Monday, 24 November 2008

Dog paddling with submarines

My father is wearing a handsome pair of black bathing trunks. They hug his lithe body. The material is a heavy woven cotton, double thickness. At the front a skirt stretches across his privates modestly disguising his tightly assembled tackle. The sides are a good five inches covering from waist to hip bone. His wavy head of hair shines, the sun highlighting its copper colour. He stands beside his black Morris Minor with his mate Ken, his eyes sparkling and his face alive with expectation.

Suddenly I’m airborne as he sweeps me up and plants me on his shoulder. I’m so high I can see over the high riverbank and glimpse the other side of the broad river. I’m standing, balancing on his muscled shoulder, holding his right hand which he stretches up to me. His shoulder, his up-stretched arm encase me securely as if on a platform. I can let go of his hand and balance without any help. I’ve spent hours walking along the top rail of our Moolabar Street fence practicing to be a tightrope walker. This is simple.

My curly headed little brother bounces around at the feet of our double height, double headed body. He’s three and scurries around like a puppy, leaping up, trying to launch himself into my father’s arms. Without effort my father steadies me and bends to gather up my brother and tucks him under his left arm. Now all three of us, looking like some weird 12 limbed creature, move forward – the water beckons.

We’re at Murarrie on the Brisbane River. It’s 1954. The war is less than ten years gone and my brother and I have no awareness of it or of our father’s part in it, but the idea of swimming here has the added excitement of my father’s story of this as the site of a WWII submarine base. His mate Ken is in on the story as well.

In front of us is an excavated site the size of two Olympic swimming pools carved alongside the river. On the river side a high bank separates it from the main waterway. On the southern side, a cliff-face, of enormous height to a four year old, marks the other edge . At the far end an opening allows the tide to fill this submariner’s hide-out. We, meanwhile, stand on a sloping bank, its clay base slippery under our feet. It leads gently into the bottomless hole.

Whether for storytelling or fear inducing purposes Ken (Uncle Ken as we know him) creates a picture of unfathomable depth and danger as a precursor to our swimming lesson. Far from being afraid or reluctant to enter this underwater, underworld black hole, we are even more excited by the possibilities. This excitement is further enhanced by the barren landscape surrounding us. We are beyond civilization, out of sight of any signs of our home city, having arrived here at the end of a long thin gravel road leading from the familiar world to this moonscape. And we are alone. The four of us. We are the only people who know about this secret place. My father and Uncle Ken are explorers of the unknown, dare devils who have brought us here for our first swimming lesson.

I’m not sure what it is about this submarine base that excites us but as I prepare to swim, my mind conjures up black shapes lurking below the black surface. These shapes carry men I’ll never see or know and they come and go in secret, under cover of darkness. It’s a story I’m more than willing to embrace. I have no expectations of ever having the story confirmed or resolved. It just is.

My father loves water. I will inherit his merman genes. He is preparing me and my brother for our destiny. He will teach us to swim. We turn towards the water. I jump down from my shoulder perch and await his instructions.

The Black Masseur

My friend Julian has sought to clarify my fictional account of his life. I said he didn't swim. That's not true (though it suited my storytelling purposes). He does indulge himself, particularly in exploring life below the surface. He dives and snorkles. He just doesn't like the idea of striking out for some distant cliff or cove for no apparent reason. I guess that's the difference between swimming and, well, not swimming.

He also pointed out at the full title of "The Swimmer as Hero" is "Haunts of the Black Masseur. The Swimmer as Hero." The first part of the title adds an added level of mystery to this eccentric account of swimming through history. I'm still grappling with it and would be interested in other's thoughts. There is a dark and obsessive side to the accounts in this book - at one level painting water as a siren-like element luring its devotees to their watery graves; at another endowing it with rather powerful erotic overtones and in some cases sado-masochistic. Deep, black, mysterious, powerful - the ultimate seducer. Hmmmmmm.

I found another book on this theme at Avid Reader today. Waterlog - the account of a mad swimmer who set out to swim across Great Britain via lakes , streams, rivers, puddles and any other repository of water. I'm hoping that someone might pick it up for me for xmas. I discovered it when I was investigating if anyone had written a book of stories or accounts about their swimming experiences. I'm thinking it could be fun to create such a collection. My mate Denis has expressed a vague interest in the idea. Would there be an audience? My next blog follows this story theme.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Swimmer as Hero

I have been drawn back to water and swimming as I reflect on my infatuation with this element. This has been fed by the unexpected arrival in the mail of a book from my friend Julian Pepperell. Julian is a marine biologist of note who will soon publish his next book - Fishes of the Open Ocean, a comprehensive illustrated guide to the big fish of our oceans. Julian loves big fish and the science of fish. But he is not a swimmer.
He is a little bemused by my insistence, whenever I visit him on the sunshine coast, on rising at 6am and driving 20 minutes to swim, regardless of the weather, in his beloved ocean. He might even be surprised if I was to publish my book -"Water in which I have Swum" (needs a better title). He'd find it ranged through knee deep muddy waterholes outside Winton in far western Queensland, skinny dipping in raging rapids on the Barron River (in a tropical downpour with a group of appreciative Japanese tourists as onlookers), floating in tranquil crystalline pools in Litchfield National Park and twenty laps of a bitterly cold public swimming pool in London (in the company of fellow icebergs) - and hundreds of places in between. I can't resist them and each is individually etched in my memory.
His gift, "The Swimmer as Hero" by Charles Sprawson has opened up to me the world of the swimmer from Ancient Greece to the most recent olympics. And I can tell you my infatuation is mild compared with some of the eccentrics he explores in this book - one in particular (Swinburne) who seems to have embraced water and swimming as both the mystical and erotic centre of his life.
Here are two short excerpts: "...I had to get my plunge in by 4pm, just before the sun took its plunge behind a blue black rampart of cloud. I saw I could only be just in time - and I ran like a boy, tore off my clothes, and hurled myself into the water. And it was but for a few minutes but I was in heaven............. one far more glorious than even Dante ever deamed of in his paradise." AND
"Swinburne remarked that it was a pity the Marquis De Sade had not been aware of the tortures that could be inflicted by the sea." His was a far more complex relationship than mine.

Interestingly I have a close female friend who describes her relationship with the ocean as one which only really works "when she experiences it as a thrashing!"

Monday, 10 November 2008

Steve Earl and a few Haiku

I was listening to Steve Earl (musician) on the radio today and he was talking abouit how he keeps the many sides of his creative life alive. One of the stories he told was how for a year he wrote a haiku every day. He said it helped him be focused at least once a day in the midst of the chaos of life. I liked the idea of that simple discipline. But I'm not going to commit myself at this stage. I pride myself on being a sceptic when it comes to fads and following, pavlov dog-like, others ideas. Having said that I thought I'd delve into my short collection of Haiku and share a couple.
I read that haiku is much more than the 5-7-5 syllable structure we learnt at school and can take many forms, but I'm still drawn to that simple discipline of 5-7-5 and the challenge of finding the best set of sounds to capture something fleeting or profound. Steve Earle also insists that he follows the Japanese tradition that every haiku refer to a season somewhere in each poem. I don't know that mine do.
My favourite was one I wrote for my good friend Pauline Peel when she resigned from her job in the Brisbane City Council (BCC) where she had reached the dizzy heights after beginning life on a dairy farm 150 kms outside Brisbane.

Haiku for Pauline

Warwick maid shuns cows.
Wends her way to B C C
Cream rises to the top.

At our house we have a biennial Lime Festival where Lime is king for a night and all things lime prevail. At the last festival we had a Laiku competition. These were my offerings:
Lime Haiku 1

Citrus fruit, one bite
Sends shivers up my spine
Shudders of delight

Lime Haiku 2

Citrus haiku thoughts
Swing gently from my branches
Waiting for harvest

"Lime Dancing"

There's a story on this blog about the lime festival - see October 14 "Carmen Miranda meets the Tea Cosy".

And finally for something completely different - one for those opinionated radio talkback hosts.

Loud mouth

Wallet and ego
Twin bulges in their fat pants
Radio shock jocks

Not a season in sight - though nature does feature strongly in all but the last.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Haircut from Hell

I was in France earlier this year staying in a tiny village for a week. It was a beautiful part of Brittany (hard to find a "not beautiful" part mind).
I was so relaxed that I started to look for some amusement, something which would add to the experience of village life. We'd had a coffee at both tabacs (bars), we'd become best friends with the height challenged young girl in the boulangerie: "un baguette s'il vous plait".... "oui".... merci".. au revoir" "au revoir" - intimacy is simple really. It's all a matter of inflection. Anyway, for my amusement I decided to book myself in for a haircut at the local salon.........................

Le Coupe de Chapeux

I am prepared for my 10 am appointment at “Mille et une Coupes”, the village hairdresser. Clean socks and underwear, hair washed, and a fresh t-shirt. I don’t want to smell like the tourist that I am.

I’ve borrowed a French phrasebook and jotted down four phrases I hope will be useful. They’re on a piece of paper stuffed in my back pocket. As I walk from the door my head is full of useless snippets of French. “Yesterday I went to St Malo”; “Je suis Australian”; “ Next week we go to Normandie”.
Even as I run through each of these I know they are full of gaps. I don’t have any past or future tense. I have no adjectives except a few colours. No sentence is likely to be longer than 3 or 4 words. How will I fill in 30 minutes?

I think back on my most recent hairdressing experiences and reassure myself that silence is normal in the hairdressing salon. My reference point is my Vietnamese hairdresser in Brisbane where I have the same conversation each visit, sometimes repeated twice within the half hour.

The walk from our rented farmhouse takes me through a series of streets lined with planter boxes in full bloom. It’s spring.

I’ve only allowed 5 minutes to get from the outskirts of the village to the main street. My fussing over my preparations has put me under a bit of pressure. Luckily there are no traffic snarls here. I’m more likely to be confronted by a hay-baling tractor crossing between fields.

J’arrive at exactly dix heures - I am aware of the French concern with neatness and punctuality. My hand reaches for the door handle and I have a last minute urge to turn on my heel and escape. Too late, I have been spied. I push on the fading yellow door. It’s a bit sticky but responds to my gentle shove.

The hairdresser is a young woman in her early thirties. She’s thin. Glasses, conservative blouse and trousers, shoulder length blonde hair carefully coiffured. She’s with a middle aged client hair swathed in gladwrap and curlers.

We make eye contact, my apprehension reflected in her look. Bonjours exchanged I make my first attempt to use my rehearsed list of words hidden uselessly deep in the arse-end of my trousers. “Le cheveux” I say pointing to my head. She smiles, her face relaxes.

She motions me back towards the door. I’m confused. Suddenly I think I must have made some terrible mistake – perhaps I’ve come to a ladies only hairdresser or maybe there’s a special room for les hommes, a stupid thought because from here I can see the whole salon and there is no other room. I turn in a circle looking for the answer and in doing so meet a coat hanger being offered me by my host. She’s offering to take my coat. “Merci” I say, the first of my many “mercis” – my standard response to almost any enquiry or comment.

At last I’m sitting in the chair wearing a black plastic coverall. I’m feeling a little more confident after my “le cheveux” success and add “le coupe” to “de cheveux” hoping for recognition of my mastery of the word for haircut – a little superfluous given that I’m sitting in a hairdressing salon, in front of a mirror and a bench lined with combs and clippers. She looks at me blankly. We both agree to pretend not to notice this hiccup in our rapidly developing rapport.

I think she then asks me how I want my hair cut. I use my second word from my list.
“Moyen” I say.
Success! She nods and seems to understand, but while medium sounds clear enough to me she wants a little more detail. She turns to a tabletop piled with hairdressing magazines and extracts one with someone on the cover who looks like Brad Pitt. I glance in the mirror and observe that there is very little similarity between the reflected and the offered image. Now were turning pages looking at more Brad Pitts, all beautifully manicured and presented, hair cropped short and gelled, or full and perky. There’s one very gallic looking chap with long black hair tied back in a pony tail. He doesn’t look like he’ll ever need a haircut and I certainly will never have hair like his. I point at a suave image of a young man in his prime and laugh in embarrassment wondering how this weathered visage staring at me from the mirror could ever hope to look like that.

She closes the magazine. I have no idea what we have agreed upon. I sense we both share a common hope that we’ll arrive at a mutually satisfactory outcome.

We begin. She snipping, me clutching my phrasebook, searching my muddled brain for a circuit-breaking phrase which will unleash a flood of conversation. She speaks to me in French and shares a conversation over my head with her other client who is eyeing me off suspiciously. I recognise the word “Juvigne”. It’s the village we are in.
“Oui” I say. Yes we are staying in Juvigne.
“At le Rach-ait” I add. They repeat “le Rach-ait” to each other trying to figure out what I’ve just said.
“Oh, le Rachet” they finally translate. Down the hill on the right?
“Oui” I chime in.
We’re on a roll.

“Je suis Australian”, I say.
“Australienne” They repeat.
“I speak English” I say. That’s really helpful because they both agree they definitely don’t.
We try again.
“Oleedai?” asks my hairdresser using one of the four English words in her vocabulary.
“Oui, vacance” I reply taking every chance to prove my credentials as a linguist.

“Do you like Juvigne?” I think they ask.
“Oui” I reply.
“The flowers?” the older lady asks.
Yes I say and stumble around trying to search for words to add – the streets, the houses, the fields …… My head is stuffed full of English words. I want to say: “I am enjoying your village immensely, particularly the historic houses and the beautiful church, not to mention the serenity and the charming rustic village life”.
But all I can muster is another “oui” and watch myself pointing out the window and waving my hands around as if conducting the local choir.
I’ve probably insulted them because the village has made an enormous effort to create a spring display of flowers at every corner and in every street. I suspect my choir conducting hasn’t quite communicated my appreciation of this.

I mumble a few more incoherent words interspersed with the names of our hosts and add, in English, the fact that we’ll be here for another week and then go to Normandy.

I don’t now whether it’s the mention of Normandy, perhaps a great rival, or perhaps I have just managed to demonstrate that any further productive conversation will be futile, but a deep silence falls over the salon.

For a while I continue to finger the phrasebook but each heading I turn to offers no help. There are a multitude of phrases for getting a taxi, booking a hotel room, ordering in a restaurant, shopping for fruit and vegetables but, though I pore from cover to cover, nothing, absolutely no mention of conversing with a hairdresser. What a terrible oversight!

Meanwhile, my locks continue to fall, my pointy skull emerging, my face appearing younger but something tells me no Brad Pitt or Gerard Depradieu will be magically conjured from the hands of mademoiselle hairdresser.

A car horn toots. A man emerges from a delivery van across the narrow street. I notice a distracted look cross my hairdresser’s face. She is watching, perhaps even longing for the deliveryman to notice her. It occurs to me that this attractive young woman is stuck in this village of 400 people with little future. Is she a wife? Does she live with her family? How does she cope with working alone in this salon six days a week with the same ageing clients cycling through each week; the view of a cobbled street and an ancient stone wall opposite as her constant companions? I too am trapped by my language deficiency and can’t possibly begin to ask the questions which will help satisfy my curiosity.

Suddenly a familiar figure is peering through the window miming drinking a cup of coffee and giving me a thumbs up. It’s my mate Richard, come to rescue me.

We three inside laugh.
“Un cafĂ©” I say
My first words in the past 15 minutes. They nod and seem to agree that this would be a good idea. A mirror appears. The back of my head is offered for inspection, a ritual the same the world over with little meaning. What can you do if you don’t like your rear view? Ask for a new one? Suggest adding some hair back to lessen the view of your rabitty ears? No need to use my third phrase, “un petit plus”, there’s nothing left to take.

I nod.

I think we’re finished. She brushes loose hair from my neck. I stumble to my feet grabbing my phrase book. She offers me my jacket. I mutter my favourite double word mantra.
“Oui. Merci” I say.

I pay. We smile. Another round of “merci beaucoups” and I’m on the street.

I’m relieved. She’s relieved. The gladwrap unwinds in the window behind me.

“My name is Steve”, I think to myself in French and add “What is your name?”
It’s too late. I’ve wasted my last phrase.

I head up the hill towards the tabac to join Richard for an espresso wondering if the experience might have been different if we had known each other’s names.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Irresistible water

Pumistone Passage Bribie Island Australia

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Swimming beaches water

St Malo France - June 2008 - freezing water; exhilerating

I learnt to swim before I went to school.

My father and his mate Ken took us to what they called the Submarine base on the Brisbane River at Colmslie and under their watchful eye we dog-paddled in water which was clear - until we stirred the clay base where submarines lurked. In this murky water, which was bottomless to us, we played innocently, never caring for the dangers, only falling in love with water and the world of swimming.

I blame my father for my addiction. At Caloundra, waist deep in foam whipped by February cyclones we challenged nature and won the duel. At Currumbin, we learnt to bodysurf beside Elephant Rock and rode tidal waves to the wide sandy shore. And every year summer was a beach somewhere in southern Queensland or northern New South Wales. As adults and parents our children were inculcated into this cult and learnt about dumpers at Peregian, sharks at Stradbroke and swam with three generations of our mer-family at Brunswick Heads. And still the waves roll in and again and again we are drawn back to the ocean for an injection of salt and sun and a renewed energy in the awesome presence of water.

Brighton Beach UK June 2008 - Only the english!