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.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

The sinister side of politics has had a long love affair with identity.

Dame Mary Gilmore is a fair dinkum Aussie icon, in the truest, bluest sense of that much abused word. Her image has adorned Australian stamps and two sets of Australian $10 notes. Sir William Dobell painted her portrait (below).

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says: “Mary Gilmore’s significance is both literary and historical. As poet and prose writer she has drawn considerable praise . . . her best verse . . . [is] among the permanent gems of Australian poetry. As patriot, feminist, social crusader and folklorist she has now passed into Australian legend.”

The note writer for the Reserve Bank of Australia describes her thus: “Author, journalist, poet, patriot and campaigner against injustice and deprivation. Dame Mary Gilmore was a founding member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers and Sydney’s Lyceum Club and was active in organisations as diverse as the New South Wales Institute of Journalists and the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship. A highly popular and nationally known writer, Dame Mary Gilmore was a celebrated public figure: Sydney’s literati gathered annually to celebrate her birthday; awards and scholarships were given in her name; and radio broadcasts and public appearances commanded her time.”

There’s more of this laudatory stuff, much more, to be found in even a superficial search of the WWW – but you get the idea. Dame Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) was a Great Australian.

Passed over lightly is that she was also a woman of the hard left. If she was not a card-carrying communist, she was most certainly a fellow traveller . . . with a season ticket. One of her earliest exploits was to become part of William Lane’s storied and failed attempt to establish his utopian New Australia commune in Paraguay. She founded the women’s page (above) in the Australian Worker, the official newspaper of the Australian Workers Union, and edited it for 23 years. It became her platform for her many ideas and political causes, including support of the republican Irish. She left it when it could no longer tolerate her radicalism, and finished her life writing for the Communist Party paper, Tribune. The award by King George VI of the female equivalent of a knighthood, on the nomination of a conservative Australian Government (in which Robert Gordon Menzies was attorney-general) stands among her greatest, and more mysterious, achievements.

Not easily found in the record is something else. On Thursday, 9 September 1920, this future legend and champion of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, unburdened herself in the Worker of something that had clearly been exercising her mind for some time. What follows in full is what she asked, and then answered:


Life asks form – perhaps. Perhaps not. Life is indifferent to form; she only asks being. Man is unessential to life, but life, having form in man, man is.

The kind of man does not matter to life. She is as vital and as much contained in the evil man as in the good; in the black as in the white. She is so indifferent to form that her indifference is almost reason for assuming a special creation as a means of clothing her life.

Life does not ask for man; a leaf, or an animalcule, serves her purpose just as well as man.

Man does not create her, and his death does not diminish her. He holds life as a cup holds air. Break the cup, and the cup is gone; but the formless air is unaware of the change.

Man’s part is to preserve his body; he only holds life by that preservation. Life can look after herself without his care, but the body is dependent on him. The body is all the self he has apart from life – perhaps, indeed, all the self he has.

His wonderful cells are drawn together to house her who is as indifferent to him as the warmth of the fire glowing through your body is to you; as the flame is to the wood that gives it being.

But life’s indifference is no ground for indifference on the part of man. Neither is it on the part of nations.

If you or I die, it does not matter to life; but it matters to us; and it matters to our fellows. For good or evil (and let us hope and desire that it should be for good) it matters to them.

And as with an individual, so with a nation; so with a race.

Life cares nothing for bodies – body of man, body of family, body of clan, body of nation, body of race.

But all these, being bodies; and only having, being as bodies, their bodies matter to them, and their duty is to preserve them.

It is the duty of Japan to maintain the body of a Japanese Japan; it is the duty of Australia to preserve Australian Australia.

Japan has no more right to seek to make us Japanese than we have to seek to make Japan Australia. The law of right of the body-to-be intervenes. It is not a question of better or worse, nor of superiority, nor even of difference; but merely and absolutely of Being.

No man admits the right of another man to kill him. No nation and no race should.

No man admits the right of another man to kill him unless he can kill back again. But life looks on indifferent. Both men dead, she remains, immutable in being, permutable eternally and everlastingly.

It is a vague perception of the eternal, everlasting, and indifferent side of life which makes many people indifferent to a White Australia, so that they say, “What matter if other races come here . . . Are they not as good as we are?”

Quite as good – for the housing of life. But our concern is not the housing of life, but the body, personal, national, racial, that is ours.

That is our beginning, our being, our ending.

This is the care of every man, whatever the sex, age, or condition life has given him.

This is the solemn charge of being.

Here is our right to a White Australia; a right just to ourselves; inoffensive to any.

So what? That was 100 years ago, right? Except . . .

This is a country today where significant portions of the intelligentsia want to tear down statues of Captain Cook, rewrite the history of settlement and denounce the merest hint of racism wherever and whenever it occurs. People brandishing placards march down from the high moral ground during a pandemic, unhindered by police when everyone else is under house arrest. Sports players now “take a knee” before matches and ignore the national anthem.

Green-left ideology dominating our institutions demands that everybody deny the facts of life. At the same time we must bow to “the science” . . .  but only “the science” that conforms to the ideology. Men and women,  especially men, are held to account for their sins no matter how far in the past they transgressed, no matter whether they have repented in the meantime, and no matter what they might have achieved. This is now a country where anonymous denunciation is the norm.

Surely, if there were a statue of Mary Gilmore anywhere, it would be a target, if not for destruction then at least for explanation. How can her image remain on our $10 note? Racism must be condemned. It can’t be cancelled by anything.

Or, as a Lady of the Left, is she excused?

Sally White writes on the Australian Media Hall of Fame website: “Dame Mary Gilmore was a contradictory character. She was an ardent internationalist but a fierce nationalist. She was a staunch socialist who revered the monarchy. She was a pacifist who was convinced that Australia should prevail over its enemies in both World Wars. She advocated the cause of Australia’s Aborigines and Europe’s Jews but once supported the White Australia policy and the expulsion of the Chinese. She lauded domestic virtues and marriage but lived much of her adult life alone, separated from her husband and son.”

Ah, she “once supported the White Australia policy”. Once.

What about this then, from the Australian Worker, signed Mary Gilmore, 6/7/21?


Oh, John, for old faith in you!
There was a day when we held you true;
Sturdy and set as a pyramid.
Man of your word whatever you did;
But, oh, John, shattered and gone
Is the old belief that we once gave you!

“John,” we said, “is a right white man;
And white he has been since he began!”
But, John, ambition grew up in you
Till it changed the man that once we knew.
And, John, John, of old tres bon,
You have killed the faith that we gave to you.

Think of it, John, how proud we were!
So proud that we felt the heart’s deep stir
Whenever we heard men speak your name
That now is spoken with hate and blame –
John, John! whom we leaned upon
In the once deep faith you have brought to shame!

John, was there never a clean white life
In all the world you could make your wife,
But you must turn to the dusk and brown
And draggle the proud white standard down?
John, John! whose face once shone
Where the pride of race was the white man’s crown!

What will you do when the children come? –
What! Is the once bold John grown dumb? –
When the chickens come home to roost, my man,
Brindle and yellow, and black and tan,
And long, long gone from the lips of John
Are the prayers he said since his race began!

There was a white wife close beside.
John, she was fittest of all for bride!
Did you think of her when you turned your eyes
Where the alien faiths of the Easterns rise?
Think of. it, John, we builded on –
As the tree falls forever it lies. 

These two pieces were penned a year apart. They are not the emotional outbursts of a kid – they display the tightly argued reasoning of the seasoned commentator that she was. In 1920-21, Mary Gilmore was 55 years old, she had been married in 1897 and a mother almost immediately afterwards. She had been close to Henry Lawson (in more ways than one) and was already a literary lion, having published her first book of poetry in 1910. Furthermore, the White Australia policy was very broadly supported throughout the Australian populace, having been enshrined in law as one of the first acts of the new Australian Parliament when the Australian federation came into being in 1901. The policy was supported by both sides of politics until the late 1960s, when it was dismantled into irrelevance, and formally abolished in 1975. 

Mary Gilmore died in 1962. It might well be that by then she had “once supported the White Australia policy”. Maybe she changed her views as she became even more widely known and acclaimed in old age after WWII. I don’t know but, although I suspect she didn’t change, I’m willing to give her benefit of the doubt. I’m willing to think, at least hope, that even past middle age she was still capable of learning and evolving.

Which none of today’s “woke” puritans affords people not of their ideology. They truly are sinister.

FOOTNOTE: When I started this blog, I intended to steer away from political issues, because the media are saturated with current affairs commentary and I’d had enough of the struggle over “issues”. If I have sometimes strayed from that purpose, it’s because, well, I’ve found something a bit quirky to comment on, or maybe just because I couldn’t help myself. The Gilmore story encompasses both of those excuses.

For the record, I do not agree with Mary Gilmore on anything, even her contradictions. Discrimination on the basis of skin colour, apart from the morality, is a complete waste of time and energy. You might as well throw away your Bible because it has a black cover. Skin colour is not a reliable indicator of race anyway (if that’s important, which I doubt).

As for the rest of today’s wokeness . . . bah, humbug!

Flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la

As a northerner who lives in a part of Australia that has four distinct seasons, I am always captivated by the changes from one to another in the annual cycle. They bring out my inner Wordsworth.

It’s mid-spring here now and, as I wander lonely as a cloud around my neighbourhood, I am heartened, after a winter of pestilential house arrest, by the colour along my path. Over there, roses – deep red, pink, yellow, white and shades in between. Camellias, azaleas, fuchsias and, yes, daffodils and irises and freesias. Bulbs are almost finished, though, at end-October. Magnolias were gone weeks ago. Wildflowers: dandelions, daisies, some little red blooms and purple ones I can’t identify. Indeed, many blossoms that I cannot name, and flowering weeds too. Trees and bushes and little shrubs thickly green, and best of all the callistemon and melaleuca – aka the bottlebrush.

As with all the others, I know nothing much about them. I don’t have to, really, I just like them. Somehow they warm me up in a climate where for more than half a century I have relished the short spells of hot weather, and my summer clothes last for years because they hang more in the wardrobe than on my back. The bottlebrush blaze all summer long around here, drooping densely amid the dark green foliage. Some are pink but most are red, deep red at their greatest intensity. They hang over garden walls, they brighten the median strips of bleak main roads and they look wild, untended. Certainly the large tree in my backyard gets little physical love, only the vibe of a half-demented northerner. A branch fell off it once, and we’ve had the tree doctor in to trim it a little. It hasn’t reached full bloom this season yet but some time after Christmas I expect it to be full of scarlet flowers, and therefore something of a bee-loud glade. [Yes, I know – I looked it up – that’s not Wordsworth. I like to share the blame around.]

New growth

Enough of these romantic ramblings. What all this has been leading up to is something new that’s popped up this spring. I started noticing these strange flora in the winter of my discontent on the sides of roads and footpaths as I forced my reluctant old carcase to plod a mile or two across the covid-blasted heath.

They look a lot like wooden spoons, don’t they? And they’re odd. Some seem to have faces painted on them and they have ribbon-like tendrils, all of different colours. Since first saw them I’ve been watching to see them sprout with leaves and flowers. After all, it is spring, when things in the ground tend to do that. So far, no appearance but I remain hopeful.

The other day I came across this little plot that some helpful soul had marked with a sign.

I looked it up. ARK, apparently, is irrelevant – maybe a sponsor, Noah Shipbuilding Ltd perhaps. So we can dismiss it. “Spoonville”, however, refers to the origins of these strange growths. They are, in fact, aliens, imported like cape weed from distant shores. Their genesis has been traced to a Welshman who in quite recent times lost the chip off his shoulder in a place called Llwy Pentref, or Spoon Village in proper language. [I fancy that boyo was so cheered by his loss that he ran off singing to Las Vegas, but I might be thinking of someone else – it’s not unusual for me.] The shoulder chip cross-bred with the lusty milk wood and quickly took root in the fertile resentment of the valleys. Botanists have entered it in the catalogue with the tentative classification of dicula lignea.

With that heritage, and the politically correct quarantine facilities around here, it is no surprise to me that the dicky spoonville has taken its place alongside the leek and spread rapidly through a Melbourne mired deeply in grumpiness this past winter. We already had a tradition of stirrers and wooden spooners, and now those hardy perennials will be supplemented by a ready and renewable resource of actual implements.

And what about this?

Something else. I noticed this on my trek through the covid wilderness. There’s even a little welcome mat. What can it mean? Have witchetty grubs evolved in the Melbourne suburbs to the extent they now need their own front doors? Is it the entrance to Wonderland? Is there a connection to the dicky spoonville. Or is it just that someone has fairies at the bottom of her garden?

I suspect that what we have here is a virulent attack of whimsy. This must be shut down and the source of infection destroyed. Bring out your Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, Alice, Beatrix, Mr Toad, magic puddings . . . on the fire with them. Hippity, hippity, hop. Don’t even think about it. Whimsy must be eradicated. And Wordsworth, especially Wordsworth (he hated railways, you know).

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the wives!

Given how long it’s been since schools taught true history, I thought I should let you know a startling discovery I have made trawling through some old and obscure newspaper files.

It’s this: the British Empire, the most tremendous, glorious civilisation ever, bar none, was not brought down by whatever you think happened – an excess of hubris, the Great War, an Even Greater War or mebbe just the yearnin’ o’ people to be free. The real cause was . . . wait for it . . . mixed bathing. Yep, that’s right: the British (well, actually, English) female in the swimming pool with the British male at the same time, simultaneously, together.

I was alerted to this earth-moving fact by a headline “MIXED BATHING A Patriotic Objector” that I stumbled over in the Thursday, 22 July 1920, edition of the long-defunct, but now digitised,  Wellington Times, of western New South Wales. The story went that a Mr Donald Clark, town councillor of Tonbridge, Kent, had become famous in England for his opposition to mixed bathing at the Tonbridge swimming pool. The ever-prurient Poms had found this curious not only because mixed bathing was a pussy cat that, even in 1920, had long since jumped out of the bag and frolicked among the pigeons but also because of his reasons for voting no.

Cr Clark believed this “Continental custom” would weaken his England, dear England, by deterring fine, upstanding Englishmen from marrying their English roses and therefore procreating and populating the Empire. He had done his bit – he’d been married 36 years and fathered eight children.

However, this retired officer of the Scots Guards, with 43 years’ service under his belt, revealed himself as somewhat less than gallant when it came to (as the Wellington Times report put it) “the female form divine”. The image was an “entirely mythical delusion”, of which close and constant observation on Brighton beach had convinced him. 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,” he was quoted as saying. Interesting choice of words. Given Brighton’s reputation as an illicit trysting rendezvous, enduring even today, this statement taken literally might well be true.

I wonder, though, what this veteran Guardsman, of unstated rank and age, was doing on Brighton beach making a forensic examination of wet girls. Could it be that the old buffer – clad in his three-piece suit, slumped in a deckchair, knotted handkerchief protecting his skull from the sun – was, perhaps, like Leopold Bloom, enjoying rather more than the fresh air and sunshine?

Certainly not . . . how dare you, sir!! This is not a music hall sketch, nor a saucy postcard.

Judge for yourself, gentle readers. My diligence in searching the Australian National Library’s Trove database unearthed two other reports of the incident – both of them in the Sydney Sun but from two different Fleet Street rags, the Daily Mail and the Evening News.

The Evening News story seems to have been the original of the three, although it was the last published in Australia. Under the heading “DAMP AND BEDRAGGLED. Beauty in the bath. Mixed bathing and Empire”, the Sun provided the Evening News’ full report of the “impassioned speech” Cr Clark had made to the council before it voted in favour (by one vote) of the proposal for mixed bathing in the public pool on Sundays. Cr Clark had said he did not oppose the motion on puritanical grounds for “although a Scotsman, he admitted the necessity of washing even on a Sunday. He opposed it as an ardent Imperialist and patriot”.

Washing? Even on a Sunday? After that image of grubby Scotsman repairing to the local pool for his Sabbath ablutions, how could anyone not read on? It’s irresistible. Eschewing direct quotes, the reporter conjures up a pitiful picture (under a cross-head “Wet Scotch terrier”):

Let them imagine a young man infatuated overnight by the charm of a beauteous Kentish maiden dancing as his partner at one of the dazzling balls for which Tonbridge was famous. Then think of him meeting her the next morning in the public swimming bath, clad in a ready-made bathing costume that vulgarised her figure, her hair bunched in a hideous cap or straggling over her eyes, making her look like a wet Scotch terrier. He appealed to the council to regard this matter not as a subject for jest, but as Imperialists and patriots. The greatest need of the country was the raising of an Imperial race. That would be impossible if the Town Council in its thoughtlessness 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 coming decadence of this nation.

The Evening News concluded: “The women’s vote being very strong in Tonbridge, Councillor Clark will not seek re-election to the Town Council.”

The Daily Mail followed up the News. A “special correspondent” (most probably a stringer, i.e. a local reporter moonlighting for a few extra bob) went round to see Cr Clark at his home and found a “tall, soldierly man of more than 60” in his garden surprised by the stir he had caused:

Brighton beach bathers

 “I am a Puritan, and proud of it,” he told me [the reporter]. “I was perhaps brought up very strictly. I maintain that nothing is to be gained by any sort of laxness. What I said about mixed bathing was out of my convictions and in the interests of women. I am convinced that women lose more than they gain by mixed bathing, though I do not deny that the subject is a debatable one.” I asked him why he particularly instanced Brighton in his speech. “Simply because I know the town well,” he said. “The last thing I want people to imagine is that I regard Brighton as a very bad example. It is neither worse nor better than any other town. Speaking out of my knowledge of Brighton, however, I believe that more husbands have been lost than won on the beach there through mixed bathing.”

So, my small but perfectly formed audience, am I right? How fares the Empire since Cr Clark lost the argument? Did the parade of wet Scotch (or Skye) terriers through Tonbridge baths so weaken the moral fibre of the nation, and put off English manhood from doing its duty, that the Empire was doomed from then on?

Sadly, Churchill and The Few notwithstanding, I’m afraid so. Sigh.


As an old hack, with three stories on the one subject before me, I could not help but notice the differences among them and, employing observational techniques not unlike those the ungallant Guardsman focused upon the bathing belles of Brighton beach, reflect on journalistic practice. (See my survey of wine language.)

The three stories are each couched in different tones. The Times (of Wellington) is sardonic, with a suspicion of satire; the Mail is amused; the News sensational. Probably none of the reporters was actually present at the meeting because all three stories rely upon indirect speech for reporting what Cr Clark said to his fellow councillors. The only direct quotes are those the Mail reported from its interview with him in his garden.

The advantage of indirect quotation is that it allows the reporter to inject himself into the story by changing, emphasising or omitting words and phrases for effect, or to meet the purposes of the reporter. It also removes the possibility of being accused of plagiarism. However, let’s not get too heavy in this matter. I can tell you from personal experience that most of the differences in reports of the same story are simply the writer or sub-editor choosing one form of words over another or, indeed, just accidents of re-writing. Compare, for example, “responsible for the decadence of the nation” in the Daily Mail with “the source of the coming decadence of this nation” in the Evening News. The two phrases do not carry the same meaning but I’ll wager the Mail reporter (or sub-editor) in following up the News never gave it much thought.

Timing needs to be noted. The Wellington Times’ story was the first of the three to be published but this doesn’t mean its news was actually new. The Sydney Sun/Evening News story five days later, 27 July 1920, begins with the fact that Cr Clark had made his sensational stand on 2 June, nearly eight weeks before. The fastest communication between the UK and Australia 100 years ago was by cable, with messages transmitted in Morse code, but it was expensive and therefore reserved for urgent traffic. Journalists reporting from afar would cable a report in as few words as possible and sub-editors would build up the story with detail and background. Take Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Scoop, as straight reportage of this method. Cr Clark and his opinion would not have been treated in that way, so the story would have come to Australia by sea mail – in which case eight weeks was pretty swift, given the time taken at each end to get the story into print.

The two Sun stories are essentially reprints from their respective sources. The Wellington Times’ is not. The “London correspondent” it credited may have been someone from the district writing home but I doubt it. Most likely, reading the story carefully, the correspondent is a fiction and someone in the newspaper office in dusty Wellington has simply rewritten the Daily Mail’s story as a quizzical report on what is exercising the English press – Mr Clark has “suddenly become famous” at a time when “Continental bathing at fixed hours is the rule, not only at most of the English seaside resorts; but even at most of the public baths in London and the large cities of England”. The tone suggests the writer had his own purpose in rewriting the original. What he did with the only direct quote he took from the Mail clinches it for me.

Compare the Mail’s concluding quote from Cr Clark, as reported by its “special correspondent” in Tonbridge, with ostensibly the same quote reported by the Wellington Times’ “London correspondent”.

The Mail: “Speaking out of my knowledge of Brighton, however, I believe that more husbands have been lost than won on the beach there through mixed bathing.

The Wellington Times: “More husbands have escaped from matrimony on the sands of Brighton than will ever be caught there.”

While similar, the quotes are completely different in meaning and, especially, in tone. We’ll never know what Donald Clark actually said but I’d bet it was closer to the former than the latter. I think the Wellington writer, like me, took a somewhat cynical view of goings-on among husbands and wet girls in Brighton, and took the mickey accordingly. Maybe he had a view of the married state he wished to convey to his own significant other. Whatever the case his was a literary talent wasted in Wellington, NSW.







Whining, Thurber-style


I know ridiculing wine writers is like shooting fish in a barrel, as the saying goes. It’s not sporting. Usually I either just ignore wine guff or skim it, giggle and pass on to better things – like my 3000th game of solitaire.

But, with the pestilence gloom all around, I can’t resist the chance for some much needed fun. Two different winos reviewed the same two vinos this week, enabling a rare “compare and contrast”, plus they commented on three, I think slightly different, wines of the one variety from the same winemaker, which doesn’t allow a direct “apples v. apples” but is fun anyway. One of these super sippers added a sixth sampling, just for me. Oh, the words, the words!

Cop this. A white wine in this collection, one said, “tastes of pears bitten into a day before ripeness”. In the range of pretentiousness indulged in by wine buffs, if James Thurber’s cartoon caption (above) is a baseline 10, this is surely an 8 or 9.

I have omitted the names of the guilty in what follows. I don’t want anyone out there who might be familiar with the perpetrators to write rude comments about how these nice, civilised chaps don’t deserve the abuse of a hack whose almost total ignorance of wine-tasting technicalities and aesthetics is palpable (which it is).

1280px-Agave_americana_R01The first wine out of the cellar door, then, is the one that excited the pear-eater. It is, he said, “a delicious audit of the vineyard’s white varieties” – i.e. a round-up of a bit of everything in the paddock – which evinces, apart from premature pear, “melon rind and cut agave”. Melon rind – this chap is hungry: who voluntarily fangs the rind of any kind of melon? As for agave, I confess I had only a vague idea of what agave might be. This is it pictured here. The modern Jeeves, Wikipedia, informs us: “The genus Agave is primarily known for its succulent and xerophytic [no idea, don’t care] species that typically form large rosettes of strong, fleshy leaves.” Mexicans make tequila from it. Ole!

This white wine, our man in metaphor land concluded, is “taut and crunchy, with a fine talc finish”. Talc? Tasted any arm pits lately?

The other writer was relatively restrained. The wine, he reported, had been matured in a foudre – I looked it up: a vat. “The bouquet,” he opined, “is exotic, verging on oriental, the palate with multitudes of layers and flavours.” Well now, an oriental smell – Chinatown on a hot summer’s day, Jakarta drains, durian?

Next up is a gamay. The nasal nerves and quivering taste buds of one of our critics discovered “a piercing bouquet of all things red, the palate vibrantly crisp cherry, wild strawberry and pomegranate, leaving the mouth alive and fresh”. Sounds like a toothpaste, to go with the talcum powder in the peary white. Oh, and wild strawberries? I guess there are such things – I’ll have to keep an eye out next time I go for a walk in the park. Wouldn’t want to be nipped in the bud by a feral fruit.

The other scribe found in the gamay “Campari and rhubarb, five spice and char siu pork, some rubbed herb and wisps of smoke. A squeaky cranberry dryness. Slippery, juicy, fragrant.” Where does this epicure eat? I want some, apart from rhubarb which I consider a weed. But really, he’s fallen down on the job here – this is pretty much standard stuff for wine notes. I expected more pears of wisdom from him. “A wisp of smoke” lifts the crit a little.

The third variety these guys passed over their gullets was a pinot noir. I won’t try to sort out the three apparently different bottles. One of these wines, Cap’n Peary said, is “a shape shifter, a tight rope treader. From one angle it delivers wild strawberries, red licorice, delicately sweet spices. From another you see rhubarb and roast beetroot, some rubbed herb and blood orange. It’s a wine that hums with nervous energy.” All those flavours – it’s a dinner party on the tongue.

I don’t think I’ll ever walk a tight-rope again without eating a blood orange tasting of red licorice. Erk. Has he ever eaten red licorice?

The other gourmet found “a garden of spices alongside almost casual purity of varietal fruit”. Some glowing technical accolades followed, outlining the wine’s greatness “created by the stealth of its oh-so-fine yet persistent tannins. There’s no bombast here, just infinite class.” Oh-so-amusing.

Finally, I pass on to the chardonnay – an incomparable drop because only one of my two critics rolled his tongue around it. This wine, apparently, “draws its descriptors from geology as much as botany. Flint, quartz, and chalk [love the Oxford comma] form a bedrock on which elements of creamy lemon curd, delicate white stone fruits and dried pears sit. Cuddly at its core, alert and crunchy at its edges, graceful through the finish”.

OK, if the time ever arrives when we can go to restaurants again, I am going to clutch to my bosom a dessert combining coagulated milk flavoured with lemon juice, lychees from the original can and shrivelled pear, served on a crumbly lump of preferably quartz rock balanced carefully on the edge of the table – y’know, graceful, like – until I’m done.

Wine: the final front bar. These are the voyages of the steamed-up ship Pretension. Its eternal mission: to explore strange new words. To seek out new jargon and new metaphors. To boldly split infinitives where no wine-scribe has gone before!