Scandinavian Summer

It was not until I got to the Bristol Hotel at Oslo that I worked out that the best way to deal with fatigue and nausea after nearly forty hours travel through the spheres is not to try to force the food down or to keep drinking until you break the ennui barrier – because then you would just be setting up a new kind of pain barrier.  The recipe I stumbled on was to have three stiff Scotches and soda – spaced by an easy walk, – and then knock off a giant profiterole with a jug – a jug – of hot chocolate with cream on the side. Get the management to ring you at 8 the next morning, polish off three eggs with the works on you are on your way.

The Bristol Hotel resembles a gentlemen’s clubs in many ways.  The main bar and diner are shut over summer, but the club bar is open. It features leathers, lamps, books, and clubbiness.  Aspects of the architecture variously remind you of St James, St Petersburg, and Cairo – the Raj, even.  And that is as it should be for a city on the edge of Europe.  This is certainly my kind of boozer.

Oslo tends to be bland and unimaginative, more like a Stan than, say, Bendigo.  It seems to lack confidence.  Ibsen said as much when he left Norway.  There is not the same street dining, or even as much street coffee consumption.  Food and drink are brutally expensive.  The open sandwich is of course an art form, but decent wine is hard to get.  You don’t see those bottle shops or little newsstands that you find in other European cities.  You find it hard to know what country you are in.  Only the sea-gulls tell you that you are by the sea.  You don’t get those Mediterranean pastels they go in for up north so much in town.  Current buildings define the word uninspiring

The town does have redemption.  The people are civilised and polite.  All the Scandinavians belie their Viking ancestry.  There are Gypsy beggars but very little traffic.  Unless you are careful, eating and drinking will cost you an arm and a leg.  There are attractions for tourists about Munch and the Vigeland Sculpture Park.  Curiously enough, what caught my attention at the Gallery were two Russian icons, which reminded me of some of our black artists, and a Manet – the author as playwright.

There is an Ibsen museum where a guided tour is mandatory – testament to the hazardous discipline of that remote genius.  It is worth doing, to get an idea of the sets of his plays.  For a man who wanted to put a torpedo under the ark, and to undress the upper class of their pretensions, he had a remarkably anal attraction to rank and status, and an inclination to much younger women that makes his biographers skittish.  There is no doubt that he was a master playwright, a genius at composing dramas.  So was Shakespeare, but the explosive force of his poetry sometimes makes us forget that he was the world’s supreme dramatist and entertainer.  Could anyone improve on the drama of Richard II and Henry IV Parts I and II?  Certainly The Dolls’ House and Hedda Gabler are great dramas that have made an important contribution to the conversation of mankind.  But they are mostly confined within one class of one nation at one time, and they are quite without humour.

Stockholm is very different.  The best way to get there from Oslo is by train – but watch the taxis at the other end.  This is a city that obviously saw itself as power in Europe centuries ago that it is not now.  It can be imperious, imperial even, in a way that demure Oslo is not.  At times it reminded me of Vienna.  And the scourge of summer tourism is even worse.  As you walk along tessellated pavements, you seem to hear the sounds of horses trotting – it is just people trailing their cases.  They are everywhere.

Some things hit you straight away.  You need to be very careful with cab drivers.  One crook wanted to charge me $50 for a distance I knew was within two k’s.  (I have just booked a fixed price cab for the airport 40 k’s away at $65.)  The old architecture is as grand as the new is deflating.  There is much more traffic here than in Oslo but nothing like that in major European capitals.  I am fascinated by the trouble people take in selecting their beers – women and men.  They go to far more trouble than we do with wine and the waiters and waitresses are used to being cross-examined.

I’m damned if I know how Hitler expected to improve on the Vikings genetically, because there are a lot of seriously good looking people here.  Yet for some reason, I keep coming across people of all ages with something odd about their gait – even just splayed feet.  Well, that may serve me right for descending to types.

The city is favoured by inlets and lakes, great green areas, rock faces, and those hideous monstrosities called cruise ships.  If I got herded on to one, I think I would be taking a header before we reached the Baltic.

There are parts that remind you of Berlin, Amsterdam, Melbourne, New York, Hong Kong, and Istanbul.  The hop-on hop-off bus here is a good deal because there is a wide are to cover.  You could walk around the main parts of Oslo in an hour or so.

I’m staying at Frey’s which is a very personable and quirky hotel, as centrally situated as the Bristol, and with a good bar and restaurant – a man behind the desk said that Oslo was twice the price for food.  Last night I bought a bottle of Koonunga Hill at a bottle shop for about what I would pay at the Malmsbury boozer.  At the Bristol, an indifferent French red was $20 a glass.

Well, these people are at peace with the world, in ways that would violate the conscience of Ted Cruz, and someone has to pay for it.  You can say that for all Scandinavians – they are very easy to deal with.

The highlight of my trip to Scandinavia was my visit to the statue of Jussi Bjorling behind the opera house at Stockholm.

As I waited for the cab to the airport, I spoke to the Night Manager at Frey’s.  He says that people in Sweden talk of little except migration and Islam.  It has become very clear to me recently that educated people have underestimated the anxiety of those who are not so well off on those subjects.  The man from Ghana who drove me from Heathrow to King’s Cross told me that he had voted for Brexit because those bloody migrants had taken his job.  He was presumably speaking of white migrants.

The following day, I moved to Cambridge where events led me to post the following.

Cambridge –a big night out

It was like a Breughel painting.  A graphic Hades. 

The last time I came to Cambridge for one of these summer schools, people were invited to arrive on the Sunday, since courses start at 9 am on Monday, and some bastard forgot to open the bar.  There was ill feeling.  There was serious ill feeling, and some very rude remarks about the English. 

Today, Sunday evening, I was assured by the porter at Selwyn College that the bar would be open at 6 pm.  A Presbyterian sense of determinism led me to the off licence to buy some insurance. 

Sure enough, as I got near the bar at the appointed time, the porter told me that the bar would not be open tonight.  She suggested that I show for dinner at half six.  I repaired to my room and consoled myself with the insurance of the bottle shop.  I was annoyed.  One of the reasons I have gone to Oxford and Cambridge – the choice of tense is not accidental – was to enjoy the company of people who know they have a lot to learn.  I have done about half of a dozen at each, and I know something of what is on offer.

So, at half six, I approached the appointed place at the college hall not expecting grace in Latin, or at all, as I used to get at Maddingley Hall, but a reasonable meal with reasonable wine in good company.  My heart miss-gave as I heard a racket emerging from the hall.  I could recall eating in the hall.  It is one of those stately halls garbed in timber, but it has some modern portraits of people who look frankly fascist, and a column embraced proscenium where you think some impeccably dressed white gentleman might do something unfortunate to a goat.  Tonight the hall could have hosted a pregame function for Man-U.

It was choc-full, like a footy crowd, with cafeteria service.  Start with the pudding, Dear, then choose between ravioli and roast chicken, and you can add chips, and one of those little bottles of sham red with little round glasses that you used to get on TAA in the fifties.  Which you pay extra for – remember, Ducky, the bar’s shut. 

I bore my tray to a spot where I spied some room for my plate, and wine, as unworthy as they both were, and I sat down.  When one of a group of aquiline matrons told me that there was no cutlery in my spot.  I recall now it was the end of the table.  I was – really – minded to ask whether she had adored Jefferson to utter such a self-evident truth, but I was morbidly preoccupied by wondering whether the excision under her bottom lip had been transposed to the top of the nose.  Before she moved away – not without ostentation – she told me that that since I had been to Cambridge before, she might tell me that people had previously been seated in the hall by reference to their standing, or words to that effect, but that that rule had been recently relaxed.  She just wanted me to know that I was in a state of grace.  But that I should know better.

I fled.

Now, this kind of balls-up happens.  And we chuckle about it after a few drinks, and we try to put the outrage to good use.  That which does not kill us makes us better, some say. 

The whole overturn now going on in the West refutes that silly saying.  As does the decline and fall of the Roman Empire – or anybody that whose time is up.

This balls-up at Selwyn College was an outrage – the insolence of office.  And it is a terrible symptom of our times.  People who should know better are just failing us – and the revenge of the losers looks frightful.  If this kind of insult can be put on us at Selwyn College, Cambridge, what hope have we? 

My late father – God bless him – told me that he was used to being insulted, but that he preferred to be insulted by experts.  Tonight I learned again what Mac meant.

The two courses taught at Oxford were first class – John Milton and the French Revolution by David Smith and The French Revolution by Dr Sean Lang.  These people really teach – a novelty for me at a university.  The plenary lectures were also good.

You can usually tell when you arrive at a command economy – you keep running into people, mainly men, who appear to hold some position but have nothing to do.  You see it in China, Turkey, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and now Vietnam.  (It is the direct opposite of what you get in the U S, and its most toxic form could be seen in the USSR.)

But there is something different about Saigon, or Ho Chi Min City.  This is more like the old smelly, squalid Asia of Singapore 60 years ago or Hong Kong 40 years ago or Bangkok twenty years ago.  Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo are too big and shiny for us now, western footprints on the Asian littoral, and New Delhi and Calcutta are too in-your-face for us.  At least Saigon feels Asian, although I have not seen anything like a red light area.  Perhaps that is just as well, the local ladies are quite happy to look you straight in the eye.

You can also see the French influence, especially at my hotel, The Majestic.  This nation may be the one former French colony that is not a smoking ruin.  Its government is locked in a freezer, but the nation looks content.

Endless rivers of scooters wave trustfully up and down beside a yet wider river in a way that bespeaks trust.  The traffic is not nearly as loud or angry as that of Paris or Rome.  Every time you go on the road you experience the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea.  You can be drifting along in a line abreast at about 45 k’s when two or three will come at you at 45 degrees and no one bats an eyelid.

There are women of angular elegance who know how to show it; a lot of men appear to be employed by ‘security.’  Although you receive offers of lifts, there is little evidence of caste and not the poverty on the streets you get in Scandinavia.  Perhaps the government does some things right.

The Bristol and Frey’s were three to four star hotels with plenty of local personality.  You could say the same for the Majestic in Saigon.  It was French inspired; it is not as grand as the old Raffles in Singapore or the Peninsula at Hong Kong – it is more like the Imperial at Tokyo, and with a charm of its own as well.  The girls are determinedly pretty in their black and gold and the boys are determined to show savoir faire.  And there are plenty of both – although I saw nothing louche.

The roof top bar is a favourite – even if over the river might remind you of Coode Island on a bad day.  As I said, we are in old Asia – a land of Smiley’s people.  It is the kind of place where a solitary person like me can get lachrymose.  I did twice.  On the second night, a Japanese lady turned up with her eight year old son for dinner.  When they took cocktails, they reminded me of the Japanese ladies who took their kids to the Imperial for brunch – they touched glasses.

Courtesy is what separates us from guerillas – and people like Trump and Corbyn – and I still get stirred get stirred up when I see it somewhere I don’t know people.

I suspect that this might be my last big trip – God only knows my run has been good enough, but I feel now I’ve had enough.  Going over there from here is punishing, too punishing for me now.

But this notion of courtesy being passed on is a good way to finish.  When I called for my chit, and said that I would add the tip to the account for my room- as I had done the night before – the main waiter – who had allowed me to retire both the bottle and the glass to my room the night before – said that this was impossible.  I then wrestled with the absurd local currency (16000:1) to give to him – and the very nice man who had looked after me that night – a cash tip – and he said that I was offering far too much.

The people of Vietnam certainly look content enough.  They are convivial and communal; they share food on street corners, they play dice on stools or sit demurely in their skirts and flatties on their scooters, they look to be at peace in their own skins and with the world.  And then you come across an old lady in a coolie hat put-putting her way through the traffic on an absurdly overloaded Vespa.

I doubt if I have seen so many people so obviously content.  Is perhaps the only flaw a strain of obedience?  Is it, indeed, a flaw?

New Book

I have just put on Amazon a new book.  Its title is:

Summers in Oxford and Cambridge and Elsewhere

A traveller’s reflections on history and philosophy – and place

The Foreword says:

This book is a collection of memoires or essays that were written in the course of travels to Oxford or Cambridge or both to attend summer schools.  There is a note on the philosophy of religion and a note on Cromwell, but otherwise the notes consist of anecdotes and reflections more on the places visited and the people I met there than on the subjects that were taught.

I am fortunate to have been able to make these excursions, and I hope that others may be encouraged to do the same.

The contents are:










The first essay starts this way:

There is something Italianate about the Prague Symphony of Mozart.  There is a lyrical throwaway line at the end of the second theme in the first movement; it is one of those wanton indulgences that remind you of Shakespeare.  Then there is an exuberant trilling in the last movement, the kind of village band feeling that you get with Verdi.  We are looking at Mitteleuropa, but with an Italian edge.  You might call it ‘Praguish’.

Well, Prague, like St Petersburg, does have an Italian feel.  The architects dressed each in lush Mediterranean colours.  Both cities love yellow.  I was standing on the hill under the castle – where they shot a lot of that great film on Mozart, Amadeus – staring at a yellow church and trying to pretend not to be listening to a guide informing her squad.  I was listening – she was very good – and it took a while for it to sink in that I was reading a tablet on the church that said: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc saxum, meam ecclesiam aedificandam.  (I do not vouch for the Latin.  ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I shall build my church.’)  The beginning of the Catholic Hour that I listened to on 3AW every Sunday Night!  At 9pm – to hear the Trumpet Voluntary.   Except, as I recall, those modernist revisionists used English, not Latin. (That would not do for Madingley Hall, Cambridge.)

Prague came back to me recently at Oxford.  There was a thirty – something German lady there whom I had met before.  I shall call her Charlotte.  She has what might fairly be called firm views.  She is not what you might call Praguish.  She was struck dumb by my ‘Smash the Monarchy’ T-shirt – how preposterously non-Lutheran!

I said to Charlotte that Berlin was my favourite city in the world.  She replied that Berlin has good points and bad points.  This was an unusually catholic and embracing response from Charlotte.   I therefore thought that I would honour it with an anecdote.  ‘When I left Prague, I hired a car to…’  Half-way into the sentence, I realized that I was committed to a faux pas of John Cleese proportions.  ‘…take me to Lidice, the little town wiped out by the German SS as a reprisal for the killing of Reinhardt Heydrich.’  It was one of those in for a shilling, in for a pound moments.  You just keep going and focus on keeping a straight face.  Charlotte did not blanch, but for a split second gave me one of her trade mark steely, glassy stares, above her tailored slacks and French shoes, and off the shoulder cashmere.

Later that week, I was in a discussion with Charlotte and others about the dangers or uselessness of philosophy.  Some death wish led me to say that an English writer named Grayling had said that the Allied bombing of German cities was wrong – and that some pilots should have refused to fly.  I regard that proposition to be as insane as it is offensive.  Charlotte thought it to be self-evidently true.  She said one English pilot had refused to fly over Dresden.  I doubt whether that is so – he could have been shot – but I bailed out.

It would have been idle to ask how many German pilots refused to fly over London or Coventry; it would have been insane to ask how many of the Schutzpolitzei at Lidice refused to take part in the murder of the men, the rape or enslavement of the women, or the enforced adoption of Aryan looking Czech children.  The one thing that I am sure of is that no one in occupied Europe was complaining that the British or American air forces were being too hard on the Germans.  You only hear that nonsense from unemployable philosophers who have never held down a real job, much less have been in a real war, but who have been breast fed on pure bullshit.

The point of my Lidice anecdote about good and bad in a city was a good one.  I had both a driver and a guide – it was just after the Wall had come down.  As we were driving out, I said to my most charming female guide that ‘You have a beautiful city here in Prague – a real chocolate box city.’ She looked at me wanly and said: ‘You can say that because you have not been to the industrial estates where the skin-heads kill the gypsies.’  She said it almost philosophically; she was evidently far more intelligent than A C Grayling.  But she was worried about the tensions developing – again – between Czechs and Germans, and by the time we got out at Lidice, she was, I thought, a little stressed. 

From Lidice, we went to the airport, from where I flew to Budapest.  I have three abiding memories of that old city.  I saw a great performance of a ballet of Anna Karenin to the music of Tchaikovsky’s fifth and sixth symphonies in the opera house.  I went to the baths and did not know whether to worry more about my wallet or my person.  On the morning I left, I felt intimations of the trots – of which I have a holy terror when flying.  At the head of a reasonable queue in my hotel, I told a smart middle aged female Hungarian concierge of my problem and then sought her assurance that the tablet that she smartly produced was of the stop, not the go variety.  I told her I was in the hands of her and God, and I swallowed it.  As the bus neared the airport, I felt that comforting, settling feeling.

It was a beautiful sunny day as we flew up low along the Thames and up to the west end. I could just about point out the Cavalry and Guards Club over Piccadilly from Green Park.  You feel like tapping the pilot on the shoulder: ‘If you could put me down here, Sportsman, it would save a lot of buggerizing around on the ground.’

When I got to the Cavalry and Guards Club, about three hours later, Peter, the porter, was on his own, shirt open, braces, and toast on.  You can fire cannon through these places on the weekend.   I had known Peter for years and I was very fond of him.  He was at peace this day. David Gower was in, and batting beautifully.  I got my key and lugged   the bag up to the single quarters on the third floor.  Window on to Piccadilly; dunny 10 yards one way; bath – no shower – 10 yards the other way. 

After a decent interval, I went back to see if there was a room free in the married quarters – where there are showers.  But the mood was very different. The toast has burnt, and Gower was out, the weak bastard!  I asked Peter about the married quarters.  He gave me a very pained look and said ‘You don’t want to change rooms already, do you?’  Well, shit, of course not.  The very idea was ridiculous. I sloped off to the RAF Club just up the road for a couple of heart starters and a meal in the Buttery.

Some few visits later, I made a different faux pas. I went down to the front desk. There was a figure in the gloom.  I said I was looking for Peter, but as he came into the light, I saw that it was he.  He was dying.  It was very sad.  As I left, he shook my hand firmly, for the last time, as we both knew.

The last note commences:

At breakfast on Saturday at Cambridge, an elderly German lady from my class gave me a big smile and asked me if I had ‘settled down yet’.  A very urbane English man also gave me a big smile, but when I asked if we should go easy on the bastards, he said that I would be betraying our birthright.  The plural was not royal.

The course was on how to settle wars, but the title was worryingly verbose.  I was having a drink before dinner with the Post-Modernist Post-Colonial Lit In Crowd of Studies in Advanced Victimhood With Honours and I was happy to be rescued by someone saying that he was there for war and peace.  (I read in my notebook that someone said that modernism was like playing tennis with the net down.)  This rather mournful soul was one of the two advertised tutors.  He looked like a Shropshire vicar, but he would have to do. 

Then I met his mate.  Fat, bearded, and wild eyed.  The Naval Buddha.  With a naval emblem on a navy jacket.  Dead set dangerous at any rate of knots.  Not the least troubling part of a very wordy c. v. were the words ‘Doctor’ and ‘Professor’ sliding in and out with no mention of any primary degree – they hang people, or shoot them, for that in Germany.  I doubt whether either of our heroes had worn a uniform, but they had taught those who do.  That is not an enticing recipe – in Oz, it has been an outright disaster.

Wait – the Naval Buddha was a petrol head.  There might be hope.  But no – when I mentioned my admiration for Michael Schumacher, the Naval Buddha permitted himself one of those vesuvial effusions for which he would become justly infamous in the upcoming bunfight.  ‘Michael Schumacher never won a race unless he cheated.’  This remark is a silly as it is false, but the N B, like the Famous Bluebottle, paused for applause.  But what if he had been addressing someone who admires Schumacher – and he was – what would that say for his taste and judgment?  In the appalling argot of our time, what might that do for the brand of his then employer?

So, I took a stiff pull of my Spanish red, and thought I might mention the course.  I said how much I admired Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace for both intellect and courage.  The tutors exchanged long, sad, knowing looks, and said that it had caused ‘endless trouble.’  Why?  Because it had helped the Germans say that they had been hardly done by.  Oh my God – might this just have been the case? 

Not palely loitering, I trudged alone to dinner and the Latin grace, firmly grasping my bottle of Spanish red, with a sickening awareness that this would be a course like those in Peace studies, or African studies, or Feminism – or any bloody ‘ism’ – pure, pure bullshit, something close to intellectual fraud.  Opening up universities that we are pleased to call iconic to the unwashed is bonzer.  Retailing bullshit is not.

There were only five in the class.  There was the very worldly and bright Englishman.  There was the German lady who had lived through the war and knew more about the subject than any library.  Her companion was not far behind her.  And then there was the English lady in her nineties.  In my very fond experience, they do not say much, but they can be deadly. 

You can make many mistakes teaching adults.  The worst is to underestimate and then insult your class.  The Naval Buddha did both, in spades, and what followed was what John Milton coined Pandemonium.  The subject was the change in the character of warfare in the nineteenth century (without any reference to the Grande Armee, which to me is a bit like discussing the Fall without mentioning Eden).  If you are suspicious of large claims, you are not relieved to hear them introduced by references to ‘socialization’.  If you were about to be slaughtered at Balaclava, would it have helped to reflect that you were being socialized? 

I did not ask what the word meant for fear of being landed on the rim of an infinite regress, but my English colleague did ask, and he persisted.  Within five minutes, it was a free for all shitfight on the very sensitive political subjects of Iraq and Afghanistan – and open season on one former English PM (who is almost as unpopular as Mrs T.).  It was not edifying.  I enjoy a good shitfight but I object to paying for one.  At one stage the polite aging German lady said to the N B ‘If you believe that, you are living in Wonderland.’  My astute English colleague was most enlightening – he had friends who had flown combat missions in these appalling wars, and he spoke with evident feeling commanding intellectual respect on these issues.

The two tutors looked very bruised the next morning.  They changed their route of campaign.  The N B would read a paper.  There would be no questions or comment until he was finished and then only through the chair.  We had been gagged.  Still we bore up with it manfully, and politely. 

Out tutors told us we should be grateful for opinion polls.  Saying this to an Australian is like asking the Holy Father to hand out condoms during Mass.  Elections have become a boring sideshow.  What counts are polls taken by clever, rich, unattractive parasites on the basis of which a junta of Mafia dons posing as factional leaders and newspaper editors choreograph political assassinations which lead to the promotion of even worse bastards than we had before.  Then one tutor said that at least they – polls – were better indicators than cab drivers.  If we speak of London or Berlin cab drivers, this remark is a sad reflection on the dangers of faux science.

Then Keynes came up.  I know nothing of the Black Magic that we call Economics, but my admiration for Keynes as a man is almost unlimited, and as a mind I would mention him with Newton, Darwin, and Einstein.  I may of course be wrong, whatever that means, but I have deeply considered convictions about Keynes and Versailles.  Keynes had at least two things in common with Dietrich Bonhoeffer – he was part of the noblesse oblige by birth and instinct; he lent honour to that awful word patriot. 

The Shropshire vicar then ventured the private view that Keynes had been a ‘bit of a clot.’  This was at a university that Keynes had served with utter fidelity for his entire adult life, as he had his school and his nation.  I have a nightmare vision of the N B saying that the main problem with the Treaty of Versailles was that it was not hard enough on the Germans.

In the book that I have mentioned, Keynes shirtfronted his own government with infinite courage, and he said two things.  Versailles would break and bankrupt Germany.  Their revenge would make the first war look like a cakewalk.  Each prophecy was fulfilled to the letter, and more than forty million dead witnesses would offer mute testimony to our inability to see it.  And there is a cemetery of eerie beauty to American airmen just around the corner from Madingley Hall. 

I try not to get offended – it is in truth a weasel word – unless I should be, and this was one of those times.  I was deeply offended.  In some rootless, obscure way, I was offended in my sense of scholarship, and I am revolted by personal disloyalty.

Still, we kept our calm.  The N B referred to his next posting and said that as part of the deal he had donated his library to the institution.  And then our nonagenarian colleague spake, I think for the second time.  It was like a blue-tongued lizard on a smouldering hot rock at Onkaparinga:  ‘Do you mean a bribe?’  Zap!  You’re dead, Sport.  Bliss.  The rest of us crossed ourselves movelessly, as I contemplated my white-lied escape to Oxford at lunchtime, and my happy deflowering at the hands of British rail tellers.

Throughout all this madness, two lines kept coming back to me out of nowhere.  One was the remark of an Australian at Gallipoli: ‘Tonight we lost our amateur status.’  The other was a remark by an American journalist to lawyers at a Washington lunch in 1984: ‘Welcome to Washington, where you and the cab driver are seeing the city for the first time.’


I commend the book.

Up your north Part 5


There is bugger-all at Fitzroy Crossing, and even less at Halls Creek, about 280 ks away.  The River Lodge does however offer good bar and dining service under the stars.  I had been waited on by two very attractive young women, one from Brittany, and one from Montpellier.  (If you were into French more than me, you could brush up on it on a trip like this.)  After dinner, I had sat behind a number of blackfellas sitting in a semi-circle in the bar watching Port Adelaide beat Hawthorn.  They obviously barracked for the former, but I could not understand what they were saying.  I do not recall seeing any drinking between the races.

The road to Halls Creek is dead flat and boring.  Halls Creek itself is a very, very depressing place.  The only alcohol you can get there is light beer.  Asians were running the servo – very well; one rushed to get a Band-Aid when she saw I was bleeding – but the black people look very down and out, and the white people do not look much livelier.  It is the kind of place you just want to get out of.  I would meet others who had the same sad impression.

It is a further 120 ks to the Bungle Bungles turn off and then a notorious 53 ks of bone shaking and water hazard before you get to the Park Information Office, and then about a further 27ks to the famous beehive domes.  The day might only cover 453ks, but it was always going to be a lot harder than just that.  My booking agent at the Kununurra Visitors’ Centre, Florence (a fictitious name), had warned me that the last 53ks might take almost as long as the previous 400.  That was an overstatement – one of a number from that source, I was to find – but this was clearly going to be my longest day.  You bloody bet it was.  In bloody spades, mate.

There is gate across the road just off the highway and before you get to the caravan park there.  A guy was coming out.  As he got to me, he wound down his windows and said: ‘Do you see that guy behind me in the read cap?’  ‘Yep.’  ‘It will cost you $5 just for him to shut the gate.’  We laughed, but I still asked the man in the cap where I checked in.

How would I bloody well know?

Ask your mate behind the wheel – if he waits for you.

So, I entered the Bungles in high spirits, the highlight of my quest, the grail if you like.  After about ninety minutes of punishment I let out a shout of triumph when I passed the National Park Gate and arrived at the Information Office at about noon on the Saturday.

Office shut.  Unmanned.  Complex instructions on how to calculate fees.  No credit card facility for payment.  No change.  Just calculate the fee – I thought it was $50 for my two nights but I may have been wrong – and I put $50 in the envelope, and sought to display the evidence as instructed.  The complex instructions were only in English.  Put to one side the pay as you go issue.  This is supposed to be a World Heritage site and here we are behaving like hicks to tourists that we seek to attract.  You would not this inane rudeness at Iguazzu or the Grand Canyon.

Then I started to get a sullen premonition.  Why was there no sign for the soft accommodation that Florence had booked for me inside the National Park?  My paper spoke of ‘a tourist park.’  It may have been under canvas but it was en suite and with meals and a bar.  I drove about 7ks to the nearest camp ground and found a bloke in a tent who had been living there for some time.  He said that there was such accommodation about 30ks down the road but that there was no caravan park in the National Park itself.

Does that mean that my place is back near the highway.

Looks like it, cobber.

And I have just done those 53ks plus for nothing?

Looks like it.

And now I have to go back.

They’ll be booked out down the road.

Well, well, well.

Or Anglo-Saxon terms to that effect, with unchristian thoughts about Florence.  This was a major bugger-up, not perhaps without some contribution from me for not checking that the accommodation procured came within my written instructions. But at least I would get a beer when I made it back to join the people I may have looked down upon on my way in.

I retraced the 53ks and five water hazards, dangerously more quickly.  There was one notorious stretch of corrugation where I found it was better to boost the engine a little to achieve a kind of skating effect, but I was told later that this damages the vehicle, and you have to be very careful to cut back as soon as the surface changes.  I noticed a few drivers coming in looking like grim death.

I got back to the caravan park just before 2 pm, and, yes, I was booked in there.  So the South African lady who could have worn number 8 for the Storm told me.  She and a French guy with a beard from Brittany – I have forgotten his name, but a very nice guy – were attending to my needs as I informed them of a little misunderstanding  – un petit faux pas – with Florence.  The conversation went something like this.

Am I too late for lunch?

We don’t do lunch.

Well, it will be a slap-up dinner.  With a bloody good red.  It has been a bad day.

You will have to bring your own.

Why’s that?

We have no licence.

[After another reference to Florence] Where’s the next bottle shop?

180ks up the road mate.

[I remember that nice French guy saying that with just a hint of a glint in his eye.]

Well, well, well.

Unless you want beer.  That’s only 120ks south.  But I suppose that you have just come up from there.

And they only sell light beer.

Dinner’s at 6pm.  Do you have any allergies?

No, why?

There is only one meal – pea soup and beef stew.


Here is the combination to the lock on the zip on your tent.  There is no power, but there is a light.

I take it that means there is no air-con.

Silly me.  It was in danger of becoming a killing field of great expectations, and I started to giggle.  But it took me about ten minutes to unlock the zip, and when I got inside it was about five degrees warmer than outside, which was north of 30.  I had half a bottle of red, but can you imagine what it was like after about three hours on that road in that heat.

The first thing to do was to cancel the second night.  When I went back to the HQ to deal with the South African lady about a refund for the second night and also to inquire about a helicopter flight, I met a guy called Bernard.  Hearing my helicopter inquiry, he offered me his wife’s seat on a flight at 3pm.  It was an hour’s flight, and I said I only needed 30 minutes (which should be true for everyone – you can see a lot in 30 minutes).  I gather that Bernard’s wife, whom I later met, had gone off flying in helicopters, which is understandable, and that unless a third passenger could be found, the price for the other two would be excessive.  I said to the South African Storm number 8 that if she assured me that I would get a refund of my second night – I had paid up front for this deluxe accommodation in the middle of nowhere – I would take the 3pm flight.  The deal was struck.  Everyone seemed happy.  I could salvage something from the day – apart from experience, and some lines to dine out on.   The Storm number 8 even made a little joke.

A little later an Italian lady from north of Milan weighed me in for the changed manifest that I was to give to the pilot, Ben.  Bernie and I allowed Deirdre to sit in the front and Ben strapped us in the back.

We all had a wow of a time.  Ben’s commentary was to the point, and we could ask questions over the intercom.  We went over a lot of cattle country where they muster by helicopter.  These flights, which I have taken at some of the world’s great sights, are expensive but worth every cent.  Apart from the wow, you get to grips with scale and history.

Bernie thought my day had been hilarious – so did I – and thought that I would be carrying all of the white man’s burden for a full twenty-four hours.  In sympathy, he invited me back to his base for a beer.  He was travelling in a 4WD bus group of ten with two driver/guides and sleeping under canvass at each stop.  I met a few of the group who said that the guides were terrific.  They all looked very content around the evening fire, although I may have blanched at the 5.30 start the next morning.  Here was an option for people who do not mind sleeping under canvas and sharing communal facilities.  I have done some of that up there, but, as I made clear to Florence, those days are behind me.

At dinner – 6 pm sharp! – I spoke to a few caravaners and picked up some of their lore.  They clearly have a sense of community and purpose, and I suspect that they get a better social life than people who travel like me – or in a big bus.  A guy at dinner, who came from England, shared a bottle of red at the table, and when I got back to my still hot tent to finish off the shattered remains of my red stock, I could not find a glass.  Perhaps this was because there was a sign saying that I should not drink the water unless I boiled it – but there was nothing to boil it with.  Nor was there power.  I went to the vans and borrowed a glass and had a couple with a convivial group there – who thought it was rich that I had not even been given a glass.

Up Your North Parts III and IV


I am writing this at 3pm in Derby on the coast of Western Australia.  Two guys have just come into the Derby Lodge Motel – an old fashioned motel that is quite adequate for the traveller, with the communal barbecue – lugging a slab on one shoulder and a bagful of shopping in the other hand, and giggling, happily.

You guys sound happy in the service.

We soon bloody well will be, mate.

That sounded like a sensible positive attitude to getting Mozart and Liszt.  I heard them offering my host a beer.

What sort have you got, fellers?

Just about every colour under the sun, mate.

Well, there is no point in getting full just to get unhappy or nasty.

Derby is a more blokey, laid back kind of place, with a few degrees of social separation from the more upmarket Broome, where you half expect to pass a Porsche at any corner.  It is only about 210 ks from Broome, but the atmosphere is less confected.

As at Broome, there is a very good café on the wharf that Frank had recommended.  The food was good – but it was BYO.  This might be a symptom of the difference in the two towns, and I have no doubt that they might get choosey about who brings what in.  I was to find that liquor restrictions vary greatly all along the way.  In Broome, I had asked a copper what time the bottle shops opened – he gave me his best cheesy smile, and said noon.  I said that I could probably make it to then, and that I would not leave town on that count alone.  I would say that if you want to be a walloper up there, it would help if you had a sense of humour.  The same would go for being in hospitality.  Running a boozer would be a more trying task.  You would require a high degree of mental and physical fibre.  A very high degree.  Not of the type you collect at university or the city.

Also at Frank’s suggestion, I visited a gallery just outside Derby that belonged to the local indigenous community and specialised in Wanjina paintings that come from this region.  I have one at home, a very good one.  There is that eerie round face with a kind of striated halo that might remind you of a Russian icon or a figure of Giotto – they have black eyes and no mouths.  They partake of what some call primitive art.  The gallery is on a reservation that has a sign saying no fighting or drinking.  There is a wide range of work as you might expect, and I thought some of it flirted with the Wanjina image, which I had thought was closely guarded.  A lot of the work looked a little pricey to me, not least when the secondary market in the South is very soft.  Still, I was able to buy two small Wanjina paintings for my daughters at a very good price.  Not the least of their charm was that they were painted by children, girls aged about nine and fourteen.  I even got a photographic certification of authenticity, although without a photo of the artist.

That morning, I had picked up a backpacker from Prague, a very pleasant and bright young man.  We discussed hitching here and in Europe – he had not done it there and it was nearly fifty years since I had.  I was learning that backpackers supply a lot of the labour in the tourist industry out there – indeed, almost all of it right up the road.  I was coming to terms again with how ridiculously long are the lines of straight road out there as we swapped travel stories.  He was about my age when I hitch-hiked around Europe, and I fancied that he was getting as much out of his travels as I did from mine.  I had the sense that he was acquiring knowledge as we spoke.

I recalled my one visit to Prague, a city in love with Mozart.  I had hired a car and a guide to take me to the airport and then on to a little town called Lidice, which the Germans had wiped out in reprisals for the assassination of that swine Heydrich.  I told the guide that Prague was a chocolate box city.  ‘Yes – but you have not been out to the industrial estates where the skinheads are killing the gypsies.’  I wondered whether we were showing our underbelly out here.

At the rather too snappy boozer over the road from the motel, I recognised another guest.  Dick was my age, but full of interest.  Tall, skinny, long-haired with a beard and a soft voice, Dick was a bird-watcher, and a very serious one.  He lives in Newcastle but spends a lot of time in the never never.  He has surely seen more of Oz than most – the Simpson Desert, the Canning Stock Route and other deserts and parts far too remote for me.  He certainly knows a lot about 4WD travel and I was keen to learn.  At one time in high grass country, Dick was seated on the bonnet to indicate to the driver which way the track ahead went.  That should satisfy most definitions of ‘off-road.’

We discussed how bird-watchers had to learn to hear as well as see.  Old Jack had taught me this.  Dick had hired a little Hyundai for a couple of days to get out of town a bit in search of one particular bird.  Dick is a Subaru fanatic, and he explained how those kinds of vehicles worked – he said that mine should go better in this country because it was higher.  That made me feel better.  Then he congratulated me on doing it on my own.  That made me feel worse.  But then I asked him what was the point of having someone sitting beside me if – putting to one side altogether issues of sex – that person was as mechanically deprived and physically frail as me?  My only strong suit – navigation, even on compass and contours and ordinance maps – was not an issue, and the only time you might get use out of a GPS was in the bigger towns.

Dick explained to me that what I had been told were eagles around Broome were ospreys, and that I should look out for Peregrine Falcons at Winjana Gorge.  They perch on the summit, and I think he said that when they dive, they are as fast as anything else on earth.

Dick was leaving early the next morning – on the tide! – on a catamaran to go up the coast.  There were to be ten on board for ten nights.  They would dine on board but sleep ashore under canvas.  It was fearfully expensive – I think $8K – but I could understand its appeal – especially for bird-lovers, and Dick was on a quest for one rare bird.  I hope he found it.  I have not met that many bird-lovers, but I have not met a bad one.  They look to me to be people at peace with themselves and the world.  It might be a useful indicator of character – how do I think that person might go as a bird-watcher?

Wherever you travel around the world, there is – obviously – always something more to come, something else to discover and come to grips with.  I felt this all the time when I first travelled around Europe and the centre of Australia.  This conversation with Dick, and the young man from Prague, reminded me what it is to be keen to learn.  Both those men were good sharers.

When I walked into the bottle shop a little earlier, a blackfella was trying to buy a bottle of plonk.  He was asked politely to show his car keys, but he had none, so the sale was declined.  I had seen signs to this effect in a grog shop in Broome, and I was getting to the parts where, like in at least parts of Nevada and Arizona you either pay up front for petrol or leave your licence before the pump is activated.  Although the conversation was as polite as it was short, the lack of comprehension at either end was clear.  A lot of them do not understand us, and not many of us understand them.


From Derby (pronounced durby) it is about 270ks to Fitzroy Crossing if you go via Winjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek, and you go into Geicke Gorge.  Only about 100 of that is sealed.  The parts of the Gibb River Road and the tourist road that you go on are tricky and bone-shaking – and car-wrecking.  This was one of the three parts of the trip where I needed the best kind of 4WD under me.  There is about four to five hours driving, but a lot of it calls for maximum concentration, and by the end you are ready for beer – and a massage.

When they say Slow Down, it is a good idea to do just that.  There was a big sign to that effect in the door of the Tourist Information Office at Derby.  I read that sign carefully, but I still came off some bitumen a bit too fast in one area, and nearly lost the vehicle.  I could remember having covered a lot of this territory before in a 4WD people-carrier driven by a woman, a professional guide, who impressed with the great care and patience that she took to modulate her speed.  She slowed right down for dips and changes of surface or gradient, and rarely increased her speed where I, being ignorant, would have thought that it was safe to do so – and she was not frightened to floor it on bitumen.

The signs at both ends of my route said that the roads were ‘open to all vehicles.’  I would not have tried it unless I had at least an AWD, and I cannot recall seeing any orthodox 2WD.  I used 4WD for all the unsealed part, but only had to engage, or thought I should engage, the Low 4WD once.  I only had to traverse one deep floodway.  I would never have attempted it with an orthodox vehicle, and I would have been even more nervous in a vehicle that was not as high as mine, or that did not have the snorkel to allow the vehicle to breathe under water – and I saw plenty of them on the route.

There are different types of terrain, and about four different types of road surface.  You have to be careful to adjust to the change.  The snaky parts have dusty spikes.  You can lose it across those, or in the dips.

Another reason for caution is that speed increases the risk of blowing tyres.  I would have great difficulty changing a tyre on this vehicle.  The spare wheel and tyre looks very heavy.  And they had sent me out in a vehicle that had lost its instruction manual.  I had by then also discovered that the reserve tank was dry.  When I had checked it, it had taken $55 of diesel in the reserve tank.  It must have been bone dry.  In this country, that could be manslaughter.  And later on the road, I would meet a guy with his wife who had blown two tyres on one trip to Jim Jim Falls.

In the course of the morning – I left early with Dick to try to beat the heat – I did not pass much traffic.  You may just be able to recognise the ones who are as serious as you – they wave back.  It felt like a kind of communal self-congratulation.  When I stopped and got out, I told the first bloke I ran into that I doubted whether all this might be called fun.  He said that he felt rooted, a proposition that was rather tersely endorsed by his wife.  It took me two Oscar Peterson CDs to get to the Winjana Turn-off from the Gibb River Road (on which you pass a sign saying that the next amenity is 300ks up the road) and the first and sixth symphonies of Beethoven (conducted by Klemperer) to get from Tunnel Creek to the main highway.

I had been there before, but Winjana Gorge is majestic.  This country reminds me very much of our Grampians as seen from Victoria Valley.  It is real blackfella country.  The rock faces, colours, and trees – gum or boab – are what people come here for.  It is somehow Australian.  If you were born or just live in Australia, and you do not feel like that you belong here, you might face what are called issues.  This is about as close to God’s country as we get.

The sign at the gate helpfully says that the pythons are not venomous, but that it is not a good idea to upset the crocodiles.  These are freshwater crocs and relatively small, although one looked about two meters, and they are not man-eaters, having a different mouth structure to the salty killers.   They also look decidedly lazy, but it is best not to get them between you and the water – or, I would suggest, to descend to their level.  Winjana Gorge was my first real ‘sight’, and it was a blinder.

Tunnel Creek was the scene of an uprising.  There were montages about it that put the blackfellas in white hats and the whitefellas in black hats – to the point of appearing to condone the shooting of a white copper.  I wondered what government put those signs up.

Geicke Gorge is not far from Fitzroy Crossing.  You can do boat tours and see plenty of crocs there.  You can certainly take tours into there from Fitzroy Crossing.  I doubt whether they would go into Winjana.  You can certainly cover those spots on three day tours out of Broome – or, at least, I did that fifteen years ago, when I spent one night at Fitzroy Crossing.

It is not much more than a staging post, but I was interested to see for the first time black men and women being served beer at the bar.  I do not think I ever saw a blackfella behind the bar.  A black lady came into reception, obviously deputed by her husband, to ask reception for half an hour on the Internet.  He then joined her, and they had to ask the staff to start them off, and later correct an error – as they would have had to do for me.  The black people were not much younger than me, and God only knows what blackfellas of that age make of the Internet – although it is common to see them nursing iphones as determinedly as young white people.

I visited two service stations in each of Derby and Fitzroy Crossing – all the staff were either of Asian extraction or European birth.  The backpackers do supply the labour, and the Irish emigration is very evident all around here.  It is a real mix, and an attractive one.

While I was having a beer and a decent pie for lunch, while unwinding after a grinding drive, a big tour bus pulled up, and disgorged its withered contents.  It was described as a Seniors’ Tour.  In the name of God, I am a senior, and was just then a grey nomad, but please God, not that kind of tour for me – not now; not ever.  It must be like a mobile jail, or daytime TV – that some idiot thought should play in the bar I was eating in.  That way madness lies.

If I could offer some advice, it would be not to leave it too late to come out here.  I have been going to Europe or the States each year, having at the back of my mind the notion that I could leave this kind of thing to my dotage.  I was dead wrong, for more than one reason.