CAPTAIN BLIGH’S PACIFIC PARADISES by John Borthwick

“Shoot the bugger!” screamed someone as Captain William Bligh was bundled overboard at musket-point and into a longboat. Dawn was breaking off the tiny Pacific island of Tofua when HMAV Bounty’s first mate Fletcher Christian ordered his captain and 18 loyalists into the six-metre boat. Shooting them might have been a kinder fate. Instead, they were set adrift in mid-ocean, some 6000 km from the nearest European outpost at Kupang, Timor.

April 28, 2019 marked the 230th anniversary of the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty. Overlooked amid the ensuing blue water opera of passion, heroics and revenge is that the Bounty might be seen, whimsically perhaps, as the pioneer of South Pacific cruising. If so, was the tempestuous, brilliant William Bligh — who is officially credited with discovering 13 Pacific islands — the South Pacific’s first European tourist, even if its most reluctant one? As visitors to the Pacific today, we sail in the wake of Bligh and the Bounty.

Bruny Island, Tasmania. In August 1788, His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty, on a mission from England to Tahiti, made its first Pacific stop in Tasmania. As well as ‘discovering’ Hobart’s Mt Wellington, William Bligh planted at Adventure Bay seven apple trees — the very first the for future ‘Apple Isle’. On the shores of the bay, today’s Bligh Museum of Pacific Exploration commemorates the Bounty visit as well as those of other great navigators such as Cook, Flinders and D’Entrecasteaux.

Bounty Islands. On a roundabout route to its place in history, Bounty passed a desolate cluster of 13 granite islands in the Subantarctic. Now New Zealand territory, this uninhabited group is home to the world’s largest breeding colony of New Zealand fur seals and vast populations of seabirds. Bligh named the islands in honour of his ship, no doubt having in mind more glorious landmarks to append his own name to than these guano-bombed outcrops. The islands are now World Heritage-protected. Landing is prohibited and they are seen these days only by occasional expedition cruises. Bounty then headed north to warmer Pacific latitudes, but life at sea on any 18th century ship was always harsh and often more so under Bligh’s rigid discipline.

Tahiti, French Polynesia. The Society Islands, aka The Isles of Love, are renowned today for their lagoon resorts, vivid reefs and postcard lushness. To Bligh and the British Admiralty they simply meant breadfruit. Bounty’s mission was to collect a thousand saplings for transportation to the West Indies, hopefully to be used there as cheap food for sugar plantation slaves.

You can stand today on the black volcanic sands of Point Venus, 10 km from Papeete, and look across Matavai Bay to where Bounty rode at anchor for over five months during 1788 and 1789. While gathering the breadfruit plants, its crew were seduced by ‘paradise’ in the form of ample food and generous, amorous Polynesian consorts.

When Bounty up-anchored on 4 April, 1789 and sailed from ‘Otaheite’, its lowly sailors knew their days of near-aristocratic indulgence were reverting to the norm of being little more that seagoing slaves. (As the writer Dr Johnson noted after visiting a British man-of-war of that era, ‘Serving in a ship is like being in a prison — with a chance of drowning.’)Many of the crew, Fletcher Christian among them, were lovesick for their Tahitian sweethearts, while the caustic manner of Bligh, their master, commander and tormentor was salt to their wounds.

Cook Islands. All Polynesia had been populated by 1000 AD but Bligh is credited with ‘discovering’ Aitutaki — ‘Wytootackee’ — in the Cook Islands. He recorded, ‘I saw no Smoke or any Sign of Inhabitants, it is scarcely to be imagined however, that So charming a little Spot is without them.’ Bligh wasn’t the only ‘first white man to see’ part of the Cook Islands. Following the mutiny, Fletcher Christian aboard the fleeing Bounty sighted Rarotonga, which today is the most populous of the Cook Islands and its capital. But Fletch, being a no-good, shipjacker, would never be credited by the Admiralty with anything but heinous mutiny and thus candidature for hanging from the highest yard-arm. His sighting goes pointedly un-commemorated.

Tofua Island, Tonga. The Tongan Islands are known today as the Friendly Isles, a magnet for yachts, game fishing and whale watching, but as the Bounty wended its way through the archipelago in late April 1789, there were few friendly notions brewing on its foredeck. The rot set in terminally at Nomuka Island when Christian led an armed party ashore to find water but retreated under threat from hostile locals. Bligh publicly damned him as a ‘cowardly rascal’ afraid of ‘a set of Naked Savages’.

“Vintage engraving showing mutineers seizing Captain Bligh on board the Bounty. The Mutiny on the Bounty was a mutiny aboard the British Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty on 28 April 1789. The mutiny was led by Fletcher Christian against commanding officer Lieutenant William Bligh. According to most accounts, the sailors were attracted to the idyllic life on the Pacific island of Tahiti and were further motivated by harsh treatment from their captain.”

Picture this: 28 April 1789, beneath the brooding volcanic crown of Tofua Island in the Ha’apai Group, William Bligh is roused from his bunk at bayonet-point and thrown into the longboat, along with his 18 loyalists. Scant food and water, plus a sextant and compass, but no charts, are flung after them.

In this frail craft it was as far to the moon as to a safe shore. No blue lagoons or happy hour sundowners for these doomed men. But, as the mutineers set Bounty’s sail for Tahiti and its promises of languid paradise, the iron-willed Bligh set his own mind to the near-impossible, to navigate the tiny boat to Timor and revenge.

Fiji. Thus began the survivors’ 41-day, open-boat voyage, regarded as one of the most outstanding feats of seamanship in maritime history. As the first Europeans to sail through Fiji, Bligh marked their route so well that his chart of the ‘Bligh Islands’ (as he modestly named them and as Fiji was first known) is still useable today. The strait between the main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu remains named after him.

Fiji’s beautiful Yasawa Islands today are famed for resorts like Turtle Island and the 1980 Brooks Shields’ movie The Blue Lagoon. Inevitably, there is a Bounty Island Resort. For the castaways, however, if there were to be any picnic in the Yasawas, they feared that they would be the main delicacy. Bligh recorded his men as having to frantically out-row a pursuing canoe of supposedly salivating cannibals.

Restoration Island, Cape York Peninsula. Constantly rowing, and aided by only two small sails, they inched their way towards ‘New Holland’ and through the Great Barrier Reef. Many of the men could barely walk when on 28 May they beached on a sandy islet that Bligh called Restoration Island, where they found water, oysters and berries aplenty. They ate ravenously. The island (“Resto” to today’s locals) sits a few hundred meters offshore from the Lockhart River mainland and 800 kilometers north of Cairns.

In 1932 the young Errol Flynn, sailing to New Guinea in his schooner Sirocco, visited the island and was fascinated by its Bounty connection. He soon went on to play Fletcher Christian in his first film, the 1933 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Some 70 years later, Russell Crowe, star of another maritime epic, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, lingered at Resto in 2003 while on a seafaring honeymoon with wife Danielle.

Kupang, Timor. Reaching the northernmost point of the Australian continent, aka New Holland, the wretched survivors found a passage, now known as Bligh Entrance, through the Torres Strait and rowed on, ever westwards. More dead than alive following their six-week voyage of ‘extreme hardship, brilliant navigation and mutual hatred’, they sailed into Kupang harbour, Dutch Timor, on 14 June 1789. Bligh, always a stickler for protocol, insisted on doing so under a makeshift Union Jack.

Today’s travellers might head to Indonesia’s West Timor for surfing on Roti Island or next door to independent Timor-Leste for birding, diving and mountain biking but, for Bligh, Timor was just the beginning of his furious return to England in order to restore his reputation and to call down the Admiralty’s implacable wrath on Fletcher Christian and company.

Pitcairn Island. Meanwhile, back on the Bounty, the mutineers hightailed it to Tahiti and the longed-for good life but, understanding too well the grisly penalty for mutiny, most of them knew better than to linger where the Admiralty would surely track them. Collecting their female consorts and six Tahitian men, Christian and eight mutineers sailed the Bounty off the map.

After desperately searching the ocean for a haven they came across uninhabited, uncharted Pitcairn Island in January 1790. They burned the Bounty to avoid discovery and thus became the first permanent European settlers in the Pacific Islands. Within months, however, they were at each other’s throats. Within a decade all but one of the mutineers were dead.

The fate of the vanished Bounty remained a mystery for almost 20 years until an American whaling ship stumbled upon the island in 1808 and was greeted by a gaggle of polite, robust, English-speaking, mixed-race youngsters and a white-bearded, Bible-quoting elder, the last surviving mutineer, John Adams. Visitors today can reach this truly remote corner of the Pacific, with MV Bravo Supporter calling there several times a year. Some Bounty remains, mostly ballast stones, remain visible in the clear waters of Pitcairn’s Bounty Bay.

Norfolk Island. The mutineers’ English-Tahitian descendants thrived and multiplied on tiny Pitcairn to the point of overcrowding. When Queen Victoria granted them lush Norfolk Island in 1856 the entire Pitcairn community of 194 people was relocated there. Today, there are resorts, good dining, reef diving and convict ruins on Norfolk. And, of course, Bounty lore and proud ‘Mutiny’ descendants galore.

Footnote: The author sailed in April 1989 on the 200th anniversary re-enactment of the mutiny aboard the replica vessel built for the 1984 movie, The Bounty.

© John Borthwick 2019

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SLOVENIA – ADRIATIC, ALPINE, ASTOUNDING by Glenn A. Baker

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Before World War II, you could present yourself at Bled railway station – with a suitable stack of valises for the journey – and buy yourself a ticket to Luxor as easily as you could to Paris. The rich and privileged of Europe did just that, using the lake resort on the sunny side of the Alps as a pleasant halfway house on the way to and from the mystical east as well as being a destination in its own right.

Even then, a half a century before the 1991 opening of the eight-kilometre-long tunnel through the Karavanken mountains which finally linked Slovenia with the Central European freeway system, or the introduction of the two-hour catamaran service across the Adriatic from Venice, the trek to the pure, warm, emerald green waters and thermal springs by the high peaks of the Julian Alps was deemed well worth the effort.

It is from a balcony of the famed Vila Bled that the allure is most apparent. Take, as I did, any eye line out across the water, past the tear-shaped island with its baroque church of the Assumption, up the sheer cliff on the other side to the striking 11th century castle clinging to the peak, and then out to the Karavankens in the dramatically arrayed distant background (with its imposing Mount Triglav), and you readily understand why this once royal realm has been eulogised and celebrated by poets, painters and photographers.

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The balcony in question – now part of a suite in the first hotel of a former Eastern Bloc country to be welcomed into the prestigious Relais & Chateaux chain – was once attached to the office of Yugoslavian communist strongman Marshall Tito (whose mother was a Slovene). First constructed by an Austrian noble in 1885 as a smart two-storey villa resembling an English cottage, the Vila Bled was serving as the summer residence of the old royal family until they were driven into exile by advancing Nazis.

Sturdily rebuilt in 1947 to serve as a guest house for Tito’s official visitors, it played host to the likes of Khrushchev, Ceaucescu (whom Tito loathed) Nehru, Nasser, Bokassa, Indira Ghandi, Hussein, Akihito and, well recalled for the inventory which departed with him, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung.

While German Chancellor Willy Brandt is said to have put the finishing touches to his ‘Ostpolitik’ while in residence, affairs of state did not occupy all the occupants all the time. For a hint of how these illustrious visitors passed their hours within the sturdy Dalmatian marble walls, one needs to ask for a private tour – the pearl of which is Tito’s private cinema.

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What first appears to be a dowdy room of aging furnishings is transformed into a compelling cultural time warp as large drapes are drawn back to reveal vast continuous murals of strident socialist realism which are even thin on the ground in Russia these days. The colours are assaulting, the imagery even more so – sheaths of wheat, valiantly wielded sickles, ragged peasant tunics, feet bound in tied rags, bright-eyed children – all surging forward into a glorious tomorrow which never arrived.

Easily the most-visited part of Slovenia – a ’boutique’ country traversed by the sun in all of twelve minutes – Bled comes alive in summer, with a plentiful international tourist flow descending upon the food, the displayed art, the evening concerts and a small casino. However, if you arrive out of season it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that mayor Janez Faifar, until recently the manager of the Vila Bled, will load you into his own car and take you with him as he strides about his domain, not just exposing you to the rustic delights of thousand year-old villages but proving resoundingly that what you’ve never been told about nails and bees can actually be essential information.

The giant nails which still hold together the pylons that support Venice were made (along with 129 other varieties) in Kropa, a tiny village wedged into a slim valley under the Jelovica Plateau. By the boiling base of the steep and fast-flowing Kroparica stream which slices through the famous little steel town is an Iron Forging Museum which recreates the world of the dedicated artisans who, for centuries, turned out fine wrought-iron decorations along with their shafts and spikes (some of which found their way to the New World with Columbus and were prised from planking by sailors who swapped them ashore for necklaces and other considerations).

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It is another rare craft that forms the core of the attraction of nearby medieval Radovljica, a craft that grew out of Slovenia’s beekeeping mastery. So advanced in all things apiarian is this little land that more than a thousand trucks are put at the disposal of bees in peak season to better facilitate the honey flow. Not content to just write treatises and export queen bees to the world, the keepers of the hives, from the early 1800s, began painting and decorating them with topical and often quite beautiful folk art.

In some, the devil is depicted sharpening an old woman’s tongue or swapping old wives for nubile young women; in another, two peasants quarrel about the ownership of a cow while a lawyer milks it; and, in another, a funeral procession through a forest sees a hunter borne to his grave by gun-toting animals. It is within the ornate Thurn Manor on the historical public square, near the 1822 Lectar Inn restaurant and former gingerbread bakery, that the Beekeeping Museum displays these amazing original panels and cleverly celebrates an industry that has shaped Slovenian life.

Paths are beaten to and beyond the doors of these museums between mid-April and mid-October, when the 2,500 beds in beloved Bled have been claimed. Part of the seduction secret is a certain serenity. There are no motored vessels allowed on the 500-metre-high lake. Twenty families have inherited rights to operate the gondola boats called pletnas that softly snake across the water to what is the only true island in Slovenia. Blekski Otok has borne a Christian church since the 9th century though there is evidence that it was a site of pagan worship for the early Slavs well before that.

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Now, the dimensions of landmarks are normally the fine print in guidebooks but it is worth knowing that, when the recession of the Ice Age Bohinj Glacier gouged out Lake Bled, it left a cavity just a whisker over two kilometres long. The length would not have been of any great significance to the primitive Slavs of the 7th century but it certainly was to aspiring Olympians of the 20th century who became aware that the official length of a rowing course was, yes, two kilometres. With a fortuitous, slightly off-centre placement of the island allowing the sleek craft to glide just past it, the rowers of Bled were able to practice, day in and day out; their disciplined labour culminating, at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, in the first gold medal for a new nation.

Heroes they are, in Bled and beyond, their praises sung and their visages displayed in the snug and stylish capital of Ljubljana, where a true cafe society is carried on under a castle backdrop amid a network of decorative bridges and buildings, waterways, narrow streets and busy markets.

It is the level of sophistication that comes as the first great surprise, though it really shouldn’t. Tucked into a curve in the Adriatic alongside Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, with Trieste literally just down the road, Vienna and Rome thirty minutes away by air, and Venice, Salzburg and Munich a few hours away by road, Ljubljana is thoroughly European.

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Indeed, with its castles, crafts, alps, lakes, ports, culture, fertile farms, annual jazz festival and layers of linguistics, Slovenia is very much Europe in microcosm. It was French novelist Charles Nodier who, greatly impressed by the national flair for languages, once compared it to “an Academy of Arts and Sciences”.

What irks the fine citizens most in this lush land (after Scandinavia, it is the greenest in all Europe – more than two-thirds wooded) is being, as the popular phrase puts it, tarred with the Balkan brush. It is here in the art-laden coffee bars and restaurants of a safe and civilised city of just 300,000, where young policeman in goatee beards stroll with a smile past art-house cinema clubs frequented by chattering students in jagged fashions, that you keep hearing the exasperated refrain. It comes somewhere between the seasoned pork with field mushroom soup and the fragrant apple or violet ice cream: we were a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for a thousand years and of Yugoslavia for seventy years but all anybody remembers is the last part.

“Even during the communist years, we were always somewhere in between – not socialist, not capitalist” offered a young man called Tomaz in the grounds of his old university. “We could travel internationally. If you wanted something that wasn’t available, you went to Trieste and bought it. We never felt that we couldn’t talk about anything we wished; we even had great rock’n’roll here.” Slovenia’s exit from the disintegrating Balkan state in 1991 was relatively painless, all over and done with in ten days of half-hearted sabre rattling by Belgrade. And, over the next decade, the entrepreneurial citizens prospered nicely in their bread basket land, untouched by the horrors in Bosnia or Kosovo. It was even overlooked by the criminal gangs that preyed on those disrupted and disputed republics.

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The impact of world perception was harsh when it came to tourism. In 1991, a million visitors a year came to the extraordinary Postojna Caves, west of Ljubljana toward the coast. A decade on, the admissions were less than half a million (though they’ve climbed upward since). Far and away the greatest loss was on the part of those who chose not to come to it or to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Skocjan caves, for only around the Spanish/French Basque region are there comparable subterranean complexes.

Long known as “a cheese land” the Slovenia depths are patterned by some 7,000 caves, with only 20 open to the public. Described by English sculptor Henry Moore as “Nature’s most wonderful gallery”, the two-million-year-old Postojna is comprised of more than 25 kilometres of gloriously sculptured chambers, galleries, halls and river beds. Guides have been taking paying customers along the trails for almost two hundred years; with the aid of railway carriages since 1872 and electric illumination since 1884. Over 30 million people have passed through, in constant temperatures of 8-9 degrees centigrade.

The tentacles of these caves extend to the startling Predjamski Castle – a Robber Baron’s retreat castle where boiling oil really was poured from parapets. The dramatic setting of this four-storey structure, in the open mouth of a cavern halfway up a mountainside, made it a hotly contested property some five hundred years ago. The best legends are attached to Slovenia’s Robin Hood, one Erazem Lueger, who used the secret passages and caves to pillage the countryside and return to the impregnable, drawbridged castle. He met his inevitable end while performing his ablutions in a vulnerable water closet, having been betrayed by a servant to an Austrian cannon post.

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Legends also abound along Slovenia’s scant 47 kilometres of coastline, much of which was only incorporated into Yugoslavia in the mid-1950s. In summer months, it takes on a decided Cote d’Azur tone, with the coastal towns of Portoroz, Piran, Izola, Koper and Ankaran boasting 120 hotels between them, and around a million and a quarter visitors staying overnight in Portoroz alone – drawn by its beaches and popular health resorts.

At the heart of the appeal, apart from the strong international atmosphere, is the coast’s very Mediterranean climate, noticeably warmer that the rest of the country. In wintry January, temperatures rarely go below 4-5 degrees centigrade and, in July, sit around 21-2. Izola lays claim to the furthermost north olive trees in the world capable of yielding good quality oil; though that is but part of its bounty – citrus fruits, pines, palms, oleander, rosemary, laurel, tomatoes and paprika adding to an agricultural mix more Sicily than Slovenia.

The centrepiece of the coast, occupying the tip of a slender dogleg peninsula, is Piran (Pirano to the ubiquitous Italians). A rich merchant port, a ‘free town’ with its own statute in the 13th century, it is famed for a Venetian Gothic Old Town, layers of high ancient town walls, a flourishing arts community, and a small harbour marina for which the term picturesque is more than apt.

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With a name derived from either the Celtic word bior-dun (town on a hill) or the Greek word pyr (fire), this atmospheric old trading chest seaport has been handed from one conqueror to another over the centuries, with each occupant – be they Celts, Romans, barbarians, Byzantines, Obers, Slavs, Franks, the Patriarchs of Aquileai, Venetians, Italians, Germans, Austrians or Yugoslavs – leaving something tangible behind.

Within a 17th century palace along this small harbour, in front of Tartini Square (named after violinist/composer Giuseppe Tartini who found world fame with his infamous Devil’s Trill sonata) is a place of exhibition every bit as engaging as Bled’s nail and bees houses of wonder. Take the marble staircase up to the Sergej Masera Maritime Museum and you enter a time when navies ruled the world and commanded all trade, when fires were lit each night in the Punta district on the tip of the peninsula at Cape Madonna to guide ships heavy with precious cargo into port. A time also when the masts of Venetian ships, the frames of galleons and the walls of Venetian houses were made from high, straight oak trees plundered from Slovenia’s Karst region, where the caves reside (and where some hills are forever denuded).

Slovenia’s icons, as one learns within these walls, didn’t all play their way into chamber music fame or row into Olympic record books. The man who discovered that Baja California, in Mexico, was a peninsula and not an island 350 years ago was Slovenian. One Baron Marko Anton Kapus, a Jesuit Abbot. They’ve put him on a postage stamp.  A new nation takes its heroes where it can.

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Thanks to Italian nationals, who account for 90 per cent of the custom, the ‘Slovenia Riviera’ has a strong casino culture. During the communist years, locals were not allowed entry to those gaming centres set up to fleece foreign currency from the region and so developed no taste for gambling. However, with only four legal casinos in Italy there is an unquenchable appetite from that part of the world for the spin of the roulette wheel and the slap of the blackjack table which Slovenia, with its swish and highly professional emporiums of chance, is pleased to help satisfy.

Somehow the gamblers fit easily into a visitor flow that includes young British and European internet surfers who lob into Trieste from London on bargain charter tickets and treat the border as if it were not there (in many ways, it isn’t). What they all find is often more than they came seeking, for surprises are plentiful.  Take, for but one example, the Casa Del Papa in Ljubljana, a restaurant/bar cum nightclub devoted to Ernest Hemingway displaying a simply astounding array of ‘Papa’ and Cuban visuals over its three floors.

There is something decidedly comfortable about this country, with its often staggering diversity and inexpensive pricing, and something undeniably appealing about a people who are said to have a Mediterranean temperament with a touch of Nordic reserve combined with earthy Slav charm and sincerity. There is a sense of wry and dry humour that seems to be ingrained in those people who survive terms as Soviet Satellites. Ask Janez Faifar about the origins of the name Bled and he may respond: “In German, it means crazy, in Russian, it refers to a whore and, in French, it comes out as ‘a lost village in the mountains’. Maybe two out of three isn’t bad.”

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For the moment, these good folk are waiting for the world to catch up. It may insist, at least for the moment, on seeing Slovenia as Balkan rather than Adriatic or Alpine but they will keep politely correcting the record. As they know better than most, everything changes in time.

P.S. For a time, after my departure, Janez Faifar became the Mayor of Bled. An eminently wise elevation.

©2002   Words and photography by Glenn A. Baker 

THE CIRCUMFERENCE OF MY KNOWABLE WORLD by John Borthwick

John Borthwick

Way back then, the late 1960s, I believed with all the earnestness that only age 20 can summon that my life in Sydney was dead, karked. I was already too old to succeed, but too young to officially fail. I borrowed ten pounds to flee the academic, economic and romantic corpses strewn (I imagined) behind me. I would take to the roads, disappear forever. Or at least hitchhike right around Australia, the circumference of my knowable world.

The tourniquets that stifle a city — mortgage belt, industrial belt, car yard wastelands — soon fell away. A “rabbito” named Ernie piloting an old Vanguard stops and we head west over the Blue Mountains and out past Bathurst to where I join him on a three-day rabbit-trapping safari, using nets and Mitzi, his cute, blood-lusting ferret. Out there on the western plains of the Great Divide, the wheat fields ripple like ground-swell and sulphur-crested cockatoos cartwheel down the sky, screeching away through the stringy barks. Mobs of galahs. Wallabies. I nearly overdose on bunny stew. And when I start hitching again, not too many cars.

Somewhere near Cowra, my ride passes a semi-trailer that’s overturned, spilling a cargo of cowboy boots and licorice candies. I ditch the lift and grab a pair of boots and a face-full of Choo-Choo Bars just before the insurance agents torch the lot. I figure that now, in my boots, no one’s going to spot me as a city boy.

Across the Murrumbidgee plains, dawn and dusk suns flicker like strobes through the windbreak poplars. At Hay, I help a trucker change eight of the 18 tires on his bone-rattling rig. “I’ve been at the wheel for 20 hours,” he says, “And since I was starting to talk to myself, I figured I oughter pick up someone to listen to me.” He lives like a gypsy, criss-crossing the country for weeks on end, at odds with log books, cops and savage schedules. He complains, “The bloody mermaids are after us truckies.”

“Mermaids?” I query.

“My oath. Mermaids everywhere. Weighbridge inspectors. Cunts with scales.”

New South Wales becomes Victoria, becomes South Australia, each one vanishing in the infinite regress of the side mirror. The big one, the Nullarbor Plain soon lies ahead of me. By now, there isn’t much left of my ten quid and so when a driver says that he’s an abalone diver working out of Ceduna and, do I want a job as a “shucker”, you bet I do. God knows what a shucker does.

Next morning I’m racing out to sea in an “ab boat”, heading for the Nuyts Archipelago about 40 miles off Ceduna. The head diver, Rodney Fox had achieved fame a few years back when a huge white pointer clamped him in its apocalyptic jaws. He struggled so fiercely that the Noah let him go but left the perfect imprint of its dental chart puncturing his torso fore and aft. Hundreds of stitches later — a zipper would have been quicker — plus a brief convalescence, Rodney got straight back on the seahorse and resumed diving for lucrative abalone.

Shucking means that you’re up on deck tending the air-compressor, making sure the diver’s air-line doesn’t kink and shelling — “shucking” — the abalone that you’ve winched to the surface. Oh, yes, and watching for sharks. The pay, about eight pounds a day. The one, big shucking drawback — seasickness.

Beyond Ceduna, the Nullarbor Plain stretches to infinity across the Great Australian Bight. During my gig as a shucker I notice a glum-looking kid camped near the last roadhouse. Teddy, an Aucklander, is having no luck in hitching to Perth. For a week he’s stood beside the agricultural inspection gate from nine to five, waggling his thumb in vain. A thousand miles of desert ahead and he can’t get out of town.

My problem is that he’s at the head of the hitching queue — yes, there is etiquette among bums — and I’m ready to hit the road, too. Come the morning of my departure, there’s Teddy already out by the tick gate. At the roadhouse café, I fall into conversation with a dog-collared gentleman who is breakfasting beside me. Who announces he is heading to Perth.

“Now? I mean, today?” I ask.

“That’s right.”

“Could I, um … get a ride with you?”

Suddenly, I’ve scored a ride across the Nullarbor without even raising my thumb! In jubilation and in shame, I sail through that gate. And cannot look at Teddy.

The Nullarbor, the No Tree Plain, is a ribbon of unreal, unsealed images. So wide and empty you can almost see the curve of the earth. Like the wake of a ghostly boat, the highway rises and falls, straight as death across the spinifex ocean. Heat miasmas shred the vanishing point and leave it flapping between heaven and the horizon. A sign says “Last Petrol”. Another warns, “Last Water” and then, ominously, “Last Beer”. After that, the husks of blown-out tires, shattered beer bottles and dead kangaroos are the only pointers to life before death.

Nonchalant Aborigines walk from seemingly nowhere to specifically somewhere else. A mission. A cattle station. Miles from anywhere, two wild-eyed hitchers gesticulating like crazed windmills beside their midnight bonfire. The West Australia border is marked by a bullet-peppered sign: “First Beer”. The old telegraph station at Eucla appears then disappears, engulfed in shifting coastal dunes. It’s almost 1200 miles to Perth, or more correctly, 2000 kilometres. Australia’s been “metric” for a few years but we’ll still talk in miles for decades.

Whatever the figure, after thirty-six hours of pot-holed, bull-dusted highway, I bid farewell to the terrifically decent Rev. Trev Brown, London Missionary Society, late of Mount Hagen. I teeter, sleepless, speechless, stuffed, onto King George’s Terrace, Perth. Wrecked, but there.

“In the midst of life, we are in Perth”, said Sydney bohemian writer Harry Hooton. I think I get what he meant. One night in the Salvo’s flophouse and quick look around — and it’s clear that I won’t be making my fortune here. I sign up as a mine labourer at Mount Tom Price, far, far north in the Pilbara’s Hamersley Range. Which means another thousand-mile hitch, up the Indian Ocean coast to the job on time.

The whole mountain — more like a range — of almost solid iron ore is being shipped chunk by chunk to Japan. My seven-days-a-week job is to run an Air-Track, a compressor-driven drill mounted on crawler tracks, boring holes in giant boulders so they can be blown to smithereens. Work all day, save every cent, sleep in a cell and eat in the mess. Get up and do it again, amen.

The town has 500 single men and six single women. Extraordinarily, one of the girls kissed me, once. Even more extraordinary — I can’t recall why. Hamersley Mining had sunk $300 million into this open-cut abyss but for all the state-of-the-art crushers and conveyors, things still kept jamming. After six hours of shovelling overflowed ore that had flooded the train loading-bays, Duggy the Drunk bellowed: “Three hundred million bucks worth of alternating oscillators and oscillating fuckn’ alternators, and it still takes a dozen blokes on pick n’ shovel to make the bastard work.” That we were doing it all on emergency, triple-time rates eased the pain.

I moved up to offsider on a big mobile drill rig that trundled over the mine site day and night sinking sixty-foot holes with its rotating tungsten bit. The powder crew followed, filling the drill pattern with nitropril explosive and then blasting the hillside to Mitsubishi. On night shifts, while Irish Frank the driller eased the bit down into the earth with the skill of a surgeon — and sutured himself against the desert cold with belts of vodka — I had time aplenty to watch the giant sky and the spokes of its star-wheels turning, and to wonder where, for me, real life lay?

Marooned — OK, voluntarily — in this burning, freezing, boring, mateless doldrum of saltbush and red dirt, was this the horse latitudes of my life? After ten weeks with the outside world leaking-in only through two day-old newspapers (over breakfast I learn that Bobby Kennedy has been assassinated), I’ve saved a thousand bucks and grown a beard. A bulldozer driver yells, “What are ya, mate? An armpit with eyes or an ear‘ole with teeth?” and I jump an ore train to the coast.

Port Hedland is a culture cut-up — old horse hitching-rails outside new supermarkets, giant ore carriers offshore from feral camels. The next port, Broome is quieter, with its pearling luggers careened on the tidal flats like elephants drunk in the sun. There’s an exemplary swirl of Japanese-Malay-Chinese-Aboriginal-European genes.

The roads are rough and the rides are few but they’re long. Up here a hundred miles is not much more than “next door.” Derby. Fitzroy Crossing. Hall’s Creek. The road leaves the ocean, curves east then north. The sky turns turquoise at the edges. Whistling, whip-cracking Aboriginal stockmen dressed like fantastic gauchos in bandanas, cowboy boots and Akubras just let the traffic sit and wait, and wait, while their huge mobs of cattle amble by.

One morning I wake beneath a fat old boab tree outside Kununurra and wish myself “Happy Birthday.” I’m twenty-one. Ignoring homelessness and joblessness as portents of a fucked future, but still pissed-off at being stuck here for three days, I celebrate with a beer, a can of smoked oysters and a decision. Stuff Kununurra’s parched mercies. Next morning I’m on a TAA plane to Darwin. Having blown $25 on my escape, I compensate by wolfing down three breakfasts before we land. Chokka on the Fokker.

Darwin. The Top-End. The Territory. Everything steeped in sweat and alcohol, and it’s only ten a.m. I luck out when two flash, high-spirited girls of imprecise occupation — “Don’t ask, darling” — in a big, black, bat-winged Chevy whisk me down the track to Rum Jungle.

“The Track”, the Stuart Highway, bisects the continent from north to south. Harry, an old-timer who had spent 30 years working on the Overland Telegraph took me all the way from Mataranka to Three Ways, five hundred miles. “I seen you hitch-hiking like I used to back in the Depression. I’ve been reading we might be having another one, a Depression, so I thought I better give yer a lift.”

This is about his longest speech during our two-day drive. Come dark, he pulls his old Holden ute off the road, we build a fire and he heats-up dinner — in the middle of a million square miles of Australian beef country, it’s a can of Paraguayan beef. We eat. Harry rolls out his swag and beds down. After 15 minutes he belches: “Struth. That stuff tasted more like the Paraguayan hisself, eh?”

Just north of Tennant Creek is a sand-whipped crossroads known as Three Ways, a dark fork on life’s path where a traveler must choose between deserts to the south, mulga and Queensland to the east, or to flee back north, to soused, troppo Darwin. The Three Ways signpost is twisted so it points perversely west to Alice, east to Darwin, south to Mt Isa. A corrugated iron hut calls itself “Cafeteria.” The gimlet-eyed customers, too wise to their own violence don’t risk much speech with a stranger. Very expensive Mars Bars. “If ya don’t like the price, try the fuckin’ shop next door,” drawls the old hard-case harridan behind the counter.

“Welcome to Three Days,” says Bobby, an Aboriginal bloke.

“Three Days?”

“Yeah, that’s about the average wait for a ride here.”

“Fark.”

An hour later another hitcher arrives. An old hand, heading for Sydney, he’s done time here before. After a warm Coke, a piss and a stink-eye glare in my direction he growls that two hitchers is one too many, and heads off the other way, south across the desert to Alice and Coober Pedy. And so it is that when a battered Land Rover pulls up after only three hours I leap in the back with near-jubilation. There are two jackaroos up front.

“We’re just going for a Sund’y drive.”

“Great, where?”

“Camooweal.”

Some Sunday drive. Camooweal is almost 300 miles east, in Queensland. Elated as I am to be heading there, I have no desire to actually be in Camooweal. The town has a reputation born of stories about stir-crazy ringers and boundary riders hitting town to blow their cheques after months of isolation on over-the-horizon cattle stations. Their best joke is supposed to go, “Hey, mate, ‘Blue’s’ lookin’ for you.”

”Huh? ‘Blue’ who?” answers the newly arrived, unwitting, longhaired, bearded stranger.

“Blue Gillette! Let’s shear him, fellers!”

The boys drop me right outside the Camooweal pub. Shit. Thanks. I turn up my collar and hoof it straight out of town, way past the “Welcome” sign that’s shot-gunned to resemble a colander. I lurk in the mulga, praying that some sane ride, please Jesus, arrives soon. Half an hour later it does — a perfectly sober shearer.

More rear-view highway hypnosis from the back of trucks and utes. The endless Black Soil Plains slip behind on a rhythm of ruts and posts, clouds and curves. Days later, something blue tilts up to fill half the sky. The sea, at last! Townsville, dense with palms, reeking of blossom and salt tang. Colonial pubs with lace iron balconies face the Coral Sea, waiting for whoever gets there first, discovery by Nostalgia or demolition by Progress.

Stuck south of Mackay, I shelter for a night in a road-gang’s camp. Most of the crew are in town for the weekend rodeo. As I leave in the morning one guy asks, “Jack. I see you’re wearin’ cowboy boots. You a dark horse headin’ for the rodeo?” Feeling almost credible, I hit the track for one last haul south.

The highway picks up speed. The gravity rings of Brisbane and Sydney suck everything down the map towards them. The cane fields flare against the night sky as farmers fire their crops before the harvest — the world smells like a giant vat of molasses. At Surfers Paradise, I flop onto the beach and then bodysurf my first waves since forever.

If the dust on my boots and stains on my pack are badges of the road, I’ll claim them. It’s taken 10,000 miles and three months.New South Wales again. Almost back, Jack. Shelter from a cyclone near Mullumbimby. Screw the thumb to the track one last time. All the rites and wrongs of passage now done, complete. I’m on the home run to the Big Smoke. Hey, Ma! Hey, Sydney! I’ve actually done something.

Words and photos John Borthwick ©2018

ALWAYS ON MY MIND: ELVIS PRESLEY, MEMPHIS AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED THE WORLD by David Latta

In-room artwork at The Guest House At Graceland

 

You can’t go very far in Memphis without encountering some reminder of Elvis Presley. The Tennessee city was his in so many ways. He went to school there, recorded his world-changing Sun recordings there, lived there throughout his adult life and continues to exert a powerful influence over it more than 40 years after his death. While he spent a lot of time away – in Germany for his late 1950s Army service, in California for much of the 1960s making a string of largely forgettable but hugely popular and profitable films, and touring throughout the United States (but nowhere else) – Elvis, the King of Rock’n’Roll, was Memphis. His home, Graceland, remains the city’s most popular tourist attraction, attracting more than 600,000 visitors a year.

 

The man who many claim invented rock’n’roll (and certainly presided over the social revolution that rock’n’roll ushered in) may have been Memphis but Memphis, paradoxically, was also far more than Elvis.

 

The list of singers and musicians who were born in or near or eventually called Memphis home, even if they were later more widely associated with other cities, is astoundingly long. W.C. Handy, regarded as the Father of the Blues, was born in nearby Florence, Alabama (close to what is erroneously known to music fans as the Muscle Shoals area), and played the bars and clubs of Beale Street in the early years of the 20th century; later, such local exponents of the blues, rhythm and blues and soul included William Bell, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, B.B. King, Little Jimmy King,  Memphis Slim, Little Milton, Charlie Musselwhite, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Junior Wells, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Arthur Lee, and Maurice White. And just to ensure that Memphis isn’t entirely mired in nostalgia, there’s Justin Timberlake.

 

Boo Mitchell at Royal Studios

 

Is there something in the water (aside from the Mississippi that laps its muddy shores) that brought so much talent to gather in one place? Nobody knows although there are certainly numerous theories. One thing is certain: over several decades, Memphis was the place where a perfect creative storm played out in recording studios and live music venues, the reverberations of which encircled the world.

 

There aren’t too many people with greater insight into Memphis’ musical legacy than Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. He grew up in Royal Studios, which his father, Willie Mitchell, operated as well as serving as Vice President of Hi Records; at the height of its R&B fame in late 1960s and 70s, Hi was best known as the home of Al Green (who had sales in excess of 20 million copies).

 

He was his father’s son; he combined his inherited talents with a fascination for testing boundaries. Long years of watching and listening, instructed by Willie and everybody who passed through the studio, paid off spectacularly. His first paid session was at the age of 16 as a keyboard player on Al Green’s recording of “As Long As We’re Together”; providentially, it won a Grammy.

 

 

Boo started managing Royal Studios in 2000 and became Chief Engineer in 2004. Now considered one of the oldest continually operating music studios in the world, Royal recorded the likes of Green, Anne Peebles, Ike and Tina Turner and Bobby Blue Bland during its R&B and soul heyday, then attracted artists such as Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Tom Jones, Robert Cray, John Mayer, Snoop Dog and Keb Mo.

 

Much of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special album was recorded at Royal (earning Boo a Grammy for his engineering duties), especially the Bruno Mars’ single, Uptown Funk. It was the first #1 out of Royal since Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and the first #1 out of Memphis since Disco Duck. And the first ever Record Of The Year Grammy out of Memphis.

 

Boo carefully considers the factors that brought Memphis to its creative convergence.

 

 

“Memphis has a very interesting history,” he says carefully. “It’s always been different, non-conformist. What makes us unique is that we don’t really care what other people think or what the trends are. Historically, we’ve always danced to the beat of our own drum. There’s something about the city, an energy here that inspires creativity and individuality. It comes out in the music.

 

“Memphis is one of those places you have to visit to understand. You can read about it, you can talk about it, but you won’t really get it until you come here. We still have a realness and a grittiness. I think that’s what draws people here to make records.”

 

What Boo Mitchell (and his brother, Archie, who is also involved with Royal) experienced growing up and how it influenced their eventual career path, is something of a microcosm of what Memphis is all about. There is a tradition of creativity and musical appreciation, and a reverence for that tradition, that passes down through the generations.

 

Recreated recording studio at Stax Museum

 

Royal was one of the success stories of Memphis and that goes just as much for Stax. Founded in 1957 under the name of Satellite Records, the company took over an old movie theatre in South Memphis in 1960; one of its early recordings, “Cause I Love You”, by Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla, became a hit. Soon afterwards, Satellite became Stax.

 

With distribution through Atlantic Records, Stax (along with sister label, Volt, and subsidiaries Enterprise, Hip, Chalice and Gospel Truth) showcased Memphis soul and R&B to the world. Although Stax’s prime barely lasted two decades, it recorded and released a massive amount of product with such lasting names as Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Issac Hayes, Sam & Dave, and William Bell.

 

Although the movie theatre that became Stax recording studio and corporate headquarters was demolished in 1989, following the collapse of the company, within a decade it was recreated as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened in 2003. It profiles Stax artists as well as other giants of soul, R&B and blues.

 

Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac at the Stax Museum

 

The Stax Museum isn’t the only celebration of the city’s musical heritage; the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame are all worthy of visits. But there’s really only own ground zero when it comes to discussing the music that changed the world and the role that Memphis played in this.

 

And that’s Sun Studios, just east of the downtown area. It’s small and usually crowded and often chaotic but its importance to modern music is in inverse proportion to its size. And the story of Sun Studios, and its most famous recording artist, reveals a lot of about Memphis as a society and why rock’n’roll became such a seismic revolution.

 

This story goes back to 1950 when a radio station recording engineer by the name of Sam Phillips established the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips, like W.C. Handy, was born in Florence, Alabama, and was a sound engineer for a Memphis radio station when he decided his future lay in uncovering and recording new talent.

 

 

In the midst of the segregated South, long before the civil rights movement began to change the lives of the black community, early gains were made via the music industry. Sam Phillips started recording African-American artists such as Howling Wolf, Little Milton and Rufus Thomas, but his agenda was as simple as it was initially elusive – to find a white artist who could reinterpret black music for a whole new audience.

 

In August 1953, a quietly spoken and painfully shy 18-year-old high school student by the name of Elvis Presley came to the studio to record a two-sided acetate as a tribute to his mother (paying $US3.98 plus tax for the privilege). With a high keening voice, faltering with nervousness, and hindered by a taste for simpering ballads, Phillips was nonetheless intrigued by the boy’s potential and made a mental note to get him back at a later date to further explore his potential.

 

That took quite some time; Phillips called him back in June 1954 to try him out on a song he thought had a chance in the charts. The recording session didn’t yield the results he wanted; over the next few hours, he had Elvis sing just about anything he could recall but nothing special evolved.

 

Still, there was something there. Phillips just didn’t know what. On 4 July, he called in a second opinion from musician Scotty Moore, who was less than impressed but Phillips forged ahead anyway. On the evening of 5 July 1954, Phillips gathered Elvis, Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on stand-up bass and had them run through an almost endless series of songs in the Sun studios.

 

Hour after hour, little transpired except frustration. Late that night (or in the early hours following midnight, depending on who later told the story), Elvis dropped the ballads he’d been addicted to and started fooling around with a song that had been a hit for an African-American blues artist, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup almost a decade before.

 

With Crudup, “That’s All Night (Mama)” was straight-up Delta blues; Elvis, not likely almost hallucinating with fatigue, mixed in rockabilly and his own interpretation of black rhythm and blues. Phillips froze at the console; he alone realised that the genie had wrestled its way out of the bottle.

 

 

Rock’n’roll was born. Elvis’ world was changed forever, just as music (and the world in which it existed) forever changed. Until that time, black music was as segregated from white music (and its respective audiences) as society was in general. The barriers came crashing down; and while the changes weren’t as rapid as is generally believed in hindsight, the changes did occur.

 

Elvis led the revolution for just a few short years. He set the world on fire with his performing style (honed through a stage fright that manifested in his trademark leg shaking although it was mis-interpreted as sexualised gyrations by critics of the older generation) but his influence lasted just five Sun Records singles over the next 15 months before RCA takes over Elvis’ recording contract and four years of live performances. A new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, took over his career in March 1956. Elvis was conscripted into the Army in March 1958. He returned from service in Germany two years later and effectively spent the next 13 years making 31 largely forgettable movies.

 

That he rebuilt his career as a performer in the late 1960s says much of his innate talent and the dedication of his fans. And even after his death, at the of 42, in 1977, those fans – and new generations to come – kept his celebrity alive.

 

The TV Room at Graceland

 

Graceland is one of the best-known tourist attractions in the United States. In early 2017, a $US45 million state-of-the-art entertainment and museum complex, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, opened. It showcases a staggering range of archival Elvis material, from cars and motorcycles to stage costumes, and includes restaurants, numerous merchandise stores and a theatre continuously screening Elvis movies and concert footage.

 

To tour Graceland is to appreciate just how global the Elvis phenomenon is. Visitors from every country in the world came to Memphis to get their Elvis fix. And they find it in just about every corner of the city.

 

At the Peabody Hotel, the grand dame of Memphis hotels, Hal Lansky is another who enjoys taking the time to enthuse to visitors his own special music stories. Hal’s father, Bernard, and his uncle, Guy, founded the Lansky Bros. menswear store on Beale Street in 1946. At that time Beale Street was the centre of black culture with cafes, restaurants, juke joints, pawn stores, clubs, pool halls and theatres. Gospel, blues and jazz music played continuously.

 

 

Lansky Bros. specialised in stylish men’s clothing, attracting a core clientele who appreciated the high-quality fabrics and rainbow-hued colours. In the early 1950s, Bernard noticed a young man gazing longingly at the front window displays and drew him inside.

 

He introduced himself as Elvis Presley and stated his intention of being a singer. He wanted to dress as well as other Lansky clients but didn’t have the money. Bernard, sensing someone who could well change the world, staked him for his first outfits. In return, Elvis, wherever he performed and whenever he was asked (or even if he wasn’t) credited Lanskys with his wardrobe. Elvis never forgot the generosity of Lansky Bros. He’d often buy the shop out, dropping in for midnight shopping sessions, or influencing other performers to try them. Over time, Lanskys also outfitted B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Rufus Thomas and James Brown.

 

When Hal was a child, Elvis would come into the store. On Saturday mornings, he’d go horse riding at Graceland. He’s often accompanying his father when dropping in outfits to Graceland; Elvis would even open the front door and spend time chatting at Hal.

 

 

“I’m proud that we’re helping to keep Elvis’ legacy alive,” Hal says. “He was our goodwill ambassador. He never forgot what my father did for him.”

 

In one of the four Lansky Bros. stores at the Peabody hangs a pink leather fur-trimmed coat that Elvis dropped in for repairs (he’d ripped the back vent as he was getting out of a car) just before his death and never picked up. And Elvis was buried in a white suit, light blue shirt and white tie – all from Lansky Bros.

 

In 2014, Lansky Bros. returned to the original building founded by Bernard and Guy; it shares space with the Hard Rock Café. It’s from outside this building that I climb into a 1955 Plymouth Belvedere being driven by local singer/songwriter Eva Brewer of the Rockabilly Rides tour company for a 90 minute Red Hot & Blue tour, taking in Elvis sites throughout Memphis.

 

Eva Brewer of Rockabilly Rides

 

Included is Humes High School, which Elvis attended, the Overton Park Shell, the outdoor performance space where Elvis gave his first public performance on 30 July 1954, the Lauderdale Courts, the public housing development where Elvis lived with his parents at the time he recorded with Sun Records, and even the dealership where Elvis purchased his Cadillacs (for himself occasionally but more often for family, friends and even complete strangers; its estimated, for example, that Elvis gave away more than 275 luxury cars, worth well over $US3 million).

 

(In a typical Memphisian stroke of serendipity, one of the principals of Rockabilly Rides, Brad Birkedahl, played Scotty Moore in the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line.)

 

However long a visitor spends in Memphis, eventually it all gets back to Elvis.

 

Humes High School, Memphis

 

Many thanks to Memphis Tourism for their assistance in experiencing Memphis and compiling this article.

 

Further suggested reading:

 

Connolly, Ray: Being Elvis: A Lonely Life (Weidenfeld &  Nicolson, 2016)

 

Cantor, Louis: Dewey And Elvis: The Life And Times Of A Rock’n’Roll Deejay (University Of Illinois Press, 2005)

 

Dundy, Elaine: Elvis & Gladys (University of Mississippi Press, 2004)

 

Guralnick, Peter: Last Train To Memphis” The Rise Of Elvis Presley (Little Brown & Company, 1994)

 

Guralnick, Peter: Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown & Company, 1999)

 

Guralnick, Peter: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll (Little, Brown & Company, 2015)

 

Williamson, Joel: Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015).

 

Lansky Brothers: Clothier To The King (Beckon Books, 2010)

 

THE IMMATERIAL GIRL OF TANGO TOWN by John Borthwick

 

A traveller looks back on Buenos Aires, 1996

In Recoleta, they often die as they have lived — much like Oscar Wilde said of himself — beyond their means. Buenos Aires’ most prestigious suburb, Recoleta, has its own exclusive necropolis where row upon bankrupting row of marble vaults accommodates the dusty repose of the city’s elite. Lowering the tone by octaves (according to some) is the tomb of Eva Peron, the infamous “Evita” who, although lauded in life by Argentina’s poor, is surrounded in death by the rich who loathed her then and reputedly still do.

 

Buenos Aires is a bright city of melancholia set to a dance-step. A tango town of delicious decrepitude, of wealth now blown but for the nostalgia and crumbling mansions. This was the home of Jorge Luis Borges, jackbooted generals, Nazis on the lam, the Mothers of the Disappeared and footballer Diego Maradona. And now, for seven weeks, it is hosting Madonna who’s here to channel Evita in the bio-musical of her life.

 

 

Eva Duarte Peron, the second wife of Argentine President General Juan Peron, died at age 33 in 1952. She divides Argentineans in death as she did in life: some think of her as a near-saintly friend to the poor while others consider her little more than a social-climbing tart. Heroine or whore? Who could be better cast in this deified-demonised contradiction than the artist formerly known as Ms Ciccone, who’d made a career of tweaking the horns of a similar dilemma — starlet as faux harlot?

 

And there I was with a hotel room overlooking hers. The brush with fame was wasted on me. As a photographer, I make a lousy paparazzo. Stalking soi-disant celebrities through a 500 mm lens would bore me witless. I was there to find a city of coffee and glory, debt and plazas — not for celeb sniffing. Had I wanted the latter, the rather more talented Robert Duvall was also in town, shooting the movie Eichmann. His Hollywood production crew was delighted that Madonna was drawing all the rubberneckers.

 

Benign fate delivered me a sixth-floor room in the Park Hyatt hotel. My windows looked straight down onto the hotel’s exclusive annex known as La Mansion. This restored, turn-of-the-century millionaire’s pile is a Louis XIII-like confection of marble, oak and chandeliers. The likes of Keith Richards and media magnate, the late Kerry Packer, used to stay there, and now it was Madonna’s turn. She occupied the entire top floor of the opulent three-storey Mansion in a suite costing $6,000 a night.

 

 

From my considerably cheaper room, I could look down on her bodyguards — blokes built like brick outhouses with bow ties — patrolling the gardens of La Mansion. Their main task was to repel sorties of gleeful, chanting, Argentinean teenyboppers. On Madonna’s top floor, the louvered French windows that opened onto a patio were sometimes left alluringly ajar, their gauzy curtains flicking in the evening breeze. Soft lighting glowed within the suite. Yes, I confess, I peeked. No — in three days I didn’t once glimpse the Immaterial Girl. However, late one night I saw someone stepping onto the balcony to drink in the night air. I strained for a better look. Was it her? Nah. Whoever it was looked closer to Kerry or Keef than Madonna.

 

There’s more to Buenos Aires than starlets, juntas and a steamy dance-step. This city of Belle Époque elegance and vast boulevards (its Avenue Ninth of July, 16 lanes wide, is the world’s widest city street) is like no other Latin capital, from the candy-coloured houses at Caminita to the centre’s grandiose edifices. The coffee is excellent, as are the coffee shops such as the famous Cafe Tortoni, founded in 1858 and once patronised by writers like Borges, Lorca and Pirandello. The 19th and early 20th century wealth — generated by the export of pampas beef, mutton and wheat — that created this New World melding of Paris, Rome and New York must have been astounding.

 

 

The steaks are as large as your place mat. The taxis are metered and the public buses are good, but the walking is even better. Which is what I did, letting the city’s vast, flat blocks crowd me with their memories. But, a sunlit city with the grumps, I thought at times. Porteños, the inhabitants of Buenos Aires, are said to be famously unhappy and to have two addictions, coffee and psychoanalysis. What’s the problem, I muse. A century ago, this was the eighth-richest country in the world. Its patrimony was then squandered by a string of venal generals and feckless politicians — sometimes one and the same person. Many of the capital’s sumptuous old buildings are now in pleading need of maintenance but, for a dilettante blow-in who is walking its streets, the flaking patina of their history rubs off, almost literally, on one’s elbows.

 

The first Spanish settlement here was established in 1536 on the banks of the Rio de La Plata — a name so much lovelier in Spanish than its lumpenprole English rendition, River Plate. The British attempted a takeover in 1807 and were booted straight back out, while the Spanish colonial masters received their own marching orders a few years later. By the turn of the 20th century, this was the largest city in Latin America, with massive immigration adding German, Welsh, Basque, Irish, Italian and English blood to that of the earlier Amerindians and Spaniards.

 

In the harbour suburb of Boca (where Maradona started his football career at Boca Juniors club) one old street has been reborn as a walk-through art galley. Closer to an alley than an avenue, Caminita is more notable for its buildings — multi-storeyed structures made of corrugated iron and painted like Rubik’s Cubes — than for its art. These days the latter is mostly kitsch imagery of zoot-suited dandies with pomaded hair and bedroom — if not bathroom — eyes, intensely entangoed, loin to loin, with slinky dames in slit skirts.

 

 

Nearby, in San Telmo district, the plazas, cobbled streets and outdoor cafes seems so European that this could be Italy in the 1950s or Franco’s Spain. One writer noted that ‘BA doesn’t look like Europe, it looks like a postcard of Europe.’ Downtown, the grand 1908 opera house, Theatre Colon, seems like it just drifted down a canal from Venice and ran aground in central BA. There’s no such whimsy attached to La Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace, from whose balcony Generalissimo Peron and his Eva once stirred the crowds with jingoist speeches. European echoes aside, BA remains unmistakably itself, with radio tangos trotting softly in the background and the walls splashed with a reprise of the perennial mantra, ‘Yankee Go Home.’ Today they shout, ‘Viva Evita! Fuera Madonna!’ — ‘Long live Evita! Get out Madonna!’

 

And then there are the Porteños. Almost 40 percent of Argentina’s 44 million people live in greater Buenos Aires. Beyond the grand edifices and touristic tango clubs, it is the Porteños who make the place real, give it its edge. ‘Personality’ here means the triumph of both substance and style: everywhere I see people with (for want of a more precise term) a defiant individualism, plus a glint in the eye. Blame (or thank) the coffee or the neuroses? Who cares? In all, a people greater than the sum of their clothing labels.

 

At an outdoor cafe in Recoleta on a crowded, sunny Sunday afternoon I catch a glimpse of who-gives-a-damn pleasure that is at once intensely private and public — the kind of thing you’d never see in other, more self-conscious capitals. A well-groomed, sixtyish woman wearing shorts sits with her bicycle propped nearby. A bottle of mineral water and a coffee half-consumed are on her table. Her tanned midriff is bare and her sneakered feet are up on a chair. A partly smoked cigarette lingers in one hand, and her eyes are closed in semi-ecstasy as the Buenos Aires sun pours down like benediction.

 

 

©2018 JOHN BORTHWICK

BEARING UP TO BERN by Glenn A. Baker

Bern bridge

The most memorable words spoken about Swiss timekeeping came from the great Orson Welles, high on a ferris wheel over Vienna, in the film, The Third Man: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Switzeland's ubiquitous cukoo clocks

He may not have been quite so dismissive of Swiss clocks had he been given, as I was, an escorted tour through the entrails of the Zytglogge (Clock Tower) in Bern, the Swiss capital – on the site of the 1191 City Gate. It has long been said that a good magician does not reveal his tricks but all is on display here.

More than 500 years old, it is the world’s oldest mechanical clock and needs to be wound daily. Crowds gather in the square beneath it to witness the cast of a gilded crowing rooster, a bell striker and ten dancing bears.

Bern's premier tourist draw

My travelling companion was reminded of the Martin Scorsese film, Hugo; about an orphan boy living in a Paris railway station, who was taught to fix clocks and other gadgetry by his father and uncle and uses those skills to keep to station’s clocks running on time.

The Germanic-leaning capital of Switzerland, which once played host to Albert Einstein (with a museum honouring his presence), Bern gives the impression of having been designed by an ancient predecessor of a Tourist Office. Compact and clean, with pure air, striking architecture, covered outdoor arcades, traditional shopping precincts and markets, and a swiftly flowing river which winds through the city, complete with bridges and high views.

Bern busker

In the cool evenings, the city square is filled with spacious open street restaurants and buskers (one of which is a puppeteer’s doll, seemingly skilled on the violin).

There is a chocolate-box quality to the place and, not surprisingly, there are chocolate emporiums aplently. Our favourite was Laderach, which offers a particularly delectable dark blend with strawberries and pink peppercorns.  There are cake bears at the other sweet shops – a local delicacy.

Bern's Einstein museum

Add that to the Bern motif, an enclosure of brown bears residing in a cage down by the river, and a large moulded beast straddling a wire across a nearby bridge by the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town, and you readily reach the conclusion that Bern is bear crazy.

In March, Bern’s version of “Carnival” takes place when a mythical bear imprisoned in the Prison Tower is woken from his winter sleep by the ychüblete (drumming) and released. Masked revellers brave the winter temperatures and swarm through the streets and restaurants (including the 350-year-old Klotzlikeler) of the Old Town. Guggenmusik-Cliques (bands of carnival musicians) make the six-kilometres route along Bern’s arcaded promenade vibrate with their wild rhythms and noisy percussive music.

Bern's intricate cathedral art

Though there is a Schnit International Short Film Festival with Bern as one of eight participating cities, a Bern “Grand Prix” where thousands run along “the ten most beautiful miles in the world”, a Buskers Festival, a world-famous jazz club (Marian’s Jazzroom), Christmas Markets on Bear’s Square and at Kambly, and a September Sichhlete Festival which combines a harvest, livestock and folk festivals, and the four-day Gurten Music Festival – reached only on a funicular called the Gurtenbahn – showcasing some 60 live acts of all contemporary genres – it needs be said that there is little of the French joie de vivre that one finds in, say, Geneva.

Though the citizenry is faultlessly helpful – particularly when it comes to negotiating the network of trams and buses which can take you beyond the immediate city limits – the smiles and banter one encounters are more likely to be from other visitors.  There is a certain general abandon, though, down by the river under Parliament House. The normal gleeful splashing in a pool is to be heard but the real attraction is the use of the Aare River as a means of rapid transport cum recreation.

Bern's tourists

The crisp and deep waters that sweep down from the Bernese Alps can take you a few hundreds metres or from one side of the city and out the other. There is no need for a canoe or kayak, just hurl yourself (perhaps with your possessions in a watertight pouch) into the torrent from one of the platforms and, when you wish to alight, strike out toward the shore, grab one of the steel bars protruding from a platform and drag yourself onto land.

A first attempt can be a little, let’s say, challenging and even a tad terrifying, but once you get the hang of it, it’s an almost addictive experience. On a busy day, there are quite literally hundreds of bobbing heads being swept past your eyeline. All looking rather joyful for the experience.

Bern river