Jan 8

If there’s one thing I learnt from watching our most recent Sunday Night Classic Movie, The Silencers, it’s that Dean Martin loved a drink. Apparently it was a condition of Dino’s contract that alcohol not only be constantly available on set, but that every scene in the film include an open bottle of booze, even when he’s tooling through the desert in his quite amazing 1965 Mercury Colony Park station wagon:

That’s a well-stocked travel bar you can see peeking out from behind the driver’s seat as our male lead accepts a glass from his female companion. One for the road, Dino?

The Silencers, released in 1966, is a tongue-in-cheek spy romp based on a novel by Donald Hamilton. Responding to the James Bond craze then sweeping the world, The Silencers was the first of four films to feature crooning “Rat Pack” alumnus Dean Martin as government agent Matt Helm.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around an evil individual called “Big O” (or perhaps it’s an organisation, it’s hard to tell) who plans to divert an American nuclear test missile so that it crashes back into a large underground cache of other nuclear weapons. Helm is called out of retirement to put a stop to this, with the resulting course of events often totally mystifying.

For some reason Helm keeps finding beautiful women in his bedroom, or in his car, or in other places. One beautiful woman tells him something about a mysterious “computer tape”, crucial to Big O’s plan. Helm drives to a desert resort hotel, the location for the drop-off of the tape to a Big O henchman. While watching a semi-erotic dance routine in the hotel lounge, Helm somehow ends up in the company of another beautiful woman, who through a strange and unfathomable series of events has acquired the tape. The pair take off into the desert in his enormous station wagon, stopping overnight in a swamp where the car converts magically into a swanky bachelor pad. Here’s Dino in the back, assisting his friend with the removal of her wet clothes:

The plot doesn’t really go anywhere after that. Helm saves the world in the end of course, by diverting the missile into Big O’s own headquarters. On the way he meets a variety of strange characters, most of whom he kills, including one old guy who wanders around draped in an electric blanket. Of more interest than the plot are the hilarious props: a circular bed that moves across the floor and tilts to 90 degrees, bath robes that descend from the ceiling, some sort of automatic towel system, a gun that fires backwards into the stomach of the unwitting shooter.

Dean Martin was in his late forties, and already a hugely famous singer and actor, when The Silencers was made. He had been playing nightclubs for decades, and was a legendary boozer. The cracks are beginning to show by 1966. Dino’s face is leathery and coarse. He sweats 100% alcohol. His lower lip is permanently creased from contact with glass. He sways and slurs his way from one scene to the next, delivering his lines with almost no inflection or nuance. At times his leading ladies seemed almost repulsed to be kissing him.

Nevertheless, The Silencers comes highly recommended by me. It’s truly hysterical from start to finish. Do yourself a favour and track down a copy.

Jan 2
Sharp Dressed Man
icon4 Jan 2nd, 2010 | icon2 Family, Fashion | icon3Comments Off

It was 1977, the year in which punk reigned supreme. In the UK both the Sex Pistols and the Clash released their debut albums, while closer to home the Saints and Radio Birdman did likewise. Anarchy was in the air. Schapelle Corby was born. Gold and Black won the Cup. I turned seven years old. My sister Julie got married, and to her wedding I wore a cornflower blue suit.

That’s me in front looking surprisingly happy to be having perhaps my life’s worst fashion moment. I was probably doped up on Milky Way Bars. The white skivvy says it all really. I think it was either that or a bow tie, so better the devil you know. I find the brown shoes go well with the blue suit, don’t you? The flower was ripped out twelve seconds after this photo was taken.

On the left is Dad, timeless in charcoal suit, thinking about the outboard motor he could’ve bought for the cost of this bloomin’ wedding. Mum is wearing a nice floral number with a pink triffid blossom that threatens to go for the jugular. That’s Grandma on the right, down from Rockhampton, wearing one of her countless number of increasingly dazzling muumuus.

And then there’s the bride and groom. Nothing dates this photo more than the powder blue tux and velvet bow tie. Or maybe the hairstyles. Julie and her new English husband Alan (looking here like one of the cello players from ELO) were fledgling hippies, soon to move to Mount Gambier, where Julie would teach primary school and Alan would be a cabinetmaker. They baked bread and had a bean bag. I know because I slept on it when we visited the following year. (It was on this same trip that I was falsely accused of weeing on the toilet floor among other felonies.)

Dec 28
I Feel the Earth Move …
icon4 Dec 28th, 2009 | icon2 Memories | icon3Comments Off

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Newcastle earthquake. Being a proud Novocastrian, I was in Newie on that fateful day and can remember it vividly. Our family always had Christmas holidays in Forster, so it was unusual for us to be at home in late December, but for some reason that year we came back to Newcastle for a few days around Christmas. Perhaps it was because my sister was visiting from the US, where she was living at the time.

Just before 10:30 on that morning I was lying on my bed, probably reading a book or listening to music. It began as a very subtle shaking, so slight that for a second or two I thought it was just our old washing machine jumping up and down. But as it grew more violent I realised this was something else entirely. I stood up and went to the kitchen, where mum was standing. My sister had come out of the loungeroom and for a second or two we stood looking at each other as the house shook and things started falling off shelves. Our old house was a wooden frame weatherboard place, built in the early ’50s. For those few seconds it felt like being inside a shoebox that was being twisted back and forth. It’s amazing that there wasn’t severe structural damage – I guess they don’t make ‘em like they used to!

In maybe ten seconds it was over. I think one of us said the word “earthquake”, which is what I’m sure we were all thinking. But an earthquake in Newcastle? We all went out the front and looked up and down the street, most of our neighbours had the same idea. Across the road a car had stopped and its driver was crouched on the road, looking underneath, wondering what it was that had caused his car to go haywire. Of course his car was fine, it was the road that was momentarily screwed up.

One of our neighbours was talking about a possible explosion at the BHP steel works. We all looked in that direction for any signs of smoke or fire. But as we went back inside I think we knew that we had just experienced an earthquake.

Of course we didn’t know the extent of the damage at that time. The power had gone out and so we had no television. I had an appointment at 11:00 to get the brakes fixed on my car, so off I drove to the mechanics in Tudor St, Hamilton. Little did I know that this was the area which suffered the most damage. As I drove I passed many houses that hadn’t fared as well as ours. Most people stood in shock, some crying, outside their homes. Fire engines and ambulances roared by, the air filled with the wailing of sirens. When I arrived at the mechanics I found that one entire wall had collapsed, the employees standing around looking at the pile of rubble. Assuming that my appointment was cancelled I turned around and headed home.

Over the next hour we got more news via the radio. We sat in our loungeroom in amazement as we heard of the people killed in Beaumont St, Hamilton, crushed by fallen shop awnings. And then we heard that the Newcastle Workers’ Club – a local institution! – had collapsed and that people were trapped inside. Nine were to die in that one building alone.

In 1998 the telemovie “Aftershocks” – adapted from the play by Paul Brown – told the story of the Newcastle Earthquake. I was played by a young David Wenham.

Here is some old NBN news footage of the disaster (WARNING: This footage contains ’80s fashions):

Dec 27
Christmas Craziness
icon4 Dec 27th, 2009 | icon2 Bric-a-Brac | icon3Comments Off

Well, our Chrissie was a good one, got lots of nice pressies, ate lots of nice food, and so on … but our quiet little corner of the world had its share of newsworthiness on Christmas Day.

You may have seen on the news that a guy was shot by police following a neighbourhood dispute in Lisarow, which is our suburb! And it happened just a stone’s throw from Rach’s mum’s house, which is a bit scary! The police had the road blocked yesterday, and there were journos nosing about getting quotes from the neighbours for the evening news. On the same day a woman was hit by a van while walking on the footpath just a few streets away from us. And to top it off, a guy was bitten by a shark at Avoca Beach, our latest favourite swimming spot!

Apart from all that the day went fairly smoothly. I was lucky enough to take out the Annual Christmas Day Family Texas Hold ‘Em Poker Tournament – my second win in three years, to blow my own trumpet!

The last two days I’ve done not very much apart from eat leftovers and read my book while keeping an eye on the Boxing Day Test Match. Go Pakistan!

Dec 22

Last weekend we watched the first in the Sunday Night Classic Movie series. Rach’s mother Margaret (aka “Gum”) got first pick, and chose a favourite from her youth, Blue Hawaii starring Elvis Presley.

Released in 1961, Blue Hawaii was Presley’s eighth film, and followed a pattern common to most of Elvis’s movies: a loosely connected series of songs interspersed with lots of pretty girls and occasional narrative elements.

Let me give you a quick run-down of the tissue-thin plot. Chadwick (“Chad”) Gates, played by Elvis, is a young GI returning to Hawaii after two years of military service in Europe. Chad is happy to be re-united with his French-Hawaiian girlfriend, Maile (pronounced “my-lee”), and his gang of eccentric yet musically gifted beach buddies, but he quickly reveals an underlying restlessness and uncertainty about his future.

Also waiting for Chad are his somewhat overbearing parents, whose deepest wish is that their son make a career in the family’s flourishing pineapple business. (Chad’s mother, a domineering Southern dame, is played by the venerable Angela Lansbury. This despite the fact that Lansbury is English and only ten years older than Presley.)

Chad’s desire to strike out on his own leads to the central conflict of the film, an ideological clash between himself and his parents regarding the importance of career success, financial independence, and so on. Furthermore, when Chad lands a job as a tour guide to an attractive American school teacher and her four amorous female pupils it’s clear that this temptation will test the strength of his commitment to his beloved Maile.

I won’t spoil the film for you by giving away the ending, but I will comment briefly on some of the more noteworthy or otherwise mystifying scenes:

  • early in the first reel a Corgi appears on the beach and is brutally rough-housed by Chad and his pals before making off with Maile’s bikini top
  • Chad’s parents’ butler is a bumbling young fellow of Asian appearance whose name is “Ping Pong”
  • a young girl, one of Chad’s clients, driven temporarily insane by a combination of unrequited love and long-term parental abandonment, steals a pink jeep which she proceeds to crash into a grove of palm trees before attempting suicide by drowning. Chad drags her from the water and dispenses his unique brand of psycho-therapy, a good old-fashioned spanking!
  • the use of greenscreen technology is woefully bad, as in the “picnic” scene, where the waves of distant Waikiki Beach are seemingly frozen in time

The songs are nothing to write home about either. The only one you’re likely to know is “Cant’ Help Falling in Love”, which is sung by Elvis to Maile’s grandmother on the occasion of her 78th birthday. Other musical interludes include “Rock-a-Hula Baby”, “Slicin’ Sand” (a beach dance party rave-up), and the classic Hawaiian tune “Aloha Oe”. As luck would have it, we own a copy of the Blue Hawaii soundtrack album, purchased from a recycle centre for 20c. We’ll be sure to give it a spin on Christmas Day.

This was the first of three Elvis films to be filmed in Hawaii and makes good use of the local scenery. A number of scenes are shot around Waikiki, with Diamond Head dominant in the background. I was delighted to learn that the early “beach shack” scene was filmed at Hanauma Bay (shown below), a popular swimming and snorkelling beach about 15km from Honolulu. I swam there when I visited Hawaii in 1997, and it’s a gorgeous spot, with a crystal clear lagoon surrounded on three sides by the sheer walls of an ancient volcanic crater.

In summary:

Blue Hawaii is a harmless beach romp, suitable for the whole family. Blissfully free of plot and characterisation, with the occasional double entendre (delivered with Elvis’s trademark wry grin) to keep things spicy. Three-and-a-half stars.

Dec 13
A Very Snubian Christmas
icon4 Dec 13th, 2009 | icon2 Neighbours | icon3Comments Off

Once again our neighbours have gone into uber-friendly Christmas mode.

First we get a notice in our letter box from down the street asking if we’d like to be part of the Christmas morning Santa syndicate. For a small fee it can be arranged for Santa to stop by and deliver to our bright-eyed kiddies a pre-purchased gift to the value of $20. This is an annual event in our street. Sadly I can’t find the piece of paper otherwise I’d go on heckling in more detail.

Next arrives from a few doors down – people we’ve barely seen let alone spoken with – an invitation to a “Christmas eve street party”. Apparently BBQ facilities are provided, so all we need to do is bring our own food and drinks and we can all get together and “have a few laughs”.

I’d rather eat tinsel.

You see, our neighbours are a strange lot. There’s the “Takaluas” (not their real name) next door who, though unfailingly friendly, are a mysterious bunch with odd nocturnal habits. The “Ethans” (not their real name) on the other side are a pair of screaming nutcases who are on the verge of bringing a third child into their high-tension household. Further afield our street holds a selection of suburbanites who collectively have taken lawn care (and hence annoying me) to new extremes. One of my favourites is “Crown Lager guy”, who can be seen in his front yard each afternoon around 4:30, cradling a Crownie, looking for his next conversational victim. Lately he has taken to standing, beer in hand, out front of the construction site across the road, staring intently through the wire mesh fence at the bare concrete slab, as if it somehow all makes sense.

You’re probably thinking I’m being a bit bah humbuggy about this, and you’d be right. I’ve searched deep within myself and found not even an inkling of desire to spend a single minute socialising with any of our neighbours. For 364 days of the year they annoy the shit out of me with their lawn mowers and line trimmers, so I don’t see why I should happily share a beer and a sausage with them just because it’s Christmas.

I plan to spend Christmas Eve with people I care about. Namely, Rach, our cats, and a large glass of eggnog.

Nov 27
Ticket to Ride
icon4 Nov 27th, 2009 | icon2 Bric-a-Brac | icon3Comments Off

I’m sure I’m not the first person to do this, but I’m going to rant about Ticketek for a few minutes.

We decide to go to the cricket in January, so I sit down at my computer, open up a web browser and connect to the Ticketek website. My eyes are instantly assaulted by so many animated images, scrolling text boxes and overlapping advertisements (no, I don’t want to buy a Robbie Williams T-shirt) that I have to look away.

Gritting my teeth I turn back to the screen and type “cricket” into the keyword search. A few mouse clicks later and I am looking at the ticket selection screen. There are no less than 8 ticket price categories to choose from. We are keen to sit in the upper level of the Brewongle stand, which is in the “Gold” category, so I select “Gold” and continue by hitting the button which reads “Get Tickets!” (Sounds promising, right?)

I am looking at a different screen now. The only options I have are to select a Price Category and number of tickets required. I dutifully select “Gold” from the drop-down list and press “Continue”, knowing that this will get me nowhere. And sure enough, the tickets it wants to give me are in Bay 16-1, in the concourse below the Victor Trumper Stand.

I try to reason with the computer. “But we don’t want to sit there,” I say, “we want to sit in the Brewongle Stand.” It pays me no attention.

Of course I knew all along that this would happen. I knew that the Ticketek website (or “web-shite” – hey, is that a new word?) is woefully inadequate. It is impossible to choose the seats you want. All you can do is specify how many tickets, and in which price category, and the website selects the “best available” seats that meet your requirements. It then gives you precisely 8 minutes to decide whether you want to keep the tickets or not. A photon travels from the sun to Earth in that time, although whether this is relevant I am not sure.

I certainly did not want to keep these tickets, so I hit a button that says “Remove”. Rather than taking me back one step to the ticket selection page, it kicks me way back to the home page, perhaps trying to twist my arm on the whole Robbie Williams T-shirt thing. Fuck you, Ticketek.

OK, to the Bat Phone! But nowhere on the Ticketek homepage does it give their call centre phone number. I had to click on a button that says “Agencies” to find it, in text about 2mm high.

Like many customer service telephone systems these days, my call to Ticketek begins with a computerised conversation which tries to narrow down what it is that I want. The theory behind this is that, unlike humans, computers can deal with thousands of customers at once, are cheap to operate, and don’t need to go to the toilet or down to the street for a quick fag.

My new computer friend started by asking a vague question about what sort of event I was interested in. Wanting to be as non-confrontational as possible, I said ”cricket”.

Based on the subtleties of my verbal response, and through a series of complex algorithmic processes, the computer system was clever enough to understand immediately that I was interested in purchasing tickets for a match in the forthcoming 2009/10 summer of cricket. But it needed more information.

There is a whole slew of cricket being played this summer. Six different competitions in fact. I know because the computerised voice read out all six and asked me to repeat exactly the one that I wanted to attend. And the options weren’t short either. They were things like “Pizza Hut Under-12 Sheffield Shield Alcohol-Free Victor Chang Fundraising Gala 20/20 Match at North Sydney Number Two Oval on February 13, 14 and 16″.

It took more than a minute for the voice to say all six. By the time it got to the end all I could remember of my desired option was “International Cricket Season”, so I said that. There was a brief pause, then I could’ve sworn I detected something like a computerised tutting, as if to say “You weren’t listening, were you, dickhead?”

The computer read the six options a second time and I wrote down word-for-word the one I wanted: ”The International Cricket Season 2009/2010 in Sydney and Adelaide”. I repeated it carefully and in a voice reminiscent of Laurence Olivier as Hamlet.

A sigh of relief from the computer – no need to repeat those options yet again – and I went on to the next step: choosing a date. This was a piece of piss by comparison and so just a few seconds later I was on hold, waiting for an operator (a human!) while listening to a rather fetching piano piece which looped every 37 seconds. And there I sat for 30 minutes. I reckon I could play that piano piece by heart.

Anyway, this long story has a happy ending. I spoke to a nice young lady whose name escapes me, she quickly verified that the information I had earlier given to the computerised lady was accurate, asked me a few more pertinent questions, and before I knew it I was $204.50 poorer. But I had two tickets in the bloody Brewongle Stand!

If it rains on 4th January I’m going to kill someone, I swear.

Nov 22
Go Figure
icon4 Nov 22nd, 2009 | icon2 Music | icon3Comments Off

While flipping through Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald I came across a section entitled “Christmas Gift Guide 2009″. The idea is a bunch of “experts” in various fields – design, fashion, technology, music, and so on – provide a list of Christmas gift ideas, presumably for those who lack inspiration or imagination.

The first item on the “Music” page was this:

My first thought was, “what the fuck?”

If you can’t work out what it is, I’ll help you out. This is a Johnny Cash figurine, which can be purchased from Hobbyco for the bargain price of $29.95 (or from Amazon.com for US$6.99 plus shipping). But who would buy this?! It looks awful! His face is all screwed up – he looks more like the Incredible Hulk than the Man in Black.

It’s a bit hard to tell from the picture above, but Johnny is walking along a railway track, and in fact he is striding purposefully along a single rail. Get the reference? He’s “walking the line”. How literal-minded are these people?

If poor Johnny was alive today, I’m guessing his response would be something like this:

But that’s not all. On the same page was this:

Yes, it’s Kurt Cobain, as seen in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged session, complete with mic and music stands. Good Lord, who gave permission for this travesty?! Does anybody seriously think Cobain himself would approve?

Amazon has dozens more of these things. Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, John Lennon, Jimmy Page, The Ramones, AC/DC, Sid Vicious, the list goes on and on. And some of them are truly terrifying. Here’s Mick Jagger:

Hmm, I’ve just been doing some sums, and in fact these are quite cheap given the present US$ exchange rate. I could ship out, say, 15 or 20 of these suckers, and that would cover just about all my Christmas gifts for 2009 …

OK friends, if you’re expecting a gift from me this year, pretend you didn’t read this, and act surprised for my sake. Thank you and Merry Christmas.

Nov 15
Terviseks!
icon4 Nov 15th, 2009 | icon2 Food, Music | icon31 Comment »

A belated tänan väga to Christina and Pawel for the hospitality they displayed at their recent Estonian/Polish bash. After being greeted by the hosts, who were resplendent in Estonian traditional dress, we settled in for a pleasant evening of Esto-Polish delights.

The vast array of dishes on offer is a blur to me now, although I remember the blood sausage with special fondness. Served with potatoes, Estonian sauerkraut and cranberry relish … mmm, delicious! Also on offer – courtesy of Yusuke – was okonomiyaki, a sort of “Japanese pizza”, which was a revelation. This is definitely something to look out for. But perhaps my favourite was Pawel’s Polish apple pie, which had me saying “tak, proszę!” to a second (and third) helping.

Another highlight of the night – at least for Rach and I – was our discovery of Żubrówka, a distilled rye vodka flavoured with bison grass from the ancient Białowieża Forest. Polish infants are weaned on this stuff at an early age, but sadly I had to wait 39 years for my first taste. The customary drinking technique is for all present to drink a shot in unison, with a hearty cry of “terviseks!”, followed by a swig of apple juice. Alternatively the two can be mixed, but the vodka is pleasant on its own.

Each bottle of Żubrówka traditionally contains a blade of bison grass, purely for decoration, although this didn’t stop certain Antipodean party-goers from attempting to consume the grass once the bottle was empty.

Topping off a perfect evening, Rach and I were lucky enough to win what was possibly the first ever Estonian/Polish trivia competition, our prize being a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka! Jah!! (I always knew my encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Polish trade unions would come in handy one day.)

During the course of the night I couldn’t help but be impressed by the music that was playing quietly in the background. The unusual mixture of traditional Eastern European folk, eighties pop and Lloyd Webber-style musical theatre was ear-catching to say the least. I made a mental note to see what I could find out about the Estonian rock music scene.

Although viewed as undesirable by Soviet authorities, popular music established itself in Estonia in the seventies, in the form of a heavy-style progressive rock. One of my favourites is Gunnar Graps Group (or simply “GGG”), who in appearance and sound are very similar to UK metal pioneers Judas Priest, while also incorporating a distinctive Eastern-European melodicism.

Here is GGG performing the song “Hingeleegid”:

Of course, the story of Estonian music doesn’t end with Gunnar Graps Group. There is something for everyone, whether it be the runic-folk-metal of Metsatöll, or the chart-topping girl group Vanilla Ninja. Let me end by playing another clip, this time by subversive punk rockers Singer Vinger. Here they are in 1987 performing “Mina pean sambat tantsida saama”. (I’d give anything for the lead singer’s T-shirt.)

Nov 13
Tooth Hurty
icon4 Nov 13th, 2009 | icon2 Bric-a-Brac, Memories | icon3Comments Off

What’s the best time to go to the dentist? (See the title of this post for the answer.)

So I had a wisdom tooth pulled out yesterday. Upper left. It had been giving me gyp for a few weeks, nothing too bad though. Nowhere near as painful as when my other wisdom tooth went to the dark side, a year or so ago.

Let me digress for a moment by saying that I am not a big fan of going to the dentist. This probably goes back to when I was in primary school, when we used to have an annual event called a “Brush-In”. The Brush-In (presumably the name is in the vein of “bed-in”, “sit-in” and so on) was a kind of enforced, intensive tooth-brushing session, overseen by a crack team of dental hygiene professionals. Doesn’t sound too bad, right?

Wrong.

The problem was the toothpaste. They weren’t using no Colgate, let me tell you. This stuff was fucking disgusting. It was pink and gritty, and its smell alone was enough to send a kid running. The rumour in the playground was that if you should be so unfortunate as to swallow any of this rancid paste you would vomit uncontrollably until your body was purged of the vile poison.

The Brush-In could occur on any day of the year, and we were never informed in advance. It would simply be announced with little or no notice, and we’d be marched across to the toilet block where the Brush-In crew would be waiting. Every kid would be given a new toothbrush and a paddle-pop stick with a lump of the deadly pink goo. In groups of six we’d stand at the sink and brush away until our overseers were satisfied.

My next brush (pun intended) with the dentist came when I was 12. For some reason one of my front baby teeth refused to fall out on its own, and was beginning to look a little ridiculous. Mum took me to a dentist one day after school, and before having the offending tooth ripped out, I was forced to brush once again with the same pink gloop as I’d dreaded for so many years in primary school. Anyway, the tooth came out easy – it was loose anyway – and apart from the shame of walking around Woolworths with a mouth full of cotton wool while mum did the weekly shopping, the trip was a success.

It did, however, mark the beginning of a dental drought for me, as I wasn’t to go to the dentist again for more than 25 years.

Which brings me back to having my first wisdom tooth pulled out, which happened about a year ago. I won’t go into gory details, but it really hurt like hell, an abscess having formed under the decayed tooth cap. Luckily, Rach’s uncle is a top dentist in Newcastle (like me, he’s a proud Novocastrian) and he sorted me out nicely, got it out in just a few minutes without any pain, and the relief was blissfully instantaneous.

Yesterday’s operation was only slightly more difficult. The tooth itself needed a bit more coaxing out of its position, but now I have a nice big hole where the tooth used to be. Luckily, my teeth are generally pretty solid – no cavities, no fillings – so I’m going to see if I can’t beat my 25 year record.

Here is a video of some dude getting a wisdom tooth yanked. This dentist also works part time as a butcher. Don’t watch if you’re squeamish.

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