Saturday, 30 June 2012

A Slow Bloke To China: 1. Warning Of What Is To Come

On the day that Chinese astronauts were photographed in the China Daily relaxing in deckchairs on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, with their vacated return-to-earth capsule from the recently completed Shenzhou IX space mission in the background, it seems appropriate for the Accidental Bus Driver to dust off the cobwebs of his cuttings books and show you what the country was like in 1979.

Yes, I was there.

What an ingloriously pompous and arrogant thing to say, you will undoubtedly be muttering, but I cannot describe quite what a magical place it was to visit.

It was on a school trip. In hindsight a very adventurous school trip. Mao Zedong had been dead for less than three years. Deng Xiaoping had only taken over the reins of power seven months before in December 1978. The United States had only just diplomatically recognised the People's Republic of China and Deng had visited President Jimmy Carter in the White House. One of the invited guests was Richard Nixon who had begun the thaw in diplomacy between the two nations.

So it was extraordinary times. A relatively unknown and unvisited country by Westerners. We felt like priviledged pioneers. From the moment I landed, I adored the place. The people, the food, the culture, just everything about China. It is the sort of place which either grabs you or doesn't. I have met several businessmen who have been there and were disappointed with the food because there was no Sweet & Sour Pork, Lemon Chicken or Chop Suey on the menu. But you takes yer chance.....

My camera broke and I was left with a pisspot poor backup - a Kodak Instamatic. The photos, as in the one above of a lanky seventeen year old Da Biedze (Big Nose - as the Chinese call Westerners) propping up an ancient tree, are a little grainy. There are however plenty of  ephemera which show a country struggling to emerge from a violent and extreme Communist philosophy.

No one could have forseen quite how fast China would grow. In thirty odd years from some overpopulated backwater to superpower.

The next few posts will try and give you a flavour of a wonderful place. There will, of course be a little about transport and buses. But it may not be your cup of tea. As the Chinese say:

One mouse dropping ruins the whole pot of rice porridge.

But hey-ho, each unto their own. And besides, I've tasted worse than mouse droppings.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Back To The Same Old Routine

The news was rife with the extraordinary thunderstorm which caused flash floods all over the North East
and saw the Tyne Bridge being struck by lightning.

The hidden part of the North East where I was yesterday had an early warning of what was about to hit the towns and cities further down the valley. It didn't last long, but came with such force and power. Within minutes there were flash floods.

Here is a little burn which turned into a white water rafting arena. We were lucky because at least in the countryside there are places for the water to go. The cities fared worse because when the drains areclogged and start backing up, well that's it. The water just gets higher and higher.

This is not the first storm this year, tough it was by far the most vicious. There have been more and more each year. Is this the shape of things to come? Will we be building future houses on moveable stilts similar to the Netherlands?

I hope not. The gentle motion will make me feel seasick.

Tales Of A 1980's Man Down Under - The Wrong Plane

You tend to forget that the cost of plane tickets. It has always been expensive to Australia.

Look at British Airways prices in 1980.

A one-way ticket cost A$1044 - that's about £420-430. Now it's up to anything between A$1544 to 1778 if you want to travel over the next month or two. But nowadays, with the reduced exchange rate that works out to between £1008 and £1161. Quite a difference. I'm no economist so maybe that is a reasonable increase.

I didn't have much luck with planes whilst I was there.

Once after a far too good weekend with friends in Sydney, I got on my Ansett flight at Kingsford Smith Airport, sat down in my alotted seat and daydreamed about the nice time I had just spent, whilst looking forward to being back in Melbourne. I took no notice of the stewardess's standard announcements.

As the engines were starting up, I was abruptly awoken by a gruff voice.

'You're in my seat.' said the stocky man sporting a bushman's hat and R.M.Williams shiny boots.

'Can't be,' I replied. 'Here's my boarding card - it says 17F.'

'Mine says 17F too. Stewardess, stewardess..........' he became apoplectic.

The stewardess snatched the cards out of my hands, before looking at me and without smiling, she said:

'You going to Melbourne?

I felt a rising sense of triumph warming the cockles of my interiors, ignorantly replying 'Yes, naturally.'

'Well not on this plane, you're aren't. This plane is going to Perth.'

The tall stockman took over the feelings of triumphal satisfaction. The word got round the plane and I had to walk the walk of shame with whistles, cheers, rude comments and clapping emanating from every seat.

Of course I know a fall always accompanies pride. Everyone knows that. But do we learn? Some not others.

After a year of living in Australia, I had another humiliating experience. The day before I was due to fly, I went for one final day at Ascot racecourse, Perth's finest track. There was a thunderstorm and as I ran for cover, I neglected to see the loose manhole cover and fell into the drain, pulling all the ligaments in one ankle. So I left Perth Airport in a wheelchair.

My friends stayed with me for a time, but when the British Airways flight was three hours late they went home. I was abandoned in a passageway, unable to move. Airport officials came up and prodded me every so often then abandoned me again.

As I finally got on the plane, a stewardess talked to me in a form of perfect English, which I had long forgotten. 'Now then, sir, what have we been up to? Have you been falling down any manholes recently?'

Smartass, I thought, a psychic or possibly both. Welcome back to a piece of Britain. I had only been in the air for less than ten minutes and already I wanted to go back to Oz.

Tales Of A 1980's Man Down Under - Jiggery-Pokery And Skulduggery In An Attempt To Beat The Bookies

Beat the bookies seemed to occupy the thoughts of many of my Australian friends. It was a war of attrition. A war which was unlikely to be won, but it had its victorious moments, before lurching into a headlong rout as horse after horse lost. You knew who was seriously up the creek, when they added the trots and dogs to their betting portfolio.

Of course there was the odd bit of skullduggery those days. Horses ran with all sorts of aids and hindrances.I've already mentioned the horse with the chalked white diamond which unfortunately started running down the nose during a thunderstorm after the race. There was the trotter who won a race at longer odds than he should have, because a newspaper had printed the wrong form and a commentator had given a wrong tip......allegedly. The dog who ran with a lead collar on, the dog and horse who had a bucket of water before the race, the dog who was given potato peelings, various tinctures and dodgy medecines and the dogs whose balls were squeezed by the handler as they were put into the traps, forcing them to come out sideways.

They were the halcyon days of material and inspiration for any Dick Francis.

Amazing jockeys like Handbrake Harry (White) and Autumn Leaves (nicknamed by punters because he had fallen off so often) were at the top of their game. There had just been a case of the Jigger, a way of putting an electric shock through the horse. The jockey was wired up to a battery which was concealed in the saddle. It was slightly suspicious when a horse who was lolloping along at the back of the field with a furlong to run, suddenly veered wildly to his left, took off and won by four lengths, before completing two circuits of the track after the race.

As you can see, my scrapbook contains a variety of losing tickets. Even the lucky number 007 could not help my cause.

When I returned from the Antipodes, I stopped gambling. Two reasons. 1. It wasn't so much fun. 2. It was a lot harder in England to make money. The bookies seemed to stop the successful punters betting and winning before they got a hold. It was all too tiresome, so I thought if you can't beat them, join them and I got a job in a bookmaker's publicity department.

Since then, I've only ever seen two people who won substantial money on a regular basis. The punters who shouted from the rooftops when they won, were the people the bookies coveted. You knew that they may win £2 million, for example, but over the next year they would lose three times that much.

I've hardly had a bet since.

Instead I always listen to my inner voice, when I am tempted, and in particular the story about my father, who was given a Christmas present of a leather kitchen clock by the bookie Laurie Wallis, obviously for being a good customer.

'Pah!,' said his father disparagingly, when he showed the clock to him. 'It should have been made of gold.'

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Tales Of A 1980's Man Down Under - Postcards To Send You To The Edge

Here are some postcards I collected in 1980, for their alternativeness.

A jolly picture indeed which of the City Hall clearly showing how the bottom half is modelled on The Pantheon in Rome and the top is meant to look like Campanile di San marco in Venice.

It was hard to know what to photograph in Mary Kathleen. The town square and an envelope celebrating nuclear power was about all I could get. But I was lucky. Mary Kathleen is no more. When they stopped mining uranium oxide, they ripiied up the township.

This is a truthful postcard as staying on this island for more than a couple of days will drive you whacko. But each unto their own, it is a bit too clinical and luxury hotel-like for me. A bunk in one of those trucks pictured below is probably as good as I will get.

There wouldn't be a dull minute.

Tales Of A 1980's Man Down Under - The Country Races

This is a horse called Danish. He was having some attention from the farrier before running in a handicap at Warrnambool Racecourse in Victoria. He was a dead cert, or so we thought. The money was down. A lot of money was riding on him. He had a great trainer, Rhoda Handyside, who had enjoyed much success at the course. Her horse Thackeray had just won the Grand Annual Steeplechase, Australia's longest race, for the second time.

The omens were positive.

As always, it never panned out in the way it should have done. Danish, who was hot favourite struggled up the straight but somehow under the vigorous urgings of his jockey managed to force a photo finish. After twenty nervous minutes the judge announced a dead heat. We were saved.


That is the joys of country racing. Expect the unexpected. Before the days of cameras, strange things happened at the Hanging Rock Picnic Races. The favourite be seven lengths clear as the field went behind the rock. When they emerged the outsider would be seven lengths clear and the favourite last.

You forget that Australia has 360 registered racecourses.

It is the thrird largest spectator sport behind Aussie Rules Football and Rugby League. Yet to the English, many people would be hard pressed to name any racecourse other than Flemington.

Take Birdsville for example. a once a year trip to a remote part of Queensland. It is so remote that most people take their small planes and clog up the town's small airstrip. It is always sweltering hot and the drink flows.

In those days it was an event for an English horse to attempt to run in the Melbourne Cup. That was until Beldale Ball won it in 1980. Warmington was around there the same time. He must have got a pleasant surprise to be on Newmarket gallops one day and swimming in the Brisbane River.

Those were the good times in the river, because it is now thought that 500 bull sharks come upstream to breed, so swimming is unadvisable.

When I returned from Down Under, I missed the Country Racing. It was much more relaxed than it was here, and warm too. But the races were more honest. There were no horses with chalked white diamonds who had encountered a thunderstorm whilst in the winner's enclosure No1 spot, and the white chalk started running, alerting people that he probably wasn't the horse he purported to be.

Tales From A 1980's Man Down Under - Dozy Old Britain 20 Years Behind

It was easy to forget how advanced Australia was in the 1980's compared with Britain.

Look at the above.

Bendy buses, car sharing, comfortable long distance buses trains which ran on time and a postman who looked like Jim Davidson.

Remember this was 1980. Twenty years letter, Ken decided to bring bendy buses to London, councils encouraged car sharing and the trains ran slightly more to time.

'Dozy old Britain', as my old boss Woodrow Wyatt used to say. But at least Jim davidson is no longer on our screens anymore. That took twenty years to get him off, too.

Tales From A 1980's Man Down Under - The Driving Test

Driving was easier thirty years ago. Australia was the first place to try and improve the standards, particularly on Drink and Drive. There was the uncorroborated figure banded about that twice the number of people had died on the roads in Australia tthan had been killed in both the Great Wars. Sounded like over-enthusiastic pub talk, but there was most definitely a serious problem.

After my tractor smash/concussion, I thought it would be a good time to start being a learner driver. I started with a friend who castigated me for running over a snake.

'You bloody idiot,' she yelled 'it will still be alive.'

She ordered me out of the car. 'I'll have to show you the correct way. No good just driving over a snake - it will bounce back like a rubber tyre. You see you've got to hit the brakes just before you hit it and skid over it.'

By the time we'd turned round, the Tiger snake had slithered happily off into the bush.

'Darn it,' she said smacking the steering wheel. That was the first and last lesson I had from her.

I had the odd lesson from a professional Driving Instructor in Brisbane.

But I took my first test in a country town in the bush. Those were the days when a Policeman could be the examiner. The Sergeant came out of the station and shook my hand. We drove round the block, seeing most of the one-horse town and reversed into the parking space outside the station.

'Well done - you've passed,' he said signing the official piece of paper. 'Tea break, now. fancy a cup?'

As I drove back home along the main street, a car parked outside the pub reversed hastily, without looking into the middle of the road. The car I was following was unfortunately in the way and its front wing disintegrated.

The two drivers walked calmly back to the pub and took quite some time to swop details, no doubt over a schooner or two.

Tales Of A 1980's Man Down Under - Life In The Brekkie Creek

Brisbane has two racecourses. Eagle Farm Racecourse was a lovely place. Doomben was OK but a little too near the airport and an intermittent stream of TAA and Ansett DC9's and 727's often disturbed the peace.

Early in the morning, it was a hive of activity with local horses training up the gallops. The racing was of good standard and the crowds were amiable. Eagle Farm had a warm ambience.

But the best would be to wander down to the trots at Albion Park Paceway, in the evening after the races had finished. This, in reality was because the finest pub in the world was situated close to the main gates. The Brekky Creek or Breakfast Creek Hotel was an amazing place where the Castlemaine XXXX was still served from wooden casks which were mechanically wound up from the cold cellar and placed on the bar.

It must have been psychological, but the beer tasted better.

After I left Australia, the brewery tried to make the pub go onto the steel cask syste, But there was uproar and with the aid of Bob Hawke, the then Union Leader and soon to be Prime Minister and a large petition, the wooden casks survived.

Since then it has gone all glitzy. Once it had been frequented by Mikhail Gorbachev, Greg Norman and Russel Crowe, then there was no alternative but for it to go glitzy. But at least it is still there.

When I was there, it was full of the most amazing mixture of characters. A local journalist, Mike O'Connor described the people you would meet as:

'... a disparate, yet harmonious, blend of wharfies, coppers, journos, lawyers, car dealers, bookies, small-time criminals and Labor Party identities, the last a factional group known to all as the "Breakfast Creek Gang".

Just my sort of place. Long may it continue.

Tales Of A 1980's Man Down Under - Last Train To Pinkenba

At the time, travelling on trains through Brisbane was nothing special, They were slow, smelly old diesels. They were big, though. The sort you would see in America. They made a comfortingly loud noise and the carriages had big seats and plenty of room to stretch out.

Times were changing, the first tickets with magnetic strips were appearing, as in the Sydney ticket above.

Brisbane still had old cardboard tickets.

Now not only have the diesels gone, but some of the lines were closed in 1993. The Pinkenba Line went. The stops at Ascot and Doomben were only used for race trains. Now there is a slightly better service.

So I was lucky to see a great commuter rail service. I'll never complain about a smelly old diesel again.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Tales Of A 1980's Man Down Under - Dame Edna And Dor Kon

When asked why the Australians were so good at sport, Dame Edna Everage said it was because of:

'Good food and diet; open air life; juicy steaks; sunshine - and the total absence of any kind of intellectual distraction.'

The re-named Everage Street is three minutes walk from Mooney Valley Racecourse in the Melbourne suburb of Moonee Ponds. Re-named in honour of the Dame who began her stage career in 1965 as an 'average Australian housewife' from Moonee Ponds.

Melbourne has a host of great racecourses. Moonee Valley, Caulfield, Sandown and, of course, the finest which is Flemington, the home of the Melbourne Cup. The Newmarket Handicap equally was always an exciting race.

The year I was there a fairy tale occurred. A little known horse called Dor Kon won it at large odds. It was an emotive win because the horse had been singled out for shipping to Japan for the horsemeat markets. Why? I cannot remember. Maybe because of injury. Maybe because he wouldn't make the grade and as he was gelded, would not retire to a stud.

The end result was that he was rescued and went on to win Australia's biggest sprint handicap. Dor Kon was   not as glamorous as Black Caviar. The name is bland enough to become lost in the record books, but he had a big heart and was equally game.

Viva Dor Kon.

Tales Of A 1980's Man Down Under - Superbrands Of The Day

I love the expression 'Dinki Di'. It means for real or genuine. It was made famous by Mel Gibson and if you watch Mad Max the fictional tin of dog food he and his dog eat is called Dinki Di. I came across it in a lesser form of grandeur - a gift shop in Alice Springs, but nevertheless, I was so impressed that I chopped up the paper bag and glued it into a scrapbook.

The beer brands were strong and varied from state to state. VB and Carlton Draught for Victoria, Tooheys in New South Wales. Castlemain XXXX in Queensland, West End in the South, Swan in the West and I cannot remember the one in the North except that it came in huge bottles called Darwin Stubbies. The only beer you rarely saw was Fosters.

It is a cruel marketing con foisted on the English, who slurp millions of gallons of the amber nectar in the naive but misinformed belief that it is Australia's favourite beer. In fact the only Australian to be seen guzzling it in large quantities was Barry McKenzie in the Private Eye cartoon strip.

Bryant & May were the largest manufacturer of matches. The company has been eaten by some global monster but the brands live on and you can still buy England's Glory and Scottish Bluebell. Redheads was their Australian venture, which also lives on. the pack used to feature a 'redhead' on a white background, but this changed sometime in 1975 to a red background 'to overcome the problem of rapidly changing hairstyle fashion and to give the product greater visibility on retail shelves.'

The best gimmick was the different match trick printed on the back of the box. There was never any excuse for boredom.

1980 was when Space Invaders and computer games arcade machines were springing up everywhere in Australia. There was a fascination with anything to do with computers and hence there were many advertising banners and leaflets written in coputer fonts.

I still have the results of the above casi-computer portrait. It is a black and white image of myself on a t-shirt. Through the myriad of dots it is still possible to see the product of a mis-spent youth, a long haired young man and obvoous product of the baby boomers.

I feel quite proud.

Tales Of A 1980's Man Down Under - Cultural Conundrum

Was 1980 Australia a cultural conundrum?

In a word, yes. There was every sort of entertainment, from the good to the not so good.

Look at the above magazine. The cream of British acting talent came to Perth. Edward Woodward, long before his days as The Equaliser and Michelle Dotrice long after her days as the hapless Betty, Frank Spencer's wife in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. It was an avant garde cover from Live! who most probably had no idea that Woodward and Dotrice would marry seven years later.

Then there was Eddie Youngblood, Australia's original Elvis tribute artist.

If you preferred sport, SuperBrat (John Mcenroe) was at the Super Challenge.

That well known folk band The Cobbers were lurking around somewhere, usually between Slim Dusty singing 'A Pub With No Beer' and Ted Egan's 'We've Got Some Bloody Good Drinkers In The Northern Terrirory.'

Film in 1980 was iffy too. The Hollywood PR bandwagon was rolling out the Village People and Can't Stop The Music. I went to see it in a fleapit in Brisbane where the seating was rows of fixed canvas deckchairs. I wanted to leave as the film was so bad, but the canvas ripped and \i was trapped until the end.