Corduroy & Cabbage 12 – A Crappy Christmas

Like many immigrant families, mine continued to observe traditional customs, even when it seemed obvious that such customs might be unsuitable for the Australian experience. For as long as I could remember, Christmas Day revolved around the traditional roast turkey dinner. This was served in the middle of the day, regardless of the temperature outside – 25” or 40”. Most years, as we feasted on roast turkey and roast potatoes, our Christmas party hats would be wilting in the heat as sweat dripped from our foreheads.

My mum had been preparing the meal since breakfast. After the flurry and excitement of present giving, she would disappear into the kitchen, only reappearing to organise or instruct my three sisters and I. We would spend the morning exploring our new gifts – roller skates, bicycles, model planes, animal books, Barbie accessories etc. Soon, it would be time to put these aside and get ready for the day. This would involve donning our predetermined Christmas outfits – frilly dresses and frilly socks for my sisters; shorts, walk socks and sandals for me (very sexy).

Christmas dinner itself was usually uneventful. We observed the same rituals as any normal Catt family dinner. (My sister, Deborah, ate everything and wanted more. My youngest sister, Joanne, ate nothing. I tried to avoid brussell sprouts.) It was one of the few times of the year that my parents drank any alcohol, although they usually indulged in little more than a glass or two. If we were lucky, the kids also got a taste of the Summer Wine or Cold Duck (yuk).

After lunch, we gathered a few of our Christmas toys and our swimming gear, and headed off to our grandmother’s house. She’d followed us to Australia after divorcing my grandfather some years earlier, and eventually married a large, taciturn man we knew as Bill. They shared a house in nearby Pooraka, which included a large in-ground swimming pool.

Midway through the afternoon, the rowdy Catt clan arrived to ruin their Christmas solitude. But if it was hot the kids spent the rest of the day splashing around in the pool, playing nonsense games about sharks or crocodiles, hidden underwater caves or superheroes, leaving the adults to chat or drink quietly.

My grandmother, or Nanny, as she was known to us, prepared Christmas tea for us all – cold meat, salads, turkey leftovers, chips, nuts, cakes etc. We were usually so full after tea that we were forbidden from re-entering the pool until our meal was properly digested. (My sister, Deborah, always ignored this command, and I waited in horror for her to sink or explode. She did neither.)

As evening loomed, and everyone began feeling a little tired, we came inside, changed out of our swimming costumes, and played board games or cards. The adults usually played their own card games (bridge, canasta), leaving us to look on or pester them with demands for drink and food. By about 10.00pm we all climbed sleepily into our car for the short drive home to bed.

Year after year, our Christmases followed this basic format. There was rarely any drama or variation to the formula. That is, there wasn’t until my nan fell ill. One Christmas, we arrived to find her looking pale and complaining of an awful headache. When her situation worsened, and an ambulance was called, we were asked to visit her one by one as she lay on her bed. It was obvious that something awful was happening.

Our grandmother had had a brain aneurysm, and while she did not die that day (it would be almost a year before she finally passed away) she was never the same again.

Our Christmases were also never the same after Nanny died – no more afternoons in the pool, late night card games etc. We didn’t want to burden Bill with our noisy presence on Christmas Day, but invited him to spend it with us instead. And, most years, he did join us for dinner, sitting down in our tiny dining room to eat roast turkey in the sweltering heat, beads of sweat on his forehead dampening his party hat.

Songs for Christmas – a Review

Sufjan Stevens has never been one to shy away from the big projects. His earliest musical endeavours included concept ‘albums’ about The Nine Planets and The 12 Apostles, while his second album, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’, was a suite of symphonic songs about the Chinese Zodiac. And, of course, there is the 50 states project, an epic undertaking, which should keep him busy well into the second half of the century.

It seems only natural, therefore, that he should collect a series of Christmas songs, produced for family and friends over a period of six years, and issue them in a five disc box set, together with songbook, comic, essays, stickers and other goodies. In one of the accompanying essays, Stevens hilariously describes the dysfunctional family Christmases of his childhood, and confesses that this project has been a way of rediscovering both the good and the bad about the holiday season.

For us, it serves another purpose, as the five discs, originally conceived as individual EPs, were recorded (apart from 2004) on an annual basis, and allow us to chart the artist’s progression from folksy guitarist to chamber-pop genius.

There are 42 songs here, from traditional Christmas carols and instrumental favourites to quirky pop tunes and silly seasonal sing-a-longs. Those familiar with Stevens’ treatment of tribute album contributions and cover-tunes will know he is likely to bring freshness to whatever he touches, and that is certainly the case here. One such highlight of the earlier discs is ‘What Child Is This Anyway?’ while the usually cringe worthy ‘Little Drummer Boy’ is substantially transformed.

It’s an eclectic bunch of songs, with highlights dotted across all five discs, but it is probably the most recent two that feature the real treasures. ‘It’s Christmas Time’, with its layers of fuzzed-up guitars, is the least Christmas-sounding song on the set, but among the best. Later on the same disc, Stevens asks ‘Did I Make You Cry On Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!) – a deliciously comic (and quite moving) take on the awful holidays of his youth.

Disc five, recorded just this year, contains six Stevens originals, the best of which would not be out of place on ‘Illinois’ or ‘The Avalanche’. The organ-filled ‘Get Behind Me, Santa!’ gets the nod for the silliest song on the set, with some hilariously irreverent Christmas lyrics, but both ‘Jupiter Winter’ and ‘Sister Winter’ are gorgeously melancholic. ‘Star Of Wonder’ is similarly beautiful, a swirling rush of organ and woodwinds. That Stevens is able to bring so much to what could be considered a somewhat slight project is a testament to his talent as a songwriter and arranger/producer.

It could be argued that one could distill the best of this collection into one particularly fine album, but I think that would be missing the point. ‘Songs for Christmas’ is about the whole lousy, wonderful, stupid, heartwarming, saddening experience we know as Christmas, with its excesses, tackiness and (yes) its beautiful moments.

So, as Santa Sufjan suggests, ‘It’s Christmas, Let’s Be Glad!’

Going Underground, Poetry On The Fringe

Over the past 30 years, Adelaide has established itself as a fertile breeding ground for quality poets and poetry. South Australian poets regularly appear in national ‘best of’ anthologies, while the city is home to numerous live poetry venues and at least one quality literary journal.

But Adelaide is also the home of a healthy network of poets who consider themselves at work outside the established poetry scene. One of the principals behind this so-called ‘underground’ poetry movement is Keith Salmon.

‘When most people think of poetry, they think of words, they think of paper, they think of language. What we are trying to do is quite different. When we think of poetry, we think of meat. We think of sausages, steak and pork chops,’ says Salmon passionately.

The Meat Poets have been meeting at a disused sausage factory in the western suburbs for the last three years. Their first anthology, ‘Let’s Talk Pork’, is due for release in the New Year, although it has been ready for some 18 months. Keith identifies the lack of support from local booksellers as the main reason behind the delay.

‘Your average bookseller knows little about poetry. They look at a plate of beef mince and think ‘dinner’. Unfortunately, they’ve refused to stock our anthology until we provide the necessary refrigeration. They don’t want smelly product. Some philistines have even suggested we approach butchers rather than bookshops!’

Dianne Melon, of Poets Without Words, bemoans a similar lack of support for her ‘silent’ poetry. Her first collection, ‘Invisible Verse’, sold out at a prominent Adelaide bookshop within a couple of weeks. At first she was elated, but then discovered that they were selling the collection as a notebook or diary, not a poetry collection. Dianne admits that the lack of words in her collection could be confusing.

‘There’s a tendency in our culture to expect poetry to contain words. Why is this so? I aim to change this expectation.’

Not all underground poetry is as challenging as the Meat Poets or Poets Without Words. The Word Maggots have been writing as a group for six years. They meet underneath a railway bridge in the Adelaide foothills. Unlike the other groups, and as their name suggests, they do work with words. But unlike traditional poets, the Word Maggots do not write with paper and pen, they write with paint, chalk and other substances on a variety of surfaces. Their most infamous work is an epic entitled ‘How Now’ which was written on a herd of cows. Each cow featured only one or two words of the poem. With the animals in constant motion, the poem never read the same way twice.

‘’How Now’ was our masterpiece,’ says Maggot leader, Leon O. ‘Until then, we’d only worked with much smaller creatures – dogs, cats, mice. The sheer size of a cow allowed us to say so much more.’

The owner of the herd was less impressed, and attempted to press charges against the group. It’s this confrontational aspect of the Word Maggots that has seen them labelled as ‘guerrilla’ or ‘terrorist’ poets.

Also based in the Adelaide Hills are the Gumleaf Poets, who perform their work while dressed as marsupials. Until earlier this year their monthly meeting was held in a eucalyptus tree overlooking the South Eastern Freeway. Unfortunately, one of the group fell mid-poem, and was crushed by a semi-trailer. The tragedy was compounded when other drivers, thinking the poet was a native animal, drove over him repeatedly.

The group write traditional rhyming bush verse, and regularly publish in magazines and newspapers, but find they are not taken seriously by the rest of the literary community.

‘They seem to object to the costumes,’ says Gumleaf founder, Norma Devlin. ‘But I think the costumes lend authenticity to the poetry. After all, who better to read a poem about gum trees than a koala!’

One of the most vocal supporters of the poetic fringe is public radio host, Pam Lamb. She regularly features underground poets on her radio show ‘Poetry Tomorrow’ and is trying to organise a festival of such poets to coincide with the next Adelaide Festival of Arts in 2008.

‘There’s such a wealth of poetic talent in this city that is simply not getting the exposure it deserves,’ says Pam. ‘You’ve got the Word Maggots in the Hills, the Meat Poets, the Yo-Yo Collective. People like Colin Crisp, Dorothy Clunder, Ricky Fiddle. And, of course, Poets On A String.’

Apart from her work with ‘Poetry Tomorrow’ Pam Lamb has been heavily involved with fringe group Poets On A String for eight years.

‘At first, there was a reluctance to accept that poetry could be performed by puppets,’ explains Pam.

When Pam first started the group in the late 90s, she only managed to interest two other people, one of which was her aunt, Patsy. But now, as the group enters its ninth year, membership has skyrocketed to seven, while their debut anthology, ‘Sawdust Memories’, released last year by Medium Press, has sold over thirteen copies.

‘I don’t know why we’ve suddenly become so successful,’ admits Pam. ‘I think people are just ready to hear puppets read poetry.’

Underground poetry icon, Ricky Fiddle, agrees that the local literary community has opened up slightly to the idea of alternative poetry in recent years, but doesn’t believe that it’s necessarily linked to an interest in puppetry.

‘I think the public are just getting sick of the same old thing. They’re sick of Shakespeare and Banjo Paterson. They’re sick of reading poetry in books. They want to see poems written on helicopters or watermelons. They want poetry you can eat. Poetry you can throw at a bus.’

Fiddle’s most recent collection ‘Word Wind’ was, in fact, the result of ingesting words written on plastic film, and vomiting them back up. He’s also thrown his poetry from seaside cliffs, set fire to it, and fed it to goats.

‘Poetry is everywhere,’ marvels Fiddle. ‘Next time you go to the toilet, don’t just wipe your arse and leave. Have a look at what you’ve created – that’s poetry!’

Fear of Gardening

About twenty years ago, I realised that I suffered from a terrible, debilitating, and seemingly rare affliction – a fear of gardening. It all began not long after my former partner and I bought our first house together. She had decided that we needed to upgrade the backyard. It was quite a large area, very deep, with a slight uphill slope from the patio to where the yard ended, just behind the garden shed. The yard was dotted here and there with bedraggled native plants, while the central area featured a patchy, brown lawn.

My partner had a friend whose boyfriend ran a landscaping business. She arranged for him for give us a quote for an overhaul of the yard – new trees and shrubs, a new lawn, a bark garden contained by old railway sleepers. After we’d seen the quote, and I said I didn’t think it was a good idea, my partner arranged for the work to go ahead anyway. This was particularly annoying, given that the quote was based on the fact that I would be doing half of the actual work.

So, as the middle of summer approached, I found myself hauling barrow-loads of bark and sand around the yard. I lost count of trips back and forth to the gardening supply store. As temperatures hovered around the 40-degree mark, I grew faint and weak, but stumbled on, afraid to appear too pathetic in front of the burly landscaper. My partner and her friend sat in the air-conditioned comfort of our house, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, while occasionally waving to us, sweating and sunburnt, in the garden.

As the work on our garden was confined to the weekends (the landscaper didn’t want this job interfering with his ‘proper’ work) it took about a month and a half before everything was finished. It seemed to take forever. The completed job looked ‘okay’, I guess, although I was never a big fan of the ‘bark chip’ idea, and the lawn never grew properly. As I surveyed the garden in the weeks afterwards, considered the time, expense and physical work involved in the project, I was struck by an amazing revelation – I never wanted to do such a thing again. The mere thought of gardening made me feel physically ill.

Years later, when it came time to buy a home for myself and my two daughters, I deliberately chose a house with a ‘low maintenance’ garden. We looked at dozens of places, but it was the house with the small, narrow – mostly paved – backyard that we chose. There was just a sliver of garden around the edges of the yard, and that was covered by the ubiquitous bark chips. It all looked so easy to maintain.

All was fine in the summer – it was easy to look after. An occasional watering and a little weeding was all that was required. But then winter arrived, and in particular, the winter rain, and weeds blossomed across the barked area. As I looked upon the green mass of unwelcome vegetation I started to feel faint and giddy. I had to force myself to confront them – filling rubbish bags and buckets with weeds. But the following week they were back in force. I tried spraying weed-killer. I tried digging up entire patches of the yard. But it was a losing battle. In the end, I gave up, and for about five years let the weeds rule the garden. Before I finally sold the house, I had to spend about five thousand dollars clearing up its fabulous ‘low maintenance’ garden.

We now live in an inner-city cottage. It has the tiniest garden imaginable, with a few vines, a couple of shrubs, a small tree or two. The back yard has a patch of lawn no bigger than a living room rug. But the other day, when walking at the side of our house, I noticed something green and wiry poking through the layers of scoria covering the path. And not just one, but several, dotted here and there along the lane. My heart started beating faster; I broke out in a sweat. I felt faint. Weeds.

Kate Deller-Evans – Guest Poet

I am delighted to introduce the poetry of Kate Deller-Evans. Kate is the last Guest Poet for 2006. Thank you to all the poets for their contributions, and the readers for their feedback and encouraging comments.

Kate Deller-Evans is acting coordinator of Professional Writing at the Adelaide Centre for the Arts (TAFE South) and a creative writing doctoral student at Flinders University. Her poems have been published in journals, magazines and two collections: Travelling with Bligh (in New Poets 7) and Coming into the World. With Steve Evans she edited Another Universe: FS Poets 28, (Wakefield Press) and their Best of Friends collection (soon for publication) is a 30-year retrospective of Friendly Street Poets. She has an affinity with the visual arts and a number of her poems have been illustrated – exhibited in South Australian Living Artists (SALA), as part of an artists’ book and on a canvas, currently hanging in a Stirling cafe. Her poems have been described by Jeff Guess as “surprising, moving, charged with emotion and beautifully wrought”.


At the Hospital Cafeteria

Overflowing, like the carpark
all coming-and-going
and gabble.

It’s an atmosphere
alien to counterparts
outside the health system.

Where else could you
be seated next to a man
wearing only a dressing gown?

The industrial-strength trolley girl
measures a smile
across our burdened table—

colouring-in books, textas, crayons
designed to allay frustrations
of little ones, impatient

for a grandmother’s return
—she’s upstairs, giving blood
ahead of the dose of chemo

never designed as a cure
but to calm the hacking cough,
companion for the coming months (not years).

You must choose whether you want your last days
to be busy with the regimen of such treatments,
the brochure says.

Air stirs as the mid-shift crowd leave
odd folk crowned with paper
shower caps, spider-spun.

At every table of those left
at least one of each pair
is nodding

there is talk of procedures, operations
outcomes, failures
—the word dead floats by.

It’s a one-stop-shop
heck, there’s even Keno
and an endless queue.

More happens here than in most malls
it’s a microcosm
all hopes and fears.

My mother arrives, resigned
another hour to wait for results
before the first infusion.

School Excursion

at first it doesn’t look too bad
she does a head count: is one of five parents
more than the usual to wrangle the little beggars

but on the train into town the other adults
are a gaggle down one end
and she’s lumped with the left-over boys
already plotting their fall

but they’re not hopeless, she tells herself
and commits their names to memory
so she can bawl them out, as she’ll inevitably do
sometime down the track

at the concert she has the misfortune
of sitting next to the mother-of-the-biggest-thug
who is preening her son, ignoring his fat elbow
as he winds the small boy beside him

they’re not a receptive audience
their upbringing unused to such occasions
more the sort to make good football crowds
not delicately clap hands when the singing’s done

when finally they spill out onto the scrap of lawn
and minimal shade under hot sun
she tears the metal wrap from two dispirin
dissolves them in her child’s drink-cup
awash with brown lime cordial

wishes she’d brought her own
laced it with brandy
medicine for the return journey
fighting all the way

Outside

the light is sulphur-yellow
dawn gone golden
ominous, with the birds berserk
screaming tree to tree.

I’m drawn to see what the fuss is
– apart from the odd-coloured sky –
away from my desk and the work
I don’t want, anyway.

Across the road it’s there –
massive arcs of a double rainbow,
vibrant hues of my five year-old’s palette;
she should be here.

I want to wake the entire family,
have them witness, too, this peculiar scene:
the rumble of thunder coming like airforce heavy transports
on a mission to our house.

Then the first fat splot of rain hits my head,
then another and another. Not warm, as they should be
– after days of heat –
but cold as bullets.

And I’m back inside the house,
unplugging the computer,
putting on the kettle, wondering how
I can face the ordinary day.

Copyright

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The Prestige – a Review

At the outset of Christopher Nolan’s new movie, ‘The Prestige’, we are told that a magic trick has three parts. ‘The Pledge’ or the set-up, whereby something ordinary is presented to us; ‘The Turn’, in which something extraordinary happens to the ordinary; and ‘The Prestige’, the ultimate twist or revelation.

Nolan’s movie follows a similar structure, employing the same sleight of hand as the magicians on-screen. Time shifts, parallel storylines and identity switches are skillfully woven together to produce a spellbinding tale of envy and revenge.

The movie opens at the trial of Cockney magician, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), who stands accused of murdering rival magician, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). We are shown a glimpse of Angier’s death, before being taken back to review the circumstances that brought the characters to this point. We learn of their origins as apprentices working with mentor, Cutter (the ever reliable Michael Caine), and of the terrible accident that saw them change from colleagues to bitter enemies.

These scenes are intercut with the story of Angier’s journey to Colorado to seek the aid of inventor Nikolas Tesla (the surprisingly convincing David Bowie). Angier is convinced that Tesla can build him a machine that will enable him to perform the greatest magic act of all – The Transported Man.

While Nolan has chosen to work again with Christian Bale and Michael Caine, the movie ‘The Prestige’ most resembles is not ‘Batman Begins’ but ‘Memento’. Like that earlier movie, the screenplay for ‘The Prestige’ was co-written by Nolan and brother Jonathan (adapted from the novel by Christopher Priest), and also, like ‘Memento’, we are given pieces of a complicated puzzle in a seemingly random fashion, and asked to make sense of them.

It helps that the performances are generally outstanding. Both Bale and Jackman excel as men pushed to extremes as their rivalry deepens and takes its toll on their personal lives. As already mentioned, Caine and Bowie lend solid support, while the women in their lives, played by Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Piper Perabo, are all quite marvelous (although Johansson’s small role doesn’t really test her skills).

The streets and theatres of 19th century London have been beautifully recreated, although ‘The Prestige’ is not a ‘widescreen’ period piece filled with lavish decoration. The sets are generally small, and the scenes intimate, focusing on the characters rather than their surroundings. The Colorado scenes achieve the same intimacy by using mist and fog to ‘enclose’ the actors.

‘The Prestige’ is the sort of movie that requires your full attention. Given some of the confused comments I overheard after the screening I attended, it’s easy to miss crucial information, particularly in the final scenes, where we discover that both Borden and Angier keep a terrible secret.

It is a hugely satisfying and enjoyable film, and further proof that Christopher Nolan is shaping up as one of the most original and accomplished cinematic storytellers of the decade.

Jarvis – a Review


In the five years since Pulp’s last (and probably final) album, the underrated ‘We Love Life’, Jarvis Cocker has kept a pretty low profile. Apart from writing the occasional song for Nancy Sinatra or Charlotte Gainsbourg, there’s been an uncharacteristic silence. Such a long gap between projects can often lead to the undoing of an artist (e.g. The Stone Roses).

It’s somewhat of a relief, therefore, to discover that Jarvis Cocker’s first solo album is quite splendid. Musically, the album is not dissimilar from Pulp, unsurprising perhaps, given that the instrumental core of ‘Jarvis’ is Richard Hawley, Steve Mackey (both of whom played with Pulp) and Cocker himself. The lyrics contain plenty of the self-deprecating wit we’ve come to expect from Cocker. The mood of the album is generally bleak and the outlook pessimistic, but like his compatriot, Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker is somehow able to subvert the misery, and find relief in the comic image or clever turn of phrase.

After a short instrumental intro, the album launches into its opening track, the ambling yet anthemic ‘Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time’, in which Cocker offers the following advice to a close friend or potential lover.

Cos the years fly by in an instant
And you wonder what he’s waiting for
Then some skinny bitch walks by in hot pants
And he’s a-running out the door

The next song ‘Black Magic’ is just as good. A kind of 21st century reading of the 60s hit ‘Crimson And Clover’. A sample of the original tune augments the sparse instrumentation, along with strange synthetic sounds and rhythms. It’s not entirely clear what ‘Black Magic’ actually is (a drug, a person, a type of chocolate), but it’s one of the few things that Cocker seems to like.

We can’t escape; we’re born to die
But I’m gonna give it a real good try
Because nothing comes close and nothing can compare
To Black Magic – Yeah, yeah yeah

After the slightly perfunctory ‘Heavy Weather’, comes another highlight, the gruesomely titled ‘I Will Kill Again’. Over delicate piano and flute sounds, Cocker lists a string of pleasant images –

Build yourself a castle
Keep your family safe from harm
Get into classical music
Raise rabbits on a farm

And then the twist …don’t believe me if I claim to be your friend…I will kill again.

The irony is turned up for the following track ‘Baby’s Coming Back To Me’ (originally written for Nancy Sinatra), which features a similarly pleasant sequence of images, but doesn’t come with a punchline. However, it’s clear to everyone but the song’s singer that ‘baby’ isn’t coming back at all.

‘Fat Children’ is the album’s ‘rock moment’. Here, Cocker hilariously recounts the robbery of his mobile phone by a gang of children, over crunching guitars and drums.

Fat children took my life. Oh.

‘From Auschwitz To Ipswich’ is probably the bleakest song on ‘Jarvis’ (not counting the bonus ‘hidden’ track ‘Running The World’). Its mood is summarized by the opening lines.

They want our way of life
Well, they can take mine any time they like

Cocker goes on to renounce his lifestyle, comparing the Western World to the Roman Empire, and encourages others to do the same.

It’s the end: why don’t you admit it?

In contrast, the music itself is quite gentle and pleasant, with string sounds, rhythm guitar and a distant bubbling synth.

This contrast between sweet-sounding music and grim lyrics is maintained throughout the rest of the album. The final track ‘Quantum Theory’ sounds particularly uplifting, with its swirling strings and moody guitars. On the surface it appears to be a celebratory song, with Cocker singing reassuringly ‘Everything is going to be alright’. It is only on closer inspection that we realise he is not talking about our world, but one in a parallel dimension.

Jarvis, it’s good to have you back.

Corduroy & Cabbage 11 – Bulldozers, Bridges & Pipe Dreams

In the early 1970s, Ingle Farm was an area of growth and development. Houses, schools and shops were being built. Roads and carparks replaced open fields. Consequently, there was always earthmoving equipment in the area – bulldozers, graders, steamrollers etc. My friends and I were fascinated by them. One of us would turn up at school with news of a grader or bulldozer in their street, and we would all run down to check it out. Sometimes, if we were feeling really brave, and there were no workmen around, we’d climb up into the driver’s seat. We fantasised about finding one with the keys still in the ignition.

At the peak of our fascination we pretended that a parade of bulldozers and steamrollers was planned for main streets of our suburb. The boundaries between fact and fantasy blurred, however, when we told other kids that we’d actually seen the parade, and produced ‘photographs’ as proof. I don’t think the crayon and pencil scribbles we claimed were ‘photos’ fooled anyone.

Our interest in building sites went beyond an adoration of bulldozers. We also loved vacant blocks, bridges, pipes, pillars, hills and mounds of dirt. Anything that could be crossed, climbed, crawled through or under, or turned into a cubby house, a racetrack or a dam. If we found a new building, unoccupied but otherwise complete, we would try to find a way into it, by crawling beneath the floorboards, or up and through the roof cavity.

Once, when playing in the foundations of a new school, we were trapped by a bunch of older kids. They’d blocked the exit with a huge concrete slab, leaving us to tunnel our way to freedom. After escaping, we giggled while watching them look for us, baffled by our apparent disappearance.

But we didn’t need anyone else’s help in making things difficult for us; we were quite good at doing that ourselves. For example, one afternoon Keith and I decided to cross a local bridge on the outside of the pedestrian guardrail. There was nothing between us and a fatal fall to the road below. We thought we were awfully brave, but our parents would have been horrified.

On another occasion, Keith and I dared each other to crawl along the pipe that spanned the local creek. It was fairly narrow and very slippery, and while we both managed to slither across, it wasn’t without getting wet and quite muddy.

And then there was our storm drain period. When one of us discovered that a drain emptying into the creek led to a series of interconnected tunnels, we were compelled to investigate. There must have been half-a-dozen of us, armed with boots and torches, sloshing about in the pipes underneath the streets. We weren’t trying to cause trouble or upset anyone, but when one neighbour heard voices coming from the drain outside his house he threatened to call the police.

We gave up exploring drains when it became obvious that we weren’t going to discover the doorway to a secret military bunker or cavernous underground world.

A Larry David Moment

Fans of Larry David’s ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ will be familiar with the situation. What will start off as a seemingly trivial confrontation with one of life’s many obstacles will snowball into something far more threatening and unpleasant. Larry isn’t such a bad guy, he’s just unlucky. Sure, he can be stubborn and difficult, and he’s certainly his own worst enemy, but most of the time Larry’s really just trying to make sense of a world gone mad.

Well, recently I had my own ‘Larry David’ moment. I wasn’t looking for trouble. I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I was just trying to apply commonsense to a fairly simple and innocuous transaction. But it could have ended in bloodshed.

It all began when I decided to help my daughter out with a little financial matter. She’d received a cheque for $10.00 – a refund from the SA Government for something – and, having never received a cheque before, didn’t know how to negotiate it for cash. I started explaining how she’d have to deposit the cheque to her account, then thought of a better idea. I was going to the bank later that day. I would give her a $10.00 note, then take the cheque and deposit it to my account.

Several hours later, I found myself in the lobby of an unfamiliar bank branch queuing up to deposit a sum of cash and cheques to my credit card account. I had about $300.00 to deposit, including the $10.00 cheque made out to my daughter. When it was my turn, I handed the cash and cheques to the teller, and waited for her to stamp my receipt and enter the transaction to my account. When she came to my daughter’s cheque, she hesitated, then asked; ‘Is this a joint account?’

I explained how I’d given my daughter $10.00 in exchange for the cheque. I told her that the money was a refund from the Government, and that I’d probably paid the fee in the first place, so the money was mine anyway. She wasn’t impressed. ‘You can’t deposit this cheque into your account. It’s got to be paid into an account in your daughter’s name.’

Now, before I go any further, I need to explain a few things. Once upon a time, I worked for the bank in which I was now attempting to deposit the $10.00. I worked for them for 19 years, and for many of them as a teller in the branch network. I’d also worked as a relieving manager, a loans officer and an investment advisor. I was well acquainted with the concept of risk, and the rules regarding the negotiation of third party cheques. In this instance, the amount of the cheque was negligible, and my explanation regarding ownership of the cheque was not far-fetched or unbelievable. I was also a longstanding customer (25 years) with numerous investment and lending accounts.

But the teller was having none of it. Stony-faced, she repeated as though a robot; ‘Your daughter will need to authorize the cheque before it can be negotiated.’

I am not one to lose my temper in public, in fact, I am regularly told how patient and understanding I am. But when the teller called her colleague over, and they both looked at the cheque, then said in the same robotic voice – ‘You can’t deposit this cheque into your account’ – I started to get a little annoyed.

‘But it’s just $10.00,’ I insisted, shrugging my shoulders as if to show how little it meant to me.

‘You can’t deposit this cheque into your account.’

I happened to look up at this point, and noticed the customer at the next teller’s window taking an interest in what was happening to me. He was a slovenly dressed male in his late twenties/early thirties. He was tall, with a medium build and an abundance of facial hair. I thought for a moment that he might have been sympathetic. But then he opened his mouth.

‘Listen buddy,’ he mumbled. ‘If you don’t talk nice to those girls I’m gonna take you outside and teach you a lesson.’

I think I laughed at that point, and looked around me, as though thinking he might have been talking to someone else. I could have ignored him. I could have pretended he’d said nothing. But I didn’t.

‘Why don’t you mind your own business!’

I looked away then, back to the teller, who was now suggesting that she refer the transaction to the branch manager.

‘But it’s only $10.00,’ I pleaded.

‘Hey mate,’ interrupted the customer at the next teller’s window again. ‘If you don’t leave them alone I’m gonna smack you in the head.’

I could have called him a moron. I could have elbowed him in the eye or urinated on his shoes, but I did neither. Instead, I meekly took my $10.00 cheque and shuffled away from the teller’s window. I didn’t run. I didn’t do or say anything but walk calmly out of the bank, leaving the thug to gloat over his ‘victory’.

Did I imagine them laughing behind my back? Did I imagine applause? Did I imagine the thug making chicken sounds?

As I walked back to my car I couldn’t help but wonder what Larry David would have done. If only I was as brave as Larry. If only…

Corduroy & Cabbage 10 – The Reluctant Boy Scout

When I was a child I had great difficulty asserting myself. Consequently, I often found myself talked into doing things I didn’t really want to do. When I was about 12 years old, one of my friends invited me to a ‘bring a friend’ evening at the local scout group. I thought the evening was ‘okay’, so when he asked me to go again, I said ‘yes’ – but just this one last time.

Six months later, and I was still going. I’d been talked into buying a uniform. I was talked into learning to tie knots and build a campfire. I was soon chanting along with the others (‘dib dib dib dob dob dob’). My father was so impressed that he became involved in fundraising activities for the group. Pretty soon I realised I was trapped. (Meanwhile, the ‘friend’ who’d talked me into going in the first place had stopped going.)

It wasn’t long before I discovered that scouts provided bullies with yet another opportunity to pick on the weaker kids. This was particularly evident with any hiking or camping activities. The bullies shared the same tent, smoked cigarettes and looked at pornographic magazines together. The weaklings (like me) got the worst campsite, the worst tent and the worst jobs. I can vividly remember washing filthy pots and pans in cold water at night, while the bullies stood around the campfire sharing cigarettes and sex stories.

My parents were oblivious to any of this. They thought that I was having a great time. In fact, I can remember Mum remarking on the fact that I used to stand by the window and watch for my ride to scouts drive up to the house. She thought I was excited and couldn’t wait to get there, when the opposite was true. I dreaded going, and was praying that they’d forget me, or break down on the way.

It wasn’t just boys that bullied. Some of the adult scoutmasters were just as bad. I can only assume that they themselves had been bullied as kids, and enjoyed the opportunity to enact some kind of revenge by bullying others. One of the scoutmasters was in the army, and used the scouts as a kind of ‘proving ground’ for his warped idea of discipline. He used to scream at us until his reddening face looked like it was going to explode!

But the worst thing about scouts wasn’t the bullying, the camping or even the evil scoutmasters. The worst thing about scouts was the dreaded ‘Bottle Drive’. About once a year, all of the scouts and their parents had to go doorknocking for empty beer bottles. On their own, individual bottles weren’t worth much, but a whole truck full of bottles provided a fair bit of much-needed cash for the group.

We’d start as early as possible. People would often still be having breakfast, and would answer the door dressed in their pyjamas. It was usually the bleary-eyed ‘man of the house’ that guiltily led us to the bottom of the garden where his stash was hidden. The bottles had usually been laying there for some time, covered in dirt, tangled in weeds, with snails and slugs stuck to them. Sometimes there was still a trickle of beer inside, and it ran down your arm, or the front of your shirt, when you picked it up the bottle. We loaded the beer bottles into boxes and crates and stacked them in the back of the station wagon. By the end of the day everything stank of beer – hands, clothes, hair. It was revolting.

It was years before I managed to worm my way out of the scouts. Long enough to develop an aversion to uniforms, discipline, marching, camping, knots, and – most of all – beer.