Tuesday, July 6, 2010


When I resigned from teaching and departed godforsaken Gunnedah in May, 1963, I travelled to the new family home in Strathfield, a prosperous middle-class suburb of Sydney.

Two years previously, Dad had sold the farm at Goolmangar, having realised that (a) none of us kids was likely to follow in his farming footsteps, and (b) the farm wasn’t making any money. Herewith one of those silly coincidences: the family that bought the farm was called Musgrave and the house Dad bought in Hyde Brae St belonged to a totally unrelated family called Musgrave.

The family now consisted of Mum and Dad, me, younger brothers Robert and Chris and sister Dorothy. Plus, a bit of a surprise: in February Mum had given birth to baby brother Stephen. (She was 43, Dad was 63 and rather proud of his achievement.) So the three-bedroom house was somewhat crowded.

On reflection, I realise that I rather selfishly did not think that I might be adding to this “Packed to the Rafters” situation. I automatically assumed that there would always be a place for me in the family home. I was right, of course. In very little time Dad had turned the enclosed veranda at the back of the house into an extra bedroom, for me. He also built a carport beside the back yard garage for my beloved Triumph Herald.

The Public Service

Well, of course, I needed a job. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know I didn’t want to teach. Mum and Dad were not much help, but quite sympathetic to my predicament. The logical choice was to join the Public Service and become a Government employee. I went for an exam and an interview and they suggested I might most suitably be employed in the Commonwealth Education Office in Sydney. So I became a deskbound public servant.

My first task was to spend weeks and weeks poring over ledgers looking for errors. It seems that a previous employee had been fiddling the books. He had been found out, but the dodgy figures had to be located and corrected. This lasted for about six weeks, was very boring and I totally loved it. I didn’t have to make decisions, there was nothing innovative about the task and that suited me fine.

However, when this task was done, my bosses had to decide what to do with me now.
At that time, the Menzies’ Government had set up a program called the Colombo Plan. This was a scheme whereby people from various Asian and African countries could come to Australia, study in their chosen field, then return home and put their new-found knowledge to good use – a bit like the Marshall Plan in the USA. The scheme was financed by the Australian Government. On arrival and departure, they were entitled to be met by a car and driver to welcome and farewell them. I must have demonstrated some qualities that suited me to this task, as it was decided that I would be the meeter and greeter.

So every few days I’d be picked up in a big white Commonwealth car and whisked off to Mascot Airport to greet a new arrival or see one off. I thought this was very posh. For some strange reason I remember Dorothy Mkparu from Nigeria and Mrs Poonsombuti from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). There were more perks if the person was a VIP. On one occasion we were visited by Professor Narashimnya, from the English department of the University of Mysore in southern India. I was delegated to take him to lunch at the airport restaurant before his departure – my God, I had an expense account! At lunch he asked my advice on what to order and I suggested the Filet Mignon. He said, “I don’t mind, as long as it’s not beef, of course.” Whoops. A diplomatic disaster had been narrowly averted.

But I didn’t see this as a career and by now had realised it wasn’t teaching I hated, it was the bush. With my twenty-first birthday fast approaching – still a virgin, still practising my religion and still completely apolitical - I also realised I had some growing-up to do. Some reflective thinking was called for.

I had decided that there were four categories of people in the world:
(a) rich and fun;
(b) rich and boring;
(c) poor and fun;
(d) poor and boring.
I quickly eliminated (b) and (d); fun rated higher than rich in my book. I created a Plan of Action.

Back to the Classroom

Meanwhile, my brothers Robert and Chris were completing their secondary schooling at St Patrick’s College, Strathfield, a Christian Brothers school literally at the end of our street. I decided to approach them about a job.

They welcomed me with open arms. In those days there were still quite a few teaching monks, but the growing force of lay teachers was composed mostly of ex-monks or worthy, but untrained, drop-outs. To score a State-trained fully qualified teacher was a Godsend. Of course the first thing the headmaster did was issue me with a strap.

I taught Fifth Class – all 56 of them, boys aged nine or ten – and I really came to love it as I felt I was doing something worthy, even if I had no intention of marking 56 compositions each week. I really loved those kids, even the exasperating ones. This leads us into dangerous territory. I was a gay, necessarily closeted, primary school teacher. Such are inevitably assumed to be pederasts – and in recent times, the world has discovered many of them were. I was not. I learned to love the open, ingenuousness of primary school age kids. I love their innocence, their optimism, their eagerness to know about the world, their desire to be loved and make an impression. And at that time I loved the powerful position of being the provider of wisdom and the drawer-out of latent talents. I loved being the only cynic in the room – for now I was becoming just that. Vatican II had come and gone and I was beginning to see a major contrast in what the “old” Christianity had taught me and what these kids wanted to believe in.

Oh, the strap. Well, I used it judiciously for the first few months but then gave up. It didn’t seem to be a very dignified approach to discipline and I don’t think it had much effect. Besides I had a painful habit of whacking myself on the shin with the follow-through.

After two years I was “promoted” to the junior secondary school. Despite the fact that I now got some free periods, this meant I was teaching thirteen and fourteen year olds. This worried me, as some of them were growing up fast. Especially when you are taking them for a Religious Knowledge class, the questions begin to become more knowing and more awkward. Although these subjects were not discussed, my views on wet dreams and masturbation were no longer those of Holy Mother Church.

Many years later I met an ex-pupil of this period in a gay club. He said two things: (a) “You wore a different suit every day, but we never thought you were gay,” and (b)
“You never did know what we were getting up to in the back row, did you?” No, indeed I didn’t.

And that’s another thing. I have an appalling track-record of predicting who of my students will turn out gay. But more of that anon.

And Back to the Piano

During all of this I had also joined a couple of dance bands in succession. The first was a rock-pop setup with female vocalist. Her big number was The Wedding. I had a good piano solo in the Monkees’ I’m a Believer. We had a regular Saturday night gig at the Rose, Shamrock and Thistle Hotel (now called the Three Weeds and much posher) in Rozelle, an inner city suburb. I remember the odd fight, the odd chair being thrown, (not at the band), famously on one occasion by a girl who already had her left leg entirely encased in plaster. It was great fun. One night some patrons invited the band to carry on at their home, a terrace house nearby. They had a keg of beer in the kitchen. There was drinking and dancing on the lino. Late in the night I found the hostess mopping up beer from the kitchen floor. “I hate a slow floor” was her explanation.

The second group was a more traditional quartet that tended to get gigs in servicemen’s clubs and the like. I can’t remember what either band was called, but they were fun and the money helped.

Growing Up and Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

In September, 1963, I turned twenty-one. We celebrated with a party in the local scout hall. There may have been seventy or eighty friends and family and the aforementioned quartet provided the music, but we got through the night on orange juice and just one dozen long neck bottles of beer. How times have changed.

Then in November President Kennedy was shot. It’s one of those world-stopping events where you always remember where you were when you heard about it. (Add here the Apollo11 moon landing, the sacking of the Whitlam government, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Burt Reynolds shaving off his moustache…) In Australia it was already November 23, a Saturday, and I was sleeping off a late night when my brother Chris rushed into the house with a special edition of the newspaper, crying, “President Kennedy’s been shot!” I heard him, but went back to sleep, only to wake up later thinking, I had a dream that President Kennedy had been shot. Of course, it wasn’t a dream.

That Saturday night I went out on a blind date. It was to be my last ever date with a girl, I had given up on them. A few months earlier I had had a dinner date with a very gorgeous girl from Gunnedah. Her name was Liz Heath and she was from a very wealthy grazing family. She was studying nursing. At the end of a candlelit dinner for two in an Italian restaurant swathed in fake grape vines and adorned with Chianti bottles, she looked into my eyes and said, “Oh Hugh, I do love you – you’re so funny!” Well, that was it. If they wanted funny, I’d give them funny.

But this blind date had been arranged by two of my dance band mates. They both had girlfriends, had no idea I was gay, and took pity on me. We went to Skelsey’s, an out-of-town night club with the ambiance of a road house. We danced and dined the night away, but I can’t even remember her name. That was that.

Well, that’s not quite true. Let’s fast-forward just a year or so. In the local parish was a prominent businessman (pubs) called Noel Dumas. He had eleven children, two boys and nine girls. Of these, Greg and Leonie were twins. Leonie was 17 or so, I was 21. We met at parties and took quite a shine to each other. It never led to more that a bit of a smooch and a chaste kiss and though it was general knowledge that her Dad was conservatively worth six million pounds (that’s half a million per sibling) and I was occasionally her date on family outings where Dad would pick up the tab, romance finally dwindled.

Not long after, Noel decided to emigrate to Canada, taking the entire brood with him (Greg and Leonie were the second-eldest). He was becoming anxious that a Labour government would come to power (it finally did in 1972, after 23 years of conservative rule) and grab all his assets. Not long after setting up home in Vancouver, he dropped dead on the tennis court. He was 50.

Enough of the girls, what about the boys? Well, yes, by now I had found a few gay pubs and gay friends, which meant I began to live a double life in earnest. You have probably read about that in my last blog.

But What about The Plan?

But I need to go back a few paragraphs to that Plan of Action. How was I going to meet fun, preferably rich, people? (Obviously, given the story of Leonie, I eventually did, but we need to rewind to late 1963.)

Whilst still a public servant I took the 414 bus to the railway station each morning, going to work in the city. At the same bus stop most days was a young lad wearing the uniform of Trinity Grammar School, a posh Anglican school a few suburbs away. I befriended him.

His name was Ross. I got chatting to him and met a few of his older friends. One of these was John Williams. His parents had a beach house at Whale Beach, about an hour’s drive from the City. The house had an upstairs for the parents and a separate downstairs for John and his mates. With new friends Bob Donnelley, Graham Harris, Brian Strauss and others, all in our late teens or early twenties, a habit of weekends at the beach was formed. We all had cars and all drank and drove. We’d spend the weekend at the Newport Arms.

The Newport Arms

Fifteen minutes drive from the Whale Beach house was the Newport Hotel, always referred to as the Newport Arms. It is on the shore of Pittwater, the southernmost arm of Broken Bay, a wonderful maze of waterways and a great boaties’ playground. There is little commercial shipping – fishing boats and ferries, mainly – but there are plenty of sailing boats and stink boats.

This sprawling hotel with a huge beer garden on the shores of Pittwater was a boozers’ paradise where we would eat hamburgers and get pissed on Saturday arvo, then do it all again on Sunday and drive home. None of us got killed.

Generally, pubs couldn’t open on Sundays in the 1960s. You could only buy a drink if you were a bona fide traveller. That is, you had travelled twenty or more miles before your drink. So at the pub we’d sign in with a false address twenty miles away on the other side of Sydney. No one ever checked your driver’s licence. Then we could booze on.

Of course, on the other side of Sydney, determined drinkers were signing in at their locals as having come from Newport or Whale Beach. So when the pubs shut around five o’clock, there would be two streams of traffic full of drunken hoons bearing down on each other in opposite directions. Crazy!

A great new invention at the pub was the Scopitone machine, a forerunner of today’s video clips. It was the first video juke box. On high rotation was a German couple, the Kessler twins, extremely leggy as I recall, doing The Locomotion on the engine of an old steam train. They did a pretty good Quando, Quando also. But it cost 20 cents a go, as opposed to five cents for the regular juke box, so when a clip finished, the cry would go up, “Sponsor! Sponsor!” and some rich punter would contribute to a round of drunken applause.

Tim Bristow was the very inefficient bouncer. He was a minor thug with a high opinion of himself, but there were still plenty of under-age drinkers there and no one seemed to care. I remember two pieces of graffiti that took my eye. On the sign above the entrance from the car park someone had scratched, “Suck me till I sag”. In the loo was its mate: “Love me till the juice runs down my leg”. Charming.

In the middle of the garden was a corrugated iron shed covered in bougainvillea. This served as the bar for the garden. The barmaid served beers from a gun-type dispenser. One weekend Bob Donnelley had the use of his parents’ cabin cruiser and there were twenty-one of us on board. We anchored off the pub and went ashore. Someone said, “Let’s order 21 middies (10 oz beers)”. Someone else said, “No, make it schooners (15 oz)”. “No,” I said, “let’s have two each”.

I walked up to the barmaid and said, “Forty-two schooners, please”. She didn’t bat an eyelid, just lined up the glasses and fired away.

Beach houses and cabin cruisers. I was on my way. Time to upgrade my Triumph Herald for a white Triumph Spitfire convertible with red upholstery.

Brrrm, brrrm!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

GAY SYDNEY in the 1960s

I was maybe 21 or 22 (in 1963 or so) when I finally ended up in bed with someone for the first time. I say someone, because I can’t remember his name or any other details of the event, other than it happened in his flat at Ashfield in Sydney. Maybe I was too pissed, maybe it was horrible and I’ve repressed the memory, maybe, and most probably, it was so boring and messy there wasn’t much to remember. But it was a start.

I was living quite a double life, respectable Catholic school teacher by day, screaming queen at the weekends. By the way, we didn’t use the words “gay” and “straight” in those days. You were either “camp” or “square”.

The first ever drag show I saw was at the Jewel Box, in Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross, on a Sunday night in the early ‘60s. I went with a mate called Brian Strauss.

Here’s how it all happened. At that time I often spent the weekends at a friend’s beach house at Whale Beach. John Williams’ parents had the upstairs and John and his mates had the downstairs. There would be four or five of us there any given weekend, all straight, oops, square, except for me, very much in the closet.

On this Sunday I gave Brian a lift back to town. I suspected that Brian might be camp, but wasn’t at all sure, so I suggested the visit to the Jewel Box. This wasn’t daring as it was a venue much frequented by plenty of squares – not a specifically camp clientele, rather as the famous Les Girls Revue Bar was to become soon after.
He thought it a great idea, we enjoyed the show and drank orange juice (it wasn’t licensed) and I still didn’t know his sexuality.

A week later, John Williams and I were having a beer when he said, “I hear you and Brian went to the Jewel Box last weekend”.

“Yes, we did,” I replied.

“Whose idea was it?” he asked.

“Mine,” I replied, “Why?”

“Oh, that’s all right then, it’s just that we thought Brian might be a poof.”

So there. They didn’t suspect I was camp, so that sort of let both me and Brian off the hook. (Of course, I discovered as year or so later that Brian was camp. He and I ended up in bed together, but all we could do was laugh, as it all seemed so silly.)

But let’s get round to the real gay bars. The first I remember was the Carlton Rex Hotel in Elizabeth Street in the City. Downstairs were two bars and especially on Fridays after work, the camps would all stream into the Dugout Bar, the squares into the Mariners’ Tavern, right next door. Never the twain did meet.

Gay sex was still illegal, and most of us were leading double lives. The atmosphere was often a bit stitched up at times. I remember one night, just before ten (closing time), the bar useful called, “Five minutes, finish ‘em up, girls.” Eyebrows were arched and lips were pursed until the barmaid, Merle, called out. “Don’t worry, girls – he’s fuckin’ camp his fuckin’ self!” Normal breathing recommenced.

The only beat I remember was Boomerang Street, which no longer exists. It was a tree-lined avenue that ran from St Mary’s Cathedral diagonally down to William St and a few years ago was reclaimed when Cook & Phillip Park was created. One Saturday night late I drove my Triumph Spitfire down it on my way to the Cross to collect the early edition of the Sunday papers. I had never “done” a beat and was not at all fond of them, but I noticed a really cute guy hanging out. On the way back, he was still there and I pulled over. After a brief chat, he got in the car and we drove back to my place in Balmain. He was a Norwegian sailor off the cruise ship Kungsholm. Very charming, perhaps late twenties. I poured him a beer and he asked if I liked classical music. I put on Max Bruch’s violin concerto and a very sexy night ensued. I remember as he got undressed he took a rolled up wad of notes from his shoe where they had been safely stored. I never did the beat again.

After a couple of years the “powers that be” decided there was too much poofy activity happening in the middle of the city, so the Carlton Rex relocated to Kings Cross, where it remained until 2001. Still with the Dougout and the Mariners’ Tavern, still segregated, and certainly no sheilas in the Dugout.

Now, closing time was still ten o’clock, so, if you hadn’t already scored in the pub, where to now? One alternative was a private party. The word would have got around – party tonight at Haberfield, or Randwick, or wherever, here’s the address. So it was very wise to purchase a few bottles of beer at the pub’s bottle shop (the only outlets for take-away alcohol) and be prepared.

The other alternative was an unlicensed nightclub at Kensington, The Purple Onion. These days it has morphed into Ken’s Karate Club, a steam bath. But then, it was the bee’s knees. It was run by Ken “Candy” Johnson, and drag queens like Karen Chant and Rose Jackson (in the days before punning drag queen names) would be very glamorously dressed, miming to Judy, Barbra, Shirley or whoever was the latest hit star. Between shows you could dance on the stage and maybe get lucky.

If you were smart, as well as bringing your own grog, you would bring a milk crate. Then when the girl on the door (entry one pound, or $2) said, “Sorry, love, we’re full up”, you could produce it and say, “That’s OK, I’ve brought my own seat”. Worked every time. I had some fabulous nights there with great friends.

Ivy’s Birdcage, a nightclub at Bondi Junction, was licensed, but only for wine or wine based drinks. I remember a ghastly concoction called Brandivino and also a blue champagne that was marketed with the slogan, “At last, a drink that matches your jeans!” Oh, dear. One night there I got talking to a cute guy of nineteen or so and he said, out of the blue, “You watch us playing footy on a Sunday arvo from your balcony,” and he was right. Sprung! I shared a terrace in Darling St, Balmain with a chemist called Bill Kirwin, also a poof, but about fifteen years older than me. It was down near the Darling St Wharf and my bedroom at the back had a balcony that overlooked the little park by the wharf. I did indeed perve on these young guys on a Sunday and now I ended up in bed with one of them. Memories.

Finally, a guy called Donnie Smith started up a monthly Saturday night dance at the Petersham Dispensary Hall, a public hall out along Parramatta Rd. This was a private non-commercial affair. You brought your own booze and food and paid an entry fee. Along the side walls were long trestle tables covered in butcher’s paper. There was a live dance band playing 50-50 music. That is, alternating with the modern foxtrot and quickstep were the old gipsy taps, Pride of Erin and the barn dance. (No rock’n’roll-type dancing on you own, maybe a jive or a jitterbug). When the barn dance became progressive, in a circle with constantly changing partners, the tradition was, “butch on the outside, bitch on the inside”. Then, if you fancied your new partner, the pair of you could break out of the circle and dance alone in the middle. Neat, eh? For some reason I met up with a couple of long-distance lorry drivers who favoured really appalling drag. There was nothing glamorous about the place, no airs and graces and it was great fun.

So my double life continued through the sixties – no affairs, mostly one-night stands with no complications. Then in 1968 I finally made the decision to see the world. For some time I had been contemplating the traditional trek to the Old Country, as it was called, even if all your ancestors, like mine, were Irish.

One night in the Dugout Bar at the Cross, my rather bitchy friend James (never Jim) Hilton, said, “Look, you’re forever telling us that you are going overseas, why don’t you just go. Look round this bar. You’ve fucked half the people in here and been rude to the other half, so go.” I would like to think that there is a degree of hyperbole in this statement, but must admit, alas, there is also an element of truth.

So I went.

Sunday, April 18, 2010



I am confronted by the biggest, whitest pair of breasts I have ever seen. They are enormous. They are, fortunately but tenuously, confined by a bustier which must be a descendant of the bra Howard Hughes designed for Jane Russel back in the 1940s. They look, however, as if they could escape at any moment and inflict serious damage. Later in the evening, someone asks me what I would have done if they had popped out.

“It’s all right,” I replied, “I kept a couple of warm spoons handy.”

Their owner, Kayte, is my neighbour at a table in Café Deco, on the Peak in Hong Kong, where we are celebrating the 50th birthday of our good friend, Basil McIlhagga, in the grandest style. The pate de fois gras, the pigeon soup and the filet mignon are all done to perfection and Krug champagne flows all night long.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – it took quite a while and much decadence to get to this point. I've known Basil McIlhagga and Jim Christopher since 1997, when they bought their way (via a charity gig) into the Changeover China Coast Ball in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Since then, I'm delighted to say, they have become great friends and often had me play piano at some of their great parties. Now I'm even more delighted as they have invited me to be their guest at this Birthday Bash. As a retired school teacher on a pension, I am grateful for such extreme largesse. I'm not being employed in my capacity as entertainer, but if there's a spare piano lying round, I'm most happy to give it a tinkle. However, there is one obligation. They have engaged a large range of entertainers to come along. One is Hugh Sheridan, up-and-coming Aussie TV star with a fine voice. Would I accompany him? With pleasure. I arrange a couple of rehearsals with Hugh at my place and I point out that this will be a party, not a concert, as in my experience no one listens to the entertainers at China Coast balls - and this series of parties is a spin-off. But Hugh earnestly (and rightly) says that there will be people there he wants to impress. I emphasise that my job is to help him sound good, and I'll do my best. I hope I haven't put my foot in it.

Hugh has a repertoire of songs most of which I've played for years. The problem is that his charts are all in his keys, not mine, and I'm an appalling sight-reader, so there is a bit of effort and hard work required. I'll have to pay attention.

I arrive in Hong Kong late evening, take the excellent train to Central and a taxi to the Cosmo Hotel. I have a hard time locating my room, as no one has told me the room numbers are on the floor, not the door - go figure. It's a tiny little room, but I'm only going to sleep in it, so what. In bed at midnight, 3.00am Sydney time.

DEC 5. First thing, a shower. I find that in the shower stall, so small that if you drop the soap you have to get out of the stall to retrieve it, there are 3 (yes, three) shower heads and two taps. I try all manner of combinations, but am damned if I can get hot water. Call room service and a man arrives and shows me what to do, but not until after he has fiddled about and struggled himself. Strange.

Out onto the streets and I am somewhat disoriented as I thought Jim had said the Cosmo was in Central and I can't recognise any landmarks. Consult the tourist map and discover I'm actually in Wanchai, a few Metro stops from Central. Map directs me to Times Square station and I've almost circumnavigated the Jockey Club before I realise that I'm going the wrong way. Very embarrassing for an ex-geography teacher. But I have the day at leisure and time is not of the essence.

That evening Jo and Ted Bruekel have invited me to the LKF Hotel where they and most of the other guests are staying. Their friend Jennifer Fleming is having birthday drinks in the 29th floor bar - sensational views. Now I meet up with a big bunch of "old faces" - Michelle and Peter from Florida, Rodney from Bermuda, Frank and Brent from New York, Donald and Sue from San Fran - the list goes on. Much cordiality. But as we are buying our own drinks and a glass of pino gris costs $AUD26 I don't hang around for long. Which is why I find myself sitting in Lang Kwai Fong in a bar called Woollomooloo - yes! But the Carlsberg is cold and cheap, so OK.

DEC 7. Yesterday, Saturday, check out of the hotel to catch the train to Guangzhou in China for the first events of the week, hosted by Ted Marr, Espen Harbitz and Michelle Garnaut, who all now live there. In the hotel foyer a woman I'm sure I've never met before (but obviously I have) says hello, introduces me to Bruce, who also seems to know me, and suggests we share a cab to the station. Fine by me. This is to happen more than once. At the station, masses of "Hello, Darlings” to people I haven't seen for up to 8 or 10 years, all old BellaVistans, as we now seem to call ourselves. (There are 80ish of us on the train, around 160 at the main events in HK, and about another 80 go on to Saigon.)

It's about 90 minutes on the train to Guangzhou with a few beers to ease the pain. Then the fun begins. After we clear customs and claim baggage, we board two coaches to take us to the riverside seafood restaurant for lunch. Our coach gets hopelessly lost and after an hour of detours and back-ups in narrow alleys, we are flagged down by a distraught Jim C, abandon the bus and walk the last few hundred metres to lunch. It's a pleasant outdoor spot and I sit with Peter and Michelle (hooray), but the food is pretty shockin', especially if you're a wimp like me - can't eat whole crunchy prawns and uncrackable crabs, not fond of bbqed chicken and ducks complete with heads. Fill up on fried rice and very fine Chilean white. After lunch there's a choice - a walking tour or a bus direct to the hotel. Those of us who choose the bus end up on another Magical Mystery Tour of detours and back-ups and get to the hotel after the walking party has arrived.

One thing to say about the brand new Ritz Carlton: even the lifts have chandeliers. Way over the top with the most exorbitant Christmas decorations - Mao must be weeping somewhere. Very comfy beds, however.

That night, in our best Chinoiserie, we go to Ted and Espen's (and Michelle's? -can't remember) apartment, actually a lavish two-storey hotel suite, for a sumptuous party. Mid party, we take our drinks to the riverbank town square where the weekly public entertainment is happening. A rock band with a female singer/MC is entertaining a few hundred locals and there's a karaoke segment. John Mills takes my glass, commandeers the mike from Madam MC and hands it to me. I find myself singing Auld Lang Syne(?!) to a delighted but bemused crowd. No, maybe I’m bemused. Another box to tick.

Guess what? The driver of the taxi back to the Ritz Carlton gets lost.

DEC 9. The day of the real birthday celebration. I'm sitting on the balcony of Simpatico, on the Peak in HK, nursing another pinot gris. Looking across the way I can see both my performance spaces, one above the other and their grand pianos in the Cafe Deco, where the big event will take place. I'm here for the 4.00pm sound check which, of course, won't be before 5.00pm. On the upper level I'll be accompanying Hugh Sheridan, then later on the lower level, there might or might not be the singalong. I'm dreading both. I should point out here that although many oldtimers are keenly anticipating this traditional singalong, it hasn't been scheduled in the program. Even back in Sydney when the delightful Di Vertigan had proposed putting together a singalong songbook, Jim C had pointed out that he didn't expect such an event, but would be quite happy if it happened. But Di went ahead and we produced a fine and handsome printout in a font large enough not to need reading glasses. She printed and had bound a dozen or so copies and myself and some very generous friends (thank you Jan, John, Ted and Jo) stuffed them into their already overloaded baggage, just in case.

It's bright and sunny on the Peak, but there's a chilly breeze. They say the Peak has its own micro-climate and I suspect they're right.

It’s the mid-point of a heavy party schedule. The HK section kicked off with an ABBA-themed party at the very new, very of-the-moment Watermark nightclub, above the Star ferry terminals. A great tribute band, good finger food and endless Moet were in abundance. The gang have turned out in some amazing costumes, as is customary at these gigs. One, a skin-tight classic ABBA white jumpsuit is being worn by 23-year-old Nick Ingate, son of Steve and Gabby, from Sydney and as far as I am concerned, he gets Buns of the Year award (sorry, Foxy). On top of all this he is one of what I have found to be typical of his generation – the classic gay-friendly straight boy. A real charmer.

This is a night for reunions – Douglas and Marcia from Devon, MJ from Bali, Lorna from Miami and Denise from London, Falvey from Auckland. That they’ve come from all over the world is a real tribute to Basil – or else they’ll just do anything for a party.

I also reunite with 21yo Justin from Sydney, whom I haven’t seen for four years, when he was a student at Newtown Performing Arts High School and produced a great design for the school production of Jesus Christ Superstar. His life story so far deserves a blog of its own, but I won’t go into that here. He has just finished the design course at Sydney’s National Institute of the Dramatic Arts and is getting lots of work. He is rather camp and a total sweetie. He is one of the new generation which seems to have no sense of age discrimination, thank God. He agrees with me re Nick’s buns.

(Both Justin and Nick individually confess to me that they love dancing to 70s music, but can’t admit it to their peers.)

Next day it’s off to Pier 9 for our junk trip to the floating Jumbo Restaurant at Aberdeen. We’re all in our sailor and nautical gear. Nick is dressed as a pirate with serious bum cleavage (oh dear, I’m off again).

Great entertainment is provided by Leslie Hancock done up as a Pilipina maid, with the incomparable Trevor Ashley as her fat daughter, Basil’s love child. She’s promoting her new CD, Bird Flu over the Cuckoo’s Nest - v. crude and v. funny.

The seafood banquet is seriously good – what a pity Basil can’t eat it. He's allergic.

Tonight is Motown Night at the very chic, very twenties China Club – a sit-down, name-place degustation meal, great, but too much chilli for little me. But the endless Verve Cliquot helps. We are treated to more great entertainment – 3 “Supremes” and 4 “Platters” – all top rate and even better when they get together and jam later in the evening. There’s no dance floor, but loads of dancing.

DEC 11. It is the day of departure to Ho Chi Minh City (hereinafter called Saigon) and having done the very civilised city check-in and baggage check, and farewelled Nick who is flying back to Sydney, I’m having a last beer in the Woolloomooloo Bar and reminiscing.

The Big Night at Café Deco has come and gone and so have all my anxieties. I have been to some fantastic parties in exotic places in the past twenty years and this has to be way up there at the top of the list.

But let’s go back to that 5.00pm sound check. First I discover that the information I have been given is all back-to-front. Jim C had assured me that dinner (and dinner music from me) would come first, then the shows. This worried me, as though normally on these occasions I can drink away, on this occasion I have to accompany Hugh S, play the songs in his keys and help him make a good impression. But Peter Reeve tells us that while welcoming drinks are being served, Hugh and I will be performing (a): out of sight behind a sheer white curtain and (b): through a fog machine. So it becomes clear that we won’t be performing in “concert” mode and this relaxes me greatly.

So at 7.30pm I’m scrubbed up and dressed, as is Hugh, in red velvet jacket and black pants – bit of a Mother and Daughter look, really. We are behind the curtain with our glasses of Krug, ready to start. I suggest to Hugh that in this unexpected situation it would be pointless to just perform Hugh’s concert of songs. Perhaps better if I start with some instrumentals, then he sings a couple and we alternate. He is very happy with this idea, so I start off with “Cheek to Cheek”. What happens then is that Hugh says, “Oh, I know this one,” and joins in on the second chorus. So we more or less abandon the advertised program and proceed to wing it. I’m very happy, because I’m playing everything in my keys.

But I’m really playing like shit. Despite the lovely Yamaha grand I’m hitting bum chords everywhere. Perhaps not so bad that the guests notice, but I certainly do and I suspect Hugh does too. As I had feared, at least two of my arthritic fingers are giving me a hard time. The curtain opens, the crowd surges in, some come over to say hello – nice, but it distracts me and doesn’t help. I can’t recognise anyone because of the fog machine and because I’m in a spotlight. Not my finest hour. But we soldier on and Hugh really is a good sport about it all. And as I had told him, no one really listened.

However, the rest of the night is absolutely brilliant. I’ve mentioned the food and drink. The entertainment is great, especially the four black guys from South Africa who sing a capella on the staircase. (Still no one listens.)

We get great, amusing but sincere speeches from Basil Snr, Basil’s great friend Kim (Basil is godfather to his two children), Jim C, then Basil himself. These really raise the level of the evening from just another outrageous BellaVista party to something of very meaningful significance. What wonderful people they all are. What wonderful people we all are.

Then there’s more entertainment on the upper level. Trevor and Leslie are great Mine Hosts, very Cabaret with songs and patter to match. Hugh S delivers a very effective “Maybe This Time” and the Von Tramp family (Astrid, Jo Jo and David) deliver some fun parodies. The Krug flows all night long, glasses are broken and swiftly swept away while we dance our butts off to “It’s Raining Men” and more.

The dress theme of the night is decadence and fetish (think Berlin in the 30s) and people have gone to great extremes. The aforementioned bustier of Kayte does honour to its cantilever construction and the warm spoons, thankfully, are not required. Spunky Nick is in black leather pants, a black lace corset and a fishnet top – grrr! Not to be outdone, Justin is in serious stilettos, fishnet tights (takes me back), a double-breasted dinner jacket and nothing else. Once again, old and young have gone all out.

Around 12.30pm I find I am terribly thirsty. I go to the bar and down a pint of Carlsberg. This quenches my thirst so I can get back on the Krug. Divinely decadent.

Around 2.30am I decide it’s bedtime and head for the taxi rank. Justin spots me and asks can he share, as we’re in the same hotel. Of course he can. Back in the hotel lobby, the night porter stops Justin (can’t imagine why) and asks if he is a guest of the hotel. He is. It seems I raise no such alarm. And so to bed – separately, of course.

The next morning (afternoon?) I was in need of fresh air so took a taxi to Stanley Markets. I didn’t intend to shop, just to take in the seaside ambience. I bumped into Jo and Ted Bruekel and we had a Vietnamese meal in the old mission building. Then, in the markets I found a very smart cream linen jacket which jumped at me for $HK600 ($AUD120). A great buy.

But the fun wasn’t over yet, folks. The wonderful Vincent Cheung hosted yet another party, this one with a Salsa theme and band. The Verve Cliquot flowed freely and the 1995 Chateau Margaux went down very nicely, too. I don’t know where our stamina came from, but nobody was saying no.

STILL DEC 11. Now, as I said a few paragraphs ago, it’s off to Vietnam. It’s my first time in Saigon and it’s very hot and very humid. But the Hotel Majestic, across from the river, is seriously cool and very 1920s. I am reintroduced to the madness that is traffic in Vietnam. I have previously been to Hanoi and whilst Saigon has some traffic lights, where vehicles sometimes actually stop, it’s still a battlefield.

My hotel room is great, but I give up on the complicated shower instructions and settle for a cold shower (seems to be a recurring theme, here). After drinks in the lobby 80 “pretty in pink” partygoers set off in 80 cyclos for dinner.

In most of the China Coast and BellaVista parties I have attended over the years, there is always one event, often a whole day,that I simply can’t remember. I wonder why. Tonight is the one for this trip. I remember the cyclos (how could one forget?) and I also remember walking back to the hotel, mainly because a little maybe eight year old girl looked at me in my seriously pink feather boa and said, “But you are a man!” “Yes, darling, and you are a girl,” I replied and, placing my boa around her shoulders, I added “and now you’re a very pretty girl.” (Hope I haven’t put her on the dangerous course of speaking to strange men.)

But where did we go? Who did I sit with? What did we eat? I have no idea. Even after trawling through Kay Watts’ copious photos I still have no idea.

Back on the roof of the Majestic, in the humid night air with a great view of the Saigon River, the band played for dancing and this was the pattern for the these three late nights. But I wasn’t a stayer, usually caving in around 12.30, so I’m not around on those nights when Hugh S. is dragged out of bed to keep the party people rocking.

The next day we do a walking tour with a Vietnamese guide (very good) to steer us safely through the traffic. Again it is hot, humid and very sunny. I’m hatless, so I’m seeking shade at every opportunity. We visit the Cathedral, the very elegant Post Office, the Presidential Palace and the US Embassy (but not the helicopter one). I get talking to the black boys from Johannesburg. “Who is this Ho Chi Minh guy?” they ask me and I realise how old I am. But I’m able to fill them in.

Then we get to the War Memorial – US planes, artillery and tanks outside, mostly pictures inside. Our guide warns us that after the first two rooms of historical preamble, the rest degenerate into propaganda. Maybe so, but I remind him, “History is written by the winners”. He agrees and leaves us to do our own cogitating at this point. Sure, there’s the Imperialist Dogs bias, but one can’t help but be moved by some of the images. Some I just can’t look at, sometimes I force myself to do so. Memories come flooding back (I was in my twenties then) – My Lai, William Calley, the Tet Offensive, the napalm girl. No doubt there were atrocities on both sides, but the US portrayed themselves as the goodies and this is not how goodies should act. Yet nowadays, the sweet and gracious Vietnamese are charming and polite to all visitors, even the Americans. The American woman ahead of me has written in the visitors’ book: “Why did we do all this… and why are we still doing it?” I don’t know darling, I just don’t know.

Then it’s off to lunch – a poky, crowded local spot where our guide makes recommendations and we are fully fed and watered (two beers a head) for all of $AUD12. Amazing value.

We take taxis back to the hotel – my feet are killing me and the heat is oppressive, so the seriously hairy ride is worth it. It is time to scrub up for another night of – wait for it – glamour and Vietnamese food. Tonight’s theme is “glitter” so thank God I have my sequined basketball sneakers.

It’s a very glamorous restaurant with a pool in the middle, but fairly plain food. And here something quite remarkable – for me – happens.

Hugh S. is valiantly singing away, accompanied by Trevor on a little white upright piano, to no avail. The acoustics are bad and everyone is chatting – i.e., all talking at once. Trevor even tries to gain attention with a patter song (When I Get My Name in Lights), but it sinks without trace. Then suddenly, through some process of osmosis, there’s a whole international gang around the piano belting out “I Still Call Australia Home”. Two thoughts occur instantly: (a) it should be me! (b) I’m so glad it isn’t. For over 15 years I have been the centre of attention, particularly at this moment. And to my surprise and relief, I couldn’t care less. I’m over it. I pause for a reality check: any regrets? Any qualms? No, not one. I did it, I loved it and I’ll never do it again. “It was great fun, but it was just one of those things…” Well, maybe more than one.

A new generation has taken over. As I say on the last night in a small speech at final drinks in Steve and Gabby Ingate’s suite, “Hugh Sheridan, you’re now a trouper in both senses. I’m happily handing the mantle over to you. I have no regrets. Good luck”.

And that pretty much was it. A couple of recovery days back in Hong Kong, then Hello, Sydney. What a wonderful way to finish. Thank you Basil and Jim for a truly memorable time. But oh, I do love my own bed (and shower).

Monday, April 12, 2010


In the Godforsaken Gunnedah story, the price of my Triumph car should have read 750 pounds (i.e. $1500) in those pre-decimal currency days. Still a bargain, though.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Rodney Hatcher was the most beautiful boy in Gunnedah in 1961. A limited claim to fame, I’ll agree, but true nonetheless. I know, because I was there. Unlike the other Rodney H, Rod “the Prod Bod” Hoad, my flatmate at Teachers’ College, he was soft and angelic. Rod Hoad had a muscular, footballer’s body, well-defined pecs and a six-pack. Rodney Hatcher was a 17 year old with the face of a choir boy and a swimmer’s physique.

But I digress.

In 1961 I began my career as a school teacher. Having graduated (Teacher’s Certificate) after a two-year course at Armidale Teachers’ College, I was a qualified primary teacher. The then NSW Department of Education appointed all teachers in public schools. You could apply for a particular place, but as a first-timer, fat chance. So where was I sent? Kelvin Public School, 12 miles north of Gunnedah, a wheat and sheep town of a few thousand inhabitants, in north-west NSW, about five hours’ drive from Sydney. I was put in charge of a one-teacher school in the middle of the wheatfields. I was just 18.

There was a shortage of rural teachers in those days, so I and other students had wisely taken the rural option in our course, knowing we were most likely to end up in the bush. But, hey, all on my own in the wilderness?

I was designated Teacher-in-Charge. My charges were twelve children ranging from 5 years (kindergarten) to 11 (sixth class). There was one boy in sixth class, no one in fifth class and only one girl. Of course, they were the sons and daughter of local wheat farmers. (When I left 2-and-a-half years later, enrolment had soared to 20 – no thanks to me.)

I had almost no idea what to do with them.

I had travelled by train to Gunnedah and then, as advised by my employers, got a lift in the mail van to my new accommodation. There was no school teacher’s house. Instead, I was billeted, term about, with one of the families whose kids I was attempting to teach – a not at all satisfactory arrangement, but there you go.

My first term was to be spent with the Jeffries family. Jeff and Mrs Jeffries had three sons. Peter and Paul were my pupils, Peter being the one sixth class boy. The other son was Robert, 16 years old and very handsome in a suntanned blokey sort of a way. I had bumped Rob out of his bedroom and for all of that term he slept on the veranda, just outside my window. I had a number of sleepless nights.

(Some time later I discovered Rob’s nickname among the town girls was ‘Snake” Jeffries. I never got the chance to find out why – perhaps a mercy.)

The school house had been built in 1899. It was a weatherboard building consisting of one room and a veranda. It had developed a decided list to port. There were also a weather shed, where the kids could eat lunch whilst sheltered from the sun (it hardly ever rained) and two cesspit “dunnies”. Boys’ and Girls’. There was a farmhouse across the dirt road. Other than that the only sign of human habitation was the telephone line strung along the roadside.

Before I go on, another digression. In 1971, while I was living in London, the film Outback was released. It starred Gary Bond as an outback teacher in Australia. The book was called Wake in Fright, as was the movie in Australia, a far more appropriate title. I saw it in London and was both enthralled and horrified. Somebody had made a movie of my life in Gunnedah. With its accurate depiction of drunken pub brawls and ruthless nights of kangaroo-slaughtering, it was not well received in Australia, but was a hit in England. Subsequently all prints of the film were thought lost, until one good copy turned up in 2004. So you could now well rent it from your favourite DVD store and skip the rest of this ramble. The choice is yours.

However, I’ll continue. With only 12 pupils, you’d think I could give them all daily individual tuition. Well, yes, I was OK with the older ones: “Do the sums on page 14 and then learn your spelling list. Write each word five times in your spelling book.” But with the infants – kindy and first class – I had no idea how to start to teach reading and writing. There was no pre-school in those days. I was miserable and frustrated, with no one to turn to.

Mr Johnson was the local school inspector. He was, I discovered, a Freemason and not at all disposed to us Catholics. I never established a helpful relationship with him. One Friday he arrived unannounced – not the proper protocol – and was pleasantly surprised to find me administering the weekly spelling test, with a blackboard full of sums for later. I was trying my best.

Ah yes, the blackboard - just remember that there were no photocopiers; I had no phone, no fridge, no television (a radio, yes, for the lifesaving school programs) and twice a week the mail arrived. And I wore a collar and tie every day, as required.

I was a very unhappy boy. So I took solace in what the local community had to offer, starting with the church. I got a lift into town most Sundays – some of the parents were Catholics – and soon made friends among the younger set after Mass. There was a bunch of guys my age who had formed a dance band. They called themselves The Zodiacs and by good fortune had recently lost their piano player. Hello? So soon Bernie Foster (trumpet), George Speed (sax), Les Fuller (drums) and I found ourselves to be the town’s major dance band, in popular demand. One of our regular gigs was on Saturday night at the Golf Club. In those days teachers weren’t allowed to have second jobs – could lower the tone – but Mr Inspector Johnson’s wife loved her Saturday night dancing to our music, so that was overlooked.

During this time, the highly-disorganised Catholic Youth group, no doubt with Father’s encouragement, decided to stage a Sunday night concert in the church hall after Mass. A good idea, but in retrospect, with no director and a singular lack of talent, a bit of a disaster. Until I sat down at the piano.

I started off with my own arrangement of “Jealousy”, followed it with Winifred Atwell’s “Black and White Rag” (a staple in my repertoire), and finished with an overdramatic rendition of “The Man I Love”. The crowd went wild – possibly with great relief that at last someone had done something remotely entertaining. But who cares? My performance was received with a standing ovation. For the first time in my life, as I stood there acknowledging the applause, I realised I could stand there just as long as they wanted to continue to clap and shout. It was a moment I will never forget.

Now I had begun a network of friends and contacts. I got a few runs on the board. I could stay in town over the weekend, mostly at Bernie Foster’s. He lived with his parents and we slept innocently top-to-toe in his single bed – I was very skinny then.

And I got my first car. I was saving up to buy a second-hand Beetle, something that wouldn’t mind the corrugations in the gravel road too much and didn’t need much looking after. But then came the Credit Squeeze of 1961.

There was a federal election in December 1961. The result was and is still the closest ever. The Menzies Liberals defeated Arthur Calwell’s Labour Party by only one seat. This had been brought about by a credit squeeze which had banks lending less money, firms closing and jobs being lost. The direct effect of this on me was that the Triumph Motor Company had reduced the price of its Herald range to cost price: $750. For a new car. My brother John had latched on to this and suggested it would be a much better buy than a second-hand VW. So I became the proud owner of a Triumph Herald Coupe, a sporty looking thing, but built for English lanes, not the outback cattle tracks of Australia.

However, I was now independently mobile and this improved my social life no end. Amongst new friends was Robin Baxter. She taught at Gunnedah High and was a lot of fun. Her father was the local lawyer and had a property called Gunnible, just a mile or so out of the town. They were very much local nobility, such as it was, and I assume she is an ancestor of Erica Baxter, who married Jamie Packer, then Australia’s richest man, as Erica is a Gunnedah girl.

Another was a local radio station announcer whose name, happily, escapes me. I occasionally stayed in the guest room in his flat. If I hadn’t suspected he was gay, the pile of muscle-builder magazines under my bed would have alerted me. Nothing happened, nor did I want it to.

But I do remember Brian Wallace (not his real name). He too led a dance band (The Limelighters?) and I occasionally filled in on piano at dances. He was also the local shoe shop proprietor, married, no children and his wife was frequently away.

One night after an out-of-town gig he suggested I stay at his place (wifey was away). Perhaps, he said, there was no use making up the spare bed, there was plenty of room in the double bed. I suspected what was coming. When he moved his feet over to tickle mine, I said, “Go to sleep, Brian,” and he did. Well, at least, I did.

So I got through Gunnedah with my virginity intact. (Question: What constitutes losing one’s virginity in the homosexual world? To be discussed at a later date.)

By now I was the regular Friday night pianist at the Regal Hotel. Formerly the Royal, it had a burnt down a few years before and been rebuilt in grand red brick style and re-named. It was by far the smartest hotel in town – as well as a Saloon Bar, (where the local stock-and-station agents drank with the bank managers), it had a Lounge, where my grand piano was to be found. The Mayor of Gunnedah and also the State Parliamentary member (Country Party) was Frank O’Keefe. He always referred to me as his nephew, and I called him Uncle Frank, though we were not related. Every year he hosted a cricket game, the Mayor’s XI against the best of the locals.

One year Frank’s team consisted of Australian Test cricketers Jim Burke, Warren Saunders and Norm O’Neill and other big names. It promised to be a big weekend. I have virtually no interest in cricket, but remember this gang fondly, as they turned up at the Regal on the Friday night. When I discovered both Jim and Warren were very adept on the keyboard, a night of what might be called Duelling Pianos ensued. We took it in turns to upstage each other and I remember I played a Latin-flavoured piece called “Cumana”, full of flourishes and runs I could sort of manage in those days and I like to think it may have won the night. Anyway, it was another memorable night and I’m glad it wasn’t me striding out to the crease the next morning.

But all of this speaks of only the happy weekends. There were still miserable stretches from Monday to Friday of trying to teach and knowing I wasn’t doing well enough. In the evenings after meat and two veg, I’d retire to my room with a book or my new portable record player, alone and bored. By now, understandably, some of the parents were concerned. Little Helen wasn’t reading as well as might be expected, little Timmy was having a hard time with basic maths. Something had to happen.

Meanwhile, in my second year there, the Department decided to build a new school house, no doubt worried that the old one might actually fall down and hurt someone. It was a much grander affair. Besides the classroom there were a store room and an office for me, as well as a wide veranda. They even dug a third dunny, labelled, somewhat grandly, I thought, ‘Staff’. The builder was a Dutchman, a post-war immigrant and at least provided some friendly company during the day.

Two years later, after I’d left, the authorities decided it was cheaper to close the school and bus the kids into town each day. Wonder if it’s still there?

But as my second year at Kelvin was drawing to a close, I begged the Inspector for a transfer. A delegation of concerned parents had also visited him and finally it was announced that this would be my final term at Kelvin P. S.

The parents were never aggressive towards me and now, possibly with some relief, happily organised a farewell in the local hall. I made my goodbyes to friends and the boys in the band, had a last beer at the Regal and packed my bags. I headed home for the long Christmas holidays with my family, no longer on the farm, but living in suburban Strathfield, a rather gentrified Sydney suburb.

You can imagine everyone’s concern when at the end of January I turned up back in Kelvin, this time in my own car, the transfer having been refused, indeed, probably never even considered by the authorities. It was a most embarrassing moment for everyone, me especially. There was nothing to do but submit my resignation. I was still under a bond: in return for two year’s allowance while at Teachers’ College, I pledged to work for the Department for the first three years. I was two terms short, but the financial sacrifice was worth it. And I had decided I hated school teaching.

And Rodney Hatcher? Well, though he never knew it, he had helped me keep my sanity during that time. Often we would lay our towels out on the grass beside the Council swimming pool, in those delicious days before they invented board shorts, and chat about nothing. He had a prominent place in my dreams and fantasies. Remember, we were only twelve months apart in age, though our positions in the local community were quite disparate. The latter didn’t seem to bother either of us and although he wasn’t the brightest kid on the block, neither was I.

Monday, February 8, 2010


(NB: I wrote this up a few years ago, before I set up my blogspot and before I had my own computer. Having retrieved it, I think it’s worth blogging. I hope you do.)

Having recently turned 65, I naively assumed that our gracious government would be contacting me along the lines of, "Congratulations, Hugh, old boy, you've reached retirement age at last. After a lifetime of dutiful payment of tax, you are now entitled to your reward." Well, that was silly of me, wasn't it? So I decided to take the matter into my own hands.
Despite rapidly approaching dinosaur status, I felt I am modern enough to apply online and duly found the appropriate site. I began filling in the required information until I found a question I couldn't answer (my superannuation commencement date) without further research. As I use the library's computer, this meant logging out and starting over.
On my second attempt I did a lot better and eventually was given a reference number and informed that I had successfully applied and would receive the relevant papers in the mail soon. So much for the paperless society.
To my surprise, the papers duly arrived. Now among other things, I had to prove I was born. So on to another website to apply for a birth certificate from the Victorian government. This meant more waiting, which is a concern, because the pension will be paid from the date of application (not one's actual birthday) BUT ONLY IF ALL THE PAPERWORK IS DONE AND PRESENTED WITHIN A FORTNIGHT. Fat chance.
Finally, I'd filled in everything, had all the relevant documents - passport, birth certificate, driver's licence, bank statement, etc - so now there was a phone number to ring for an appointment.
"Yes, Mr O'Keefe, your relevant Centrelink is at Darlinghurst, but there are no appointments available for three months - but that's not unusual." This last comment would surely not endear him to his employers? "However, you can have a walk-in appointment."
"Oh, what's that?"
"You just turn up and information will put you in the queue."
"That doesn't sound like an appointment to me." None the less, that's what I did, yesterday.
I got to Information after only ten minutes and explained I was applying for the Old Age Pension (oops, in these politically correct times, the Age Pension). He promptly gave me forms but I pointed out that I had already filled in the relevant form.
"Oh, where did you get that?" he asked with some surprise.
"In the mail," I said, which seemed to confuse him somewhat. However, he told me to take a seat and someone would be with me shortly.
Forty minutes later (I'd brought a good book) a voice said "Mr O'Keefe?" and Phil took me to his work station. He was charming, helpful and apologetic, but that wasn't much help. I informed him I'd applied online and here was my application and supporting documents. "But you haven't filled in an application," he said. I found this somewhat confusing, but now that I had access to a real person at a real computer, I wasn't of a mind to argue. So he got me an application form. In the course of filling it in, I realised that this was all the stuff I'd entered on the online application. He said, "Well, it's safer to have it in writing." Again, I wasn't arguing.
Meanwhile, as I reapplied, he looked at the first form I'd filled in and said, "They've sent you the wrong form." Well, it didn't say Dole, it didn't say Job Seeker, it said Age Pension Application, but there you go. So he went off again to get the RIGHT FORM.
Have you ever been to Centrelink? They do a great show. While all this was going on, a very short, very irate Aboriginal woman stormed into the interview area demanding money, using buckets of foul language, including frequent references to having conjugal relations with one's maternal parent. No one but me seemed to find this unusual, so I stayed Mum. Also, when one of the other interviewers left her station to ask some question of my Phil, the two rather grubby applicants at her station went into a deep and serious pash session which wasn't abandoned until their interviewer returned. I'd rate the whole place MA.
So now, after an hour with Phil, we had abandoned the online original application and done a written one. We had also torn up the original written application and filled in the right one. Now to enter it into the computer - hah!
Would Mister Computer accept this stuff? No way. So a phone call to the hot line, a ten minute wait, and eventually all was duly entered - I think.
But one last thing. I hadn't brought my employer's payslips (I work casually). Nowhere on any form, electronic or otherwise had these been asked for. So tomorrow I will have to turn up with these, and, as instructed, march straight through the office (much like my indigenous sister, but more discreetly) and slip these on to Phil's desk. And wait to see what happens next.

Well, dear readers, when I closed Part One of this odyssey/ordeal, I was in the last stages of applying for my Age Pension, very much a stop/start operation. I was asked by my now very close and personal friend Phil at Centrelink to provide recent payslips from my university employment to finalize operations. Now read on...

On the appointed Friday I again went to Centrelink and followed Phil's instructions. I waltzed straight up to his desk to present said papers. If he was with a client, he'd acknowledge me. I did so... NO PHIL! EMPTY DESK!... so I reported to enquiries and they assured me he was on the premises, probably "on a break". I took a seat and waited. Indeed he finally appeared, calling for another client, and I accosted him. "Oh, yes", he said, "have you registered?" But, I thought, you said just to come straight to you - so I went and registered.

I took another seat (I was beginning to amass quite a collection of them by now) and in due course Phil saw me, processed the final papers and that was that. Or was it?

On 31 October I received a letter from Centrelink – the first of many - rejecting my claim because my income was "above the allowable limit". They then listed two sets of figures:

Annual Income: $2,498.85
Regular Fortnightly Income: $3,090.93

Can even the most numerically-challenged among you spot the anomaly here? I should think so. It seems my fortnightly income was almost one and a half times my annual income - a somewhat TARDIS-like situation, devoutly to be wished. (Mind you, were I earning $3,000ish a fortnight, why would I want the pension?)

Back to the drawing board and back to Centrelink. I submitted a written statement explaining that the $3,090.93 payment was made in one fortnight pay period for work done over almost three months. I had submitted my previous payslip for $2,000.45, for work done three months earlier. I had even submitted my tax return, which showed annual earnings of $8,764.00. (Where they got the $2,498.85 figure from, I'll never know.)

Well, in due course (11 December, almost six weeks later) Mr Hugh Marsh from Centrelink wrote to inform me that my application had been approved (no apologies or explanations, of course) and that I qualified for the full $543.50 a fortnight, duly backdated. Hooray! End of story! Don't you kid yourself...

There's more.

I have a pension from "old" NSW State Superannuation of around $500 a fortnight. I had been informed that it would "never" affect my Age Pension. However, during my myriad enquiries I had learned that this might not be the case. So being the devout Marist Brothers boy that I am (?!) I wrote to Centrelink (3 January) and informed them of this pension. They wrote back lickety-split the next day requesting I supply a letter from State Super with the details. This I did, with a covering note.

Some days later I received an SMS asking me to access mail at their website. I tried, but found I had no password. I phoned Centrelink on 31 January and a very pleasant operator (they all are, God knows they’d have to be) provided me with a password (for computer) and PIN (for phone). Yippee! So back to the library and on to the website, but to no avail.

Yet another phone call, only to be informed that my pension had been SUSPENDED. That's why I couldn't access the website. No one had advised me of this action. Centrelink had requested I access my mail, but prevented me from doing so. The officer who supplied the password had not mentioned this, nor could anyone give me a reason.

I explained that I had provided the (original) letter from State Super, but the claimed not to have received it. The operator blithely explained that they might have lost it... or maybe the Post Office had!

(During this phone call I was also informed that Centrelink was investigating my British pension - this was a big surprise to me. I had informed them that I worked in England from 1969 to 1974. They said their records showed I was there from 1968 to 1979 - a period of over ten years, entitling me, if I had worked all this time, to a British pension. We sorted that one.)

So, I obtained another original from State Super and sent it Registered Mail in early February. Wait. No response. Ring again on 27 February to be informed they haven't received that letter either. Call Australia Post. "Yes, Mr O'Keefe, you posted it on 14 February, we delivered it on 15 February."

Telephone officer suggests I go to Centrelink, have the letter faxed and get confirmation of its being sent. I do so. Wait a few days and get an SMS. You have mail. Try to access, but am told "account suspended". Another phone call. "Oh, but Mr O'Keefe, your pension has been restored, retroactive to 25 December." (Hey, how about that, they had cut it off on Christmas Day - how touching.) "And I'll free up your password so you can access the site." (I still can't.)

At my request, the charming girl printed off the letter and posted it to me. It informed me that on the basis of new information I had provided they had restored my pension, readjusted to $423.09 a fortnight. No apology, no explanation. And that's where things stand.

POSTSCRIPT: During the following week I received two separate hand-addressed letters from Centrelink, containing the two original State Super letters, the ones they claimed never to have received. Two denials. One more and they'd be up there with St Peter.

So if you're planning to turn 65 and you're poor, keep this instructive missive in a safe place.

UPDATE – Feb 2010
In mid-January I received a letter from Centrelink informing me that my pension had been cut off on 8 December as I HAD NOT REPORTED! Reported what? I am now completely unemployed, have no income, therefore have nothing to report I phoned immediately, got the usual charming woman who got my details up on her screen and said, “But Mr O’Keefe, that’s silly – you don’t have to report and there’s a note on your file saying so.” Well, darling, could you tell someone?

There and then she restored my pension, retrospective to 8 December, and duly marked my file. A week later, I got a letter saying that as I had now supplied the information they had requested (?!), my pension had been restarted. No apology, of course.

I don’t think the war is over yet.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


12 May 2009

I’m sitting on the first floor balcony of the Bourbon (Hotel: this word appears no where on their livery) in Kings Cross, sipping a glass of red wine. It is Happy Hour in more than one sense. Yes, the drinks are half price, but it is also that time when the worries of the day are drifting off and the evening’s promises are to come.

It’s 6.00pm on an autumn evening and down Macleay St the plane trees are dropping their leaves and the ambient street lighting is strangely seductive. It’s very easy just to gaze at the scene and watch the traffic pass by. Occasionally a 311 bus goes by, but only very occasionally.

I’m a local. I live in the building next door. My northerly aspect takes in Fitzroy Gardens and the El Alamein Fountain – my favourite Sydney fountain. I’ve been here for eighteen years. I have no desire to live anywhere else.

When I finish my drink I’ll go home to the ABC News, maybe grill a chop or whip up some pasta, settle in to some TV or reading (and another red wine) and it will be lights-out around 10.30pm. Tomorrow morning I’ll wake about 7.00am, collect my morning paper, make a coffee and take both back to bed.

During my sleeping hours, the night creatures will descend on the scene. Bods in their twenties and thirties – IT experts, bankers, football players – in their post-office Calvins and Hilfigers and long-legged stilettoed girls in black dresses that look like underwear will brave the bouncers at the Sugar Mill, the Elk, Madame De Biers, the aforementioned Bourbon, or any one of a dozen nightspots in the area. Having already popped some pills, they’ll sink a few drinks, bop to the head-banging noise they call music and maybe get lucky with the opposite sex.

All this while I sleep soundly – their world is not mine, though we share the same physical space.

When I moved here in 1991, Fitzroy Gardens at night was populated by rent boys. The nearby Rex Hotel had a gay bar (the Bottoms Up Bar, would you believe), hence the late-night presence of the hopeful lads. I studiously avoided them.

After the euphoria of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, virtually all of the area’s tourist hotels – the Landmark, the Hyatt Kingsgate, the Rex, even the singular Sebel Town House – were converted to trendy apartment blocks and gentrification began.

Around this time, a group, indeed, tribe, of aborigines moved into the Gardens and set up camp under the Moreton Bay fig trees. The occasional noise of smashing bottles in the middle of the night was a nuisance. A local police officer told me that several of them had Housing Commission flats in Waterloo, but they preferred to live under the stars. Eventually, I don’t know how, they were moved on.

Nowadays the gardens are populated by locals walking their dogs (pooper scooper is de rigueur) and new mums with strollers and toddlers romping in the local playground. What a different world it is.

Well really, there are two different worlds. In the world of the night creatures, an eccy is dropped, drink is taken, birds and lads are chatted up, a night is raged away.

In my world, cappuccinos are taken in the morning sunshine, the boutiques and bookshops are visited, shopping is done at Woolies or Fratelli Fresh, lunch with friends is at Café Sopra or Zinc. If it’s a sunny day, I might take my book down to Beare Park on the shores of Elizabeth Bay in the afternoon. And this rolls into Happy Hour at the Bourbon, where this story began.