Somewhat stunted columns
THERE'S nothing very new in writing stunt columns. There's a columnist in Hawaii who specializes in the most daring of adventures. One day he accused the women of Honolulu of being lazy, of having little to do. The response was satisfactorily devastating, and, if I remember correctly, one mother invited him to take over her menage for twenty-four hours, while she moved out to a hotel. She left behind her ten children. This Hawaii columnist found plenty of material for his column that day.
The stunt column has the beautiful advantage in that one is right inside the story, taking part. There is no second-hand information, it is all first hand, it makes for much more lively copy. So over the years I have performed as a second at the wrestling, as an extra in grand opera, as Father Christmas at a city store, led a recalcitrant Santa Gertrudis bull around the arena at the Show, been blasted off an aircraft carrier by steam catapult, been frightened in racing cars and galloped in the tail of a Chinese dragon.
The night at the wrestling was most educational. You see, Primo Carnera, 6 ft 6 in., 21 stone, former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, now wrestler, was in town. He turned out to be a gentle character with a nice sense of humour, but as a man to see he was awe-inspiring. His hands were twice the size of a dinner plate and when he spoke his voice sounded as if it came from the bottom of a keg. At his hotel a room clerk looked at him open-mouthed, as if suddenly he had spotted a gorilla.
Carnera pulled a face and gave a roar: 'AAAAGGGGHHHHG!'
The poor clerk yelped and fled around the other side of the counter.
Carnera, we were told, despite his big frame, was a sparse eater, but he had a ravenous thirst. He caused his second stir at the hotel by ordering a large beer jug full of water. He took it in his big hand and sank it at one draught. Australians are always impressed by anyone who can do that.
It was that afternoon that I volunteered to take the job as a second. Mr Carnera already was catered for, so I won a job with his opponent Stanley 'Murder Inc.' Kowalski, a Polish-American. A half hour before the fight my man Stanley was in the changing room. He was a big boy, 6 ft 4 in., 20 stone, with long peroxide blond hair. He was wearing black tights.
'The tights are the trade mark of me and my mate, Tiny Mills,' he said. 'They call us Murder Incorporated. We got one golden rule: 'Do it to him before he does it to us.' Yair, I'm a main eventer, what they call a top hand. If you're in show business you're the top banana, in wrestling you're the top hand.
'But in wrestling you get a real schizoid personality. You're one guy in the ring, a completely different guy out of it. The only top hand that's the same alla time is Gorgeous George. That man really hates people to muss up his hair.
'He doesn't like me because I peroxide my hair like he does, I roughed him up real good a coupla times. He's only a little guy — about 14 stone.'
It was almost time to go on. We discussed how everything was against us, a house full of Italians all in love with their idol, Primo Camera; none of our mob there, no good Polacks from Minnesota.
Primo came on as big as a telegraph pole in a red and blue dressing gown, they cheered and yelled 'PRIMO! PRIMO!' We came on — my man Stanley in a very nice black and white silk jacket with a gold thread through it — and they booed and hissed.
Stanley, of course, was insulted. He jumped into the ring, stamped his fist: 'YOU PEASANTS, YOU IGNORANT . . . I give you the bottom of my foot!'
Maybe everything would have been all right if only things had stopped there, but some members of the Italian community arrived with a sheaf of flowers. It was perfectly understandable in the circumstances. My man Stanley was outraged. 'WHERE ARE MY FLOWERS ? WHY DON'T I GET ANY ? I'LL KILL HIM.'
Bonnie Muir, the referee, gave his instructions and Carnera advanced. Actually he hulked forward, rolling his shoulders in a fearsome manner. I shrank behind the corner post. If you ever plan to be a second at one of these bouts take my advice and latch on to the corner post — it's a good spot. You'll never get hit by a falling body.
Stanley didn't hesitate. He flew at Carnera. He rained blows on him, pulled his hair. Carnera most unfairly pulled his hair back. My man had more than Carnera had.
At one stage Carnera picked up Stanley and dumped him on the floor. As Stanley pointed out later, this was unpleasant. Seeing that Carnera was such a mountain of a man he dropped him from a remarkable height. Carnera took my man in a headlock and punched him in the face. He threw him out of the ring. There was no justice.
Then Carnera scored a fall. It was like the last trump. The Italians cheered, whooped, threw kisses, jumped on their seats. 'PRIMO, PRIMO, BRAVO, PRIMO.'
My man, understandably disappointed, beat the floor with his fists. I gave him a bottle of water and he poured it over his head.
Several minutes later Stanley came back and pinned the huge Carnera. We could have been in church. There wasn't a sound. Nobody cheered. I said: 'Stanley, why are there no cheers?'
'You want to hear them?' he said. He stepped back into the middle of the ring and blew a beautiful kiss to the gallery. The crowd whistled, they screeched, they threw cigarette boxes, and the noise was almost too loud to bear. That, I think, was the beginning of the end.
Stanley now was most irritated. With superb skill he managed to get Carnera's neck twisted in the ropes. Then he picked him up by the legs and sat on him so that further pressure might be applied to Primo's neck. Bonny Muir, surprisingly, thought this unsporting. He pulled my man Stanley off by the hair. What else could Stanley do? He turned around and dropped the referee with a rabbit killer.
I wish you could imagine the noise while this was going on. It was very loud. Bonnie Muir then disqualified Stanley. Stanley wouldn't be disqualified. He tore into Carnera and they exchanged blows. Bonnie Muir separated them and Stanley — in quite a nice way, you understand — picked him up and threw him out of the ring.
Bonnie Muir came back with another referee and there was some confusion. My man Stanley grabbed the microphone and pointed out the terrible injustice, how they had been robbed, how it was written in the contract that there were to be no disqualifications.
Alas, we had to retire and we went down below to the dressing rooms. Naturally I assumed at once that schizoid Mr Kowalski would resume his former personality, but he was furious. Bonnie Muir didn't understand. It was agreed by everybody that there were to be no disqualifications. It was in the contract. Muir ought to understand that. He was a former wrestler. He only gave him a rabbit killer and threw him out of the ring.
Half an hour later Stanley was still angry.
We wuz definitely robbed.
After the wrestling it seemed wise to go for something a little more genteel, so I applied for a job as linesman at the professional tennis at Kooyong. There was some fear as to whether this would affect my amateur status at the local tennis club, but Jack Cullen, secretary of the Victorian Lawn Tennis Umpires' Association, put my mind at ease. He said they were all true blue amateurs, and the professionals made a general contribution to Association funds to assist in training.
Actually umpires were suffering at the time. They were being accused, bitterly, by tennis players on all sides. There was even the case of the viewer who picked Neale Fraser's footfault during the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills. This armchair linesman saw the footfault perfectly clearly on his TV and he sent a telegram of protest to Forest Hills. This was a record, the first man to disagree with a linesman from 1000 miles off. He was in Minnesota.
At 7.30 p.m. I gathered with the other linesmen under the main grandstand at Kooyong. Jack Cullen gave us our instructions. Linesmen never called unless there was an error, he said, so they were allowed to say only FAULT, FOOTFAULT or OUT as the situation required. Anything said at any other time would stop the play.
Linesmen do not clap or pass remarks. Though there is nothing in the book against elevating one's eyebrow every so often. The big moment came. We all looked very natty, wearing dark blue blazers. We formed into a platoon and keeping perfect step we marched onto the court. To one side stood the czar of tennis promotion, Jack Kramer, unsmiling, he was running his eye across the not overcrowded grandstands. As an American sports writer once put it: 'He is the only tennis player who can smash a ball away for a winner, count the house, and check the weather in the next town on his circuit, all at the one time.'
I was on the service line with Frank Doczy, an amiable Hungarian, a Doctor of Literature and a Doctor of Laws. It is a very good thing to have a Doctor of Laws on the service line.
The match between Alex Olmedo and Frank Sedgman went through smoothly. Frank Sedgman is the last of the gentleman players. Other professionals when they miss shots are apt to make remarks that wither the grass. Sedgman this night came out with old world comments like 'Oh gee' or 'Darn it'. Perhaps that is the reason why Olmedo won 11-9, 6-1.
The serious match was between Lew Hoad and Pancho Segura. And Lew was far from happy. He had a down-at-the-mouth Robert Mitchum look about him. The balls weren't right, the court was wet, he was falling over on his spikes and it seemed the only way to overcome his frustrations was to thrash his service. The first few services came with the speed of light, except that there wasn't much light. It was night time and the rain was falling steadily. I peered into the gloom. `Mmm . . . I think that went in.' Somehow the linesman's job seemed much easier two hundred yards up in the grandstand, even easier in Minnesota.
When the ball went out we called 'FAULT!' and when it didn't go out we said nothing. Now after almost every serve Pancho was looking at us with great Latin-American thunder. He was talking to himself too : 'Oh Pancho . . . watch the ball Pancho. . . . Move your legs Pancho.'
There was a clean ace from Lew and Pancho shook his fist at us. I started to get a guilt complex. I mean the ball had been in front of us for only one thousandth of a second. And when one thought about it, who knows, maybe it could have been half an inch further over . . .
Pancho won the first set 6-3, and it was 7-7 in the second set. Things couldn't have been more grim. Mr Hoad was sending guided missiles through the mist. Suddenly Pancho stormed up to our line and said: 'Which of you two is supposed to be watching the line? That's the third you've missed — out by a mile.'
I was about to say something when Frank Doczy gripped my arm. He said nothing and gave Pancho a lovely, mysterious Mona Lisa smile. So that's how I learned to be a tennis linesman . . . never concede anything, give only mysterious Mona Lisa smiles. If we made any mistakes that night we made them with fearless impartiality. Pancho won that last set 8-6.
The linesman job was interesting, but if I could call on the gods to give me some special gift I would ask to be a great tenor. It is always the tenor who finishes up with the girl, and the tenors always look so immensely happy when singing. I was determined somehow or other to get into opera and Stefan Haag of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust finally agreed to give me a job in the chorus of Lohengrin at Melbourne's Her Majesty's Theatre.
Mr Haag, however, was particularly cruel. He said: 'All right, I let you do this on one condition and one condition only ... that you don't sing. I shall expect you to open your mouth at the right times, but not a sound must come forth from your lips. But for heaven's sake look as if you're singing. One couldn't help but feel deeply about this because opportunities to sing with the Victorian Symphony Orchestra come all too rarely.
My role was that of a squire which called for a helmet, a rather imposing red cloak and chain mail which went from my top right down to my toes. Actually the chain mail was made from heavy weave knitted nylon. Chain mail has definitely come on since medieval times.
The vast Wagnerian assembly gathered on the stage before the curtain. It was like the count down for a blast-off at Cape Kennedy. Over the microphone a voice said: Three minutes to curtain .. . Two minutes to curtain. There were Saxon gentlemen with shields, pikes, spears, swords, shields, halberds ... we had enough armour on stage at Her Majesty's to conquer Vietnam.
The tension was just mounting when a bearded pike in the second row said: 'I see Flash Gordon's on tonight.'
'Who's Flash Gordon?'
'That's Eric Clapham, the conductor. He's a beauty. You should see him go. We'll be through by 10:30 tonight.'
The curtain went up and the light was blinding. I had imagined in the old tradition that I would be able to pick out some attractive person in the eighth row and sing my non-noises especially to her, but I couldn't see past the first row.
We all took up our correct infantry positions. Simon Jochic, another squire, was standing beside me to dig me in ribs whenever we had to do anything. Quickly it became apparent that a squire's job was similar to that of an umpire at a cricket match — to take all the surplus material from the players. At various times we held banners, swords, shields.
There were moments of magic, when as a frustrated O.R. in the chorus, I envied the singing of Lohengrin (Ronald Dowd) and Elsa (Elizabeth West), but eventually the agony began to tell. It was insufferably hot under the lights and the sweat was bubbling up under the Max Factor. I had nothing on under my uniform, but it is not generally appreciated just how much nylon chain mail can itch. We were suppose to stand there in one spot for thirty minutes without moving a muscle. Trickles were running down my spine and my whole back was a seething itch. If only I could have had just one good scratch. The halberd would have made a beautiful back scratch. The only way was to get my mind off it, somehow, worry about something more grievous. So I worried whether the Magpie rucks would be able to handle Barassi on Saturday.
Act Two was a quiet one for the NCOS and pike holders, so we stayed below in the changing rooms. The chorus, as it is usually is these times, was made up almost entirely of Continentals — Italians, Hungarians, Czechs. . . . And this was the fascinating part, it wasn't just a job, they really adored to sing. So all the time they were down below during the second act, they never stopped, song after song. At one stage they burst into the Toreador song from Carmen. It was tremendous, so much so, they almost shook the rafters and it was a wonder that the audience didn't hear it. There was something quite moving about their enthusiasm.
The most beautiful arias came during the last act, during the love scene between Lohengrin and Elsa. Now there was silence back stage and members of the cast gathered in the wings to listen. Some of them quietly hummed and mouthed the words.
But deep among the wire cables and scenery over in the back-ground I spotted a big Saxon most passionately kissing a Plantagenet-looking maiden. It seemed to fit the situation.
Once again we all had to mass on stage and the climax came. Elsa had broken her vow and asked the forbidden question as to Lohengrin's identity. Therefore he would have to leave forever, and the great Swan would bear him back to Montsalvat.
During this aria I had to stand beside the silver knight and look sympathetic. He sang so well I could see it all. Ronald Dowd was utterly transported, he had projected himself into the part and he really was Lohengrin, the silver knight. It was just then that the straps around his calves began to come undone, releasing the armor, which was meant to protect his shins.
So he would announce in his beautiful tenor voice: 'I AM LOHENGRIN, SON OF PARSIFAL', then whisper to me: 'Can you see it, what's happening?'
'It's all falling off, Mr Dowd.'
'Bugger it, the flaming thing.'
So he went on to tell how he came to Monsalvat, where stood the Temple of the Holy Grail, and during every pause he passed remarks that weren't entirely suited to a silver knight.
Finally one dropped off with a clatter, he shook it off. 'Oh s--' said he. Yet superbly he transported himself again to sing 'Oh My Faithful Swan', which was waiting to bear him off yonder. So came the climax, trumpets, orchestra, the collapse of Elsa and the final disappearance of the Swan. And as the curtain came down a fellow squire said to me: 'Did you ever hear the old classic Lohengrin story? Lohengrin was due to arrive on stage, see, resplendent and riding on his swan. Well, he'd had a jar or two, he slipped, didn't get on and the swan arrived on stage without him. So he turned to the stage manager and said, "What time does the next swan leave ?" '
Again it became a tradition to find some stunt for getting into the Moomba Festival parade. One year the Myer Emporium had the idea of putting a fair dinkum cable tram into the parade, something most Melburnians hadn't seen for more than twenty-five years. They had great trouble in getting one. It turned out that Victoria was getting very light on cable trams, but eventually they found the article, in a school yard at Mount Eliza.
So Myers restored it to the last dear old knob, to the last lovable piece of scroll work. They even put the bell back on top. It had been the official school bell at Mount Eliza. We took up our position in the procession and the tram looked splendid. Naturally it wasn't operating under cable power but it had very small bogey wheels underneath to look as if it really was riding on tram rails. My job was gripman and I wore cream trousers, an ivy-league blazer and a straw boater. As gripman it was important to study the old instructions, still readable, On the tram doors: LOOK BOTH WAYS BEFORE ALIGHTING, NO STANDING ON PLATFORM, and PASSENGERS MUST NOT TALK TO THE GRIP-MAN. I wasn't so keen on that one.
It was possible to go all over town for twopence. A workman's return ticket was threepence and there was another odd sign : 'Passengers who break windows are requested to pay the conductor 2/6.' That was only for side windows, though. Anyone who wished to break door windows had to pay 4/-.
Just before 11 a.m. we got under way. One gentleman by the side of the road started wailing: `Ah Memoreeeees, Memoreeees' and I shouted in the cable tram grippie style, 'HOLD ON FOR THE CURVE, PLEASE', and rang the bell repeatedly. It was a tremendously satisfying bell to ring.
You must realize that Melbourne is a great tram city, one of the last places in Australia where there are even electric trams. So everywhere there were appreciative, smiling faces and I'll never forget a dignified, not-so-young, tramways inspector who walked out and with great dignity, took off his hat, and bowed stiffly from the waist. Just when I was convinced that it was a matter of weeks before the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board made a sensible return to cable trams, an awful thing happened. There was an appalling grinding noise underneath. One of the small wheels under the dummy got caught in the rails for the electric trams.
There was a lurch, a screech of pain, and we sank down on the port side and we were out of the procession almost before we had started. We were left derelict by the side of the road. Our worst moment came when the big State Electricity Commission float trundled by. One felt that they might have had the decency to hide their banner: ELECTRICITY MAKES YOUR HOME A DREAM CASTLE.
You will be interested to hear that the Tramways Board did not come to our aid. Finally Myers rustled up a tow car and we were shifted back to the marshalling yard. For a moment I was tempted to have a beer to help me to forget, but I didn't dare. Taking alcohol while in charge of a cable car is a most serious offence. The next year it seemed wise to go for something more reliable.
Why not the Chinese community's 120 foot long dragon? This dragon, old, bejewelled and magnificent, was a regular at all parades. If I walked inside it I could get the real inside story. I rang Chinese gentlemen all around town. They all suggested it was rather impossible. They were polite, but roles in the dragon were sought after, it was an honour to be there, and a great tradition with the Chinese. It was even suggested that it would be quite sacrilegious for a non-Chinese to even touch the dragon. But eventually I found Mr Frank Chinn, president of the Young Chinese League, and, bless him, he said 'Yes'.
Where would I like to go ? — Up at the head or down by the tail. I thought that down at the tail would be rather nice.
'You realize,' he said, 'that we have to carry the dragon about two and a half miles ?' 'Oh, yes. 'All right, then. Bring along a pair of football shorts, T-shirt, running shoes and a towel for a shower afterwards.' Even then I didn't realize how ominous it all sounded.
We assembled on Moomba morning, took out our dragon and put it together piece by piece. It was a magnificent creature with enormous head, flashing eyes, tongue, and jaw that moved. All the way down its midriff, the length of several cricket pitches, were bamboo hoops to be supported by team members. Then finally came the tail, an affair almost as massive as the head and weighing at least twenty-five pounds.
It was explained that I would be one of a team of four that would support the tail. 'You go in relays,' my mentor said. 'You watch the next fellow. As soon as it looks as if he can't carry on any longer you rush in and take over.'
'What do you mean ?' I said. 'Is it that hard? The Moomba procession only goes at a walk.' 'You'll see,' said he, with a charming, enigmatic Oriental smile.
Oh, dear reader, I didn't realize that the dragon had to writhe and squirm. Seeing that it was 120 feet long, what started as a gentle wriggle around the third or fourth vertebrae became a mighty sway at the sixtieth or seventieth vertebrae and at the tail an almighty lash which swished back and forth the width of Swanston Street. So we never stopped running from one side of the street to the other.
No, running is not the right word — we had to sprint like hell.
The sprinting was done with this great weight of the tail on one's shoulders, which was possible to sustain for only two or three minutes. So when one was about to drop the relief took over. The 24 miles we allegedly had to take the dragon stretched somewhat. It may have been 2 miles for the fellows up at the head, but for us tailwaggers it was more like twenty-five miles. I think it was after the first mile that I began to realize that there were easier ways to get a column.
Yet there were greater difficulties to come. We had a special team to let off crackers. These, of course, were designed to disperse the evil spirits. However, all the fumes came up into the shell of the dragon, so the poor tailwaggers, already in a temperature of 120 degrees or so, were nearly suffocated. Furthermore, exploding big bangers set fire to a section of the midriff. So while the dragon head was breathing fire very nicely, the midriff department really was in need of the fire brigade.
In front of the Town Hall word was passed down the back bone that here we had to make a special effort. The squirming and lashing reached a fury, the fire breathing was whipped up and the crackers were released in exploding clouds. I could see the symbolism of it all, and I have often wondered whether we adequately purged the city administration of evil spirits on that day.
The next year I decided to take things more quietly and rode in the fifteen foot high effigy of Billo the Bunyip. I sat in the larynx doing the very important job of pulling the rope that operated Billo's jaw. Apart from the fact that we were nearly asphyxiated by carbon monoxide fumes from the truck engine underneath, all went quite smoothly.
Actually Moomba is one of those days when columnists are called upon to 'create'. There is a quintet of days which are dreaded in the trade, because they so inevitable and nothing new in twenty years has been found to write about them. Every town has them. In Melbourne they are Anzac Day, Moomba, Melbourne Cup Day, Show Day and the day of the football Grand Final.
Melbourne Cup Day, you must understand, is practically sacred. We are virtually the only people in the world who give a public holiday for a horse race. This alone puts it very high on the sacred list. Several years ago a Sydney newspaper, quite innocently, suggested that it would be a good idea, just occasionally to run the Cup in Sydney. This would give many people, who had never been to Melbourne, the opportunity of seeing the world famous race. Melbourne was outraged. One letter to the editor went thus: 'Now in Sydney they're trying to pinch our Melbourne Cup, just because they know it's the best race in Australia. Why don't they leave us alone? We've never tried to pinch their Harbour Bridge'.
It was a point well taken, although there have been times when we felt we could use the Harbour Bridge. However, the Melbourne Cup, even if one can't stand horses, is a marvellous event to see. No other sporting event is conducted in such beautiful surroundings. There are acres upon acres of flowers, four rows of them over half a mile long, all growing exactly as they are told by the Victoria Racing Club - roses, poppies, pansies, ranunculi, cinerarias...
From the grandstand the view goes out for miles across to the skyscrapers of the city, to the dockland, across the great acreage of the course and down to the Maribyrnong River. Then there are the flags, the green umbrellas of the betting ring, the swirling colour of the crowd.
It all gets under way as the Governor drives down the straight followed by the massed Highland bands, more than 100 pipers, a tremendous sight. Furthermore with the Governor there, usually the Governor-General and all the diplomatic corps, it is a day of extremely competitive dressing. Every lady knows that newspaper early edition time, between 11 a.m. and noon, is the deadly serious time. You either make it or you don't make it. So they parade back and forth, strike poses on the steps. The tension gets tighter and tighter. The photographers each with a social writer at his elbow approaches across the lawn.
Oh, surely, surely, this time it's going to be me? All this is interesting, but it is precisely the same every year. One year out of desperation I decided to go to the Cup in morning suit, striped trousers, grey topper, the full regalia. You see, the Spring Carnival at Flemington is the last stronghold of tradition in Australia. At Eagle Farm in Brisbane, or Randwick in Sydney, grey toppers are never seen. A topper there would cause a greater sensation than a topless dress. Yet at Flemington, in the members' reserve, maybe they are worn by one in fifteen, and although the tradition there goes back more than 100 years, they still smack slightly of fancy dress, On the Monday before Cup Day I called at a hiring-out firm. There was a sign outside: 'Theatrical and Fancy Costumiers - Morning Suits, Dress and Dinner Suits, Coronation Robes.'
The gentleman in charge was exceedingly gloomy. Maybe this was because there hadn't been any Coronations lately. He said the morning suit trade was not nearly as good as it should be. This year there would be only eight of his suits out at Flemington when there should be eighty.
'That's right, sir, we do a very nice line of morning suits for weddings. Every suit freshly cleaned beforehand, mind you. And ninety per cent of our morning suit business now is in weddings. But, you know, we miss the funerals. We used to get a lot of formal funerals one time. With those you wear a black waistcoat and a black topper. But we haven't had a decent formal funeral since Sir Isaac Isaacs died and that was more than thirty years ago.
On Cup Day the morning suit did indeed feel like a mourning suit. On the way to the track I was terrified. Normally when I go there I travel by train, but I didn't feel that the railway was quite the setting for a morning suit. So I went by car and all the way through North Melbourne I was scared to death the car might get a puncture. One would look distinctly odd in North Melbourne mending a puncture in a morning suit.
Yet there were advantages. I drove the car straight to the V.R.C. members' car park, remembering only too late that I didn't possess nor had I ever possessed a car park pass. The man on the gate paused and was about to knock me back, then he saw the grey topper and waved the car through. It never pays to knock back a morning suit. I could have been a committee man.
From then on it was hell. I could take everything else but I was quite unnerved by that topper. One should never go solo in a topper without at least twenty hours of training. It is hard to get used to that top heavy balance and it is difficult to get that right feeling of aplomb as to whether to wear them slightly forward or slightly back. Then the makers of grey toppers presume that all heads are a perfect oval in shape, and they make the head bands out of an iron-like material. By the end of the first race I couldn't bear it on my head any longer and I kept taking it off.
So that's the method for picking the common people at fancy mectings. Those who are unused to formal dress fail to wear their toppers with a flourish and keep taking them off.
The morning suit also had another disadvantage. I went in to the betting ring, took out a ten shilling note for a bet on the Cup, which I felt was quite a sufficient gift for the bookmakers. Suddenly I noticed that the bookmaker was looking at me in a very odd manner. Obviously, I was betraying my class.
'Hah hah, I'm terribly sorry, old man, I thought I was pulling out a fiver.' So I swopped it over and said: 'Give me five pounds on Aquanita.' It was five pounds that never was to be seen again. There was just one compensation. At that moment when I put my hand into my elegant striped pocket I found two shillings which had been left behind by the previous wearer. The hire suit man had promised that suits were always dry cleaned after wearing, so one could only presume that this was a beautifully dry cleaned two shillings.
That was the only dividend for the day, and at 5 p.m., sadly I drove home. When I stepped out of the car, looking the perfect gentleman just back from the races, all the small fry in the street gathered around. They began to giggle.
One of them said: 'Come on. How about showing us some tricks.' That finished morning suits for me for all time.
In the nineteen-sixties the Victoria Racing Club was faced with falling attendances. There were many causes, the lure of the beach, the ease of travel by motor car, and the off-course tote which barely made a racecourse necessary. So the V.R.C. started the Fashions in the Field' contest, the idea being that if horses were not attractive maybe females were. In 1965 there was the grand climax when the Committee invited some of the world's great fashion models to take part. Finally it settled down to an even battle between England and France and wool and synthetics.
In the left corner we had Jean Shrimpton, representing England and synthetics and in the right Christine Borge of France, brought out by the Wool Board. Miss Borge arrived on Monday, 25 October, and it was a sensational arrival. She walked down the gangway, swayed, took two paces forward, then very prettily collapsed unconscious on the tarmac. Tony Lewis of the Wool Board, sprinted to the spot, beat all competing males by ten yards, and carried her off in his arms, while the T.V. cameras purred. This made every front page in the country, precisely in nice time for the morning papers. It was also in nice time for the evening TV shows. It made every one of these, too. Many people thought it was all so prettily done, that it was a stunt, but actually it was not. The Sun News-Pictorial took a series of pictures at high speed, and the first picture shows her in anguish the minute she stepped out of the aircraft. Whatever the cause, Miss Borge continued to make front pages and secure major portions of TV time and 'The Shrimp' hadn't even arrived.
The next day, just so that the publicity would not lag, I received a dream assignment - the Wool Board turned on a scarlet Thunderbird automatic and my instructions were to show Miss Borge Melbourne. I met her at Menzies and she was really a very, very beautiful girl. Blonde, fine features, tall but not over tall, slim-legged, but with an irresistible champagne personality. She sparkled all the time.
Her English, also was good, but not too good - there was still a fine Parisian accent. She was thrilled with all the pictures and the publicity.
'When ees the Shrimp due to arrive?' she said.
Well,' I said, 'I understand that she has been held up in the U.S. and now she won't be here until Saturday afternoon. She might even miss the Derby ...and that's the best fashion day of them all.' Christine began to giggle. What's so funny?' "She'll be very late, won't she?' "Yes,' I said, 'she will'
She began to smile, a very contented, feline, triumphant smile and she said silkily: 'All right, I'd just like to know how the Shrimp is going to beat all the publicity I've had.'
It was one of the famous last words that was to go down in history. How was she to know that Jean Shrimpton would arrive in the nick of time for the Derby, and that she would startle every female in Melbourne to the tips of their stiletto heels by appearing in the members' stand at the august Derby with no hat, no stockings and in a plain white shift. Not only did she make the front pages of all the Australian newspapers but she made the English Sunday papers as well. The London Daily Mirror even put a man on an aeroplane, immediately, to find out what it was all about. The Shrimp won the publicity stakes by the length of the straight.
But I'll be loyal; Christine was the most gorgeous, the most elegant, the more charming personality of the two. When we stepped into the Thunderbird she said she was tired, she wanted to stretch out, so she sat in the back seat and stretched her gloriously shaped, long legs across into the front. So there they were under my nose, where the gear lever would have been in a non-automatic car. I found this disconcerting whilst trying to drive.
On that happy Tuesday we went to a rose display and sniffed a lovely rose called 'Paris Match'. Christine's husband is drama critic for Paris Match. We had coffee under the umbrellas at the 'Paris end of Collins Street'. Christine assured me that there wasn't a Melbourne end of the Champs Elysses. We visited Flemington racetrack, we had a bottle of morning champagne at Jimmy Watson's wine bistro and we had lunch at Maxim's with Mr Hilton Nicholas, a committee man of the V.R.C. Christine assured me that she wasn't averse to having lunch with a handsome young millionaire. I told Christine of the great world-wide Nicholas Aspro empire which was based in Melbourne and how it was traditional that Aspro men had to carry Aspros at all times.
She didn't hesitate a second. Immediately on introduction she said: 'May I have an Aspro, please?'
Hilton Nicholas, as always, was incredibly well-prepared. Not only did he have a strip of Aspros but he had some French Aspros attached to his key-ring with the message 'OUF! Aspro - Merci'. He said that only once had be nearly been caught. He swam out to a pontoon while swimming at Cannes. There he was met by his French manager who pulled out some Aspros and gave the traditional challenge: 'Can you match these?' Mercifully, and it must have been a great triumph, he had some in the fob pocket of his bathing togs.
We stopped touring in the early afternoon. Christine was still not feeling well after her long flight from Paris. She said: Ever since I faint, everybody has been very kind, very sympathetique, asking me to sit down. Well, it is all right. I am not. I think she said - how do you say it - that she was not enceinte.
If the Melbourne Cup is feared then the Royal Show is dreaded. The Show is pleasant enough, but it is the sameness that causes the worry. Not only is it the same every year but it is precisely the same as the other Shows in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide even down to the same cast. The same horsey ladies move from city to city like migratory tennis players, the same Aberdeen Angus bulls waddle forth to pick up yet another ribbon, the same sample bags which were sold in Brisbane and Adelaide are moved on to Melbourne and the same pygmies, Ferris wheels, and female death-defying snake charmers all continue on around the circuit. What's more there are the same pumps gurgitating violet and pink water, the same windmills and the same curious blend of smells - fairy floss, meat pies, tomato sauce and fresh, pedigree dung.
The sameness is there to such a degree that one gets an uncanny feeling that this is just a continuation of the previous show, that no time has elapsed from the previous year or the year before. One time I received a lovely kind smile from a Poll Hereford cow. I swear she just recognized me from last time.
The Royal Agricultural Society runs the affair with a ruthless efficiency. Nothing is put on that is likely to cause the slightest disturbance, no rodeos that are likely to offend horse lovers, no male goats that are likely to offend sensitive noses and the side shows are vetted with a proper sense for Victorian propriety. Occasionally there is a sideshow that could bring a faint gleam to a farmer's eye like 'Vanessa the Undresser'. Sadly Vanessa undresses hardly at all and even the large body of police, who like to attend every performance, must feel that the public deserves more bare flesh for thirty cents.
So to find a story that is different calls for great effort, and sometimes it is a good idea to volunteer to lead animals around the arena in the grand parade. Such a year was 1959, when the Santa Gertrudis breed made its Melbourne debut. I was offered King Ranch Chief Hero, the prize-winning Santa Gertrudis bull worth 3,500 guineas from Sir Rupert Clarke's Bolinda Vale Stud.
Actually I had never been close to a bull before, but King Ranch Chief Hero didn't seem altogether unpleasant. He was a well-fed looking creature, with a glorious hide the colour of mahogany. He had roughly the dimensions of a large Mercedes Benz, although a little more expensive pound for pound. Carl Hustwayte, who was looking after him explained that Santa Gertrudis bulls could be a little independent at times, but mostly they were gentle amiable creatures whose lives were devoted to producing large quantities of meat. Carl handed me the rope. I got in the queue behind another bull, King Ranch Edward, and we were on our way. Chief Hero then showed one of his lovable independent characteristics. He gave a heave of his shoulder and I went flying over a bale of straw. Chief Hero was 1,800 pounds. At the time I was 160 pounds. Carl said: 'If he gives any trouble at all just tap him on the nose with a cane. And for Heaven's sake keep him away from the cows.' I had already noticed that Chief Hero was not above taking a passing interest in cows.
Next King Ranch Chief Hero tried to wipe me off against the pavilion. However I tapped him on the nose and he treated me with more respect. He moved out of Cattle Pavilion No. 3 towards the arena. The crowd was like Piccadilly Circus on Christmas Eve but it was amazing how they moved aside when Chief Hero came through. When one has difficulty in getting through crowds it is a great idea to have the assistance of an 1,800 pound bull.
Once inside the arena Chief Hero was determined to lead the parade. He heaved and pulled, and soon I was moving behind like a streamer. The announcer gave the news over the public address system: 'You will see that a Sun columnist is leading King Ranch Chief Hero.' He was quite inaccurate. King Ranch Chief Hero was leading a Sun columnist.
From then on there came crisis after crisis. The worst moment came when he started to nose after the Ayrshire cows. For example, there was a cow in another perambulating circle called Wood Byrne Dimples. Only with the most fearful nose-tapping was it possible to keep Chief Hero away from Wood Byrne Dimples.
It was important to make him behave because there is considerable rivalry out in the arena. It is common knowledge that Poodle breeders detest Pekinese breeders and Airedale men haven't much time for Labrador men. In cattle the rivalry is even more intense. Cattlemen move in cliques. Aberdeen Angus societies, Hereford societies and such have a dinner every year. Aberdeen Angus men dutifully eat an Aberdeen Angus; the Hereford men patriotically eat a Hereford.
Just at my difficult time with Chief Hero who should appear on my port side but a Poll Hereford man: 'Got a crook one there, didn't you, mate? They always reckon those Santa Gertrudis are no good on temperament. They'll never catch on.' The only thing to do was to say to him coldly: 'You people with the outdated inbred breeds don't understand when you see a sire with fire.'
However after that I was careful to seek out animals which didn't have quite such a weight advantage. In 1961 I sought out another brand new breed, the first appearance in Australia of the Black Alpine goat. I borrowed from Mr Charles Godfrey of Lower Ferntree Gully the champion Kurrajong Black Beauty, K.B.B. was a ravenous goat. As I talked to Mr Godfrey she devoured half a sample bag, a cigarette packet and half a dozen cigarette butts. He said it was quite untrue that she would eat jam tins, bolts and other strange objects. He admitted, though, that they liked tobacco, adored roses and at his property they loved to tackle an old plum-tree. They swallowed the plums whole and through the evening one would hear the gentle thuds as they spat out the pips against the wall. Mr Godfrey explained that Kurrajong Black Beauty would head the goat parade and we would walk outside the dairy cattle. 'Why outside?' I said. 'The dairy cattle people don't like us much,' he said. 'They get only ninepence a pint for their milk. We get two bob.'
Kurrajong Black Beauty was a very nice goat and most well-behaved. Only occasionally did she try to tear my arm off. Indeed all would have gone well except that a pretty lady reporter came on to the arena to interview the rider of the champion hack. We stopped to talk to her and K.B.B. liked her at once. All the time that we were talking K.B.B. was chewing her dress. She ate up a pocket and then started to chew away her skirt.
Suddenly the lady reporter gave a scream and started to flee, taking her tattered dress with her. It was awkward. It was impossible at that distance to explain to the crowd of 30,000 that I had no part in tearing the young lady's dress or making her scream, that it was entirely the fault of Kurrajong Black Beauty. Yet it did help to make a story.
Another hardy annual is the car racing at Sandown Park and usually it is the custom to give reporters a run around the track some time during the trials. It's a sure way of getting publicity. One year I had a run with Doug Whiteford in a Maserati, another time with Ron Flockhart who a fortnight later was to kill himself in a Mustang war-time fighter near Mount Dandenong. Quite the most startling experience was in 1963 with Paddy Hopkirk in a little Morris.
Racing drivers really don't mind doing this sort of a thing, but it is a bit of a bore, and the natural reaction is try to scare the livind daylights out of the reporters concerned. With me they succeed superbly. But I didn't think I could go far wrong with Paddy Hopkirk. He was a chubby amiable-looking Irishman, with a gentle Irish lilt in his voice. He was thirty one, and one could imagine him singing Does Your Mother Come From Ireland?
Also Paddy was only driving a Mini-Minor. I hadn't been warned that it was really the Boeing 707 of Minis, the Morris Cooper S, capable of 120 m..h. Although someone did mention that Paddy could make his Mini do some extraordinary tricks.
The first item on the programme was a speed trial which consisted of driving up to a garage space, turning around and backing in. Paddy put on an evil look akin to that evil look of Dagwood Bumstead. 'You watch, I'll jump it in.'
Paddy tore the Morris head on down the bitumen, straight towards this garage space. We were only twenty yards away. Heavens above, what's the man doing?
He threw the wheel one way, then the other, put his foot down harder on the accelerator, dragged on the hand brake and we spun 180 degrees! He corrected, the pitiful wail of tyres stopped, he slammed into reverse and went like a projectile backwards into the garage space. That was one of Paddy's tricks, the sort of ploy any Sydney taxi driver would give his ears to know how to do. But just when I was offering up thanks for our being in one piece Paddy took off again backwards. Now it is quite surprising how fast Morris Coopers will go backwards at full throttle, but finally when we appeared to have achieved a jolly fine speed, Paddy did the same thing in reverse, and we spun. Lo, suddenly we were going straight ahead. Paddy was most enthusiastic. He pointed out that the real fun was to do this on a sheet of ice. If one approached the ice at a speed of 100 m.p.h. it was possible to spin the car seven times. Next on the programme was a drive around the track. By this time it was clearly too late to back out. Paddy said: I'm awfully sorry we can't go too fast. I haven't driven this particular car before. It's better to go a little easy!'
Naturally I wasn't fooled by that remark for a second. They all say that. He was airborne almost at once. As we went into pit corner by the reservoir I hung on to the seat with both hands and for ever there will be a footprint on the floor where I applied an imaginary brake. Then we scorched down the back straight towards Dandenong Road and Crematorium Curve. Although Crematorium Curve was indeed quite close to the Springvale Crematorium a man at That stage couldn't help but wish they would call it something else. We went into the curve at eighty. There was simply no way in the world that we were going to get round it.
Why wasn't Paddy worried? He was just chatting happily: 'Do you know she'll do twenty-five miles to the gallon at this speed?' Yes, right then, the Mini was going sideways, something motor cars were never meant to do. I closed my eyes. Then incredibly we were around. On, on we went and Paddy barely had his hands on the wheel. He had a lovely relaxed style like a trained nurse steering her pram through the 4 pm rush at the Botanic Gardens. Meanwhile the car was filled with one of the world's most expensive perfumes - burnt up motor tyre.
On the straight past the grandstand there was the chance to wind up. In a Mini, once over 35 m.p.h. one gets a sensation of remarkable speed. The little engine now was shrieking fit to burst. I worked up sufficient nerve to open one eye. The speed had gone right off the end of the dial at 100 m,p.h. and was now fickering an inch and a half further on by the traffic light. Glory be, we were doing more than 110.
It didn't seem possible to get round that final corner, but we did go around at a forty-five degree angle - the second of Paddy's tricks. Then mercifully we drove into the pits.
I tried to get out of the car gracefully, and very slowly I told him it had been a most interesting trip and it would be fun to be with him if ever he did decide to drive fast. Then I fed, back to my comfortable eight-year-old Holden.
On the way back to the city I was pulled up by a traffic policeman for driving with an elbow out of the window. After being in a Mini at 110 m.p.h., it seemed to give one a sense of reality.
There wasn't really a great deal of risk involved in driving with Paddy Hopkirk. He was acknowledged by B.M.C. as one of the world Mini experts. Such a tour was just a breeze for him. So being a chicken-hearted fellow it was always wise to make sure in any stunt that there was no danger to life or limb whatever. It was with such a thought in mind that I accepted an invitation to go skiing in the Domain.
Bruce Bretherton runs the Vaydin ski school in Prahran, Melbourne. The slope is in an old converted picture theatre and the very effective substitute for snow is nylon brush matting. To put on a show for the 1965 Moomba celebrations Bruce took his ski school outside. He laid down 250 mats down a slope in the Domain. When I arrived at 11 am all Victoria's ski champions, people like Peter Brockhoff, Simon Brown, Judy Bridgeford and Roger Evans were there hurtling down the slope in beautiful, effortless fashion, doing perfect stem turns and such. It all looked very easy.
Mr Bretherton gave me a pair of boots, skis, gloves and took me up the gentlest part of the slope for my first ski lesson. He explained the balance, the positioning of the knees and the easy fluid style of the good skier. Over the amplifiers there was background music of the Tyrol. A large crowd was looking on, including several Olympians. It was important to do things with a certain aplomb. I started off in gentle, smooth style, and it was easy; no possibility of falling over. The nylon brush was a magnificent surface as fast as snow. Suddenly the scenery appeared to be moving past surprisingly quickly. The watching faces were becoming a blur. Then it occurred to me that I didn't know how to stop and the end of the matting was coming up most quickly. I looked for the brakes and there were none. The result was inevitable. I hit the hay bale at the bottom of the slope, went into a catherine wheel and crashed into Alexandra Avenue. All this was done in time to the Alpine music from above. The rest of the day I spent at the Alfred Hospital having my hand put in plaster for a broken metacarpal and a dislocated finger, which made both writing and typing almost impossible for the next month. All this would have been easy to bear but for the comments and length of time it took to explain what had happened.
'How did you do that?'
"At this time of the year?'
'Yes, in the Domain.'
'Yair, sheeing in the Domain. That's more like it.'
'No, no, I mean on nylon in the Domain.'
'Yair. Sheeing on nylon wouldn't make any difference.'
And so it would go on. It was very difficult to make people fully understand how easy it was to break one's hand, skiing in the Melbourne Domain on a pleasant autumn morning in a temperature of just on ninety degrees.