Monday, November 9, 2009

I'll sue!

Some jumped-up Welshman's been having a go at me on his rotten little blog. I leave it for fair-minded Australians to come to my defence:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A man, a plan, a canal - Panama. No, sorry, Venice!

I know everyone is supposed to fall in love with Venice on sight, but guess what? Venice is just a massive European K-Mart with cobbles.

Not that the Titanium Princess would agree. The T.P. literally waltzed across the Rialto bridge as we made our way to Al Gazzettino, the hotel in which she'd stayed a couple of years earlier. She was all smiles, and seemed to have lost about thirty years, as we walked down the little alleyways that featured so prominently in Don't Look Now. It was a delight to watch her (as I struggled with two recalcitrant suitcases and a massive hangover), tripping lightly along, staring into shop windows and mentally arithmeticking the vast amounts of money she would shortly be spending on Venetian knick-knacks. 

The hotel was on a little canal called the Dell Aquae San Marco, about halfway between the Rialto Bridge and the famous square of San Marco. An ideal spot, and one in which the T.P. had fallen in love with Italy, and all things Italian, a couple of years before. A very charming and urbane gentleman in a suit greeted us at the reception desk, and showed us to our room. He kept referring to the T.P. in the third person, as in "Madam will find that...", and "If Madam would like to..." He quite deliberately left me out of the picture, no doubt assuming I was some stupid Venetian lackey who was merely carrying the bags, and would trundle off once my job was done. (He did get quite a surprise the next morning when, in search of coffee, I bundled noisily down the stairs and gave him a forthright "G'day mate" as I galloped out of the hotel.)

Al Gazzettino is, in fact, a terrific little hotel. It was once the headquarters of an eponymous local newspaper, and its restaurant's walls are lined with old clippings and photographs of Venice from the late 19th century onwards. After the excruciating horrors of the Ikarus Palace, it was a godsend, if one likes to imagine that a non-existent deity would ever have the forethought to put a nice hotel in the middle of a waterlogged city. I liked it just fine, as there was a little stall down the alley-way where good coffee at less than a billion Euros a shot could be had, served by a genial young woman with a face like a Botticelli painting.

After my run-in with the law at the bottom of the gang-plank the previous morning, I was going to take every precaution I could against further interest from the Carabiniari, having been appraised of their prediliction to offer warnings against poor behaviour in the form of horses' heads at the foot of one's bed. I decided a 7.30 a.m. stroll around the precinct would be just the ticket. I hadn't gone far when I came across a gentleman in a black and white striped shirt and a funny little straw bota on his head, fiddling around in the front of a gondola on the canal. We had a short conversation in that curious argot where English morphs into Italian and back again, and you do this for several minutes, smile, laugh, and shake hands with many "See yous" and "Arrividercis", and continue on your way for a little while, whistling happily, until you realise that neither he nor you understood a single word of the conversation. Communication is one of those things I love about travel.

Before long, and after several little ponts over the canals, winding my way through narrow, mouldery alleyways, I came smack bang into the square of San Marco. Even I, a recent veteran of the architectural slendours of Ephesus and Athens, was gob-smacked. San Marco is such a beautifully-conceived space as to beggar description. But I'll try.

The painting at the top of the page is by the Italian artist Canaletto, and this view of the Piazza San Marco was finished in 1746. I've always admired this beautiful work, largely because it captures the superbly realised space of the square, which takes the unwitting traveller by surprise as he steps out below the portico of St Mark's Clocktower, a stupendous bit of archtiectural humour that immediately had me chuckling, to the consternation of a tightly-knit group of early-morning Japanese tourists, who evidently thought it was just about the most impressive bit of brickwork in Christendom. It's actually very nice, though, compared with the sheer lunacy of the Basilica itself. I stood, stunned, in the almost empty piazza, with only the sound of twittering from pigeons and Japanese to disturb me, as my eyes began following the cornucopia of excess in front of me. I'd never realised God had the taste of a drag-queen before, but this place was chintz from arsehole to breakfast.

This bizarre Byzantine confirmation that religion can really fuck with your mind (in this case, the minds of its conceivers) is supposed to house the remains of Saint Mark himself, whose body was allegedly stolen, by the Venetians, from Alexandria. I don't know what it is about this obsession Catholics have about the 'relics of the Saints' stuff, and frankly, I couldn't care less. If it's your thing to go digging up the powdery remains of some two-thousand year old dead bloke just because he wrote a pack of lies about another bloke who probably didn't exist anyway, go right ahead. But don't expect me to respect the fact that they used all this nonsense just to invent a religion which would give them access to little boys' bottoms, okay?

After reflecting on the gilded cage before me, and its place in the enslavement of millions of minds over the centuries, I decided to go and wake up the Titanium Princess, still languishing languidly in our four-poster back at the pub. She came to with a couple of grunts and a hearty "Fuck off," which I always regard as a particularly loving greeting, coming from her.

We breakfasted in the little dining-room on the ground floor, where the most marvellous selection of farinaceous delights went down with a good helping of strong coffee, all served by our urbane concierge, who turned out to be pretty much the entire staff of Al Gazzettino. Indeed, it transpired that his grandfather had been the editor of the newspaper when it eventually re-invented itself as a funky little hotel. I liked that.

A water taxi came around to the back of the hotel and picked us up for a little journey across to the island of Murano, famous for its glassware, of course, but less well-known for the fact that the bones of a dragon, slain by Saint Donatus (again with the fucking saints, but hey - we're in Italy, folks!), reside in the church bearing the dragon-slayer's name. I really wanted to see these relics! Alas, the church was closed when we got there, but the bloke who'd guided us told me that he'd seen the bones of the dragon. "I've also seen the bones of a cow," he confided, "and guess what?" he smiled broadly. 

I tell you, Mythbusters has a lot to answer for. Everyone's a sceptic these days.

The glass industry at Murano is fascinating. The Venetian authorities sensibly moved the glass business out of the city and onto Murano in 1291, fearing that the entire town might be burnt down one day. The glassmakers' factories are principally furnaces, and the one we went to was occupied by four masters all working to produce a single chandelier. They were currently working on some gilded leaves, and as each piece of glass came out of the furnace, it was deftly beaten into shape by one of the artisans, then further moulded and modelled. Several operations, all involving reheating, dousing and beating took place, until the leaf was cut from its rod and hung to cool. Each of these pieces ended up being precisely identical, without the glassmakers' use of measuring devices of any kind. They had the eyes that would be ears on a Mozart. It was all most impressive and beyond my comprehension. And I was getting thirsty in the heat. We got back on the water taxi, and headed off down the Grand Canal, looking for lunch and a jar or two.

The afternoon was spent walking, and I was, as usual, doing all I could to avoid the shopping precincts, which is particularly hard in Venice, a city that resembles a mediaeval Walmart. Some may say I'm being impossibly churlish, but to me a frock shop is a frock shop.

We lighted upon a little bookshop that proclaimed itself as "The World's Greatest Bookshop", on a sign outside. And guess what? It was! As we walked inside, a gondola from the fifteenth century greeted us, piled high in books and other parephenalia. In fact, the entire shop was a junk-yard of paper, cardboard and glass. I roamed around in heaven, sifting through 17th century manuscripts on the quality of the water-supply to Venice in 1658. We bought several large prints of Venice from the eighteenth century, which now adorn the already overburdened walls of our home. This funky little bookstore, whose doors opened up onto a canal, was a place in which one could happpily reside for a few weeks. Alas, we had to go. It was opera time.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Ikarus Palace

These big, ocean-going ferries are usually about thirteen storeys tall, and after manhandling our luggage up to the top deck, on a series of escalators (all non-functioning), we arrived at our destination. In a flash of inspiration, I had booked our passage several weeks beforehand, and our travel agent in Australia had assured us that our accommodation for the two-night, one day cruise to Venice would be in "airline-style" seating. Fair enough, we thought - we can handle that for a couple of nights. As it was my only contribution to our travel plans (the T.P. had insisted on doing the rest, me being 'pathetically incompetent'), I was enormously chuffed at my vision of a romantic cruise for two up the Adriatic to Venice, the city of love - and, I must say, as a testament to my pre-eminent organisational skills.

I handed our boarding passes to the bloke at the door to our deck and asked him to show us to our seats. He scrutinised the tickets, for a bit, then looked around the outside deck where we were standing. It was a steel deck, painted green, and had some circular tables bolted to the floor. Other than that, it was completely bare, and open to the seasons. Stacks of white plastic garden chairs were roped to the bulkhead (that's 'wall', for you land-lubbers). 

"Anywhere here," he replied, indicating the acre or so of green steel.

Somewhat taken aback, I remonstrated mildly, "You've got to be fucking kidding, mate!" I pointed to the cabin I could see through the doorway, where rows of very comfortable-looking easy chairs adorned a tastefully-decorated indoor cabin. "That's where we are booked," I corrected him.

He looked at the tickets again. "No sir, it says right here, 'Deck D', and this, I assure you, is Deck D. Your ticket booking does not assign you a seat. You must do that separately, through the shipping company itself. See? It says so right here." He pointed at a paragraph of fine-print on the ticket, then gave me one of those European shrugs, and moved off to deal with some other passengers, who I noticed had begun the 'Look at this, another moron from the Antipodes'-type of eye-rolling. 

I looked again, across the vast, green space of deck, where a rather strong and quite cool breeze had begun to blow, then turned to see the Titanium Princess eyeing me off rather sharply.

"You. Great. Fucking. Idiot."

Now, dear reader, I know those full stops. I've had thirty-five years of those full stops. When the T.P. starts to punctuate, it's time to either start inventing stories or run. Alas, I had nowhere to run, and the cat had, indubitably, been let out of the bag by that jumped-up little ordinary seaman I was going to find, later on, and issue with a stern rebuke in the form of a knee to the gonads.

"Well, I don't know about you, Laurie," she declared, "but I am going inside to find some sensible man I can offer myself to in exchange for a decent bed." She turned on her heel and whisked herself through the doorway, quite regally, and disappeared. I pondered these unsettling events for a moment or two, wondering what the best course of action might be. Of course, the answer had to be found in a bottle of Heineken or two, so I clambered up a flight of stairs and found a congenial bar located on the upper deck. Just to be on the safe side, I ordered two Heinekens. The barman quizzically, but uncomplainingly, opened both for me and placed them on the bar.

"Seven Euros, please," he asked. It was only then that I realised I had left my little tote-bag with passport, tickets, and money in it in the hands of the T.P. "Oh, sorry, mate - my wife seems to have taken all the cash. Just put it on a tab and I'll fix you up when she comes back."

The barman gave me one of those heard-this-one-before looks, and said "May I see your ticket or boarding-pass, then?" I had to admit to him that these, too, were in the hands of my beloved, who, I refrained from adding, was currently undertaking a search for Aristotle Onassis. He looked at me dubiously, and turned to pick up a telephone, into which he mumbled several words of Greek.

Presently, two very officious-looking sailor-types with guns on their belts appeared at the top of the stairs and sauntered over in my direction. "Sir, are you a passenger on this ship?" asked one. I explained the situation as best I could. "And where is your wife now?" he persisted. "Er, I'm not quite sure, but she's certainly somewhere on the ship."

He spoke into a two-way radio, and presently a loud, booming voice announced over the ship's PA system "Would Mrs Christine  _______  please come to the aft lounge immediately!" We all settled down to wait, me eyeing off the two unconsumed beers with a strong feeling that they, and four or five whiskies, would be better consumed right now, and they looking over me with undisguised contempt.

About ten minutes later, the Titanium Princess arrived. She sized up the situation pretty-well straight away, then casually walked to the bar and put a ten-Euro note on it. "My apologies, gentlemen," she purred. "My husband is a little, er, unwell." She faced the senior marine guard, put her index finger to her temple, and slowly rotated it, her eyebrows raised in a 'you-get-the-picture?' kind of way. "I'll look after him now - thank you for your concern." The gendarmerie, duly mollified, traipsed away, and the T.P. sank into a chair with a beer in her hand and said, quite casually, "Why did I ever marry you?"

As it turned out, her solo efforts had not been in vain. Not that I'm suggesting she met Aristotle, of course, but she had charmed a purser she'd found, who had assured her that it would be quite OK to park ourselves in the lounge for a couple of nights, as the ship was nowhere near capacity-loaded. And so, as the Ikarus pulled out of Patras, we found ourselves ensconced in a warm cabin, drinking wine and listening to Greek pop-music being piped over the air.

So passed the first night, with the Princess happily snoring beside me, while I snatched a few minutes here and there. As a consequence, when dawn came, and the ship's passengers began to rouse, I was still sitting up, hard-wired on coffee and cheap wine. I must have looked rather bleary, as the T.P. woke up, looked at me and said "Fuck." I decided a shower was in order. Gathering up my kit, I stumbled along the corridor to the men's bathroom. The sight that greeted me almost had me losing what was left of the wine and coffee. The floor was awash in a grey, viscous and evil-smelling solution that I guessed was sewage. I backed out and returned, unkempt, to my seat.

"That was quick," mumbled the T.P., as she opened one eye, and then the other. "Jesus, Laurie, you smell worse than you did before you went to the bathroom. What happened?"

I explained the problems I'd encountered, and suggested we both go to the ladies', where she could play cockatoo for me while I got cleaned up. Unfortunately, the women's facilities seemed to be in almost constant use, so the only wash I got that day was courtesy of some bottled water I threw over myself. Things were not looking good.

We made our way forward, to a set of sumptuous dining-rooms, looking for breakfast. As it turned out, the ship laid on a magnificent repast, and I was duly lining up with a tray in hand when I saw a notice on the wall: "All breakfasts 15 Euros." Now, the thought of spending that sum on a plate of scrambled eggs took me aback somewhat, but not so far as it did the Titanium Princess. "I think we can forget about breakfast," she opined severely, "and did you bother to check before you booked me on this colossus whether meals were included in the fucking life savings you handed over to this company just for our fare?" When my beloved starts to speak in italics I start to quiver, and if she'd started to punctuate those, I swear I would have just made a run for the side and hurled myself into the briny.

I placated her with two Mars bars I procured from a machine down the corridor, at about five bucks a pop, and decided to go up to the top deck and get a little sun. The Leader of the Opposition, meanwhile, enjoyed a relaxing, and no doubt cleansing, shower in the ladies' bathroom, from which, you'll remember, I was excluded.

There was a swimming-pool on the top deck, so I thought I would have a quick plunge and rub a bit of the miasma that had accumulated in the past twenty-four hours off the old body. There were about twenty passengers in the pool, all German by the sounds of them, frolicking and chatting and generally having a whale of a time. And boy, were they brown. I learnt later that many of them simply cruise up and down the Adriatic for about four weeks, never getting off the ship, just so they can work on their tans, then go back to Hamburg or somewhere and show off for a while before they go down to the melanoma clinic for some radical surgery.

As an Australian, of course, I have permanently brown head and arms, but the rest of me is lily-white. In Australia, the sun is your enemy - we grow up with that fact ingrained. (By the way, a few years ago I had a basal cell carcinoma removed from my chest. Not a big deal, but enough to seek attention. When I got to the clinic, a dermatologist came into the surgery, ordered me to strip, then looked over every single square inch of my body with his little spy-glass. He then told me to wait, and called in a female colleague, who did exactly the same thing. When she got to the nether regions, she casually lifted all of the wedding-tackle and began to scrutinise something I didn't even know the name of, but found out later was called the 'perinium'. "Bloody hell, Doc," I protested, "the Sun has never even shone down there!" She looked up at me. "Oh, you'd be surprised where these little bastards appear," she confided.)

Anyway, I stripped down to my Speedos and was just about to plunge in when yet another uniformed person laid his hand on my arm and said "Excuse me, sir, but passengers must shower before they enter the pool." He indicated a sign which said exactly that in about four zillion languages, so I guessed it was important to them. I dressed, and made my way to the bar, where several Heinekens never saw the light of day again. It was nine o'clock in the morning.

At some stage of the morning, the Titanium Princess finally found me. She looked radiant, having showered and changed, and availing herself of breakfast somewhere else on the ship. I, on the other hand, must admit that 'radiance' was not a word that one would willingly throw in my direction. Apprising the situation, she simply snorted in disgust and took off in the other direction, no doubt attracting the attention of several Greek shipping magnates along the way. Of course, this was all fine with me. Everything was fine, at that stage - why, I had even fallen in love with the bar-stool next to me. I decided to rest my head on it.

I awoke, sometime later, in a cool room with white walls and a green floor. I was lying on a bed, and could see a small, barred window over my head. There was a door to the room, and it appeared to be rather solid and locked. I got up, and tested it. Sure enough, it was going nowhere. Suddenly I heard voices outside and began to yell, "Hey! Hey! Who's there?"

A key rattled, and the door opened. There was the Titanium Princess, looking rather stern, surrounded on two sides by a couple of very heavy-duty looking dudes. "Laurie," she said, "these gentlemen are happy to let you come with me as long as you behave yourself, and don't drink anything more."

Well, it was news to me that it was nine o'clock at night, and I'd been asleep for nearly twelve hours. But I felt in tip-top condition, and happily bounded out of my bunk and into the T.P.'s arms, whereupon she effected one of those nauseated expressions and pushed me away quite firmly. "Just behave, for a change," she admonished, leading me through a labyrinthine set of corridors to our suite. I collapsed into a chair, and the rest of the night passed without incident (I think.)

I woke up as we came into Venice, cruising along the Grand Canal to the port. There it all was - this majesty of a city: San marco on one side, the island of Murano on the other. I was impressed, as I leant across the starboard railing. Finally, we were in Italy. I'd not had a wash, shower or shave for three days, and was desperate to find Il Gazzatino, our hotel, and luxuriate.

We traipsed our bags down the still-silent escalators, and came out into the sun of Venice. The T.P. was ahead of me a little way, and as I struggled to catch up to her, a man dressed in a suit approached me from the dockside. 

"Your passport, please," he demanded, holding out his hand. Now, by this stage of the cruise, I was in no mood to fuck around with anyone. I was tired, worn out, in fact, and looked like shit. 

"Fuck off," I remonstrated, "who are you? You're getting shit from me." He continued to badger me to give him my passport. "Listen, you arsehole, I have no idea who you are. Get out of my way. I'll give my passport to that cop over there," I pointed to a uniformed officer standing nearby, "but you can get fucked."

The uniformed officer made his way over to us. "He's the Inspector," he informed me, gesturing in the direction of Mister Suit.

They kept me there for three-quarters of an hour, with Mr Suit on his two-way almost constantly. "Where is your travel itinerary?" he asked me at one stage. "Fucked if I know," I replied. They had obviously formed the opinion that I was a terrorist engaged in the bombing of the Rialto Bridge, or something. Meanwhile, I could see the Titanium Princess, perched on her bag about fifty metres away, giggling like there was no tomorrow. Thanks, T.P., I kept thinking.

Eventually, after many questions and calls to headquarters, it was established that I was not a threat to the modern world, but just a down-and-out drunk from Australia.

Mr Suit made a big deal of handing my passport back to me. "Welcome to Italy," he said.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The tale of the erotic cockroach

So many people have seen and written about the Athenian Acropolis that it hardly seems worth saying anything at all about it. So I won't. But I can tell you that getting to it on a hot day involves so many refreshment stops that it can become quite difficult, after a while, to remember where one is, let alone the purpose of one's exertions.

I was in a state of enhanced euphoria by the time the T.P. and I had returned from wherever it was we'd been (I don't know - a big hill with columns on top is all I seem to recall), and I collapsed into our hotel room, which had seemed to have mysteriously shrunken in dimensions since we'd left it that morning. My next recollection is of being awoken by the sound of screaming. I shot bolt-upright in bed. It was the Titanium one herself, screaming blue murder for me to come and rescue her, and on the double. The noise was emanating from our little bathroom, and by the time I'd reached the room, expecting to see Alfred Hitchcock leaving, and a stream of bloody water gurgling down the drain-pipe, I realised (with relief mixed with a guilty tinge of expectation) that the malefactor was nothing more than a gigantic cockroach which had decided that the T.P.'s skull was as good a place as any to start chewing for the day.

"Get this fucking thing off me!" she wailed, as I tried to manhandle her soapy, naked body into a position where I could take a good whack at the offending creature. 

"Ow! Why are you hitting me, you idiot?" remonstrated an increasingly edgy spouse, who, with her eyes closed tight, was by this time unsure as to which was the lesser of two evils - the bug, or her obviously insane husband. We frolicked around in the shower recess for some time, both of us getting soapier and soapier, until I managed to flick the offending species of God's beneficient creation out the window. By this stage we were both sitting on the tiled floor, and I must say it was a most romantic position to be in. My thoughts were turning to other, fonder feelings than belting members of the order Blattaria. I thought I'd attempt a tone of conspiratorial friskiness.

"Do you know, my love, that cockroaches breathe through their posteriors?" I asked tenderly.

"You really are a fucking lunatic, Laurie," the Titanium P. exhaled, as she got up and jumped out of the shower, wrapping a towel around herself.  Fuck me, I thought - at least the cockroach got to chew on her for a bit. I was still sitting on the floor of the shower cubicle a couple of minutes later, humming the tune to a song called "What About Me?", when the T.P. returned and enquired sunnily "Now, what's on our agenda today?" It was back to business as usual, which is to say, traipsing the boulevardes of Athens in search of further mountains of knick-knacks and scarves. Boy, does that woman like scarves.

A couple of hours later, we clattered into the Athens Museum of Archeology. And what a place it is. Here, in a building the size of a city block, is the most stunning collection of what humans can really do well when they have a mind to it. An eight-thousand year history of life in the Mediterranean parades past the astounded visitor to this cornucopia of sculpture, craft, building, decoration and all of the other plastic arts. We spent the day in an orgy of high culture that surpassed even the post-cockroach imaginary orgy of the early morning. I do believe that marble and gold are my favourite substances, apart from Heineken, of course.

Well, once you've seen four or five things in Athens, it's time to get out, because Athens, like most other big cities in the world, is overwhelmingly crowded, dull, and commercial. I needed country. We boarded a little rattle-trap train and headed away towards Corinth and Patra, where we were due to embark on a highly anticipated cruise up the Adriatic to Venice.

But our first stop was a little town on the coast of the Corinthian Sea called Psathopyrgos. Now, here's a serious traveller's tip. When you're really hoofing hard through a big joint like Europe, every couple of weeks book yourself into a fairly swank hotel, preferably near the water, and chill out for a couple of days. The Oasis Hotel at this quaint little fishing village was just the ticket. We alighted from the train (in this case, not so much alighted, with all the connotations of grace and ease that word implies, but hastily chucked all of our bags onto the nearby track then jumped down before the driver hit full throttle and thundered away into the distance) and began trudging into town. Psathopyrgos is, I am bound to say, utterly charming. It nests on a little bay at the narrows between the Patra Sea and the Corinthian Sea, and affords a spectacular view of the steep-sided mountains on the northern side. It really is pretty, with gaily-coloured fishing boats resting at their moorings, children playing happily in the shallows, and at least two pairs of dogs enjoying sexual congress at any given moment.

The owner of the Oasis, an Englishwoman from Cornwall, greeted us effusively in an accent so broad I was tempted to ask the Greek receptionist to translate into English, but I refrained. She was a charming woman, really, and escorted us to our room, all clean and nice and with a real, spacious bathroom (pure heaven), and left us with an admonition not to "Doi arnythang Oi wardn't doi." I had no idea what she was talking about.

The Oasis was just that - a large and well-appointed swimming-pool (it had a bar in the middle) fronted the sea, and a garden restaurant just behind served delicious local fish and more salads than even I could force down. The Leader of the Opposition and I decided to plunge into the sea from a little jetty, and have a bit of a race. My wife is a particularly good swimmer, and we were neck and neck for about four hundred yards out into the briny. I finally admitted defeat, and we floated around for a while admiring the view to shore. At this point I noticed that a small crowd had congregated on the jetty, and there seemed to be much scratching of heads and pointing in our direction going on. "Wonder what that's all about?" I said, looking around for any signs of a big Noah coming our way. We decided to head back in.

As we clambered up the ladder to the jetty several voices in a number of languages seemed to be scolding us over something. We ignored them, and dived into the pool. I breezed over to the bar and ordered a couple of drinks. The barman started shaking his head and giggling. "They're all a little concerned that you swam out so far," he said. "Most Europeans don't really swim very much, and they thought you might be in trouble." I assured him that there was no problem, and that a half-mile swim in flat conditions on very salty, buoyant water was not all that taxing. It's a sad fact that surf drownings in Australia are disproportionately high amongst European and British tourists. Or a happy fact, depending on your point of view.

So we spent a relaxing and rejuvenating two days in Psathopyrgos, a beautiful part of the world I would recommend even to my mother-in-law, were she still around to enjoy it.

The second evening saw us sadly saying goodbye to mine hostess (all right - the T.P. dragged me kicking and screaming all the way to the bus stop), and we headed off for the port city of Patra. At 10.30 p.m. we walked to the rear gang-plank of the Ikarus Palace, an enormous ship that I was told was capable of housing eight hundred vehicles and a thousand passengers. There was a sign with some sort of motto emblazoned on it on an archway leading into the vessel. It was in Greek, of course, and it was only later that I discovered that it was a quote from a little book called Dante's Inferno, saying "Abandon hope, all ye who enter..."

We were about to embark on the cruise liner from Hell.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Athenium

We landed in Athens at five in the afternoon. The weather was turning typically Greek - that is to say, bloody hot. In a city like Athens, such heat, which is tolerable in Australia, becomes so oppressive that the Athenians begin to stalk the streets purposively, with glints in their eyes that suggest madness is just around the corner.

As usual, the Titanium Princess, in her never-ending quest to do Europe on five dollars a day (she still had all those dog-eared paperbacks from the seventies stashed away in our bags) had booked us into a hostel in the Omonoia district, which turned out to be the sleaziest part of town by a long chalk. Rubbish was piled ten feet high along the footpaths; drunks and ice-addicts hurled abuse at each other across rat-infested alleyways, and everywhere was the overpowering aroma of a sewerage system that had not been updated since the Romans left town.

"Jesus, TP," I complained, "if I'd known I was going back-packing with Tom Waites in a skirt I would have stayed home!"

"Ah, suck it up, Nancy Boy," was her considered response - a reply which, on reflection, was about as close as I was going to get to marital compassion.

We found our room, six gruelling stories above the reception area of the "Athens Lucky Hostel" (I suppose one must give the proprietors of such establishments a few brownie points for eponymic optimism), and collapsed in puddles of sweat on the bed. At least we had our own shower at this place, unlike some of the communal cess-pits I'd been forced to bathe in previously, and I spent ten vigorous minutes under a cold shower until life had returned. It was way past beer o'clock, so I sauntered out into the city while the TP took a short beauty sleep, on a mission for Heineken.

Omonoia, as it turned out, happened to be just my kind of place. In the Dark Ages, I used to work six nights a week in Kings Cross, Sydney - and this part of Athens took me back to those heady days of dodging puddles of urine and beating off the kinds of women who assure you they want you more than any man in history until you explain that you're rather short of cash, in which event they drop you faster than Phil Tufnell under a screamer (and if you don't know cricket, that one's going straight through to the keeper). 

I pulled up at a little roadside kiosk - the sort of joint that sells everything the modern bloke could wish for, from condoms to hair-gel, with beer in between. The shopkeeper, a young guy with a crooked nose and some serious tattoos, produced two half-litre bottles of Heineken from a little fridge, and asked me where I was from. When I told him, he became all enthusiastic, and told me he'd just seen AC/DC when they'd performed in Athens a week or so ago. Apparently AC/DC was the greatest Australian export of all time, at least according to their number one fan in Greece, who gushed on for a while before turning around and showing me the back of his head, which had "AC/DC" artfully tattoed across a shaven skull. I thought about baring my chest and showing him my "Joan Sutherland" tatt for a moment, but he side-tracked me with an offer of a "genuine shrunken head", which he pointed out to me, hanging from the top of his kiosk. It was a most unusual piece, and from the couple of flies buzzing around it, could well have been for real (and relatively fresh). It was time to move on.

I took off from the kiosk at a rather fast clip, and, rounding a corner, belted straight into a bloke coming the other way. We both bounced back and hit the ground on our backsides, rocking backwards and forwards like a couple of those blow-up clowns with sand in the bottom you used to get from the local variety store. He bounded straight back up, and let forth what I assumed was a torrent of abuse (I don't know, it was all Greek to me). I, meanwhile, was assuring myself that the Heineken was still intact (it was, fortunately), and when I finally looked at him I realised with a start that I'd bumped into the wrong bloke. He was emaciated, with a filthy shirt that was probably white, once, and a pair of grubby jeans from which protruded two bare and dirty feet. His sleeves were rolled up, and as he continued his invective he scratched one arm, and then the other, both of which were covered in evil-looking, bloody scabs. And when I looked at his face I understood that it was probably only the scabs that were preventing his entire body from dissolving and leaking down the gutters into the already overloaded Athenian sewerage network. He was an ice addict. I offered him a beer.

He looked at me strangely, then smiled, and grabbed the Heineken and poured half of it down his throat in one go. He smiled again, then his eyes glazed over, and he continued staggering away from me, up the road, occasionally stopping for another swig. I watched him until he was out of sight, and wondered how long it would be until he was cured or dead.

After wandering the streets (carefully) for another hour, sipping away at my remaining beer, I returned to the hostel to find the TP rested, refreshed and ravenous. We decided on the cafeteria at the hostel, and made our way downstairs, where a big, happy, noisy group of youngsters from all over the world, different accents plying for dominance, was devouring pizza and drinking ouzo and retsina and beer. A young woman came over to us and deposited two complementary glasses of ouzo on our table, and asked if we were ready to order. Her accent was unmistakenly Australian, and so was her body. She was aboriginal, from Byron Bay, in fact, and she sat down and we chatted away for twenty minutes until she decided to do a bit of work. A reasonably edible pizza arrived a few minutes later, washed down with a couple of bottles of Pilsner Urquell (or four - I can't remember now). I was starting to feel rather fond of the world, in inverse proportion to how the TP was feeling about me, no doubt. After all, at three Euros a go, I was blowing the next two weeks' travel budget. She's a tough cookie, my wife.

The following day dawned hot and dry, and we wasted no time in getting out and into it. It was a short hike to one of the places I'd been busting to see for over thirty years - the Academy. It was not Plato's original of course (that had gone long ago, and there is still some dispute as to whether the modern structure even sits on the site of the ancient one), but a neo-classical building designed by the Dane, Theophil Hansen, in the 1850s, as part of a beautiful trilogy of structures next door to each other (the others are the National Library and the University). As I stood in front of it, a tear or two sprang to my eyes. Here, after all, was a monument to the founding of modern thought, and its power. The moment was poignant, imbued with warmth and beauty. Even the Titanium Princess was captured by it. "Can we go now?" she asked solicitously. "And use a hanky, you sentimental fool." I like it when she's kind to me. be continued.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Aesthetics 101

We'd been relaxing on the island of Samos for some days, after our whirlwind tour of the Turkish Aegean coast. Samos is inexpressibly beautiful - mountainous and, for a Greek island, botanically luxuriant. We'd hired a little Fiat, and I learned to drive on the wrong side of the road (although the TP malevolently reminded me that I've done that on more than one occasion in Australia.) Driving a left-hand drive vehicle is a doddle, really - the only thing of importance to remember is that the gear-stick is operated by one's right hand. Several times I'd fumbled for it with my left, succeeding only in opening the driver's door and almost casting myself out of the car. One benefit of this is that I managed to elicit screams of horror from the usually unflappable Titanium Princess, and one should always be thankful for small mercies.

Our hosts at the Emily Hotel in Vathy, the island's major town, were Emily herself and her ex-husband Kari (don't ask.) They were most gracious in their welcome, although Kari resembled a more genial Basil Fawlty, and seemed unconcerned that there weren't too many guests in his establishment. He would prepare wonderful breakfasts, then sit us down in a garden patio, where bougainvillia competed with orange trees and other flowering shrubs planted by our hosts many years before, and regale us with stories of ancient Samos and its obvious importance to the evolution of civilisation as we know it. It was, after all, the birthplace of Pythagoras and Aristarchus the astronomer - for Kari, the two most important figures in history. He and Emily were two old troopers - funny, charming and knowledgeable, and would bring us glasses of wine or beer without suggestion after we'd arrived back from a hard day's slogging around the island. 

We'd used the tiny Fiat to thoroughly explore the island, and what a treat Samos was. The little port town, eponymously named Pythagoreia, combined tradition and ancient history; the ruins of the Ionian acropolis at Herion, and the temple of Hera, with its fifty-five marble columns, all in ruins now, out-doing the Athens Parthenon in size, scope and astonishing gravitas; the tiny mountain villages, with cultures and traditions all their own - yes, Samos was a place the traveller would immediately choose as a return destination.

We were booked on a fast ferry to Paros, but as it was the day when the European Parliamentary elections were on, the entire island, including the shipping companies, decided to close down for the day with the Greek equivalent of "Fuck it - let's party." Any excuse, and I could readily understand why so many citizens of the oldest democracy in the world had decided to relocate to one of the newest, and good for them. Talk about cross-cultural equivalencies - I can just imagine Theo jumping off the ship in Sydney in the middle of January, looking around at people deliberately doing nothing but enjoying themselves, and shouting "Effie! This is the place for us!"

And so, the following day, we trooped into the shipping-company's office at the port, where a very friendly and very out-there gay guy organised a re-booking for us. He was a lovely man, who, looking at my reasonably drab green t-shirt said "I love your blouse. You must come back later and sell it to me." Hey - it was the first pick-up line I'd had directed at me in about thirty years - don't knock it.

The ferry-master must have decided that a "fast" ferry meant exactly that, and we were no more than five centimetres out of the harbour when he put his foot to the floor. Our first stop was another port on Samos, Ag. Dimitrios, and we came barrelling into the harbour at top speed. Fuck, I thought, standing up on the top deck, this is a several-thousand tonne vehicle. I hope he knows what he's doing. It seemed that the ferry was on a course designed to stop us, eventually, about two hundred yards up the main street of the town, but at the last moment our captain executed a perfect handbrake turn and reversed up to the dock with just the gentlest thud of metal against concrete. I knew I was in good hands, and returned to the bar to consume about thirty retsinas in a row, just to be on the safe side.

About four hours later we arrived in Paros. Somehow I managed to man-handle our bags off the ship, and stagger about four hundred metres along the quay-side, the Titanium Princess keeping up a constant monologue on the dangers of drinking at sea, or drinking, period, until we arrived at the Hotel Paros.

We got to the desk, and I stood there, swaying slightly (well, I was still to re-acquire my land-legs; after all, I'd been at sea for four and a half hours), while the manager of the hotel eyed us up and down, then rushed around from behind the desk, grabbed the Titanium Princess in a bear hug, and shouted enthusiastically in a distinctly American accent "Christine, Christine! Where have you been, darling? I was expecting you yesterday! What's happened, my poor love!"

Well, it was news to me that the TP had visited Paros on her last solo European excursion, and further news that she'd been conducting an affair with a hotel manager, and an American one, to boot. I was just about to offer some advice like "Hey Chuck, or Brad, whoever you are, I don't mind you groping my wife, but could you carry these bags up to my room and get me a beer, first?", but then realised that Dimitrisgouros (or something like that - he was of Greek parentage, and his name was utterly unpronounceable) was simply one of those hoteliers who had been to a hospitality school where the idea of "service" included acting as though he and any guest of the opposite sex had been sharing intimacies for twenty years.

Meanwhile, a slightly discombobulated, and thoroughly flattered, Titanium Princess was breathlessly explaining the reasons for our delay. With Dimitri's help we got to our room, and I explored a well-stocked refrigerator while the TP, for some inexplicable reason, adorned herself for the first time since I'd met her with face-paint and bright red lipstick. (Just kidding - she flopped on the bed and resumed reading Pride and Prejudice.)

The Parians are the world's greatest, and most enthusiastic, stone wall builders. It is only a small island, but Paros simply teems with the things. Big ones, little ones, walls of houses, churches, taberna; walls to delineate paddocks, to retain banks of earth, to terrace olive groves, and walls for no discernible purpose at all, that wind for hundreds of metres over hills, along ridge-lines, and parade right down to the sea. Dry-stone walls, mortared ones, capped walls, walls decorated with icons, inlaid with equilateral triangles; walls made of quartz, shale, sandstone, volcanic rocks of every variety - the Greeks of Paros simply adore the very word "wall". 

I'm convinced the natives of Paros build walls for fun. In fact, I'll bet they knock down perfectly good ones just so they can get a kick out of replacing them with something even more beautiful to look at. Every field, paddock, house-lot and road is perimetered by one, and each one is not just a utilitiarian division, but a work of art in itself. And, where you find an open area which, unbelievably, has seemingly been forgotten by these muralistic obsessives, you will almost certainly find several huge piles of stone, just waiting to be skilfully manipulated into place. "Hey, Nick - there's a fuckin' paddock here without a wall!" "Shit, Con, ring the cops. Then get a few truckloads of rock in - this is a disgrace!"

I jest, but the Parian walls provided an intimation of something else that was going on in this part of the world. It crystallised for me as we sat at the taberna at the front of our hotel one night (traveller's tip: the Hotel Paros is fronted by one of the best restaurants in all of Greece - to say the food is merely delicious is tantamount to defamation), and, as we were waiting for our meal, and looking across the bay at an idyllic Paroikia sunset, I noticed the manager's son, a bloke in his late twenties, fussing about to my left. I looked over to find him hanging a glass bowl of rose water by some delicate chains to one of the lintels; when that was done, he gently placed half a dozen floating candles within and lit them. The whole time his friend, who seemed to spend most of the day drinking coffee at the restaurant, but who had no apparent employment status there apart from resident philosopher, was encouraging him with words of advice about the orientation of the bowl, etc. Eventually, they both walked out onto the road, turned around, and had a lengthy conversation about their masterpiece. Satisfied that it was just right, they came back in, sat down, and gazed appreciatively at this newest addition to the restaurant's already extensive range of decorative ornamentation.

I realised, suddenly, that the Parians are just aesthetes - for them, life is not about competition, accumulation, or consumption; it is about beauty. They love living within a beautiful environment, and they abide no distinction between craftwork and high art. It is all the same to them - their wonderful natural surroundings are simply enhanced and highlighted by their stone walls, their blue and whitewashed buildings, and their humble frescoes and decorations. These are enough for life to be complete.

Armed with this epiphany, I turned to the man to congratulate him. Waxing lyrical, I explained how refreshing it was to come to a place where capitalism was yet to pervert the souls of men; where art was the province of the people, and finished by pointing to the rose-bowl and saying "And I see now why you get so much enjoyment out of the construction of such a simple, yet beautiful, little thing."

He listened impassively to this somewhat tipsy monologue, and when I'd finished, leant over and said conspiratorially, "And it sucks in stupid fucking tourists like buggery."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Three jewels of the Bosphorus

The Topkapi Palace was, for centuries, the seat of the Ottoman Empire. When Constantinople was taken by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453, the Ottoman Turks used the site of the old Byzantine Acropolis, on the peninsula leading from the old city to the Bosphorus, as the place where a palace of dreams would be built.

Topkapi is huge - the complex is twice the size of the Vatican, and, to give you an idea of how vast it is, at the height of its grandiosity it boasted a kitchen complex that employed two thousand cooks. That's a serious gastronomic facility, folks.

There are four enormous courtyards on the palace site, each one hosting palaces and pavilions, dormitories, stables, liveries, armaments rooms, and, of course, housing for the ladies of the harem. One particular Sultan of the sixteenth century had some 1500 such women in his harem. During the course of his Sultanate the Ottoman Empire went into a temporary, but nevertheless serious decline. Apparently, the old boy was so hard at work servicing these fair maidens that the affairs of state were left a distant second on his list of priorities - a state of affairs which boggles the mind, as well as the gonads, one might think. When the TP read of his horizontal exploits, she gave me one of those looks that says Men are such fuckwits. You know that look, gentlemen?

To say that the Topkapi beggars belief is an understatement. Here is a place where you will find ceilings adorned in beaten gold leaf; where there are palaces literally studded with gemstones, where even the ceremonial knife used in the "Circumcision Room" is made of gold and diamonds. I'll bet that attention to detail comforted the fourteen year-old princes as they were about to get the chop. "Ooh, what a lovely looking knife. What did you say you were going to do with it, Father?"

Reeling from the heady delights of the Topkapi, we headed off to the Karpali Carsi, the Grand Bazaar at the top end of Sultanamet. This promising little shopping-centre was established in 1461, and has grown considerably in the ensuing five and a half centuries. I gave up counting the number of individual retail outlets when I got to about four thousand, the TP seemingly having made a purchase in every one of them. Pashmena scarves, silver and gold jewellery - she even bought a belly-dancer's outfit, and I'll be writing about that in a later instalment. I bought a cap. It cost two dollars.

The Karpali Carsi is as psychedelic place as you would ever see. An interior decorater's nightmare, each shop tries to outdo the next in gaudiness and cosmetic hubris. And at every little palace of bargains, a tout will accost the shopper with a well-practised sales-pitch. My two favourite lines were "Sir, madam - how can I relieve you of your money today?" and "These goods are almost free."

Thus substantially burdened with exotica, and considerably lighter in the pocket, we returned to the "Cordial House Hotel", our lodgings, where I had to consume about six bottles of cordial to assuage the morbid prospect of re-financing Casa Laurie, yet again.

I must say I really like the Turks. They have a nice, laid-back attitude about them, and a great sense of humour. Friendly and helpful, they made us feel welcome everywhere - and that's not something you can say all the time about cities and countries chock-a-block full of tourists, and German and American ones, to boot. (Sorry, I know, I know, I'll stop now.)

To give you an example of Turkish generosity (jumping a few days ahead), the TP and I were walking along a road in Kusadasi, late at night, searching for a hotel where we were intending to meet some of our touring friends for drinks. We were totally, utterly, hopelessly lost. I had spurned the Princess's advice to get firm directions and take a street map, relying on my inherently good sense of direction instead. As I said, we were completely lost. It was pitch black, dogs were barking at us from doorways, and I was just a little unsure about even finding our way back to our hotel. We'd been walking for an hour, and had found ourselves on the outskirts of the town, instead of the intended destination, its centre.

Presently, a bloke scootered past us and disappeared over the hill. The TP was exhausted, sat on a low stone wall by the side of the road, and declared "You and your fucking sense of direction. I'm not moving until you get a taxi."

Just then, a car came towards us from the top of the hill. It was the same guy who, a few minutes before, had driven past us on his little motorbike. He leant out of the window and said, in passable English, "Are you good people a little lost? Where are you going?" 

I mentioned the name of the hotel, and he shook his head. "I don't know that name, but I will find out. Please, get in."

Now normally, when travelling, it might be inadvisable to accept lifts from perfect strangers in the middle of the night. I think there are warnings about such things on travel advice websites, under the general heading "How to avoid being mugged, raped and shot in foreign countries", but the Titanium Princess was ensconced in the back seat of his car before you could say "grievous bodily harm." With just a slight feeling of misgiving in the bowel region, I clambered in behind her.

But the bloke turned out to be a delight. He stopped at another hotel nearby, left us in the car with the motor running, and disappeared inside, only to emerge in a couple of minutes with a big grin on his face, and promptly drove us another couple of kilometres and stopped at the door of our destination. "There you are, good people, the hotel you were looking for."

We were flabbergasted. "Can we buy you a drink, sir?" I offered.

"No, thank you very much, I must get home to my children. It was very nice meeting you, and I hope you have a pleasant stay in my country."

With effusive handshaking all round, we thanked him for his generosity, and he sailed happily off into the night. He had done this simply because he was a good bloke who had seen a couple of travellers out of their depth. And that's the sort of treatment we got from the Turks wherever we went. What a great country.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The ugly professor

I knew there would be trouble. It often comes in small packages, and this particular packet of it announced itself in no uncertain terms as ugly, loud and American.

It was early morning, and we had boarded a bus that was to take us on a guided tour of the Aegean coast of Turkey, a most remarkable part of the world that simply leaches ancient history, and was to provide us with a moving example of the utter stupidity of the modern variety, at a place called Gallipoli.

Our tour guide was a lovely young woman named Jen; she had fallen in love with Turkey several years ago, and was now working for a travel company with the singular name of "Fez", but never mind. The bus was a twenty-seat Mercedes driven by a young Turk (this is about my one and only chance in life to use that expression literally) called Ali. Ali's English was just slightly better than my Turkish, which is to say hopeless. (Although, by the end of the trip, I'd got him to nail "No worries, mate", accent and all.) From the moment we shook hands, I knew I was going to like him. You can tell with people, sometimes. Ali was friendly, funny, and a terrific driver. The Turks, generally, are very good drivers - they have to be, in a city as big (20 million or so) as Istanbul. They quite properly regard the road rules as advisory only, to the extent where even the police will happily ignore infractions that would have me locked in a police cell for several days in Australia. Anything to assist the flow of traffic is encouraged. And they are good enough to drive really fast, only inches from each other, all with good humour and a repertoire of horn blasts which are, by and large, courtesy calls.

Ali was one of these. As safe a driver in whose hands I've ever put my life, Ali wheeled the bus through the crowded, narrow, twisting streets of the old city, and onto the main highway out of town with nary a hint of imminent catastrophe. I was impressed, as he performed this entire operation with one hand, the other holding a mobile phone into which he poured a non-stop stream of Turkish. (I learnt later it was his mum on the other end.)

Now, there were three Americans on the bus, whose complement consisted of mainly Australians and our dowdy feathered friends the Kiwis. (Sorry, but it's sacreligious for an Aussie not to have a go at a New Zealander whenever the opportunity arises.) One of these Yanks was a 40-ish woman named Barbara - tall, slim, polite and quietly-spoken. She was on her way to Kusadasi, a southern port and resort town which was, coincidentally, our drop-off point too. Barbara and her partner were sailing their yacht around the world, and she'd just been to Prague for some shopping, and was on her way to rejoin the boat in Athens, via Turkey. She was a remarkably intelligent and warm woman with whom we, especially the Titanium Princess, became fast friends.

If Barbara epitomised all of the qualities I'd like to think are the talents of the best Americans, then, dear reader, just think what her opposite might look like. Because that's what clambered aboard the bus next.

A woman (and I use the word advisorily) of about sixty winters of discontent - large and ugly in a way only a lifetime of self-centredness and an inflamed ego can etch ugliness into a face that resembled a smashed crab - climbed up the stairs, huffing and puffing as if the exertion of not being carried onto the bus on a feathered golden bier supported by four eunuchs was too much ignominy for her station, and immediately demanded in a high, piercing voice that she be awarded the front seat, as she was "prone to travel-sickness." She had in tow a bizarre-looking man of about seventy, for whom the descriptor "gaunt" was probably flattering; it turned out he was her husband, and from the tiny squeaks he occasionally emitted I figured out that he must have done some fast-track evolving from the mouse species, as he was clearly terrified of the behemoth that had evidently been ruining his life for forty-odd years.

Barbara, who was sitting across the aisle from us, immediately offered her seat to Her Ugliness, who, without a word of thanks, bustled her hubby into the window seat, all the while whining that she must also have the aisle seat, being prone to panic attacks. Eventually, after going through a couple of volumes of Webster's Dictionary, she got herself settled, did a couple of Linda Blair-like pirouettes of the head to check out the assembled throng, and finally rested her gaze on me.

Now, if you're anything like me, you're probably adept at meeting people and breaking the ice. You smile, say hello, and offer a few inconsequentialities like "Where are you heading?", "Had a goood trip so far?", and "How could you have possibly voted for that idiotic, war-mongering Bush TWICE, you dumb American cunt?" (To be honest, I haven't exactly used that one myself...yet.)

The Thing gave me the once-over, and said "I'm a college professor, you know. Accountancy." I was about to say something innocuous like "Good for you", when I noticed her eyes. I could tell, right away, that she was stark, staring mad. One of her eyes betrayed her as delusional; the other had the steely glint of the psychopath. It was easy to see why the Mouse lived in terror. (Don't ask how I can be so certain of this diagnosis - suffice it to say, I've worked in gaols for twenty years, and one gets to know the look.) This one had a double dose. Oh boy, I thought, this trip is going to be fun - this lunatic probably thinks "ice-breaking" is best accomplished with the aid of an ice-pick; maybe the Titanium Princess should sit in the aisle seat - at least she's armoured.

Without taking a breath, she began to complain vociferously about the poor state of education in the world. Apparently (and I hadn't realised that this was still a thesis going around, what with trepanning being almost a lost art), the decline of general educational standards throughout the world has a lot to do with the appearance of black people at universities. She leant across the aisle and confidentially lowered her voice to about 140 decibels: "They're all dumb and lazy, the lot of 'em, you know."

"What," I replied, "as distinct from fat and ugly, you mean?" Fortunately, that one went straight through to the 'keeper, as she remained unfazed, replying "Well, that too, often enough, but I suppose the poor bastards can't help their genes. Their trouble is they've got no entrepreneurial flair. Just like the Turks. I had to have a word with my hotel manager yesterday. Told him to clean his hotel up. There was dirt in the corners of my room. They just don't realise that if they want to get more trade from the U.S. they'd better damn well clean up their act." I was comforted by the image of the Thing's hotel manager ordering a truckload of street sweepings to sprinkle around his rooms after her departure. Like garlic and vampires, perhaps.

"My husband's a professor, too, you know. Yale. Math." I looked at hubby, and he looked at me, and I saw a resigned helplessness, as if had he had the courage to take to the drink his liver would now be a prized specimen at the Museum of Medical Oddities in Denver, Colorado. He was a man shattered, and if he had once been a prized professor of mathematics, it was plain that he was now only three ticks above village idiot.

"My first husband died, you know," she continued. "I was twenty-eight, so what do you think was the first thing I did?" I remarked that I couldn't possibly imagine, although my mind was going through a list that included Watergate burglar, assassin, cannibal, etc., when she replied for me. "I got another one - this one!"

"Well," I said, "it looks like this one's lasted pretty well - you haven't managed to kill him yet." She gave me the look for a few seconds, then broke into an hysterical cackle.

"No, you silly boy," she slapped me on the knee, "I didn't kill the last one. He fell off a very tall building." No wonder, I mused - if I was married to you, madam, they couldn't build skyscrapers fast enough for me to climb up and throw myself off.

As we ran along the motorway, through vast suburbs of teeming and towering housing developments, and noticed hundreds and hundreds of people lining the road, perhaps to be picked up for work, perhaps hoping for work, the Thing kept up her manic autobiography. She wasn't the slightest bit interested in Turkey, she said (without realising the sheer, vapid stupidity of such a remark), and was only there because of a conference in Istanbul.

"What a coincidence," I remarked, "I, too, am attending a conference soon. In Dublin."

She needled me with the psychopathic eye. "What's it on? Accountancy?"

"No," I replied. "The psychopathology of economists."

"So you're a professor, too?" she said with an enlarged bonhomme that was starting to scare me just a bit. "I like associating with professors. Well, the white ones, at least. By the way, you speak remarkably good English."

"Why thank you, madam," I responded, "it's so nice to be complimented on one's proficiency in one's native language." I was beginning to realise that it didn't matter what I said to this drongo - she enjoyed nothing more than the sound of her own voice.

We arrived at Gallipoli, where lunch at a local restaurant was served. I was feeling slightly under the weather at this stage. No matter how careful you are, you'll always cop the wrong end of a microbe or two whilst travelling. It was nothing serious, I was just a bit queasy, and I forced a rather lovely meal of fish down before we set out for the battlefields.

We drove to Anzac Cove, and alighted from the bus. And here it was - this tiny strip of sand whereupon one of history's greatest military follies began. It was blindingly obvious, looking up at the towering cliffs and impenetrable canyons, and just the sheer exposure of the place, that storming the Gallipoli Peninsula was always going to be a mug's game. Our guide, a Turkish bloke called Bill, took us through the campaign step by step and month by hideous month. We saw the places where the major battles had been fought, where so many young men died, the front-line trenches only ten metres apart, where the soldiers of both sides would throw food to each other during lulls in the fighting. This epic series of battles lasted eight months and achieved precisely nothing. That's right, nothing at all - the Dardanelles remained in the hands of the Turks. The British and French had wanted to wrest control of the straits, and Istanbul itself, and the Black Sea ports - partly to take these mechanisms away from the Hun, and partly, of course, because they were insane, murdering, greedy bastards themselves whose objectives in Europe had less to do with peace, civilisation and development, and more with the insanity of weirdos like Winston Churchill and his coterie of alcoholic cut-throats.

The piece-de-resistance was a shrine at the Turkish memorial, upon which were inscribed these words, in Turkish and English:

In the name of Allah the compassionate, the merciful. The martyrs requested of Allah the following: For the sake of you, oh Allah, send us back to the world so that we may be martyred once more.

On reading this my gore began to rise. I was composing what I thought might be a more fitting epitaph to the dead children buried here, something along the lines of "Dear Allah, you ignorant, malicious, psychopathic prick - if you really exist, please raise us from the dead so that we can live in peace with our Anzac brothers, who killed us, and whom we killed, for no good reason at all, just the insanity of our deluded fathers who thought it was dulce et decorum, but who should have known better."

Her Ugliness was, at this stage, reading the inscription too. She looked at me and said "That's so lovely, so righteous, so noble, don't you think?"

I opened my mouth, and a stream of Gallipoli lunch cascaded onto her stupid purple trousers, gently dribbling into her shoes.

"I'm so sorry, ma'am," I managed to blurt out. "I had no idea travel-sickness was contagious."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

I'm back!

Just a note to inform regulars that I'm home, and preparing a vast collection of highly risible anecdotes from our recent grand tour of Europe. I hope you enjoy them as they appear!

Just one short one for now:

The Titanium Princess and I were walking along a road in Dublin. We came to an intersection where, painted on the roadway itself, was a sign that said "Look Right", with an arrow pointing in that direction.

"That's considerate," I remarked, "It's a good idea considering the number of European and American tourists who come here."

The TP eyed me, with a mischievous glint in her eye.

"They're for the locals," she grinned.

"You're not the woman I married," I replied.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

I vant to suck your blood

Now, some regular readers have, from time to time, unfairly accused me of fabricating certain stories just to get a cheap laugh or two. Well, OK, not unfairly - I'll admit to exaggerating the odd fact or two here and there. But, dear readers, the following is, I swear, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The Titanium Princess was a witness, and she's a kindergarten teacher, so is incapable of mendacity.

Yesterday afternoon, here in Munich, we decided to catch a tram just to see where it would take us. We had no other motive than to simply see the sights, and get off at an interesting-looking Platz or two to take in a delightful Bavarian refreshment.

We caught the number 12 from Rotkreuzplatz, where we are staying, and headed off down wide boulevardes lined with substantial and sturdy (and expensive, no doubt) houses. It was sehr freundlich. Along the way, a woman got on and sat across from us. Noticing that we were chatting in Australian, she made her acquaintance, and we got to talking. She was a very nice woman who had spent some time in Australia a couple of years ago, working on a sheep station. "Where are you going today?" she asked.

"Nowhere in particular," I replied, "just seeing the sights."

"Oh, well, you must go and have a look at the Schloss Nymphenburg - it is Munich's most famous, and biggest, castle. I am getting off near there - I'll show you the way if you like."

We duly alighted, and were walking along the Notburgstrasse, chatting away, when a young man approached us. He was a singularly odd-looking fellow, with a very white, pasty complexion and jet-black hair which hung over the sides of his face. He had one of those man-bags hanging from his shoulder, and was holding a map in his hand. He asked me something in German, and I replied Entschuldigung, Ich spreche kaum Deutsch. He hesitated for a moment, then said in English

"I am from Transylvania, and I am looking for a castle."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I have stumbled across a terrific method for those of you who would like to give up the dreaded weed. It's a little bit expensive, but I guarantee it will, at the very least, give you pause for thought. Perhaps the best way to describe this procedure is to outline my own experience, which is as follows:

We took off from Singapore at 9.30 p.m. on a Boeing 777 - a very nice plane that, apparently, to its maker's credit, does not have the habit of falling out of the sky for no reason at all. Its only downside is that it tends to vibrate and emit high-pitched whistling noises inside the passenger compartment, playing havoc with anyone, such as myself, who suffers from industrial tinnitus.

As we took off, an older, Muslim woman sitting beside the Titanium Princess decided that the only way this creaking, whistling hulk would get into the air was if she began praying and keening as volubly and rapidly as possible. She began to execute that strange, up-and-down bowing of the head at which the faithfull are so adept, all the while giving the little set of prayer beads in her hand a fucking good shake. It was a most impressive performance, and, to my surprise, Allah must have been listening, because the 777 climbed into the air, albeit with the grace of a teenager climbing all over his girlfriend.

Next, we flew for seven hours in this thing, which was packed to the rafters, or gunwhales, or whatever the avionic equivalent is. As we approached Dubai, the pilot must have decided, right at the most critical moment (i.e., about four hundred feet above the landing-strip), that he had had it up to here with flying fucking aeroplanes, and obviously just threw up his hands and said "Fuck it, I'm sick of this shit, somebody get me a real job.", because the plane promptly dropped out of the sky like a brick onto the tarmac with an awful, terrifying 'BANG', did a couple of doughnuts, and slid to a stop with a gigantic groaning sound.

The intercom came on, and the pilot announced "Ladies and Gentlemen - you can stay in the plane or get out; I don't give a fuck - I'm outta here", (or something like it - I'm not good at taking in messages when I'm vomiting over Muslims). To no-one's surprise, there was a general exodus at a very sharp pace, and it wasn't long before we were safely ensconced in the terminal. I needed a smoke - badly.

Now, here's where it all gets interesting. Dubai airport is approximately two-thirds the size of the Republic of Ireland, and has a population of several million, all of whom smoke like chimneys. To accommodate these people's addiction, the airport has generously donated a room of precisely eight by four metres for anyone in the terminal who would like to enjoy a gaffer. And get this: it is the only room in the entire, palacious kingdom that is neither air-conditioned or sports an extraction fan. I walked into this room to light up, and immediately had the impression that I was being force-fed tar through every orifice in my body. Stupidly, I ignited a cigarette.

By the time I had staggered out of Dante's little shoe-box hell, my brain was reeling with the Turkish tobacco industry's yearly quota of nicotine. I resolved, then and there, to give the filthy habit away.

We got back on the plane, which had been hastily repaired (there was still a bit of wet epoxy around the tail-fin area), and to my horror, I realised I was walking behind the new pilot, who was obviously only twelve years old. I leant over to the TP and whispered "Let's help that old Muslim lady out, and pray like fuck as well."

Surprisingly, our new pilot turned out to be a gem, and we landed in Istanbul some five hours later with a touchdown like the kiss of a brand-new mother. All I can say is "Allah akh-something."

Gotta go - it's time for a fag.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Titanium Princess

The Titanium Princess was in no mood for argument. I had christened her the Titanium Princess (or TP for short) many years ago, after a car accident had left most of her skeleton unuseable, and which had consequently been almost completely replaced by titanium rods and plates. It now works fine, and looks pretty good, too; I've even got used to the grease nipples protruding from her knees and elbows. Remember that scene in Terminator where Big Arnie cuts open his forearm and rips the skin away? I have nightmares about that.

Anyway, the only downfall of being married to a cyborg is that she causes mayhem at airports. Every time she walks through a metal detector the thing starts wailing like a banshee, as if Rommel had just driven the 2nd Panzer division through the thing.

We had not even begun our trip to Europe - it was Saturday afternoon at the Sydney Aerodrome, and we were about to embark on a flight that would take us to Turkey. We had nine weeks of adventure in front of us - Turkey, Greece, Italy, Austria, Germany, Czeck Republic, Holland Belgium, Ireland, and the U.K. - (I was deliberately avoiding France this time, after the famous case of the Cyanide Croissant - but that's another story).

We checked in, laid our bags on the X-ray machine, and I walked through the metal detector. I waited on the other side as TP came through. As predicted, pandemonium ensued. It looked, and sounded, like Saturday night at an Oxford St. rave club. About a dozen airport staff came running over and surrounded TP, obviously of the view that - at last - Johnny Howard's malignant obsession thet the country was about to be invaded by terrorists had come true. They can be so sly, these malefactors - even mutating into middle-aged female schoolteachers when required. I stood by, a healthy twenty feet or so away, and bemusedly wondered how TP would handle what would be the first of many identical situations - or, more precisely, how the airport security staff were going to handle a woman whose vocabulary is, er, extensive when she wants it to be.

"Madam," enquired one of the security men, "do you have any metal objects on you?"

"No, but I've got plenty in me," she replied. The security guy asked her to step into a little room off to the side. "I don't think a strip-search is warranted," she objected reasonably. "I have a letter here from my doctor that will give you the run-down on exactly where all the metal is." She eyed him with a look that plainly said "Don't fuck with me, Sonny Jim."

He hesitated, then waved over a female officer, who passed something resembling a black, plastic cricket-bat all over TP's body. The thing made noises like R2D2 having a heart-attack, while the male officer read the doctor's letter.

"All good, he eventually conceded, "have a pleasant flight."

We got our seats on the plane, and TP leant across and whispered "That was close. No way I'm taking my clothes off for any of these bastards. Good thing the Glock sits comfortably over my left hip."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


A treat for all star-gazers. A 360 degree view of the Milky Way, provided by my friend Kiriakos, who works at the Very Large Telescope in northern Chile. (And to think God did it with the snap of his fingers!) Thanks, Kiri!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Where's my machine gun?

If you're a mildly observant chap or chapess, you'll have noticed the look of my blog has changed. A friend asked me if he could experiment with some new software he'd been testing, and, being a total ignoramus when it comes to all things computer, of course I said "Yes".

I think you'll agree he's done a wonderful job. I love the atmospheric theme he's imagined, designed and rendered. His name is Claudio Esposito, and he can be found at If you're in need of any sort of web design, I couldn't recommend him more highly.

(OK, Claudio, you can take that tommy-gun out of my back now!)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Trench warfare

Well, call me an idiot, but standing around in mud up to one's elbows whilst listening to a drongo like the excerable Ben Harper doesn't sound a lot like my idea of fun. But that's what thousands of tripped-out punters did on Monday night at the Bluesfest, attesting to the theory that lousy ecstasy and lousy performers go hand-in-hand.

Meanwhile, your happy curmudgeon of a reporter was bunkered down in the ladies' change room at Kids' Korner (spelling not being a high point of Australian culture just yet) waiting for a break in the torrent that had turned Byron Bay into a mud-fest. I'd just seen the phenomenal Ruthie Foster deliver a set that could make a grown man (me) weep. I was standing there with a friend, and we just had to hug each other as the beauty and power of Ruthie's voice washed over us.

So why did the majority of the festival's punters trudge their way through the mud to see this Harper feller? One can only guess, but I'd say that Ben Harper is a mere symptom of the impending downfall of western society. He, and the atrocious John Butler, and a gentleman by the name of Xavier Rudd, etc etc, represent the colossally stupid end of the "new" music spectrum.

These are characters who are, undoubtedly, sincere. They write and perform songs that lament the extinction of gay aboriginal whales, and celebrate the idea that the world will be saved if only you will form a circle with your friends and chant in a made-up language.

All of these blokes, and more, have only one tiny downfall: their music is shit. Dumb, boring and repetitive, their tedious strummings have at best a soporific effect on the sophisticated listener. In my case, Ben Harper makes for a useful purgative. While various entrepreneurs made a killing at the fest selling gumboots to slide around in the mud with, I think next year I'll see if I can make some money flogging vomit bags and buckets to the discerning.

Anyway, none of this was to be the point of today's post. Apart from the mud and a few brain-damaged performers and their adoring minions, the Bluesfest was, for me, an Easter of perfect happiness. Why? Because I was surrounded by family and friends for a week in one of the most picturesque parts of the country, drinking wine, relaxing, and listening to some great music from time to time. One friend, whom I hadn't seen for a number of years, nearly hugged me to death when we met. These catching ups with old friends, the peaceful hours spent lazing about at our campsite at Lake Ainsworth, the sounds of hooting, chuckling and screeching emanating from Leigh's tent at 3.30 a.m. as he remembered yet another hysterical anecdote from the night's proceedings, and in turn had the rest of the campsite in fits of laughter - these are the phenomena that make the Fest my most enjoyable time of the year.

And, of course, there's some great music to be had. As usual, Angelique Kidjou was glorious. But so were Zappa Plays Zappa, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and the irrepressible Ruthie Foster. What a voice. Each one of these performers was worth the price of admission alone.

A highlight was the Voodoo Daddies - 30s and 40s swing, with a five-piece brass section that was amazingly tight and luscious. Tia sitting on my shoulders rocking and rolling as they launched into a version of Minnie the Moocher that would have had Cab Calloway sitting up in his grave yelling "Ho de ho de ho de ho!". When the cameras found Tia, she was plastered all over the giant screens, and waved to herself with frantic joy, singing the chorus at the top of her voice with about eight thousand others.

There were some quibbles, of course. The sound quality was poor, compared to previous fests. I have no idea why the sound at such a venue should be less than perfect, as there are no reverberation problems to overcome. Some acts, including Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, achieved brilliant sound, so one can only wonder at the state of ears/brains of other engineers behind the desk. As well, the whole mud thing was poorly handled. At one stage on Monday night I was wandering around shin-deep in the stuff. Rivers of slush were pouring through the site. There was not enough shelter provided to get people out of the rain. 

Nevertheless, I came home after a relaxing eight-hundred kilometre drive feeling energised. Can't wait for next year. Now, which gumboots? Cherries or leopards?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Get yourselves to "Darwin's Teapot"

A bloke called Scott runs one of the best blogs on the net. It is full of fascinating news from the world of science, astute observations on religion, politics etc., and is criminally under-utilised. I urge everyone to take a look - you'll want to put it in your followers list for sure. 

Darwin's Teapot - go there now!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

...and get your kicks for free.

The Mormons introduced themselves as "Jim" and "Peter" from "The Latter-Day Saints".

To their surprise, I immediately asked them in. "Coffee?" I offered. "Er, no thanks," replied Jim, "but a glass of water would be nice."

"Now, fellers, what have you blokes got to say for yourselves?" I enquired, as we sat around the table while Jim got a dirty big book out of his briefcase - a tome that resembled a bible, but which was in fact The Book of Mormon, one of the stupidest wastes of good Tasmanian old-growth forest you might ever see.

"Do you know anything about our church, Laurie?" asked Jim, who was obviously the senior partner of the Jim and Pete show.

"Nothing at all," I lied, wondering what tale of idiocy would shortly be coming my way. Jim, who'd been to Mormon training school by the look of him, asked me straight off (and believe me, I was unprepared for this) "Are you worried by the prospect of spending eternity in hell, Laurie?"

Well, ten points for announcing your utter stupidity up front, I thought to myself. "Tell me about this hell you speak of, Jim," I replied more courteously. Jim launched himself into a tirade of imaginary horrors that would have done James Joyce proud. After three or four minutes of this I was becoming both impressed by his reserve of adjectives, and worried about his sanity at the same time.

Now, it just so happened that, a couple of days previously, I'd had a bit of an altercation with the limb of a tree I'd been removing down in the bottom paddock. The thing had fallen and twisted, sending a smallish branch in my direction. I'd turned to run, just as the branch came down and grazed my back. Nothing serious, but I had some pretty hefty cuts and grazes down my back that made it look like it had come in contact with a cat-o-nine-tails half a dozen times. To tell the truth, I was more pissed off with the thought that it had ripped to pieces a favourite t-shirt that proclaimed "God is dead - now let the bastard rest in peace, motherfuckers." A sudden thought came to mind.

"Jim," I interrupted as speckles of froth were starting to appear around the sides of his mouth, "there's a bit of a problem I see in your argument, if you don't mind me saying so. You see, I have a medical condition - well, to tell you the truth, it's a mental health issue - called Masochism Anxiety Disorder. I know, of course, that it's irrational, but my psychiatrist tells me there's no likelihood of a cure for it."

"Oh," said Jim, utterly perplexed. 

"Yeah, it's a bit of a bugger, actually," I continued, "because it's a condition that presents itself as a desire to have pain inflicted upon myself. I enjoy being hurt, to put it simply, and, quite frankly, this 'hell' you describe sounds like my idea of the ultimate fun-park. I mean, I've made up a few little devices I use down in the shed that involve whips and electric motors and such, but hell sounds like the mother of all torture chambers, and to tell you the truth, I can't wait to get there."

By this stage I could see Peter glancing around as if he was coyly assessing the best possible escape routes out of the place, and he had begun to go several tinges of a whiter shade of pale. Jim was studying his book of Mormon as if he was trying to find a verse or two dedicated to the management and care of the seriously deranged. Fat chance, I thought, as I ploughed on.

"I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about. A couple of days ago I had a good session with my cat-o-nine-tails machine I've rigged up. It was most gratifying, I can tell you," I said with a decidely lewd leer in Pete's direction.

I stood up, turned around and pulled my t-shirt up over my shoulders. By this stage, my wounds had become scabrous and evilly red, with blue tinges of bruises on the sides. It was a most prepossessing sight, if I do say so.

At this, young Pete jumped to his feet with a gasp of horror. It was a bad move, because what little blood had been left in his head cascaded immediately into his feet, and the poor bastard dropped like a rock in a pratfall that would have done Buster Keaton proud. He was out cold on the floor of my kitchen with blood trickling out of a nose that was never going to attract nice young Mormon ladies again.

Jim jumped to the aid of his mate with little cries of "Oh, oh, oh!", knocking his glass of water all over the open pages of his book of moronism. At the same time, his face had gone a distinct tinge of green, but, curiously, his ears were the colour of a beetroot. Fuck, I thought, trying to contain my joy, these two could just about pass as the Italian national flag.

I pulled an old bottle of smelling-salts out of the cupboard, and held the open bottle under Pete's flattened nose. He came to with the sort of startled cry that Uma Thurman affected in Pulp Fiction. It was a shame I didn't have a dirty big needle full of adrenalin, I thought. Young Pete would have been seriously discombobulated to wake up with something like that sticking out of his chest.

Eventually, he was conscious enough, and comforted enough, to whisper to Jim that it might be a good idea if they went home. Jim helped him out the front door, down the path, and into the Landcruiser. "Are you sure you don't want to take a look at my little chamber of horrors before you go? I enquired solicitously.

At that, Jim gunned the motor and did an impression up my drive of a Norwegian rally driver. I dusted off my hands and went inside, only to spy Jim's book of Mormon still sitting on the kitchen table.

"Ah, kindling!" I exclaimed. "These Mormons come in handy occasionally."

And, I must say, the Book of Mormon burns beautifully.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The prince of sports

A couple of years ago I retired from competitive cricket. My last year was as captain of the North Richmond 7th grade team, a position I was thrust into some years previously by the president of the club, a genial bloke called Ross Matheson, who must have been seriously deluded about my capabilities to have even considered the possibility that I would lead the team to glory, i.e. by actually winning a competition. (It never did, by the way.)

I'd played cricket as a youngster, of course, going up through the age grades and learning the trade. But cricket gave way to girls, surfing, taking drugs, playing in rock and roll bands, robbing banks, and generally being stupid.

When my eldest son finished his junior career, the possibility of blooding him in the seniors came along, and so I agreed to play with him in one of the lower grades. By this stage, Miles was a pretty damn good cricketer, and it wasn't going to be long before he climbed up to first grade potential. I, on the other hand, at the age of 45, was going nowhere, and was happy to admit it. The club got a team of fathers and sons together - six blokes of about my age with our sons, who were all pretty handy with the leather and willow by this stage.

I remember the first time I strode out to the crease, donned in new pads and gloves, and the most important bit of kit a bloke needs: the box. Cricket balls make a curious, crushing sound when they come in contact with a pair of unprotected gonads - a sound I'd heard once or twice while fielding at slips just before realising that that particular kid was going to spreading his genes in the future only by means of a syringe and a turkey-baster.

Anyway, I shaped up to this young bloke from the Glossodia team who came screaming in to the bowling crease at a great rate of knots. "This feels pretty good," I said to myself as I prepared for a comfortable front-foot drive into the covers, only to find that the bat was still at the top of its back-swing as the ball thudded into the keeper's gloves.

"What the fuck happened then?" I asked of no-one in particular, as the blokes in the slips cordon began tittering. The next five balls brought about similar results, until I was left bewildered at the end of the pitch checking that my bat did not have watermelon-sized holes in it. I realised, finally, that my reaction times were not as they had been twenty-five years before, and, more importantly, I was gonna have to do something about it, and quick. My son, who was opening the batting with me, just stood at the other end of the crease giving me a look that would have withered  Don Bradman.

"Okay, you smug little bastard," I thought, as he shaped up to the bowling, "let's see what you can do. Crack! The ball whistled past my ears at Mach 3 on its way over the fence at long on. The next ball he turned deftly to backward square leg and immediately yelled "Come on! There's three in it." I was running as fast as I could, and had just turned for my second, when he overtook me, already on his third run. "For fuck's sake, get a move on, Dad!" he said with an evil grin as he loped, elegantly, to his crease. Meanwhile, I was considering the time it would take for an ambulance to make a round trip from Windsor Hospital with a victim of myocardial infarction on board. Somehow I made it up and back once more before the square-leg fieldsman, fortunately a bloke also in his dotage, could return the ball to the keeper. I decided a good lie down on the grass was in order, and asked the umpire if rest periods between balls had been written into the official MCC book of the laws of cricket.

By the time I'd regained some composure and my stance at the crease, I was thinking that this really was a mug's game. I threw caution to the wind, and, seeing a ball that was slightly overpitched just outside off stump, thundered down the track, kept my bat straight, and hoped for the best. The ball struck the middle of the bat and whistled straight through the covers for four! I looked up at Miles, who was gazing at me with a mixture of consternation, scepticism and awe. It was a moment of pure bliss.

I scored 25 that day, and, of course, was hooked. And so, I soldiered on for another eight seasons, until creaking knees and one rather unfortunate injury gave me pause to reconsider.

I was 53 and opening the batting again. This time I was playing with my younger son, Blake, who was, like Miles, stepping up into senior cricket. He is a very fine swing bowler, and I'd had two seasons of captaining him in the seventh grade, to my great satisfaction. It was a game to see who would go into the finals rounds in first position on the competition ladder. A young, lanky fast bowler, who was all of 6'6" tall, came in to deliver the first ball. It was short, and reared up at what I thought was an excellent hooking height. I went for the shot, was too late, and the ball careened straight into my face at about 120 kilometres an hour. It dropped me like a brick onto the pitch, blood pouring out of a gash just below my left eye, and the left side of my face immediately swelling to the size of the ball that had just done the damage. I was only semi-conscious, but had the presence of mind to call out to the bowler, who by this stage was standing over me, "Is that as fast as you can bowl, mate? Pathetic."

Ross, the club president was there, and immediately bundled me into his car and took me off to hospital, where x-rays determined that I had fortunately not fractured my skull. It took a couple of weeks for the swelling to go down, and I must say the blokes from the other team were very good about it, with their captain and the bowler himself both calling me to see how I was. Two weeks later we lost the semi-finals against the same team, and I realised it was time to hang up the box for good.

I know it may sound silly, but I'm very proud and fortunate to have been able to play a real, competitive sport with my sons. We learnt a lot from each other out there in our flannels, and I hope that their abiding memories of me will include all that great fun we had together playing the prince of sports.