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.