Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A long time between blogs

It’s been a long time between blogs, hasn’t it.

Mainly because there wasn’t a lot to blog about during this very indifferent hot-n-cold, grey-n-gold antipodean summer.

I’ve done a bit of writing and researching on my monster work on Victorian Vocalists. I’ve done a bit of horse, of course. A tiny bit of farming. And, in between, well, not a lot.

It has not been the most successful or exciting horsey season at Gerolstein. Mostly so-so racehorses and a whole heap of bad luck have kept success on the racetrack away, and my own beloved beasts … well, Elena, Wanda and Boris are all ‘resting’. Elena curbed a hock (the penalty, I fear, of her large size), just when she was starting to get things nicely together on the beach, and Wanda and Boris were both judged to ‘need more time’. Little Fritzl and Seppl are eating grass too, over in Motukarara, but they both – like Wanda and Elena – should hopefully be back in warm-up action more or less about the time I set sail for Europe (6 February). Gwen and Duchess (below) had a year off from baby-bearing, so they and I are having to make do with ‘other people’s babies’ (we have three beauties on the farm) for now, but they came home last week in foal to the French stallion Love You, so this time next year we will -- hopefully --have two fine Friwi foals.

We’ve had a horse lose its driver, a horse fall through the fault of an incompetent (other) driver and animal, we’ve had a horse caught in an electric fence (and it cost me 20 jolts of electricity to get him out), but the worst event of the horsey summer, was the loss of little Peggy, who died just after I posted her picture on this blog, aged five weeks. We are due for some luck! But that’s racing.

So 2007 is nearly over. It has had some high spots, some (including my first ever motor-car graunch) not so high, but I look forward to doing better in 2008. And, of course, I shall tell you all about it.

Bonne année!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Rosie's Baby


With the easing of the equine flu restrictions in Australia, Barry and Rosemary were at last able to voyage up to the Hunter Valley and visit Rosmarino (Rosie) and her progeny at Brooklyn Lodge. Rosie and her last year's foal, Basil, came in for a share of the attention ... but, needless to say, the latest addition to the family, little Peggy (by Fusaichi Pegasus) was the most photographed girl on the block. She is much admired by those who have knowledge, so fingers crossed that she will grow up a bonny and speedy lass.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

My name is Mikie!


Well, its dusk .. and the wee boy has, as promised, a name!

Also its a degree or two less frigid. For the moment...

So we run (intermittently) to keep warm...


Hey World, Here I Am!


A bitterly cold night in Canterbury, NZ. Three degrees, and showers of heavy rain.

So this, of course, had to be the night that Sally chose to give birth, under the pine trees, to her fourth son, a baby brother for General George, for Ned, and for one year-old Rose.

Our first Gerolstein foal of the year! Welcome, ummm... baby. (I guess he'll have a name by the end of the day!)


Monday, November 5, 2007

The Queen holds court


Jack and Laura make the acquaintance of Elena de Gerolstein. Still growing and threatening to become an understudy to a giraffe!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Hilary's Tree


November the fourth is not only a significant date in my life. It is a significant one in the life of my friend, Jack, as well. November the fourth was the birthday of his late wife, Hilary.
It had been our intention, during his present visit to New Zealand and to Gerolstein, to plant a tree 'for Hilary', and today seemed the logical occasion to do it.
Jack, I and Laura (daughter of Marion Hue, see my French episodes) chose a healthy looking little elm, bred on the premises, and this afternoon Jack planted it in the centre of my rose garden, where Ian's ashes also lie.

Dear Ian


It's November 4. Somehow I've got through a whole year without you. Sometimes it's felt longer than the thirty odd I spent with you.

With love forever,

Kurt xx

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A little more Sydney


22 October, and here I am -- after two months of Australia -- in New Zealand again, for three months of summer racing, before, in January, I board the good ship Gazellebank (captain and purser ... guess who!) to sail across the seas to Hamburg and a northern summer cum autumn in places beyond.

This second bite at the sunny city by the sea was a merry if unadventurous wee stay spent mainly in enjoying the company of Barry, Rosemary and Holly the dog. Here they are pictured on the boardwalk at Balmoral where we spent a delightful few hours by a proper golden Australian beach, sprawled on the grass feasting on some rather superior fish and chips. That's what I call life!

Rosmarino Inc


Five of the six owners of the splendid mare Rosmarino (5 wins and some $200,00 in prize-money a few years back) got together at a Sydney pub for lunch, and discussion on the future of our lady, her baby Basil (due to go to the yealing sales, which have been postponed because of Autsralia's equine flu epidemic) and his due-to-be-born-any-day brother (or sister). Also to top up the operating kitty: keeping horses in Australia is a rather more expensive business than it is in New Zealand. There was enough left in our pockets, when all was said and paid to sample some what was apparently Sydney pub-Thai food (?!) and a few bottles of local red. A grand time was had by all. Now we are all smoking the nervous cigar waiting for our grandchild's birth, and waiting for the various Sales people to get their dithering act together.
Left to right: Kurt, Ivano, Les, Barry, Gerald. Absent: Brian, somewhere between Warsaw, Berlin and France.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Month in the Country

It’s very nearly a month since I arrived in Barraba, and tomorrow my visit will be over. It will be time to bid goodbye to the now familiar vines and dogs, fields and streets, and most importantly to my good, kind friends and hosts, to load myself into Coco’s car, and head back to Flood Street, Sydney.

The second half of my stay here has been as lively as the first … and as populated. The house welcomed guests from both sides of the family, the hotel welcomed another weekend full house including a posse of wandering travel journalists, and 20 year-old Nicholas from Germany arrived to take over from Benji and Sofie as the wwoofer in residence. And our daily activities continued the regular sun-broiled mixture of vineyards and hotel-rooms, washing lines and irrigation pipes, combined (in my case, at least) with a regular dose of lazing about.

Thanks to the less lazy moments, I discovered the unfamiliar joys of the swimming pool. What could be nicer, after a sweaty, fly-blown morning ripping recalcitrant weeds from the hard-baked earth around the struggling vines, with the aid of an effortful kitchen knife, than to strip off one’s dirty clothes and melt into a piscine full of fresh, cool and chemical-free river water? Bliss.

I’ll carry away a lot of new memories from here…

A visit to the home of Bill Bright, internationally renowned harpsichord craftsman, where we lunched on chicken salad and white wine on the ‘lawn’ overlooking a lake before a viewing of the workshop where his instruments are made. I even got to tinkle three bars of Chopin on one (before going wrong) … my first ever touch of a harpsichord.
Last night was Bill’s 61st birthday, so it was our turn to play host, and I took the opportunity to photograph the cutest (grrrr! wooff!) muso in New South Wales.

An afternoon at the Playhouse Hotel Theatre for Andrew’s screening of the German musical film Der Kongress tanzt. I’ve known about this famous movie for years … but, crazily, I had to come to Barraba actually to see it. I’m so happy that I did. It’s a delicious melange of naievete, sophistication and spectacle, with a couple of thoroughly plugged hit songs, and some splendidly characterful acting. I particularly relished the chance to see Paul Hörbiger, whom I’ve mentioned so much in my Encyclopaedia, doing his thing.

And then there was the snake. It wasn’t till I’d been here nearly three weeks that Haddon gave Nico and I a ‘what to do’ chat re snakes. And promptly found one in the woodpile. Then, yesterday, as we weeded our way down the alleys of vines, a volley of barking broke out. Alfie and Gus the ‘watchdogs’ (mostly they watch the inside of their eyelids!) were a little further up the field – where we would be working in 20-30 minutes -- bouncing up and down, snapping and yapping to beat the band. They had baled up a 4-5 foot brown (and definitely poisonous) snake. Weeding came to an abrupt halt, and we retreated briskly to the house with the dogs in gleeful pursuit. Alfie and Gus have, as far as I am concerned, thoroughly earned their title of watchdogs!
I wish, though, that they’d warned me about green ants. Those blighters have a nasty bite, and my digging forearm is right now a swollen mass of blistery fangmarks!

And finally, and oh so importantly, yesterday there was rain. About 12 millimetres of it, in three (very) short and sharp bursts. That may not sound much to those of us who live in damper climes, but what a difference it makes in this sunburned country. The greenery smiles. The weeds pop out of the ground instead of battling to stay in. And, of course, the house’s rainwater supplies get a top up. I’m glad I saw it rain on Barraba Station. It will be a happy memory to range with the others….

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Glueckliche Reise, Benji and Sofie!

Silent spring

I’m sitting in the farm kitchen at Barraba Station. I was outdoors, but the heat these last few middays has been too much to take for more than ten minutes at a time, so I’ve retreated to the shade.
All around is the silence of the countryside. Now, that is, that the man next door has turned off the most insidious and longwinded water-pumping machine I have ever suffered. Now, it’s only the odd bit of birdsong that shoots through the soundlessness. The pink and grey galahs massing on the big trees or the tiny grey or blue-headed finches or wrens jittering around the woodpile.
Andrew is at the hotel, Haddon is pruning the vines, and everyone else of our crazy house-party has departed – Benji and Sofie to their next wwoofer place, Annie home to Sydney, Coco towards Noosa. So that leaves just me. And the silence and the spring bursting out all around. For, yes, trees and vines that were asleep when I arrived here a fortnight ago have leaped into life and the green sheen of springtime is everywhere. Lovely.

I have to say I really enjoy this quietude, and I can tell you that it is well-earned. For, in the days since the Warren Fahey concert and all the activity surrounding it, life here has not precisely plummeted back to the ordinary, the docile and the unexceptional. Quite the reverse. For, six days after that event, an even larger one took place: a big fortieth birthday party for thirty mostly out-of-town guests. And those guests were booked to occupy every square centimetre of space in the ten almost-finished rooms of the Playhouse Hotel. Which meant that those six days of grace had to be spent putting the said rooms into a spanking, sleepable-in state. Beds and mattresses of all shapes and sizes were magicked up from here, there and nowhere, along with duvets, duvet-covers, pillows, bed-linen and bathroom linen, and a battery of buckets and cleaning products, and every able body was press-ganged into service.

Coco and Annie headed the laundering, ironing and bed-making brigade, Benji and Sofie cleaned and kept us fed, Haddon was here there and everywhere, and I .. well, being always something of a solo act, I took on the bathrooms. Nine of them, plus three public room toilets. Another day, I spent a morning cutting a vast roll of decorated paper into squares as breakfast-tablecloths. Another … and always, always, there was something else to follow.
Well, once again, at the price of a huge effort, we got there. And when all was ready and in waiting for the invasion, the time came for our little exhausted band to begin to disperse, back into the real world. Except me.
The expression ‘the morning after the night before’ doesn’t just apply to alcoholic excesses. It applies very much to bed-and-breakfasting. And when the highly successful Saturday-night party had been partied, and the party-goers had departed, it was – of course -- time to begin the cleaning up. And now there was no Coco, no Annie … just Andrew. And me.
And the news that four (it turned out to be six) more nightly customers were due in 48 hours.
Well, I un-made 23 beds, sorted 23 lots of linen, re-cleaned nine bathrooms and two public loos, ironed up some fresh sheets and pillowslips .. and got a whole heap of experience of the other half’s unprintable habits. But Andrew got the thin end. All that linen had to be washed.
Now the Playhouse Hotel has been set up in splendid style. Fixtures, fittings, decoration, equipment ... all beautiful. But one or two things are unfinished and one or two others have gotten forgotten. And the greatest of these by far was … a washing machine. So Andrew had to journey back and forth to the friendly local backpackers, feeding sheets and towels and pillowcases into an economy-sized washer, and thence to the farm’s washing lines, for an entire day.
But we got there.
That was last night. And today is silence. Even though there are eight more guests scheduled for this weekend, and this house too is due to refill with family and friends. All I can say is, I hope they are all good at ironing and bathrooms.

Although the virtual debut of the hotel has been the focus of the last fortnight, my stay hasn’t been all chamber-maiding. In between more scrumptious meals than I’d normally tackle in twice the time, and quite a lot of supping and sleeping, I’ve had other novel experiences, too. Such as weeding grapevines and walnut saplings and doing strange manutentional things with irrigation piping (there must be 100 miles of the stuff here, but , when it doesn’t rain month in month out, you need it). I haven’t plucked up the courage yet to try Haddon’s beautiful little orange tractor, though. After my battered Fergie it looks like a Ferrari and I fear it might go like one!

So, as you can see, all is not gentle dolce far niente in the Aussie almost-outback. But you’ll understand when I say that I haven’t needed a sleeping pill for goodness knows how many nights!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Beating Round the Bush

I can’t tell you what a success it was.

The meal went with a will. So much of a will, indeed, that one beefy Australian called the second waiter (me, in my latest metamorphosis), after devouring Del’s chicken course, and asked if there were any second helpings. There were. This is Australia.

And then came the show.

I didn’t really know what was coming. My experience of nineteenth-century Australian bush songs and humour has really been limited to flipping through a book about the goldfields balladeer Charles Thatcher, and a little outback research for my books on Willie Gill, Emily Soldene and Lydia Thompson. Reading about something, and actually hearing it performed are, anyway, utterly not the same thing.
I also didn’t know who Warren Fahey was. Well, I do now, and I’m telling you I’m not about to forget. Not only is he an historian, who has dug and delved to rescue the old songs and stories of the Aussie outback from being lost, he is a performer who has the great gift. He can take an audience into his hand, make them laugh, make them shiver, make them think and then make them laugh (a lot) all over again. ‘Endearing’ is the wrong word, but he reaches out to you and makes you want to reach back. I’ll think of the right word eventually. But it’s special.
Warrren’s material is, much of it, pretty blueish. The outback men of the nineteenth century – the ‘convicts, bushrangers, shearers, drovers’ and others whose words and music he gives us -- had the usual preoccupations. And most of those nestled six and a half inches below the belt buckle. But none of his songs and jokes come over as oath-littered smut, or as raucous crudity of the kind so-called comedians often purvey. It’s all got a sort of genuineness and realness and warmth too it. You don’t snigger, you laugh out loud, and sometimes from the belly, at this twinkling man with the concertina who seems to have his legs growing directly out of the richest Australian soil.
An awful lot of the material, too, is pretty lumpy stuff. ‘Crude’ as in roughly-made. The tunes are street minstrelsy and popular melodies from the Old Country, the songwords are basic in vocab and in thought, and often fitted decidedly ill to the melody. But it doesn’t matter. In a way it even adds to the verity of it all. And as delivered in Warren’s crackly bass-baritone (I think he should keep the cold he was sporting this weekend) .. well, all I know is that at one moment I was laughing loudly at an Aussie version of an old ballad I once knew in a rather different form, and the next I (who am a blasé theatre specialist who simply doesn’t let ‘performance’ get at him) was feeling real shivers down my back, listening to Warren’s rendition of the terrified refrain of a mother watching her son transported to the colonies – ‘Son, son, what have you done’. I shivered again, now, just writing it.

Warren was supported by ‘the Larrikins’: Garry Steel, an extraordinarily sensitive keyboard player (you try being sensitive on an accordion), and Marcus Holden, who did virtuosic things on a variety of stringed instruments as well as playing (‘very badly’ so Warren confided) on the musical saw. In the few moments of the show in which the front man took a breather, the musicians gave us some rousing stuff which had sixty-five people (yes, even me) clapping away like a bunch of Irish reelers.

So, the whole world had a ball (Warren would, here, probably say something like ‘only because they couldn’t get a hand around two’) and the boys’ success was underlined in one more way that only someone like me – an old man of the theatre and of books – could understand. I took it on myself to man the ‘merchandise’ stand: Warren’s books and his and the musicians’ CDs. To an audience of 65 people – mostly couples – so lets say an audience of 35 units, I sold 18 books and recordings. That’s a percentage of audience-to-sales that I don’t think even The Phantom of the Opéra could match.

And then it was over, and entrepreneur, performers and ancillary workers collapsed around tables laden with a great heap of leftovers and the odd bottle of wine. I even bludged a cigarette from Garry as we sat in the darkening hotel courtyard swapping ‘recent bereavement’ tales. It may sound glutinous, but it helps, you know, listening to someone else’s sadness. It somehow relieves your own.

And then it was time for us all to crash. But my evening was to have an unexpected and special end. As I went to climb aboard Haddon’s truck, Garry put his arms around me and gave the most wonderful big hug. Well, he’ll never read this, so he’ll never know what it meant to me, to have a big, totally straight man, whom I’d know but a few hours, out of pure warmth and heartfelt empathy … Well, a little bit of my lostness and loneliness (yes, that’s where I still am) chipped off my vitals and flew away. God bless you, Garry.

When we got home, and everyone else went straight off to bed, I made myself a cup of camomile and sat in the kitchen and gently thought back over a great day. Yes, OK. I don’t need to say it. Grand though it had all been, I thought, of course, most of all of the hug.

The Playhouse and the Players

The Playhouse and the Players

If I had to describe Barraba Station over the past couple of days, I would say it is like a scene from Noel Coward’s Hay Fever played in a kibbutz.

For, yes. Each and every one of the nine us (Andrew, Haddon and seven visitors) has not been idle. You see, it was we – plus several locals -- who ended up as the hotel’s staff, as the theatre staff …

And very few of us had too much experience in that sort of thing. One musician-cum- composer, one fashionable Sydney shop-owner, one Australian actress warm from success on Broadway, one international prize-winning author (that’s me, in case you don’t recognise me), two teenaged ‘woofers’ from the Austrian Tirol currently doing their ‘work on organic farm’ at Barraba Station, and – thank goodness – one experienced restaurateur from Dijon, France via Noosa Heads. Plus of course our beloved Lord of the Manor and our daring entrepreneur. You recognise the ingredients for a three-act comedy of the ‘country-house weekend’ type?

Anyway, the inimitable Colette (‘Coco’) took the whole thing in her stride, and marshalled every force available to get the ‘restaurant’ created. Katie (Andrew’s big sister) took charge of upstairs, turning palpably never-used (and some not quite finished) rooms into habitable luxury accommodation. Locals Adele (chef), Ivy (sous-chef) and Bill (waiter) got ready to take on the actual cooking. And the rest of us wielded whatever was pushed into our hand, and wielded it with a will.
For me, it was a dustpan (builders never clean up adequately), an ironing machine (for table cloths, napkins and sheets), cutlery for sixty-five settings to clean and lay … not to mention a picturesque voyage from Barraba Station to the theatre on the back of Haddon’s truck, with items ‘loaned’ from the house to decorate the foyers. The picture opportunity had to be grabbed. That’s 20 year-old Benji from the Tirol alongside of me.

Well, we did it. By the time we crawled home at whatever hour it was in the early evening, the Playhouse and the hotel were ready to receive their performers and their public.

Destination Barraba

It’s pronounced with an accent on the BARR. BARR-a-ba. I’m getting used to it. But I’d been thinking of it – before getting here -- with a rather more biblical tinge.

Getting here, I must admit, was not totally straightforward. I chose, as I always do, to make the journey into northern New South Wales by train. No changes, straight through in six hours to Tamworth, from where one has another hour or so by bus – or kind-hostly car – to reach the town of Barraba (circa 1200 inhabitants). And since Andrew – another friend from much, much younger days – was doing the kind-hostly bit …
All seemed promisingly straightforward, also extremely comfortable. Trains these days seem to have improved vastly. This one had reclining seats with lots of leg room, served hot meals at good prices ... I could have been on the Emirates airline. Except, as far as I know, Emirates planes don’t persistently break down. This train did. ‘Happened to me last week on here, too’ growled a woman near me. ‘It happens all the time’ volunteered someone apparently connected with railways. Which all seemed rather a shame. It also added an hour to the journey and meant one arrived just a tad frazzled.
But there was Andrew on the station – surely taller, but not suitably older than when we last saw each other a quarter of a century ago – and I was able to squelch slightly wearily into his front seat and set out, Destination Barraba.

That was just two and a bit days ago. And so much has happened since then that I feel quite flabbergasted.

I won’t try and take things in order – and actually I’ll draw a veil over evening number one, a rugby club charity do in aid of a medical helicopter to which we bumbled directly on arrival. Exhaustion, wine …. No definitely a veil.

So we’ll start from what counts as Day 1. Saturday.
I am staying at Barraba Station. I won’t attempt to describe it, I’ll just point you in the direction of its website

It’s the remaining 100-acre homeblock of the once vast farm of that name, of rolling hills and paddocks, where Haddon Witten, the current ‘Lord of the Manor’ (an expression which describes him not at all accurately) now grows biodynamic grapes. And if you thing I’m going to try to explain THAT, you’re mistaken. But I think the expression speaks for itself. This is healthy viticulture with a large H.
My connection with Haddon – and the reason for my presence here – is my many-years-ago friendship with his partner of sixteen years’ standing, Andrew Sharp, sometime decidedly successful actor and the son of a dear friend of Ian’s. Andrew and I saw quite a bit of each other for a while back in our respective youths when he was performing and I agenting and casting in the West End of London. After a long ‘no see’ period, we got back in contact when Ian died … and, well, voilà! here I am.
Andrew, I hurriedly add, does not farm nor viticulturise. For he has taken on a project of some enormity. He has bought up one of Barraba’s three pubs – a rather derelict establishment – which he has refurbished to beat the band. He has also changed its name. It is now the Playhouse Hotel. For along with its public rooms (no licence) and a floor of bed-and-breakfast bedrooms set up in the most luxurious style, he has built into the place a 80-seat theatre. If I say that it rather reminds me of the man who built an opera house in the wilds of South America, I would be exaggerating, but wow! Has he truly taken on a challenge. But, well, some people just can.

The Playhouse is, of course, a theatre which takes in intermittent or occasional events, and Sunday 16 September was the occasion of one of these. An entertainment by ancient Australian song specialist and bush-balladeer Warren Fahey. An entertainment, I should say, preceded by a three-course meal prepared in the hotel’s kitchen and served in the hotel’s public rooms. And perhaps I should qualify this by saying ‘a not quite finished hotel’. Builders in Australia are just like builders everywhere else. I should also perhaps clarify ‘an unstaffed hotel’. Well, a hotel staffed by the indefatigable Andrew alone.

Now, when I heard that this event was to take place, that Andrew would doubtless be run off his feet, and the place swarming with guests, I gently suggested that I should arrive in town after the event. Andrew squashed that one promptly… and thus it was that I arrived plumb in the middle of preparations for this ‘festa’!

Thank goodness I did.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sydney under siege

When is a city not a city.
Well, it was Sydney’s turn during most of my stay.
Sydney, to put it florally, had its heart cut out for something like a week, and it resembled its beautiful self during that time barely at all. But, of course, the patient is strong and, once that week was over, that great heart was sutured back into place, and within hours you would never had known that anything had been different.
To speak more plainly, the politicians of the APEC countries (and, no, I neither know nor care what the trendy acronym means) gathered in the capital of New South Wales for a seasonal session of ‘let the TV-watching world see us talking to one another’. And, to facilitate their little chats, and discourage potential assassins, the centre of Sydney was encased for the nonce behind a ‘Sydney Wall’ of barriers and police presence.
When in Sydney, that very centre of the city, with its public buildings and amenities, is where I normally operate. But, needless to say, on this visit, I didn’t. I had no more wish than most of the indigenous population of the city did to get involved with the unpleasant Djakarta-like atmosphere empoisoning mainstreet, and so I just stayed home.
‘Home’ was – as ever on my visits to Sydney – with class A friends Barry and Rosie Collins, with whom I sailed at least seven musical seas some thirty-five years ago, and with whom I first ventured into the racehorse-owning business a decade or two later. And with Holly their dog. And there, in Leichhardt, whilst the politicians (who really could have chosen some nice uninhabited island for their beanfeast rather than a place where people are trying to live) pranced their parade, I remained curled up with Barry’s computer and the heaps of notes for my book the-maybe-next, quietly working away until the city came, overnight, back to normal.

I did have a few days left thereafter to scurry to my favourite library for some whirlwind research, but for the most I really didn’t feel as if I’d visited Sydney at all. Just Barry and Rosie.

The other part of this particular visit was to have been a journey up the Hunter Valley to Brooklyn Lodge to visit our splendid mare Rosmarino and her baby Basilico (by Fantastic Light) who is being prepared to make our fortunes (pray, pray) at the forthcoming yearling sales. Last time I was here, fate intervened and we never got there. This time … we didn’t get there again. Australia is in the fangs of an epidemic of equine influenza, and the horsey population of Australia is suffering the same sort of siege situation as Sydney. It seems that the disease will be pretty impossible to avoid, so we can only pray that Rosie, Basil and the baby which Rosie is due to drop in a few weeks (by Fusaichi Pegasus) are not harmed by it.
Anyway, as a result of this bacillus, I still haven’t seen Rosie (the horse) since she retired three years ago from her grand career on the racetrack.
But all these non-events that perforated my visit still left room for the odd adventure. And the oddest of these was footie night. Now, I don’t actually know a lot about football. Yes, I’ve been to a few soccer matches in France and England over the years, and once even to Twickenham for the rugby, and I sort of know the rules of both games. But ‘Aussie Rules’? I can’t describe it. It’s livelier than rugby, and there are half a dozen more blokes on the field. They run a whole lot more, they kick a whole lot more, they fall down and gouge and brawl a whole lot less, but they drop the ball just as much, and some of the rules are just as impenetrable.
Tonight was the Swans (who are Sydney) in red against someone from Victoria in blue. Which meant, of course, that we were ‘red’.
We didn’t go the ground, we went instead to a middle-sized pub in some unfamiliar part of Sydney which is apparently the Swans’ fan-HQ. There were two giant screens set up out the back of the pub, and a plethora of gas-lampions for heat, and there we sat, at long tables, ingesting a fairish fish and chips and horribly overpriced wine, while the four halves (sic) of the match unrolled amid much howling, cheering and blaspheming. Alas, it quickly became evident that the Swans were dropping the ball far too much for their own good, and the evening ended in a Sydney defeat. Which is never good for the bar takings. It was all good fun, but I think two halves of any football match are really my limit. And I do prefer it when they mostly pass the ball to their own teammates and not to the opposition.
We had a couple of much better meals out – Leichhardtly -- with daughter Antonette (of ABC radio news) and partner Daniel, and also plenty of time just being together .. and all in all, although the politicians and the influenza rather upset my original plans, I had a lovely, rather lazy, time.
And then, on the Friday morning, I said farewell to a recovered Sydney and I set out on the second leg of my Australian voyage.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Ahoy! Australia!

My two months in New Zealand are over.
The dear old Tikiebank (which, from reports to hand, seems to have become a little less ‘dear’ without me!) seems more than two months in the past, but otherwise .. how fast the weeks have zipped by!
And now, it’s on to Australia!
Yesterday my dear friend Sarah came round, and washed and ironed and packed my little suitcase .. the same one she packed for me with such utterly perfect results for the first four-month leg of my ‘world tour’ .. and in 24 hours I shall be in the air heading for Sydney. As, apparently, will be a variegated bunch of APEC-torial politicians. I hope they aren’t going to foul up the travel systems with their vanities.

So its goodbye to Gerolstein for the nonce. To Wanda and Elena (who finished her spell of work this week, and is heading for rest and restaurant on the soon forthcoming spring grass), to Minnie the kitten .. OK, Minnie, ‘cat’ then ..

In fact, Wanda and Elena are my only home horses right now. Seppl and Fritzl have been leased for racing and have gone to Murray Edmonds, to be trained for their new ‘owners’. And yesterday morning that big blue and yellow Interisland Horse Transport vehicle, the advent of which always spells ‘all change!’, arrived at 9 am to take Gwen and Duchess off to Prebbleton for their date with the Great French Inseminator. Since the two ladies hadn’t been out of the back paddock in a good while, they were ready for a good brush up and pedicure .. do you realise how many knots a horse can get in its mane, how fast its hoofs grow? Anyway, mother and daughter were looking as good their shaggy winter coats will allow as they went off with, I suspect, varying attitudes.

“Allo! Je suis La Grande-Duchesse. Tu peux m’appeler ‘Duchess’. Tu veux avoir un bébé avec moi, hein?”

“Not another blasted baby! Huh. Female humans get hunks like this one here, what do I get. A straw. A flaming straw…”

When they and I come back, we shall be having a visit from Jack Dowie. Jack is now an official part of the Gerolstein establishment, for he and I will be sharing the ownership of those two ‘French’ babes that will – we hope – be born to Gwen and Duchess in the spring of 2008.

But all that is a long way ahead. For now, it’s Ahoy! Australia!

Monday, August 13, 2007

From a Winter Down-Underland

A whole month and no blog.

It’s not that I’ve been doing nothing. Far from it. But I’ve not been doing a lot you’ld want to hear about.
Mostly, I’ve been freezing. I must remember never to come to New Zealand in July again. At my age, it’s just asking to be turned into a snowperson, starting at the fingers, the toes and in the small of the back, and going on from there. I have be forced to finally succumb, after 61 years, to an electric blanket.
Then there’s been the farm. When I arrived home, Wendy had it immaculate. But, since I’m only going to be here a wee while, I then had to launch on a whole year’s worth of jobs. End of immaculate. The trees, first. Ugh. Then the 800 metres of drive to be graded and resurfaced. Then some vast new drains. Each job meant machinery, and who says machinery says mess. Mud. And money. I’m not sure which I like least.
Still, it’s all done .. just the fertiliser on the hay paddocks to go and that, surely, can’t be too messy. Though of course it will be money, And the day after it’s done – and Gwen and Duchess have been safely packed off to stud at West Melton to meet their tube of expensive, imported French semen – I am getting on a plane for sunny (it had better be!) Australia. I’ll come here again when it’s unfrozen.

And then, of course, there are the horses.
Wanda, alas, couldn’t cope with the step up from the workouts to the trials. She has speed, splendid courage and (a mostly good, if sometimes impatient) attitude, but not as yet sufficient of the simple bodily strength to cope with being a racehorse. So she has been sent for another big holiday, and we shall try her again this time next year, after six months of heavy feeding, exercise and musculation, physical and mental.
My other potential racehorse, the lovely Elena, the (very) big filly I bought from the NZ yearling sales last year, has been brought on slowly. She, too, needs strength, but for the opposite reason to Wanda. Wanda is tiny, Elena (a year younger) is huge. However, even if her giraffe-y frame also could do with some filling out, she has come back from her latest long holiday with her ideas altogether matured and has done well enough round our home training track to be moved on to the next stage. Today, she went for the first time to the beach.
Now, going to the beach is, for a horse, not just grab-your-bucket-and-spade time. Hurdle one: horse who has never (or hardly ever) been on a horse float has to be persuaded to climb in. And take a 15mins journey in confined spaces. Hurdle two: horse, who hasn’t since babytime been off the property, has to cope with seeing the Real World. People, cars, scenery, other horses with carts on, dogs, roads, mastodons and pterodactyls etc etc. Hurdle three: to get to the beach, horse (with cart on and driver in) has to walk through half a mile of pine-forested dunes with bogies round every corner and many an unfamiliar hill and vale ... to reach finally hurdle four: the sea. What is THAT?! Hurdle five: horse who has never paced on anything but the home grit track meets … sand! Is required to go straight lines for the first time instead of oval ones! Past screaming kelp and snarling driftwood and … and after all that the poor thing is expected to pace beautifully for a mile and a half back down the strand.
It’s a lot for one young woman to cope with, all on the same day.
Well. Hurdle one was a tricky one. Elena is very tall. She walked up onto the ramp to the float, arrived with her forehead around roof level and flatly refused to go further. Wendy put an undercheck on her to keep her head down. I pushed. Wendy pulled. Sarah arrived to pick up feet and place them ever a little higher up the ramp. And twenty minutes later ... she was on. Off we went … a whole fifty metres. For up our drive was approaching a huge articulated lorry, coming to take away the drain digger. Wendy had to back the float up. And then the truck driver found he couldn’t get round our corner: so HE had to back up half a kilometre in the other direction. Once he had, we left him to Sarah, and set out for the sands where Rose, who was going to drive pacemaker-cum-nanny Justine, had been waiting for yonks.
Things can only get better, we sighed.
And they did. Elena coped almost unconcernedly with the real world (just a couple of ‘oooh what’s that’s’), and she went through the dunes and the forest like one bred to it. She thought three times about her first taste of sand but, after a couple of pretty awkward shimmies, set off, in Justine’s wake, and, after a couple of hundred metres, I, watching from the dunes, saw her legs swing into official pacing mode and I knew we would be all right. And – for a first effort – mostly we were. There are and were so many things that can go wrong when a young horse does something like this for the first time, so we were happy that the initial float-fright was the worst we would get. (She learns quickly: on the way home she bundled herself on with only a moment’s hesitation). So I came home pretty happy.
Enough said. Here’s the tale in pictures.

This is the Real World?

I don't do hats ...

Into the woods...

Yikes! two-way traffic

I see .. the sea!

My beach run

On a vast beach

Back up the dunes

Safely back

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Well done, Wanda!

The main reason that I’m sitting in Canterbury, New Zealand, shivering somewhere between a log fire, an electric blanket and a hot water bottle, rather than Tikeibank-ing through the sun-struck Pacific islands, is Wanda.
And, yes, Wanda is – as you may have guessed -- a horse. A three year-old brown (officially) filly by Wrestle out of Gwen, bred and owned by K F Gänzl and B D Collins, and trained at Motukarara, Bank’s Peninsula, by Murray Edmonds. When she gets to the races it will be under the name of ‘Sabre Song’.
She isn’t at the races yet, for she’s only a young thing, and we’ve been bringing her along slowly. At the end of last year, she went to the public workouts a couple of times, and she showed enough talent to be sent straight away to the qualifying trials. There, in spite of a bit of inexperienced stargazing, she duly cracked the required time limit, and then came home to Gerolstein to rest on her baby laurels, and grow bigger, taller, stronger and older, before being launched on the world of real racing.
Now, half a year later, the last stage of her preparation is underway. While I have been trotting the globe, Wanda has been trotting towards what we hope will be a career on the racetrack, with the month of July scheduled to be the final and public part of her readying. I had to be here to see it, freezing or not.
Her first appearance at the workouts, this time round, underwent a bit of re-scheduling, as various meetings were abandoned because of bad weather, but last night my phone rang, and the news came. Today was the day. So, at 11am, I and ‘Red Ted’ (my Suzuki Alto) crawled forth on to the still frosty roads and set out on the hour’s journey to Motukarara racecourse.
Wanda has definitely grown. She is, nowadays, almost an ordinarily sized horse, far from the tiny yearling that one horseman christened ‘the eggbeater’ because she would, he thought, have to take two strides to other horses’ one, just to keep up. And she’s got a nice attitude, too – keen and jaunty – and she evidently enjoys running. Well, it all helps!
There were just four starters in her heat. One was an unqualified newcomer, but the other two were more or less experienced racehorses. ‘Nowhere To Go’ has had 24 races and finished in the money on several occasions; ‘Leggiero Del’ has had half a dozen starts and shown some promise.
Both the racehorses went away splendidly, and my heart sank as the commentator called Wanda as having galloped. Something she has never done before. But it wasn’t disaster. She’d just been a bit eager to get going, and thrown in an initial couple of unkosher steps. They cost her five lengths, but she quickly made up the lost ground and tucked in behind the two leaders, as they all ploughed their way through the first lap on the heavy grit of the sodden racetrack. But things didn’t stay that way. As the little field came down the straight for the first time, Murray popped Wanda off the fence, moved her briskly into the lead, and there she stayed. Into the final run home, and, not unexpectedly, ‘Nowhere to Go’ came at our girl, down the passing lane. It looked a certainty that, having worked a bit, she would be run down. But Wanda wasn’t having that. She refused to let the older mare past, and hung on to win by something like a head with ‘Leggiero Del’ a couple of lengths away third. What a brave wee girl.
OK, so the time – thanks to the heavy track – wasn’t so smart, and the horses which she beat are undoubtedly not champions, but for a first up effort – well, I was pleased, Murray seemed pleased, and several professional horsemen around me obviously thought she was all right. So did Wanda. Having already captured the imagination of the commentator by her size and her guts, she caused a fair bit of amusement as she stalked proudly back looking as if she thought she had just won the Derby.
Well, you can only win. And she’d done it.
So, since she seems to have got the gist of what’s needed, she will go next week to the official trials. One step up from workouts and probably several steps up in quantity and/or quality. If she can do well there, then her debut as a racehorse may not be far away.
Well done, Wanda!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The worst day of a farmer's year

Well, we think it is. Give or take when it rains on the hay on the ground...

Tree-topping day. An hour or two of a tentacular tank-like vehicle waving a blade like a Pearl White circular saw at the crowns of the hundreds of trees lining the property and the track .. an exercise which results in ten or twenty hours of cleaning up. Hulking huge bits of branch and treetop, logs 2-3 metres long and thigh-thick, away from the track and the drive ...

Work has to go on, and the horses have to be trained, and theres no one else about twiddling a thumb, so it's up to yours truly...

Today I am bruised, cut, scratched, scraped from wrist to ankle .. I have jellyish legs and a pain in the .. well, everywhere really .. and I just want to curl up by the fire with Minnie the kitten ..

No chance... ah! a farmer's life...

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Back in the Land of the thick white cloud

Not to mention steady rain. But happily – in Auckland anyway -- not too much wind or cold.

Arrival went like clockwork. No bits fell off or out of the ship, and it negotiated its way gently into Auckland harbour bang on time. It’s years since I last did ‘Approaching Auckland by night’, so I rose at 6am, popped up on the bridge, and Lyndall and I watched us coming in – in that half-darkened, eerie atmosphere of ‘hush-up-for-the-pilot’ -- through sufficient mist for me to have a qualm or two about whether planes would be flying to Christchurch.

I didn’t go round saying extended goodbyes. I don’t like them one little bit, and anyway we’ve been feting my imminent departure for the last three days. Plus, I’ll be keeping in touch with the Tikeibankers as they trundle on, without me, towards Papua and Suez and the Mediterranean, and probably even after that, so it’s not any sort of goodbye, its just ‘au revoir’. So it was just a hug for Lyndall, and a big handshake for the Captain … then, with customs and MAF having done their work like lightning … Sveta swept me and my bags silently into the lift to main deck, Alexei called the port shuttle from the cargo office, and I was on my way. It all went so much more smoothly than usual. Valery, ‘il barbiere di Tikeibank’, helped me down the gangplank with my bags, the shuttle shuttled energetically, Babs at the port gate called me a taxi, which turned up – to my amazement -- in next no time, and by 8.26am – just half an hour after berthing -- I was heading out to Auckland airport, having a jolly chat with a delightful Samoan driver upon whose lap I emptied my entire meagre supply of NZ dollars ($55, the price has doubled since I last did this 7 years ago) before steaming on in to the Air NZ booking office…

Up till now, it had been the most unbelievable speedy doddle. I – with memories still fresh of horrendous internal-NZ post-ship manoeuvres in earlier years – couldn’t believe my luck!
Of course, it was too good to last. There was no direct flight to Christchurch until the afternoon. The bloody something Princess cruise ship had docked an hour before us, and the cruisies had snaffled all the seats on the morning flights. I could go on the 11.40am stopping over at Palmerston North (Palmerston North for God’s sake!) and getting in at 3-something. Finally, the sweet lady behind the counter fished me up a ticket for the 10am to Wellington. There I shall have to change to another flight to Christchurch, getting in at 1.45pm. Total price, one way? $477.00. The price of a return ticket to Australia. Oh well. At least I’m on my way. And 1.45pm isn’t too bad. The sweet if expensive lady even rang Wendy for me…

And now they have just announced that the 10am flight is delayed … I can feel an hysterical laugh gurgling up inside me .. ah, its all right, its only a 20 minute delay and I have a 2 hour wait in Wellington, so its of little import… I shall sit here, shut my eyes and dream of ‘Suva’ and forget that I’m probably heading to a flooded farm, a frozen house and 4 months supply of letters that I don’t want. Sigh.

What? There are 300kmph winds powering between Wellington and Christchurch. After four months non-stop travelling through two hemispheres, am I going to hit the rough stuff minutes away from home? I’d better get my magic wand out again…

Sunday morning

You know, there must be something about that magic wand.

Sure, there were a few bumps lurking in the atmosphere to chuck our 138 seater down towards Wellington, then Christchurch .. but it wasn’t too bad.. and then blow me down if, just as we reached the last 10 minutes or so of the trip, the once gale winds dropped to a whisper, the solid white clouds vanished, and we floated into destination in bright sunshine!
By two o’clock I was on the road, direction Gerolstein … by half past two I was here. It took about two seconds for the place, the horses, the kitties to suddenly transform themselves from the half-dream they’d become in my brain back to solid reality … a slightly damp reality, because it really has rained torrents here recently, but this morning again the sun is out, Wendy is out jogging the horses, I am trying to organise the 200 emails, 100 letters and bills etc that were awaiting me, trying to upload the blog (a slow affair) and preparing to set off at 11am to be barman at the local race meeting ..
Life is back to semi-normal..


A nice autumnal Sunday at the Rangiora races, back in my old place behind the bar in the President’s Bar, meeting and greeting and pouring liquid down the throats of the day’s winners. The day’s action mightn’t have been the classiest bunch of races I’ve seen this year, but that didn’t matter: it was a fine, happy, good-fun New Zealand country race meeting. It also gave me the chance to catch up with all my local horsey pals – and it seems that my French articles in the Harness Racing Weekly have been somewhat of a hit! Even the chief Stipendiary Steward gave me a ‘rave review’!

Monday dawned fine again. I am still neck deep in the paperwork that has accumulated in the past four months, and determined to get it all settled at top speed, but ‘Roman’, our newest pensionnaire was about to have the first training swim of his life, so all hands were needed on the ropes. He tugged and he balked, but once he got into the pool he went at it with enormous vigour.
And I decided I couldn’t spend the whole of such a day indoors, so I went round to say ‘hello’ to all the ‘family’: the five foals, the five broodmares .. the Grand Duchess with no coat on, because she won’t let anyone near her .. except me. She obviously remembers her baby days when I fed her from a hand-held bucket. Lovely Elena who, thank goodness, looks as if she may finally have stopped growing and who started jogging ‘work’ today, along with little Barney who has grown so much I didn’t recognise him! He was back ‘in the cart’ for the first time since being broken in, and doing well.
Neddy too has shot up, but little wee Dobby won’t ever. Which isn’t stopping him being a promising racehorse. Then there’s handsome Ty (as in ‘phoon’), the girls, Merry and Justine .. the retired Boofie and dear old Dion .. and the rather nice new fellow.. seems like the population is still in the twenties!

But as always, Duchess, in spite of now being all grown up and a mother herself, manages to be the cutest photo subject. Here she is (right) with another mother, the very fast Tui (aka ‘Hot Blooded Woman’).

And now .. back to the paperwork.

The Last of the Waves

Friday 29 June

Well, it’s all but over. Tomorrow morning at 6am we take on the Auckland pilot, and a couple of hours later we should be tied up on Quay Street. After customs and immigration, it will be a taxi ride to the airport and the first available plane to Christchurch, Sefton and Gerolstein, to Wendy, the kitties and the horses. Not to mention the cold and the rain of a Canterbury winter. Happily, on Sunday there’s a Rangiora race meeting, so I can throw myself straight into the atmosphere ... It should be OK. But, right at the moment, I feel a bit ambivalent, somewhat ‘stateless’. Almost scared at the idea of saying ‘goodbye’ to my cocoon of a cabin and going back to the place that has – rather by default – been ‘home’ to me for the last few years. I went back into the real world to try to ‘find myself’, or what’s left of myself, and to find out what I was might like to do with myself henceforth. I didn’t really find a clear answer. If anything, I’m more confused now than before. But it doesn’t matter, for I have my immediate future pretty well mapped out. Some time in Australia, sone time in New Zealand, and then … why, I’m going to do this whole thing (with variations) all over again. I’ve even booked myself back on this bateau ‘same time, next year’!

My last days aboard have been a mixture of highs and lows.

Wednesday night was party night. But, this time, it was the sort of party that I used to enjoy the best on Blue Star. Not upstairs, but downstairs. The occasion was the birthday of Evgenyi, the bosun, and we all got together in the crew mess and lounge after dinner. Much to my surprise, no sooner had I sat down than Sveta plonked a large plate in front of me. ‘But I’ve just eaten’ I expostulated. Silly me. The cold cuts and other edibles piled along the table (lemon slices – a soi disant hangover preventer -- strongly featured) are the traditional ‘padding’ that comes between the bouts of vodka.
This time there was no sliding out. And, anyway, I didn’t want to. Quite the opposite! In case of disaster, bed was just five flights of stairs away. And, if said disaster should occur, Grev had promised to roll me into the lift. Well, it did occur … but not to me. I tossed my vodka down with the best of Russian style, ate nothing, swilled Coca Cola in between tossings, and was still thoroughly standing and entirely sober at 2am.
Andrushka, the second engineer, proved to be an admirable guitarist-singer with a grand repertoire of national and international melodies, and with the vocal help of my pal Sergei and the intermittent aid of others – though, alas, not me, the keys and the selections being out of my reach -- the entertainment flowed on into the small hours… non-stop music in the mess, chat and cigarettes in the corridor, a decrescendo on the vodka (which, as a novice, I was amazed to find I really liked!) … it was a truly happy and convivial evening.

When I didn’t show up for breakfast and lunch the following day, the sound of conclusions being jumped to rang through the ship. Oh, sure, I was hurting, but not in the head. I woke with a helluva pain in my arm. Legacy of the effort by a stainless-steel-armed Eastbourne ex-fisherman to clasp my refusing hand round a huge whisky somewhere about 2am. But an early morning sally to the email machine had brought me a much greater pain. The lovely Hilary Dowie – with whom, so very few weeks ago, I had passed such a marvellous week in the Mayenne, and whom I was looking so much forward to welcoming to Gerolstein in November – had died in hospital in Angers on Tuesday afternoon, as the result of a horse riding accident.

In the face of such a dreadful tragedy, it’s just impossible to keep up the trivial daily round. I shut myself away in my cabin, where Lyndall brought me arnica for my arm and sympathy for my grief. Oh, Lord, what a lot of grief life throws at you once you get to a certain age.

Perhaps fortunately, I did have to emerge in the evening. It was ‘Farewell’ night. To me, and to Philip who also gets off in Auckland. A little premature, but certain officers cant drink and stay up late on pre-arrival night. So I snapped out of my blues, put on the red shoes, opened the Mouton Cadet, and let rip. It was another – if very different – nice evening. A buffet supper (welcome, after a day unable to eat), more Mouton Cadet, chatter with the Friends with a capital F to whom one has grown so close in a month of communal living and travelling, the whole highlighted by Philip’s recitation of a nicely-incisive V C Clinton-Baddeley-style comic poem about us all -- perfectly flighted so as to be amusing without offending …
Oddly enough, my ‘characteristic’ was my eternally unbuttoned shirts. I’d never thought . well, apart from my now well-established tan .. my middle-aged chest (such as it is) is not exactly errrr notable!
As ever, the evening ended with the ‘A Team’ still glued to the bar: Lyndall (with her glass of water), Grev, Mikie and Kurt. It’s getting to be tradition that I’m the first one to falter off…..

Today I packed.
In between albatross sightings. Lyndall took over 100 albatross shots, as the funny brutes wheeled around our wake for hours on end. But she’s a vet. I hope that kind of a ‘shooting’ of said bird doesn’t bring the fate of the Ancient Mariner upon the SS Tikeibank.
Suffered a grave panic when I realised that nowhere did I have, written down, Wendy’s phone number apropos of the coming airport run. I have everything else you can imagine on this machine, but not that. Well, I’ve never had to call it. But I thought … well, I thought I knew it by heart. I didn’t. Nor could I remember my own Gerolstein number. Is it the vodka, or is it age? But, lesson well learned. During my weeks in NZ, I shall feed heaps of address book data into ‘Entourage’ (silly name). I will not be caught this way again. I spent all morning dredging through old emails, searching for one where I might have said ‘call Wendy on her mobile …’. Nothing.
But, happy ending, by mid-afternoon Wendy (who often doesn’t look at her computer from day to week) had come back with the needed number..
Hell, after such a hiccup-free voyage, it would be awful to foul up on the leg Christchurch-Sefton!

So its my last Tikeibank night. For now. Hopefully, if the bookings pan out, I’ll be back on here in January.
Until when …

Au revoir to the oceans of the world and hello Gerolstein!