The Demon in Command

First published

Of course, one has to be educated to the Demon, lessons are necessary on how to live with him, how to coddle and be nice to him. Schools regrettably teach nothing about the vital things of life; how to tip a waiter, the mysteries of a quinella and a quadrella, how to make a million on the stockmarket, the right time to plant tomatoes, how to reply to an invitation to a party, how to tie a bow tie, and, most important of all, how to find one's way around a wine list.

The various schools I went to taught nothing about the Demon. On the last day, just before setting out into the dangerous world, our distinguished headmaster gave this warning: "There are three great dangers in life, wine, women and motor cars. Any one of these is fraught with peril, and any two combined are disastrous."

My father believed that young people should be eased towards liquor gently. He had the theory that if they were familiar with beer and wine as teenagers, then they would not make appalling mistakes later on. Nothing is more calamitous, he believed, than an 18-year-old having his first drink at a party.

Most times I have escaped serious trouble. There are two types of drinkers in this world. I call them sophors and aggressors. Sophors are those who are never far from sleep. Alcohol makes them sleepier than ever. Aggressors are those who are inspired by alcohol, their spirits are lifted. In extreme cases they even start fighting. I have one friend whom we describe as being "two whiskies short." That is he is melancholy and mournful on almost all occasions. Ah, but once he has had two whiskies he is witty, a master raconteur and the life of the party.

I was and still am a sophor. I am renowned for dozing off after the second course. There is only one excuse for this outrageous behavior. After being prodded into life again, either by a hostess or a loving wife, I lie as charmingly as I can: "Sorry I nodded off. It is the greatest compliment I can pay to a chef. I only go to sleep after I have had a truly delicious meal."

Being a sophor was a help on a number of occasions. When our pilot training course came to an end at Deniliquin in December 1943 there was the traditional celebration. However our course, number 37, went berserk. They fought it out on the parade ground with fire hoses, they went into the sleeping huts and broke up beds and furniture.

As a sophor I missed all this. I curled up in a quiet corner and went to sleep. So next day when we were reprimanded, leave cancelled, and creatures in disgrace, I was still unsure what had happened.

There were several highly educational lessons about the Demon. Some months later as the youngest pilot officer in the RAAF I was at a Wireless Air Gunnery School at West Sale Number 1. WAGS was ruled by a ferocious Group Captain. He had the classic moustache which looked like one of those things you use to clean dirty sinks and he had a terrifying glare designed specially to create fear in junior pilot officers.

When he came down to breakfast, he would eat nothing. This was his favorite line: "All I need at breakfast is a cup of thick black coffee and a long, slow look around."

Nothing much ever happened at Sale. We flew Fairy Battles which towed drogues like long wind socks and Wireless Airgunners shot at them from Avro Ansons. We would go for three hours, flying back and forth, back and forth, from A to B, then from B back to A, across Bass Strait. At night there was nothing to do in the mess but play with the Demon.

I had been at Sale only three weeks when I read about a marvellous drink called a "Pink Lady." Some people when being rude called it a ruptured rooster. It consisted of equal measures of cherry brandy and advocaat. Advocaat was a villainous drink invented by the Dutch. It was made from sweetened brandy mixed with egg yolk and flavoured with vanilla and coffee. The idea was to pour the advocaat first, watch the thick yellow goo flow into the glass, then add the crimson stream of cherry brandy. It looked most spectacular, hence the name ruptured rooster.

Pink ladies came in a low, squat glass. In 1943 we were all under the influence of Western movies. We had seen how drinks were served in Western saloons. Gentlemen like John Wayne and Alan Ladd always grabbed their glasses and tossed down the liquor in one gulp. Then looking at the saucy barmaid, cried: "Fill 'em up again, Sal."

Someone said …I confess it must have been me…"Let's drink them the way the cowboys do it." It was good fun and we did this three or four times. Now if my old school had only eschewed Latin, differential calculus, the history of the crowned heads of England, and taught us important things like the alcoholic content of various drinks, the ensuing disaster would not have taken place. Cherry brandy and advocaat both hover around 40 per cent alcohol by volume, so two measures put together had a most remarkable effect. Forty minutes later I did not feel very well and I asked to be excused.

The crude wooden huts at West Sale were unbelievably cold, even colder than our accommodation at boarding school. The RAAF did not supply sheets, only blankets, and we used to make them into sleeping bags with blanket pins. But I felt strange, too strange to undress and too awful even to get into the bag. I lay on the bed.

It was then that the bed began to rotate, that is the whole ghastly steel stretcher seemed to turn right over as if mounted on an axle. I discovered that this was the Demon's ultimate manoeuvre. If the bed started to turn over while one was aboard, disaster approacheth. As they say in the Scriptures: "There is no health in us." How odd it was, the bed seemed to turn almost a full 360 degrees, yet I did not fall to the floor. Surely this was the way one died, surely this was the end of everything.

Then I exploded. The huts which had almost nothing to keep out the elements were actually lined with a material called Sisalcraft. This was a sort of paper impregnated with tar and it was the colour of sheep's dung. It remained that colour no longer and a whole wall was impregnated with bits of food and pink lady. The Sisalcraft being what it was had a permanent rich new hue. There was no escaping my misdemeanor, no hiding it from the authorities. The Group Captain sent a message to headquarters that I was "a most unsatisfactory member of the Mess."

I learned a lot that night, and the vital lesson was this, don't ever touch advocaat and never never allow the bed to rotate. Unquestionably there is something quite beautiful about alcohol. Many times I have tried to tell myself that it is not important. I have listened to wise people who report that non alcoholic wines are still good to taste, that zero alcohol or low alcohol beers are absolutely delicious. It is not true. It is just amazing what a little alcohol will do for a drink.

Late in World War 2 many of us were stranded on the islands to the North, in places like Morotai, Noemfor, Biak, Balikpapan and in my case, Labuan, an island off North Borneo. We thought a lot about sex, a lot about good food, about eating real meat again, sleeping in a real bed, but perhaps most of all we thought about beer.

At night as we sat in our tents there was nothing to do, no television, no radio, just some uplifting books provided by the RAAF education services and occasionally a few records that could be played on wind up gramophones. We talked and we dreamed about beer.

Of course beer had been desperately short even before we left Australia. The Government on 30 December 1940 decided on a 30 per cent cutback to civilians, so bottles of beer became something akin to diamonds. I treasured a story which appeared in the Sun News Pictorial on 11 October 1943:

"Police are searching for 1656 bottles of beer which disappeared from the Carlton & United Brewery to a firm of carriers at Richmond. A driver employed by a city firm of cartage contractors picked up the beer, which was packed in 69 crates by the brewery, with horses and lorry. The beer failed to reach its destination at Richmond, and at 10.30 pm on Friday the lorry and horses were found abandoned in Powlett Street, East Melbourne. No trace has been found of the driver, who has not returned to his residence."

No wonder, he was having too good a time. Actually there was a controversy as to whether troops should be allowed to even touch the Demon.

Sir Keith Murdoch, Rupert's father, wrote a series of articles in 1942 for the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd. He wrote:

"A great deal of damage is being done throughout the country by the misuse of liquor, and it is not at all certain that the weakening of the war effort and the morale might not be fatal."

On 3 August 1942 he wrote:

"The plain fact is that we will pass under the bondage of the Japanese because of the demon drink."

Many of us believed utterly that we would pass under the bondage of the Japanese a darned sight quicker unless we had access to the Demon. Fortunately work at Carlton & United Breweries, Tooheys, Tooths et alia was deemed a reserved occupation and those workers did not have to join up. Senator Keane, the Minister for Customs on 14 April 1943 pointed out that beer was good for morale. It was not a luxury to men after fighting in the steaming jungles of New Guinea, or working in the blazing heat of northern Australia. Nor was it harmful for men to have a few drinks after long hours of arduous labour in war industries. Consumption of liquor had been part of British national life for centuries.

These remarks caused outrage with the Melbourne North Methodist Synod and the Baptist Union agreed that the only clear way to beat Hitler was to ban liquor.

Orders for the Armed Forces took up three-quarters of the output of the breweries. If a soldier was down South he received two bottles a week. Up North it was not so easy. Note that Senator Kane said "after fighting in the steaming jungles." New Guinea remained a dry area until 1 August 1944.

On Labuan, North Borneo, we received our two bottle ration whenever there was a supply ship, which was not often. There was even a little piece doing the rounds which was very popular. It would receive no pass from the feminists in the 1990s.

I grabbed her by her slender neck She did not shout or scream I took her to my darkened tent Where we could not be seen. I took her from her flimsy wrap And gazed upon her form She was so cold so wet so damp And I was delightfully warm. I pressed her to my fevered lips And drained her every drop I made her what she is today And that's why you'll find her here An empty bottle, thrown away, that once was full of beer.

There was no such thing as a beer glass on the islands. If I remember correctly we did it this way. We filled a bottle to the half way mark, and at the water level tied a red hot band of wire, then plunged the whole thing into a tub of very cold water. The beer bottle severed perfectly at the wire and one had a quite splendid beer mug. Maybe a few sharp edges would have to be honed off on a carborundum stone. When the ration arrived it came in the form of Tooths, Reschs, Victoria Bitter, Richmond Lager or Richmond Pilsner. We rarely saw Foster's Lager. Melbourne Bitter and Victoria Bitter far out sold Foster's prior to the 1950s. It was only when John Elliott was trying to Fosterise the world that Foster's became so big. The name Foster's always sounded sweeter in Melbourne-hating places like Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.

Richmond beer we did not like. The Richmond Brewery used to be in Church Street, Richmond, started by Peter Grant Hay in 1929. Richmond Bitter and Richmond Pilsner had a splendid tiger on the label and right from the start there was an attempt to associate it with the powerful Richmond football team. It was a heavily hopped beer and had its passionate devotees both in Richmond clubs and the Working Men's Club in Mildura which boasted the longest bar in the world served by 32 taps.

The Workingman's Club refused to accept the ruthless dictatorship of the Carlton Brewery and switched entirely to Richmond. But other establishments were not so brave, the Carlton Brewery not only produced a better product but had industrial muscle and the Richmond brewery expired in 1962. On that day 120 workers at Richmond received an hours' free beer at the Prince Alfred pub over the road and someone sang this little song:

The Game is lost, The Battle's O'er They're knocking on our bloody door, We tried our best to win the day But lost our mate in P.G Hay.

Of course all beer was wonderful. In those days it came in big wooden crates, each bottle wrapped in a straw sheath, and that is the way it arrived in Labuan. We wept whenever we came across a bottle that was broken. Vic Bitter was the brand most utterly prized. We could trade anything up to four bottles of Richmond Tiger for one of Vic. Those who did not drink were in a prime position, more loved than Hedy Lamarr or Betty Grable.

Oddly enough we had little interest in hard liquor. Some of the men made home brew, a hideous concoction composed of prunes, dried apricots and raisins. They would keep it under the bed where it would ferment and bubble. It was quite undrinkable.

On my 21st birthday, one of my colleagues, Flight Lieutenant Jack Williams, produced a bottle of Scotch, a priceless item "Here you are, birthday lad," said he. "Have a drink of that." We didn't even have one of our patent beer glasses. He passed over the bottle, and I was expected to drink it neat. I put it to my mouth had several gulps, went outside and was sick under a palm tree. That act must have done something. Now 48 years later I still believe whisky to be one of the most uninspired drinks.

There was just one other occasion when the Demon was in full command. There were three hotels immediately adjacent to the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd. There was the elegant Oriental. It had a discreet back bar and this was the headquarters for the "Morning Tea Club". It was called the Morning Tea Club because the senior writers like the Finance Editor, Jack Eddy, columnist Bill Tipping, and Sun writer Stewart Legge used to gather there for their drinks at 11 am. Almost next door on the corner of Flinders Lane was the Astoria. This was a stark establishment, with no furniture and done out in dung colored lino, ideal for the male consumption of beer.

Over the road in Flinders Street, on the other side of Exhibition Street, there was the Phoenix Hotel, later owned by the Collingwood footballer, Lou Richards. It was so narrow, a Phoenix bird of mythical fame could never rise from the Ashes because there would be insufficient room to flap its wings. There was an attempt to make the Phoenix the unofficial journalists' club. The bar upstairs was decorated with famous front pages. We could observe such things as the attack on Pearl Harbour and Captain de Groot opening the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

There is no doubt journalists of the 1990s have improved. They are sober earnest young people. In the 1940s and 1950s they tended to be heroic in their drinking. Indeed many reporters spent so much time at the bar in the Phoenix it became an alternate Reporters Room. I would hesitate to say the Phoenix was actually connected to the Herald switchboard with a direct line, but the number did virtually dial itself. When a Chief of Staff was looking for a reporter to send to a fire, a tram derailment or a nice murder he knew exactly where to find his man. He would be in the Phoenix.

Unquestionably the most important date in my life was 5 September 1949. That was was when I married Marie Rose We were married on 5 September because on 6 September we were flying to the United States to take up an assignment in the Herald's New York Bureau. Naturally there was only one place a Sun journalist could be given a send off, that was the Phoenix.

Twenty odd young cadets and junior reporters assembled in the upstairs bar to say 'good-bye.' It has always been a curious practice in Australia that a bachelor can only be injected into matrimony with a strong infusion of alcohol. Under the inflexible, almost religious rules of shouting every reporter had to buy a beer. Under the even more inflexible rules of six o'clock closing it had to be done very quickly.

My Mother said to me: "You are getting married tomorrow, so you had better come home early. You can take the car." The car was an original model Holden and it has to be confessed that as I left the Phoenix I felt a very limp bird. John Monks, a fellow cadet, at the Herald & Weekly Times, came as my guide and protector. I am not sure who was protecting whom.

However we did discover that two people can walk better than one without falling over. Only in 1949 when Melbourne was a place of benign innocence with few traffic problems, would it have been possible to make such a journey. As we went around Como Park, South Yarra, everything seemed to be in a blur. Indeed we opened the door of the car just a few inches so that we could keep track of the exact proximity of the kerb. If the kerb started to stray then we knew we were veering too far into the middle of the road. We did actually manage to reach my parents' house in Wallace Avenue, Toorak. The next three hours entailed acute suffering almost as bad as the Pink Lady experience in Sale.

Fortunately Marie Rose, a very capable trained nurse, was there. She cleaned up the inevitable mess, provided the aspirins to ease the throbbing pain and got the ruin to bed. It was a wonder that she did not decide, there and then, that it would be better not to go to the altar with a Phoenix-destroyed journalist. However she showed the remarkable patience and understanding that was to continue for another 45 years.

Yet that ride home from the Phoenix was a great way of acquiring wisdom. It was the last time I allowed the Demon to take over.

Follow onto the next chapter, The Beer Demon

The second chapter of Keith's book on his relationship with wine, beer and drinking, 'My life with the Demon'.

Keywords in this article

WineCocktailsSir Keith MurdochPeter Grant HayJack WilliamsJack EddyE.W. Bill TippingStuart LeggePhoenix HotelLou RichardsJohn MonksMarie Dunstan

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