Torremolinos and strums a few bars on Moorish guitars. “Get out! You stink!” cry the prejudiced Christian patrons. “No, not us! That’s Isabella, in the wind all the way from Madrid,” the Muslims retort. The Christians are taken aback . . .

Anyway, it didn’t work. Isabella heard about this grievous insult and swept down upon the Moors with the full force of her, um, personality and blew them out of Spain in 1492.

You might recognise the date. That was the year Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and, to the chagrin of not a few, discovered America. Isabella is to blame for this. She financed the whole trip. But I reckon it might have been a close run thing.

Here’s Issy quietly sitting on her throne one day, sniffing gloomily. She’s exhausted her supply of exotic Oriental unguents. For some reason she’s all alone. Suddenly a door swings open and a lackey pokes his nose into the room to announce: “Someone to see you, ma’am, says his name is Chris and he’s from Genoa.”

Isabella brightens; these Italians always smell beautiful. A flamboyant figure wafts into the chamber, reels back a step or two, but then advances courageously, one hand covering his face, the other outstretched. “What do you want?” the queen demands. “Money,” he gasps abruptly, for such is her Presence he can hardly speak. She looks imperiously at him: “Why?” Um: “I like to be in America. Okay by me in America. Everything free in America.” She doesn’t believe him. Columbus, for it is he, points his nose westside: “America the beautiful. Oh, high, oh, the smell of the new . . .” Isabella breaks in just as he is starting to go nicely: “You mean they have perfumes there?” He can see she’s excited: “Yes, ma’am . . . frankincense, myrrh, California poppy . . .” She waves at him, imperiously again (why not? – she is the queen): “How much do you want?”

Just think what shape the world might be in now if Isabella and Columbus had not hit it off. What if, for want of a few ducats, he hadn’t discovered America? What if it had been the French? Doesn’t bear thinking about – we’d be knee deep in baguettes and philosophers. (What? We are?) Oh well, it probably didn’t happen like that anyway. Probably the Greatest Queen of Spain daubed on her best benzoin to meet Columbus that day and he, in turn, had had a little too much garlic in his pasta the night before. So everything was sweet between them.

The rest is history, and historians with too much time on their hands.

INEVITABLE FOOTNOTE: The Times story almost reported above was published in the Australian under the headline: “Isabella of Castile wasn’t wiffy at all, say historians”. Anything whiffy in that for you? Also, the byline on the piece was Isambard Wilkinson. Isambard! I doubt that since Mrs Brunel gave birth to her bouncing baby boy in 1806 has anyone dared burden a child with that moniker.

A flash of bomb-mots

On Saturday, 17 November 1945, the Sydney Morning Herald introduced to its readers a new contributor to its literary pages, a man (undoubtedly) identified only by the initials “R.McC.” His shortish piece in the New Fiction column reviewed a book by a Warren Beck: “The publishers say that Henry James would not have been displeased by Mr Beck’s story-telling: but as almost all of these 163 pages of war-time printing are spoken over drinks in the back booth of Jake’s place during one evening, the novel would be more reminiscent of Conrad’s Lord Jim, if either of those two masters were to be compared with Mr Beck.” Here then, it seems, Sin City had acquired a writer of erudition and elegant style. Within weeks, Sydneysiders also discovered he was a philosopher of subtly expressed but trenchant opinion.

R.McC. is worth reading. Reason enough, I suppose, for exhuming his body of work – but the real reason is that I am pretty sure I know who R.McC. was and I am twisting myself out of shape trying to pat myself on the back for an insight at about 9 or 10 on the Holmesian scale.

savages and kingsI was reading the March 2021 edition of Wooster Sauce, the quarterly journal of the P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK) – which should surprise no one who has visited these pages before – when I came across a story about Wodehouse’s 1907 connection with a Cambridge University Footlights composer named Kenneth Duffield, an Australian who had published in 1945 a book of memoirs, Savages & Kings, largely about his London theatrical career before and after World War I. What clicked with me was the book title. Mr Duffield just had to be a Savage, maybe even a member of the Melbourne Savage Club, like me, but more probably of the London Savage Club, like Wodehouse. A couple of clicks on a famous search engine proved the latter to be the case, and another click produced a review of Savages & Kings in the Sydney Morning Herald of 9 March 1946 by – you guessed it – R.McC.

Click, click, click . . . I know who that is, I exclaimed to myself (and to the editor of Wooster Sauce): he’s a Savage I know something about. I couldn’t prove my flash at that point; it was just a Eureka moment.

A search of the Australian National Library’s Trove database of digitised Australian newspapers established that R.McC. had been a regular SMH reviewer in 1945 and 1946. Importantly, the tagline R.McC. did not appear elsewhere in the paper before or after that period – if it had, he most probably was a staffer and I knew that the Savage I believed R.Mc. was could only have been a contributor. I knew further that he had left Australia for England in June 1946, so if R.McC. reviews continued much beyond that the odds were he and my man were two different people. I was a little dismayed, then, when reviews kept turning up after June 1946.  But, phew, they stopped at 4 January 1947, and R.McC. is not seen ever again, at least in the SMH.

This was all to the good but what clinched the deal was that in one of his last reviews R.McC. began by saying that in years past he had written a weekly column of criticism of radio music programs. My man started his working life in 1922 as a 16-year-old cadet journalist for the Daily Telegraph in Sydney. He had a strong interest in music which led to his writing a music column for the Tele, and then to jobs at first with the old Parlophone record company and then Associated Gramophone Companies of Australia. He was a regular contributor of music stories to various publications and eventually went on the air over commercial radio and the Australian Broadcasting Commission after it was formed in 1932.

McCall 1946I had no doubt: R.McC. of the SMH just had to be this man, a Melbourne Savage named Robert McCall (who by complete coincidence I had been researching for more than a year as a key figure in an article I am preparing for our club’s 2021 Journal). In 1945 he was assistant general manager of the ABC and therefore could not have used his full name writing for the SMH without exciting some little comment, especially given the opinions we’ll come to shortly. McCall, mentored by none other than his boss, ABC general manager [later Sir] Charles Moses, was destined for the Top Job. But the BBC came calling early the next year and off he sailed to spend the rest of his days nestled in Auntie’s bosom. He died prematurely at only 64 but he had flashed brilliantly across the broadcasting firmament around the world – literally.

At the start of WWII the BBC expanded its shortwave radio Empire Service to cover the globe and to staff it sought suitable personnel from, of course, the British Empire. The ABC lent them Robert McCall to organise Pacific region broadcasts. He arrived in London in October 1940 at the height of the Blitz. Smoking rubble greeted him, not least at the London Savage Club where Melbourne Savage McCall almost immediately exercised his reciprocal rights.

McCall had joined the Melbourne Savage Club in 1938 when he was sent from Sydney HQ to be the ABC’s Victorian State manager. Membership of this bohemian group of artists, writers and musicians was almost compulsory for the cultural elite in the Queen City of the South, and the ABC was, of course, tuned in. Similarly in London – the Savage Club was a spiritual home for many of Britain’s theatrical stars, writers, artists and musicians.

McCall found the London club in stiff-upper-lip mode. Its premises at 1 Carlton House Terrace had received a Goering postcard right in its letter box. The front of the building, which included the library and the lounge, was destroyed. The Savages were soldiering on, however, in the half of the building that remained habitable but had been forced to give up their weekly dinners in favour of irregular lunches. McCall settled in there nevertheless, like his Brother Melbourne Savage Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies and a number of other Australians.

Not long after McCall’s arrival, some bright spark conceived a grand idea – let’s send the Melbourne Savage Club a fraternal greeting via the BBC with a live broadcast of a concert by some of our leading players. The official records do not say whose idea this was but the shortlist has only one name on it: Robert McCall. His boss at the Empire Service, Cecil Madden, recommended the project to the outside broadcasts people. Within an amazingly short period of time the BBC jumped through its bureaucratic hoops, the Savages got their act together and, with the Luftwaffe still raining hellfire on London, this amazing event went from brainwave to airwaves on 18 April 1941 (the full story of which is what I am working on for the Savage Club).

McCall worked with distinction for a year or so at the BBC, and with gallantry – rescuing irreplaceable documents while dodging bombs and putting out incendiaries during a fire-raid on the BBC’s HQ (reported by a Canadian journalist named, believe it or not, E.L. Bushnell). So it seems only natural that when the BBC wanted a senior executive (assistant controller) for its renamed Overseas Service it should tap McCall.

Charles Moses regretted the loss to the ABC but, having stripped away the years from the SMH, I think Australia also lost a writer who was excelling in the finest traditions of literary criticism.

“Contemporary Australian literary periodicals,” R.Mc. wrote under the headline ‘Bad Verse & Good Criticism’, “are at their best in their criticism of poetry published in other Australian literary periodicals, and with reason; one could be forgiven for imagining that the poets are doing their worst in order that the critics may do their best. For the past two or three years the work of the Americans, Karl Shapiro and Harry Roskolenko, has rung through Meanjin Papers, Comment and Angry Penguins like a cracked gong, and now it seems Mr Roskolenko has gone back to America and persuaded other American poets to send their work out to Australia. This has enabled Angry Penguins, 1945, with nine or ten Americans and one Englishman, helped out by a number of Australians and New Zealanders, to print some 43 pages of verse of about 60 lines to a page in which there is not one poem. Which is a considerable achievement.”

With his stance thus established, R.McC. goes on to remind readers of the then still fresh Ern Malley poetry hoax which fooled Max Harris and his Angry Penguins and adds by way of comment on the Penguins’ latest: “It is not merely that these writings have forgotten how to dance and sing, but also that they are dull.” Whack. There follow a couple of thousand words critiquing the three journals named at the start. Much content is praised, but he takes an acid pen to Roskolenko’s work, which he compares with Kenneth Slessor’s – “Of all the resources of poetry, Mr Roskolenko uses only ideas, whereas Slessor makes words and vowels and music and rhyme go to work for him.” Oof! He concludes: “Having received a free copy [of Angry Penguins 1945] for review, one feels one should join the editors ‘to thank our contributors – overseas as well as local – for supporting us so fully upon a purely gratuitous basis’.” Oh dear.

There is much like that to enjoy in R.McC.’s work. He begins his crit of an anthology of Australian short stories: “One of the favourite devices of the Australian short story is to kill a child in the bush.” Another piece headed ‘Provincialism in the Empire’ issues a verdict: “To feel provincial is to harbour resentment.” A review of The Thurber Carnival, James Thurber’s first anthology, is headed by Thurber’s dinner party wine cartoon and the famous caption: “It’s a naïve domestic burgundy without any breeding but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.” R.McC. displays a warm appreciation of Thurber, which pleased me mightily – I have been a big Thurber fan for many years.

Another favourite, Evelyn Waugh, in R.McC.’s opinion is not the satirist that some critics, and perhaps Waugh himself, see but rather, in the light of Brideshead Revisited (this is before the Sword of Honour trilogy) as a Cavalier, with the “Cavalier’s love of charm for charm’s sake . . . the Cavalier has never tried to explain the world from fundamentals, but has always been content to enjoy the best of everything that is and has been”. The piece concludes with some words for today (and every day):

“Whatever Mr Attlee and Mr Stalin may do to change the future, it has so far been the world’s experience that all invention, all industry, and all culture and civilisation have in each generation flowered in the gaiety of a small group of people who toil not, neither do they spin; they are at once the by-products and the justification of an age; the fine flower of a civilisation; while the socialists howl to cut them down and sow corn, the Cavalier who sets out to satirise them is bemused by their perfume, and lost in admiration of ‘the elegance which alone can justify debauchery’.”

R.McC.’s review of the book which brought him to my notice, Kenneth Duffield’s Savages & Kings, begins: “Recently one had something to say about the rawness of Australian writing . . . but it seems that the Australian does not have to have working class sympathies and be published in Australia to cause the sensitive reader to shudder: one can be an Australian aristocrat, or the closest thing we have to aristocracy we have, and go to Cambridge, and mix with English lords and men of letters and artists, and have one’s book published in England, and still be able to put on the title page:

The time has come the Bushman said,
To talk of many things –
Of ships and sheep and theatre-land,
Of Savages and Kings.
(With apologies to Lewis Carroll)”

Duffield came from a family which owned several sheep stations in South Australia, and was used to the being among the state’s A-listers. His father financed his Cambridge education and his initial foray into the West End. He spent eight years back in the bush, managing the properties after his father died, before returning with great success to his first love, full time writing theatre shows and music. R.McC. views his raciness in Savages & Kings (foreword by A.P. Herbert who calls Duffield a “genial tough”) as somewhat regrettable but: “Give the genial tough his due: he has seen life; and what he has to say of his experiences is worth the shudder-a-page which his manner causes the perhaps over-sensitive reader.” (This review was headed ‘Rich Boy Makes Good’ – a bit churlish, I think, and surely not R.McC.’s doing.)

R.McC. also provides Duffield’s epitaph: “He writes continually of the London Savage Club . . . that club is his Valhalla; and there let us leave him.” And Robert McCall as well.

PS: As far as I can find, R.McC. made only one contribution to the SMH outside the book review columns, on 29 June 1945. Probably written from England, it was a little poem about the coming atom bomb tests on Bikini Atoll.


My Valentine climate

Today is St Valentine’s Day, or increasingly just Valentine’s Day, invented by modern marketing ostensibly to commemorate love. It is also the day in 1975 when Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse went to his reward after a lifetime spreading sweetness and light. Real love, not the greeting card variety.

I’ve been more than a bit flat lately, what with the pestilence, the totalitarian political response to it and the decline of civilisation in general. So it brightened at least this day when I opened my e-mail to find a notification from fellow Wodehousean Ashok Bhatia of his latest blog post – a poem to a grandchild, not his but one named John Jasper, a descendant of another Wodehousean. John Jasper is one year old today, for which Ashok began:

Allow us to welcome you belatedly to this wonderful world on a special day,
When you turn one and fans in different continents are celebrating Plum;
For this is the day he decided to hand in his dinner pail,
Leaving a rich legacy of joy, should we ever become glum.

In 2016 when one of my grandchildren happened to have been born on Wodehouse’s birthday – and his parents unknowingly named him Clarence, the same moniker carried by Lord Emsworth, seigneur of Blandings Castle – Ashok penned a poem not merely of welcome but also of inspiration. I hope I live long enough to present it to Clarence one day.

One wishes you a long and healthy life, full of laughter and love,
A sunny disposition to face the harsh slings and arrows of life;
A chin-up attitude, a song in the heart, a prayer on your lips,
Guardian Angels who fuss over you and protect you from many a strife.

Then, lo and behold, came a note from blogger Biff Sock Pow in normally sunny Texas wondering what happens when paradise freezes, as it is threatening to do. Apparently, winter in Dallas is not just cold at present but absolutely frightening its brass monkeys. Londoners to whom I have been speaking are fretting over inches of snow in the streets. Snow is late but metres deep in northern California. I love it when global warming kicks in.

I am unsurprised, though, at events in the northern hemisphere – because here in Melbourne, where February usually features a run on airconditioners, autumn leaves are appearing, weeks ahead of their time. I am sensitive to these seasonal changes because I am a northerner. Over more than half a century here I have never failed to be amazed by spring’s uplifting life and autumn’s brilliant decay. Where I come from there’s hot and less hot. You need a jumper for a few weeks in the middle of the year, that’s all. I once, only once, wore an overcoat in Brisbane and got looked at in a manner that suggested I was overdoing it a bit, mate. Young ladies in that part of the world refuse to consider a climatic imperative to dress in anything but the barest minimum. Trees are the opposite – they are always covered.

In Melbourne, summer has been cool this year, apart from one or two days – not weeks, days – and, after bountiful winter and spring rains, the vegetation has been exceedingly and enjoyably lush. My lemon and olive trees are hung heavy with fruit. Something is NQR, though. I inspect my produce every day for signs of ripening but skins remain frustratingly green and foliage is thinning. I suspect my little grove is joining the plane trees and the elms and the laurels around the suburb in seeking an early bed.

What can it all mean? Nothing, precisely nothing.

There’s a word we’ve been hearing over and over again during The Pestilence and it’s this: unprecedented. Don’t believe it, neither with the pestilence nor with that other alarmist joy, climate change. It’s all happened before and it – whatever “it” might be – will happen again.

Cheer yourself instead with sunny Ashok, and a plentiful portion of Plum wine.

Hail the Patto!

My dear readers, you had a pretty rough time of it in 2020. What with the pestilence, house arrest and the destruction of your civil liberties and basic human rights, you’ve also had to put up with The Traveller’s rants about trains and P.G. Wodehouse, some oh-so-precious whimsy involving Wordsworth, wooden spoons and fairies, incomprehensible nonsense about tram tracks and a couple of 100-year-old scoops. But amid the dross were moments of absolute comedic gold that cried out for special recognition.

Sir-Les-Patterson-430x574So I have created a new award . . . the Patto, in honour of Australia’s cultural ambassador, the King of Leer, Sir Les Patterson, and his best mate, Barry Humphries. You might remember that, in the biggest joke of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the organisers outdid all the players by stripping Bazza’s name from the gong for best-in-show. Are you with me?

The Traveller began the past 12 months with a visit to the Water exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane – the jargonised captions on various questionable artworks provided a laugh or two. Then there was the Tallangatta Prophet and his prediction (ca 1989) that the United States was in imminent danger of being crushed by the Soviet Union. I had a row about the meaning of “wowser” with another Australian, no doubt to the eternal fascination of the Americans who started it. The red-in-the-bed, fair dinkum, true blue human rights advocate Dame Mary Gilmore bemused, rather than amused, us with her reasoning on why the White Australia Policy was essential and mixed (race) marriages were abominable.

flange bike editAnd how about the yarn from the lads and ladesses in the New South Wales Transport Department? These faceless funsters decided – never mind the pestilential despoilation all around them – that Sydneysiders just had to be protected from their new trams’. . . drum roll . . . flange-way gap. Well, I won’t go into it all again. Just flip back to A flange health hazard posted on 30 June. “Cyclists [inter alia],” the bureaucrats said, “are vulnerable to the risk of one or more wheels becoming stuck in the flange-way gap in tram rails.” Some lunatics in Hamburg reckon this is more of an opportunity than a threat. They have fitted training wheels to a bike, inserted the big wheels in the notorious gap and, hey presto, created the Bahnradbahnrad, the tram-bike. Wheeee!

At the end of the day, though, all things considered, I reduced the field to a short list of two. Which post would win the Patto – the story of how the British Empire was lost on Brighton Beach (Rule, Britannia! on 4 September), or the florid imaginings of wine writers (Whining, Thurber-style? on 24 July)?

The first involved retired Scots Guards officer Donald Clark, of Tonbridge, Kent, who found himself in a minority of one on the town council by opposing mixed (sex) bathing in the local swimming pool. Australian newspapers reported this with some glee in July 1920 – yes, the date is correct – the same year that closet communist Mary Gilmore also unburdened herself on the subject of mixing. This much awarded poet (and did I mention human rights advocate?) reckoned mixing the races would weaken Australia and Cr Clark declared mixing the sexes would similarly undermine the British Empire.

Saucy Postcard 1Close and constant observation on Brighton beach had convinced the ungallant Guardsman that “the female form divine” was an “entirely mythical delusion”. The spectacle of a girl in a “dripping bathing costume, with wet hair hanging over eyes, and looking like a Skye terrier”, had been responsible for many a man taking an oath of celibacy. “More husbands have escaped from matrimony on the sands of Brighton than will ever be caught there,” said he, entirely oblivious of double entendre and Brighton’s reputation as a hotbed of infidelity.

He appealed to the Tonbridge council as Imperialists and patriots to understand that Britain’s greatest need was the raising of an Imperial race. That would be impossible, said the father of eight, if the council provided the means to make men hesitate in carrying into effect the relations they had made under more alluring conditions. No woman, however beautiful, could stand the test of appearing before the man she had inspired in the damp and bedraggled condition that was the inevitable consequence of a bath, whether public or private . . . Hundreds of brides (sic) had been doomed to a life of useless celibacy through that infamous institution known as mixed bathing. He regarded Brighton and those towns which had encouraged mixed bathing as the source of the country’s coming decadence.

And, of course, history has proved Donald “where’s your troosers” Clark right. The British Empire is no more. You read it here first, folks.

james-thurber-on-Burgundy-640x413The Patto would have been awarded there and then, had I thought of it more than five minutes ago. As it happened, though, along came those ever reliable wine writers, especially the one who opined that a particular white wine “tastes of pears bitten into a day before ripeness”. This is up there in pretentiousness with James Thurber’s immortal cartoon caption (which I am delighted to borrow again). Cap’n Peary, as I dubbed him, had a few other nice lines in his critiques of various wines in this one article but none matched this one, nor ever could.

Or so I thought until this same chap popped up again in The Australian with a survey of champagnes with which to salute 2021 – no Australian bubblies, only champagne which, of course, you understand can’t be anything other than from the designated Champagne region of la belle France. Yes, you’ve got him. He’s the Oz’s regular wine critic. I can’t keep him anonymous any more – welcome, Nick Ryan, to The Traveller 2021.

Nick serves up champagne wine writing. The choice of gems this time was dazzling.

One sparkler: “[The wine] smells of the wildflowers crushed by an outdoor tryst in spring sunshine, tastes of the macerated red berries consumed in the afterglow, and lingers on the palate like the memories of the long distant time when such things were possible.” (Ah, sweet youth, panting en plein air.)

Only slightly less glittering was: “The only palate immune to invigoration from an aperitif like this sits in a mouth glued shut by a mortician.”

And: “It is graceful and poised, full of fine white peach and citrus characters with a seam of crushed oyster shell running right through it.”

Nick seems to have unique way of eating oysters, so I suppose it’s no surprise his critique of the $300 Krug Grande Cuvee should be the finest of his pearls: “A mountain stream and the Atlantic Ocean are both bodies of water and beautiful in their own ways, but comparisons end there. Krug is Krug first and champagne second . . . this is classic Krug. It’s a head filling, swoon inducing, fever dream of baked brioche, candied citrus, white truffle, and a lost afternoon in byzantine alleyways of an ancient spice market . . . A life lived without at least one glass of Krug is a life wasted.”

Well, my life has been wasted so far. I can live in hope I guess, but I need to get a move on. I daresay Donald Clark missed out on his glass of Krug, and I’m afraid he is going to miss out on the Patto, too, because, really, no fair judge could go past the premature pear-eater. His champers drools have clinched the inaugural Patto. Tan-ta-ra!

No doubt, Nick, you’d like to thank gaard, your parents, your sisters and your cousins and your aunts and your agent and all the wonderful people who . . .

Nah? Oh all right then.


I work to rule when having a crack: If you get a chance at a cheap shot, don’t miss. Couldn’t hit anything but the bullseye this time – wine writing is the sittingest of ducks. Nick, if by some miracle you ever see this, be aware that it’s all meant in fun. I know you’re only trying to transmit your knowledge in an entertaining way but, golly meboy, you’ve gone over the top more times than a survivor on the Western Front. For what it’s worth, I thought you loosed off a few good shots of your own in your intro to the champagne tasting, especially the reference to The Big Lebowski. Sometimes nothing else but pleasure-seeking will do. Also, hurling a heavy ball at effigies of a certain Dear Leader would have been a good way to skittle a futile, frustrating and effed-up year.