An Innocent Abroad (Japan and Russia)

To continue my jubilee quest of 50 years ago (see my previous post of 06.10.2018 – An Innocent Abroad (Hong Kong):

Stopover in Tokyo

After leaving Hong Kong I had a stopover in Japan. Unlike Hong Kong where street names signs were duplicated in English, Tokyo streets were all in Japanese. Understandably, they made no concessions to Australian tourists. Oh, how I wish that Google Translatehad been invented then! And there were no Hotels.com or Google Maps: not even an internetto share my frustrations with my Facebookfriends. So after spending two nights in Tokyo and Yokohama YMCA’s, I took the easy option and booked a bus tour to Mount Fuji and environs.

October 1968 – cone of Mt Fuji

The beautiful Japanese countryside was a welcome relief from the throngs of Tokyo and Yokohama.

Stopover in Moscow

After a rattling 10 hour flight across Siberia, the Russian Aeroflot airliner touched down in a chilly Moscow where the trees were wearing their autumn garbs, the skies were grey with clouds, the Muscovites were donned in their thick black coats, and their faces were already set grimly against the onset of winter. But it was not only the weather that was cold, for in 1968, it was still the Cold War with the West. I could still feel the excitement at arriving in an alien territory.

October 1968 – Moscow – Red Square crowds

Even so, Moscow was a beautiful city and one steeped in history. I again took the easy option and boarded a sightseeing tour.

Destination London

When I touched down at Heathrow, I immediately felt at home. I was greeted by friends who spoke Australian, and who introduced me to familiar sites that I had up until then only been able to read about in books and travel brochures. The first night I was taken to Piccadilly Circus and the statue of Eros. I have been in love with them ever since.

I hadn’t fully realized the solitude that necessarily accompanies the lone traveller. Nor the anxiety of travel: of having to deal with timetables and unfamiliar situations. It’s something the travel agent didn’t deem necessary to relate.

From the perspective of 2018, I wonder how I could have been so naive and unprepared for my journey – just throwing my clothes into a port on the morning of departure from Brisbane. No travel money, no travel books. I was focused on my destination in London. I forgot that travel, like life, is a journey not a destination. Young people today have it easy. All their travel information is online – so much so that they almost don’t need to actually travel at all.

 

Centenary of a Revolution

Grave of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery (Photo courtesy Paasikivi)

When I was living in London during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was intrigued by the huge bust of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery not far from where I lived. This was at the height of the Cold War between the West and Russia and just half a century after the Russian revolution. Feelings of angst were still running high then, and Karl Marx statue endured several bombing attempts.

Marx had hoped to incite the British workers to revolt, but this didn’t seem to be in their nature. It was left to the Russian peasants in 1917. Perhaps they were the more desperate and downtrodden.

This week I attended a lecture by visiting Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick to mark the centenary of the October 1917 Russian revolution. I was surprised to learn that the event is not being celebrated with any great enthusiasm, not even in Russia. An exhibition in London of Russian revolutionary inspired artworks seems to be the world’s major contribution to its memory.

The passion for revolution seems to have burned out and I don’t think even Karl Marx statue will raise the prospect of another explosion.

The Malcolm Frazer Experience

Collin Myers speaking to the Toondah Probus Club at their August General Meeting
Collin Myers speaking to the Toondah Probus Club at their August General Meeting

Our Toondah Probus Club’s August Guest Speaker was journalist Collin Myers whose topic was ‘The Malcolm Frazer Experience’. After leaving school Collin worked for the Courier Mail, then Reuters in London, then for Malcolm Frazer, and then headed corporate affairs at Mount Isa Mines. During his long career, he accumulated a long list of memories and anecdotes. Here are just a few:

‘After I left school I worked as a journalist for the Courier Mail covering the Queensland State Parliament. It was an interesting time then and I interviewed many of the political personalities of the day: Les Dipplock, who was the last Minister for Public Instruction (now the Education portfolio); Premier Vince Gair, who used to float ideas with the journalists before introducing them into Parliament; Jack Duggan, with the Mount Isa strikes, Colin Bennett, and Clem Jones. In 1965 my boss at the Courier Mail announced that there was a journalist’s job going in Canberra. I had visited Canberra in my final year at school, so I applied for the position. I was the first person to have actually asked to go there, so I got the job.

‘These were the Menzies’ Years, and I was impressed that he was always courteous and valued the Westminster System of Government. As Prime Minister, Robert Menzies was especially courteous to the Opposition Leader, Arthur Calwell, because he thought that as long as Arthur was the Leader, he would have little chance of being toppled. Menzies also removed threats to his leadership from his own party by appointing would-be rivals to overseas postings such as the High Commissioner in London.

‘In 1967-8 I worked for Reuters in London. I found the politicians there interesting too: Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, if he didn’t want to answer a tricky question, always spoke quickly in his Yorkshire accent; Margaret Thatcher, at that time spoke in a high pitched voice – unlike her later lower tone as Prime Minister. These were interesting times politically, too: the 1967 Falklands crisis, the Rhodesian crisis, Common Market membership. Interestingly in the House of Lords, Notice Papers were written in Latin.

‘I returned to the Courier Mail in the late 1960s and early 70s. At that time the so called ‘Ginger Group’ of pollies used to have clandestine meetings with the journalists; and journalists were able to walk in to Ministers offices unannounced.

Prime Minister Malcolm Frazier of Australia is welcomed upon arrival for a visit to the United States.
Prime Minister Malcolm Frazier of Australia is welcomed upon arrival for a visit to the United States.

‘Then I got a job in Canberra as Malcolm Frazer’s Press Secretary. In those days he had a staff of just 4 people in his office, whereas today there would be 15 to 20 on the Prime Minister’s staff. I became very close to the Frazer family and even had my own bedroom in their homestead, ‘Nareen’. Frazer’s electoral seat was always a marginal one and he had to work hard to keep it. I remember he once visited 36 pubs in a day during a campaign, and on another occasion in a small country town, he gave a policy speech to an audience of one (at the audience’s insistence!).

‘1972 saw the Aboriginal Tent Embassy crisis in Canberra, and Malcolm played a pivotal role in negotiations with them. I was surprised that when some of the Aboriginal Elders arrived from the Northern Territory, Malcolm knew them all by name.
‘Malcolm Frazer recognized my loyalty as a Senior Adviser, and on one occasion he asked me to cost the ALP’s election policies, which I did in a few days – much to the amazement of McMahon who had a team of economists working on it for three months.

‘And finally, another personality who I knew well was Tom Burns who liked to say ‘A politician is not worth two bob until you have made an enemy.’

London Bitter Sweet

Kensington Gardens
Kensington Gardens

Part of the idea I had when I came to London this visit was just to sit in Kensington Gardens and watch the grass grow while sunning myself in the gentle English light.

Oxford Street in the rain
Oxford Street in the rain

However the sunny weather Phyllis and I had experienced last week in the west of England sadly did not accompany us eastward to London. Yet in many ways reaching the capital felt like coming home: the overfamiliar landmarks, the crowded trains of the underground, the public Laundromat,…and the bleak cold weather that heralded in the first days of the English ‘summer’.

Tube station on London's Underground
Tube station on London’s Underground

Being back in London again after I first arrived here 48 years ago was a bitter- sweet experience: it was wonderful for us to tread the footpaths of the West End once again, but sad to realise that our bodies just couldn’t manage them as they once did so easily.

We visited our old Boots shop in Victoria Street where we had both worked but found it to be overrun by a mass of building work. As if to give a nod to the old days, some of the buildings’ facades were being preserved, but little else.

Facade in Victoria development
Facade in Victoria development

However Phyllis’ former flat at 33 Moreton Place, Pimlico and mine at 10 Nevern Square, Earls Court remain unchanged, still slumbering quietly as they have done in our dreams.

Travelling People

Travelling People album image
Travelling People album image

Recent speakers at my Probus club have reminded me of the travelling days of my more youthful times. They spoke of expeditions ranging from Lightning Ridge and Carnarvon in outback Australia to traversing the Sahara Desert in a Kombi van.

My own youthful travelling days were not nearly as exciting: I flew to London in 1968 on a working holiday. But I did meet my future wife, Phyllis! When I first met her, I was very impressed with a vinyl record album of hers by the Irish singing group, the Johnstons. Phyllis’ favourite track was called ‘I Never Shall Marry’ (I didn’t take the hint), but I loved the title track ‘Travelling People’ and, although I was not an Irish tinker on which the song was based, I certainly identified with the lyrics: ‘I’m a freeborn man of the travelling people, Got no fixed abode, with nomads I am numbered…’ It was 1968 after all!

As I write this week’s blog contribution, I am reminded of this song as I contemplate another sojourn away. Phyllis and I are once again returning to the UK and Ireland, probably for the last time; and although we won’t be using the traditional tinker’s mode of transport (and I don’t think they are now ether) I like to think that we are still travelling people, and at our time of life, it shouldn’t be any other way. For as the song ends… ‘Your travelling days will soon be over.’

A Merry Sharing Christmas

 

View from our flat at Ridge Road, London in 1969
View from our flat at Ridge Road, London in 1969

We all know that Christmas is traditionally a time when families get together, and I have always managed to achieve this for as long as I can remember. However there was one year, 1968, when this did not happen.

I had just arrived in ‘Swinging London’ (as it really was then – for young people such as myself, the centre of the universe), leaving my family behind in faraway Brisbane. I had set myself up sharing a flat with three young English men of my own age in Earls Court (known then as ‘Kangaroo Valley’ because that is where all the visiting Australians had their digs), and I had found work as a Pharmacist with Boots The Chemist at their Victoria Street store. I had even made a new friend with the Secretary there, a charming Irish lass by the name of Phyllis. In short, I was pretty well set up for the winter, before setting out to travel in the Spring.

However, when Christmas arrived, my three English flatmates went home to their respective families in the English countryside, and all of London seemed like my flat – cold and deserted. Even Phyllis went home to Ireland to spend Christmas with her mother in Co Cork. I’d never had to search for a Christmas dinner before, but fortunately there was a friend of mine in similar dire circumstances, so we resolved to share a Christmas dinner together. Of course, finding a restaurant that was (a) open and (b) not already booked out, proved to be a problem, but eventually we found a very ‘unchristmassy’ one to at least satisfy our hunger. After lunch, we celebrated the rest of Christmas day by doing our washing at the local Laundromat.

All this sounds a bit depressing even now, but I did have the thought of Phyllis to bolster my flagging fortunes. My faith in her return was rewarded the following Christmas when I was able to share it with her welcoming family as inlaws, and like icing on the cake, it even snowed!

I hope you all have someone in your lives to share with this Christmas, if not in person, then in your thoughts.