Are the Trains Late?

I made the mistake the other day of communicating to Sleepy Jack Hanrahan the gist of a farcical little scene I’d witnessed on the new Sydney tram. His response was, “Yeah. Funny people are always happening on trains, light or heavy . . . Which reminds me.”

And not waiting for an invitation, he launched headlong into the following.

One afternoon not so long ago I was sitting in a suburban train bound for Sydney. Just before Lidcombe, thinking of the virtues of a multicultural Oz (as one is wont, isn’t one, around Lidcombe?), I made the mistake of mumbling the word “Australia”. All at once the young woman next to me gasped and stiffened, fearful perhaps that I was some fugitive axe murderer about to let fly. When nothing bloodthirsty eventuated, she cast a few furtive glances around and under the seat, no doubt in search of lurking implements of mayhem. I have to assume that, finding none, she must have put my muttering down to mere eccentricity, for she managed to ignore me for the rest of the journey. Just as well, too, since in my bag was a complete set of enlarged Cleudo weapon replicas — lead pipe, candlestick and the like — together with a piano-sized bust of Miss Scarlett.

Now, I don’t suppose anyone actually relishes being looked askance at in trains. Yet I must concede that I’ve always enjoyed my share of oblique observation of others on public transport. To me it seems right and proper to drink in as much as you can of the old human panorama, provided you do it discreetly.

Anyway, as engaging as I know you found that short voyeur’s prelude, what I really want to relay is a far more piquant yarn. It concerns an oddball I used to run into about 20 years ago on the Epping line.

We were just pulling out of Strathfield station one afternoon, when we heard a blaring cry from the carriage door: “Are the treens leet?” Then a pause, then once more, “Are the treens leet?

The voice in question was distinguished not only by its volume, but also its timbre, which gave the impression that its pent-up energy came forth through clenched teeth.

It wasn’t too difficult to identify the source: a thickset man of about 30 with a daft look on his face, who, upon entering the carriage, flung himself clumsily into a seat and proceeded to talk repetitive nonsense in a loud voice. He was still gibbering when I alighted 15 minutes later.

His crazy behaviour — which regularly began with that question, enunciated so dementedly — led me to the not very “wild surmise” that he was from some part-time sheltered workshop. Personally, I found it all quite entertaining, and began to look forward to his Monday appearances. (He only surfaced on Mondays.) Luckily, he was as much a creature of habit as I was, and always boarded the same carriage.

My only personal contact — one-sided though it was, since I declined his patently earnest offer of conversation — took place one day when he plumped down on arrival in the seat in front of me and immediately turned round with a frightful leer to deliver his grotesque refrain.

When I ignored him, he arose briskly from his seat, and sought company elsewhere, shouting, “Silly old codger. Silly old codger.” All this, I might add, was accompanied by a series of high-pitched giggles.

On another occasion he hurled a rolled-up newspaper across the line at West Ryde, aiming at the afternoon commuters on the opposite platform. This time it was maniacal laughter echoing down the corridor.

As a rule, though, his outbursts were not addressed to anyone in particular. This was fortunate, for that particular carriage seemed always to carry a number of solid, sober looking men (depressed stockbrokers, no doubt), any of whom if so accosted could have given quite an energetic and effective account of himself. Even so, his main expectation of a reply seemed to be of males, though he did once bellow horribly at a young woman fraught with imminent child, who, had she been made of less sterner stuff, might well have caused a headline-making disturbance of her own.

What ultimately became of him? Did he do more harm than good, and get placed in restrictive care? Maybe he patronises the Liverpool line instead — or the Manly ferry? Or did he retire wealthy, having sold his life-story to Sixty Minutes?

Magnolia Madness — Bet Briggs

My magnolia tree is going mad!
what delicious blossoming:
on branches bare a month ago
this blush, first flush of Spring,
on limbs unburdened by their weight
not buds, but birds, burgeoning:
rose-pink breasted, moon-white crested
fledglings and doting pairs,
there’s no mistaking them:
instant families of galahs
noiselessly in celebration
of becoming and of being.
Much more than surprise
their blithe presence
is a kind of offering.
Brave community of innocents
in the shelter of each other
they cluster in their peace.
Nothing startles them or stains
their gentle rush to radiance.

Only vagrant winds soft and rough
ruffle their feathered joy,
enticing whispers of call
and restlessness so tender
flight seems imminent
and my need clear: keep watch
and catch the joy before it flies.
Yet all is hover and hold,
time and birds fold wings
and the only flight is fall:
magnolia moultings floating down
quilting garden bed and lawn;
and soon above on branches stirring,
noiseless as before appear new wings
leaf-bud green and more enduring.
But oh! that pink-white loveliness
before the green, that bloom of birds,
that brief but shared delirium.
The world and I need such madness.

Quintessential Quirky Quotes

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
— Woody Allen

My name is only an anagram of toilets.
— T. S. Eliot

Western Civilisation? I think it would be a very good idea.
— Mohandas Gandhi

What contemptible scoundrel stole the cork from my lunch?
— W. C. Fields

There was an old maid of Duluth
Who wept when she thought of her youth,
And the glorious chances
She’d missed at school dances
And once in a telephone booth.

— Anonymous

Bats in John Bull’s Belfry — Tony Rogers

The young composer William Walton arrived at Oxford University in 1918, aged 16, and not long after was taken under the wing of the Sitwell clan (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell), who adopted him as an honorary brother. The Sitwells were perhaps the most famous literary family of the time, though certainly not popular with everyone. F.R. Leavis, for example, that tireless campaigner against what he saw as literary dilettantism, characterised them as belonging to “the history of publicity rather than of poetry”.

One legacy for us today from this period of Walton’s music is his Façade, a satiric suite composed to accompany recitations of some poems by Edith Sitwell.

First performed in 1923, it received an instant and stormy fame, though over time it came to be to seen as a bit inconsequential and no match for maturer Walton works such as the viola concerto, the symphonies and Belshazzar’s Feast. Walton later arranged the work for large orchestra as Façade Suite Nos.1 & 2.

The musical appeal of Façade lies in its wit, parody and jazz-influenced rhythms, and in the original version these features perfectly complement Sitwell’s outrageous poetry. Just imagine that first performance. There was the 39-year-old author herself, unseen by the audience, declaiming her poems through a megaphone protruding from the mouth of a huge head painted on a curtain, which also concealed the seven band members.

What a marvellous thing to hear Sitwell’s highbrow voice intoning, say, “Lily O’Grady, silly and shady” to that soft-shoe shuffling sax obligato.

All her life Edith Sitwell was notorious for her provocative eccentricities, in her dress as well as her writing. She was no poseuse, however, Leavis notwithstanding, always remaining true to herself. If she was interested in things odd, she used them either to express herself or else as subjects for amused reflection just because they pleased her. Luckily for us, the results of her efforts are infectious, and we are the beneficiaries of not only the nonsense poetry of Façade but also the wry commentary she attaches to her narratives in English Eccentrics.

Originally (1931) the work was called The English Eccentrics. Since then there have been at least five other editions, including a Penguin one in 1971, those from 1958 having additional chapters, and no definite article in the title. In 1964 the work inspired an opera in two acts by expatriate Australian composer Malcolm Williamson, with a libretto by Geoffrey Dunn.

Knowing little about Sitwell’s book when I first picked it up, I have to confess I was anticipating yarns about contemporaries of hers. But it was not to be. What delights her interest, and appeals enormously to my own evil sense of humour, is a series of maverick vignettes from much earlier times.

Let’s cast an exploratory glance in their lunatic direction.

At Squire John Mytton (b. 1796), for instance, who tried to scare off his hiccups by setting fire to his nightshirt. Successful? Yes. Appallingly burnt? Yes. Luckily he only tried this on the one occasion, unlike his equestrian stunts, where he was regularly a rampant menace not only to his horses, but to his friends and acquaintances too, especially if they were rash enough to ride in his carriage. Not surprisingly, he didn’t make it past the age of 38.

Then there were the bizarre goings-on with the century-old coffin of poet John Milton. Here Sitwell quotes in full from a contemporary source — A Narrative of the Disinterment of Milton’s coffin . . . and the Treatment of the Corpse . . .

And what about Monsieur Grin? He was a Swiss adventurer of the late nineteenth century who passed himself off in London as Louis de Rougement, a one-time cannibal chief from northern Australia. Fantastic and preposterous though they are, his Münchhausen-like exploits with turtles and alligators are nothing compared with his afternoon buffalo escapade.

This involved him, not only killing and ripping open the beast, but also crawling inside the still warm carcase in order to cure himself of a chill. He remained inside the intestines all night, and emerged next morning bloody all over, but “absolutely cured”.

Sitwell devotes sustained thoroughness to the picturesque custom of the Ornamental Hermit. Apparently country squires in centuries past were so keen on the idea of having a hermit to grace their estates that that they used to advertise in the press, and even offered purpose-built retreats (the less comfortable the better) for their bearded dodderers. Flowing white beards, of course, were essential attributes of a fashionable recluse, as were long finger- and toenails and absurd clothes.

Yet Horace Walpole, for one, disapproved of the whole thing, claiming that “it was ridiculous to set aside a quarter of one’s garden to be melancholy in”. Few took any heed, however, and some volunteers were even content to occupy a hermitage unpaid.

And on it goes with our English odd bods. There are inane follies galore to be enjoyed, not the least of which is the delightful gem that portrays the ludicrous medical aftermath of a failed amateur attempt at a remedy for flatulence.

A certain seventeenth century physician (one Sir Charles Hall) did find himself 

. . . the centre of a scene as animated as it was remarkable. The windows of every house in the village to which he had been called, the grass-grown streets, and especially the village green outside the house of Mr Thomas Gobsill, ‘a lean man, aged about twenty-six or twenty-seven’, were swarming with excited yokels, as Sir Charles, calling for a ladder, and setting this against Mr Gobsill’s house, bound that gentleman head downwards upon the ladder, and shook it violently.

The reason for this remarkable energy and enterprise, on the part of Sir Charles, was that Mr Gobsill, who suffered from wind, had, for some time past, been in the habit — on the advice of ‘a friend’ — of swallowing round white pebbles, in order to quell this disorder. At first, the prescription acted admirably, and Mr Gobsill was, in the due course of nature, delivered of both pebbles and wind; but some time afterwards the wind returned to him, and Mr Gobsill returned to the pebbles, and both wind and pebbles clung to Mr Gobsill and would not be parted from him. Mr Gobsill concluded, very naturally, that the best plan would be to repeat the dose, and this he did, until, instead of the original dose of nine pebbles, he had swallowed two hundred. Mr Gobsill’s two hundred pebbles had remained clamped in the inner recesses of his being for the space of two years and a half, when he noticed that his appetite had gone, and that he was suffering from indigestion. He therefore consulted Sir Charles who, on examining the patient, found that if Mr Gobsill were severely shaken, the stones could be heard rattling as if they were in a bag. When the scene which I have described was enacted, the stones made a slight, slow, noisy journey in the direction of Mr Gobsill’s mouth, but immediately he was reversed, and placed upon his feet once more, the surrounding multitude were gratified by the sound of the two hundred stones falling, one after another, into their original resting-place.

Is Sydney the Capital of Australia? (A Lot of People Think So)

Situated on the east coast of Australia, Sydney is the capital of the State of New South Wales and the country’s largest city, though not its capital (that’s Canberra).  Sydney was the site of the first white settlement in Australia, being originally established in 1788 as the centre of a British penal colony, though the country’s original inhabitants, the Koori people, have been in Australia for over 60,000 years.  Famous today for its Harbour and Opera House, Sydney was the host of the 2000 Olympics and Paralympics.

There is, of course, an inevitable Australian slant to many of Bikwil’s features.  For example, people, events, places, TV and radio programmes are frequently referred to in an Aussie context.  There’ll be a bit of local slang here too.  Email us if you ever want explanations.  It’s always interesting to see how well or poorly travelled certain phrases and concepts from Down Under really are.

And if you are at home with North American spellings you may find that some words look odd at first, but it doesn’t take too long to become acclimatised.  The same applies to dates: day/month/year is the order in Australia, a convention which has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that northern and southern hemisphere seasons are six months out of sync.

Who Is Tony Rogers? (A Brief Bio)

Born and raised in Sydney, where he still lives, Tony   had several occupations after he graduated from      university in 1960.  At first his family and teachers blithely went about under the misapprehension that he was going to be a secondary school teacher, but Tony’s love of jazz got in the way of their fantasy.  Bikwil editor Tony Rogers, wanted for questioning regarding allegations of foolish behaviour in retirement

Having failed to make enough to live on from music, however, Tony was soon forced to eke out a layabout existence supported by his friends and an occasional stint as a cleaner and bookstore salesman.  Eventually, some sort of common sense prevailed, and in 1963 he took a position at the State Library of NSW, where he remained in dubiously gainful employment for the next ten years.  During that time, however, he had got bitten by the computing bug, and it was in the data processing field that he spent the rest of his so-called working life.

When he took early retirement in 1992 to pursue what he fondly refers to as his “interests”, a loud sigh of relief was heard from the teaching, music, librarianship and computing professions alike.