Feb 032018
 

The joy of writing and receiving multipage handwritten letters is a lost pleasure. My letter output now is no better than the average 21st century yahoo, but I was a prodigious letter writer in the 1980s, while working in Asian animation studios to finance extensive travel. In the pre-internet & iPhone era, travel abroad might mean weeks with no real conversation in your own language, and getting a long letter from home was a lifeline to sanity. To pass time spent in airports, planes, buses, ferries and trains, I’d pen long letters to friends and family (often including illustrations of my adventures, photographs and travel bric-a-brac) and this investment reaped dividends when receiving letters from back home.

My childhood friend PETER was getting his degree in metallurgy in the mid 1980s but would reliably pause his studies to write me back, sometimes expressing frustration at being distracted by my missives from exotic locales, that sent his mind wandering to faraway places… I answered that we should pledge to meet when he’d finished his studies, and travel together.

And so we did.

Via letter writing to and fro in 1988, we hatched a plan to meet the following year in LIMA, PERU. I can’t remember who chose this meeting place (I suspect it was Peter) but my memory of the selection process was that it had to be somewhere ‘exotic‘ that we’d never been to before. I knew nothing about Peru (wasn’t Paddington Bear from there?) but it seemed fun to meet a childhood friend in a faraway place that we knew nothing about. 1989 being long before the days of internet search engines (for planning) and cellphones (for easy communication) we had to carefully arrange our meeting. From a travel guidebook we chose a budget hotel in central Lima where we’d meet on the appointed day. My experience with such books was that even the most recent edition was researched long before publishing, and could be out of date when you needed its info, so we had Plan-B, C, & D options, in case our chosen hotel was out of business when we arrived.

I’d enter Peru from North America, after backpacking (in Canada, USA and Mexico) and doing animation work (in Chicago) whereas Peter entered South America a few months earlier, to wander about Chile and Argentina. We were unaware that Peru had widespread civil unrest that year, and much of the country had been taken over by the SENDERO LUMINOSO (AKA the “Shining Path”). My first inkling of this particularly toxic Maoist guerrilla group came while getting immunised and looking into the specifics of entering Peru while in Los Angeles. The American State Department travel-hotline had a scary advisory (which can be summarised as “Bro! Don’t go!“) but by then I’d bought an airline ticket and Peter was incommunicado anyway, so I was soon on a VARIG flight from Los Angeles to Lima.

Arriving past midnight APRIL 13 1989, the other passengers grabbed their bags and quickly disappeared into the night. LIMA‘s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez was strangely quiet and understaffed, and when the driver of a hotel shuttle-bus assumed I was an American business traveler and waved me aboard I complied, not having any better idea for getting to the city. The hotel was probably the height of cool in 1941 but seemed a relic of the past in 1989, yet its prices were futuristic. My guidebook listed $2 or $3 dollars for hostel/guesthouses, whereas this beyond-its-prime establishment was over a hundred, meaning that I spent as much on that first night’s accommodation as for the subsequent 6 weeks. (My trip notebook shows all meals, accomodation, & transport in Peru & Bolivia – including a domestic flight – cost US$840). I opted to stay anyway, too shagged to find anything else at 1-2AM. The next day, I checked in to the cheap hotel chosen for the ‘rendezvous’, pinned a message for Peter on the lobby message board and looked around Lima till his arrival.

While eating in a nearby cafe, posters & calendars of Japan caught my eye, and I wondered if they perhaps identified the owner’s Japanese heritage. In 1989, my shitty Japanese was at its least shitty (having spent the previous year in Japan) and I enquired in craptacular Nihongo if the family running the cafe spoke any themselves. They didn’t (being 2nd or 3rd generation Peruvian) but soon presented an ancient patriarch from the back room who I communicated with in a pidgin of Japanese, my few Spanish words and his few English phrases. I ate exclusively in this family’s cafe for the next few days and regret that photos of these lovely people have not survived (as my camera and rolls of film were soon stolen).

On the appointed day (APRIL 15, 1989) I looked for Peter’s message on the hotel noticeboard. Although there was no message for me from him, someone named STUART had left me a note, explaining that Peter was delayed but on his way. Stuart had travelled with Peter in Argentina & Chile and having no plan thereafter was only too happy to meet me in Peru to pass on Peter’s message (such was the way of communication before email & mobile phones). I’m so glad that Stuart joined our reunion-party, as he and I are friends to this day.

When Peter arrived a few days later we three hit the road as quickly as possible, heading south on a night bus arriving early in NAZCA early next morning. Reading up on the area around Nazca now, there are many interesting archeological sites to see but in 1989 those excavations were not yet complete. Nazca was a flyblown little dustbowl and the only draw was the famous NAZCA LINES pictographs. Some can be seen from a tower erected near the road overlooking the desert, but we opted for a better view than can be seen from the cheap seats. The lines are best seen by plane (or spaceship, according to Erich Von Daniken) and through our hostel we arranged a driver to take us to the airfield. He showed up in a beat up old American 1950s car. 

We planned to fly over the lines that very morning, sleep during the day, catching another night bus out that same night.  At the tiny airstrip we climbed into a Piper Cub and flew over those huge cartoons etched into the desert. These lines were etched into a 280 square mile area of desert about 2000 years ago, depicting geometric patterns & animals by revealing a yellow layer of subsoil beneath the reddish surface. Virtually invisible from the ground, these mysterious cartoons were not properly studied until people had the ability to fly over them in the 1920s.

Upon landing, our driver wanted to show us something ‘interesting’ and drove us out across open desert to see a pile of human bones & hair in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by recently smashed potshards. A very unsettling sight.  The driver claimed that these were remains of ‘los Incas’ but 1989 guidebooks made no mention of any such site. We’d already heard stories of the SENDERO LUMINOSO ‘disappearing’ folks they didn’t like (small town mayors, police chiefs, and teachers mostly) so that’s where my fevered imagination immediately led, wondering if somebody sprinkled potshards over recent human remains simply to make it look more ‘archeologogical’. By the end of that trip though, we’d learned that in addition to bloodthirsty Maoist guerrillas, 1980s Peru had a problem with archeological theft, and recent reading makes me think that what we saw in 1989 was a legit archeological site that had been pillaged. Such grave remains were reassembled in the 1990s into a recreation of a traditional Nazca pit-style burial grounds, the CHAUCHILLA CEMETERY.

After the creepy bones, the driver drove us back to our hostel for our siesta, while telling us about a new archaeological dig being conducted by Italian archaeologists, unmentioned in any guidebook. The driver arranged to pick us up before sunset so we could have a look, and after our snooze the old car returned but driven by a replacement, as our original driver had taken sick. Directions to the dig site hadn’t been made clear to this new fellow, who was vague about where we were supposed to go, stopping frequently to ask questions of peasants gathering firewood. Finally, he drove us across the desert and gestured at some huge mounds that we scaled. With nothing much to see at the top except more dunes, we posed for a photograph against the backdrop of a sunset on the dunes (I can’t find this ‘album cover’ pic at present). Recent reading makes me think that the site was the CAHUACHI ARCHEOLOGICAL DIG which was excavated in the 1980s (an Italian-led dig too).

From atop the dunes we saw our driver frantically gesturing far below and figured our time was up. When we descended however, the driver was beside himself with fear. He’d been warned by a peasant who’d just wandered by that the Italian archaeologists had been beaten up and chased from their dig by none other than the SENDERO LUMINOSO that very day. Yikes. Our drive back to Nazca took much longer than the drive to the dig, because we were driving in the dark and the driver refused to use headlights, presumably to be less visible to murderous Maoists. He frequently stopped the car & listened carefully, giving every impression of a man in fear of his life. It’s hard to say if there was any truth to what he’d heard, but it was clear that he believed it and was scared shitless. I remember being grateful that this man, who obviously feared that bloodthirsty thugs might kill him for associating with lick-spittle running dog imperialist foreigners, nevertheless didn’t leave us stranded in the desert and flee to save his own skin. Even at this very early stage of the trip, Peru was feeling pretty stressful.

We caught our late night bus for the 9 hour trip to AREQUIPA. Having been told that the bus journey itself and our destination bus station were both hotbeds of pickpockets, we resolved to stay awake for the entire journey and watch each other’s bags. Arriving at Arequipa bus station very early in the morning, we hit the ground like a SWAT team, ignoring all the touts, tricks and traps that we’d heard about, making a beeline for the flophouse we’d chosen in advance. We hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep for 48 hours, combined with the stresses of the previous day, and were shattered with exhaustion when we finally checked into our hostel, found our room, and fell into our beds like stones. As we slept like corpses a cheeky sleazebag entered our room as we slept and..

..nicked my bag.

Each of us had distinctly different approaches to packing. One extreme was Stuart’s huge backpack, that contained more stuff than even such an enormous bag should possibly hold (like Mary Poppins, Stuart was always pulling supplies out of his magic bag). At the other extreme were my two tiny day backpacks; one (worn on my back) containing clothes and toiletries and the other (worn on my front) containing camera and sketchbooks. Peter was Goldilocks of our trio, with a backpack size in the middle. The contrast between my approach and Stuart’s became more pronounced as my two tiny bags were reduced to one by the theft of my camera/sketchbook bag. It was a sickening feeling to realise that I’d lost my beloved Nikon FG20 camera (which I’d taken across Asia and North America). Also lost were many rolls of exposed film, notebooks of my travels, addresses of people met on my journeys (never contacted again) and several travel sketchbooks. The thieves were definitely elated to snaffle a camera, but these personal treasures were undoubtedly tossed in the trash, even though they were to me the most valuable loss by far. Locking hostel doors had not yet become second nature, but certainly became a habit thereafter.

Thankfully, this devastating theft didn’t render me utterly destitute. In those bygone days when you couldn’t rely on foreign ATMs to spit out cash on command, globe trotters had to carry cash and/or travellers cheques everywhere they went. Having been away from home for 3 years in 1989, I had travellers cheques and US dollars stashed throughout my luggage and secreted in various places upon my still-scrawny person, and in baggage left with friends in other cities, lest I lose it all in just such a calamity. The failsafe, the redoubt, The Keep if all else were lost, was an emergency stash in the lining of my shoes, which survived the attentions of Peruvian pick pockets (perhaps camouflaged by the odiousness of my socks). Peter was my Spanish interpreter, escorting my pouty & glowering self to enquire into theft restitution at the police station.

The fact that stereotypes and cultural cliches are to be avoided in fiction, doesn’t mean that living breathing cliches can’t be encountered in real life, an example being the cartoonish cop at Arequipa police station. With ornately tooled cowboy boots propped nonchalantly on his desk, his uniform a mosaic of braid & medals, broad grin revealing a golden tooth, mirrored sunglasses and high crested fascistic cap favoured by South American police, he gave me an expressive ‘there’s nothing we can do senor‘ shrug – like Peter Sellers playing a tin pot South American cop in a 1960s comedy, instead of the 1980s real article. He advised me to visit the BLACK MARKET where I might find my camera and buy it back. I was aghast at this casually amused pragmatism (though I must admit it was handy info).

One of the highlights of the Arequipa region is the COLCA CANYON which we duly visited. Sadly, I barely have any memories of this magnificent place as I was glowering about the theft of my camera, sketchbooks and journals. As Peter & Stu snapped photos of majestic condors whirling within one of the deepest canyons in the world, I stewed in my own thoughts, and I’m amazed that I have barely any memory of the stunning vistas I was standing in that day. My one takeaway from that trip to one of the most magnificent sites in the world was that if Peru was going to serve up such sites, I’d definitely need to replace my camera.. Back in Arequipa, I had no luck in finding my camera at the Black Market, so bought a replacement at a nearby camera store. The name & address written on the strap, hinted that this replacement was probably stolen too (I later sent a letter to a SWISS address but I never heard back). I own that camera to this day; a NIKON FM2. These photos of Arequipa’s SANTA CATALINA CONVENT are the first pictures I ever took with it:

In a cafe in Arequipa’s Plaza De Armas, we met two ex-military Israelis who’d recently lost almost all their bags in a distract-snatch-and-dash. In an attempt to lure and trap their thief, they later filled their remaining backpack with rocks and left it in the plaza as bait. Several thieves snatched the bag, but were slowed by its unexpected weight.. allowing the Israelis to catch up and unload a whirlwind of Krav Marga, translating their frustration into a world of hurt for the bag-snatchers. Though never finding the ratero who had taken their stuff, the Israelis explained that bashing the bone-marrow out of random thieves was therapeutic nonetheless. Hearing such street-wise guys were also taken in by thieves made me feel less stupid. 

After flying in to our next destination of CUZCO I was light headed; ‘Oh yeah, high altitude sickness is a real thing‘. We spent a few days getting used to the 3,400 metre altitude (11,200 feet) certainly the highest I’d yet been to. Cuzco was the historical capital of the Inca empire, the gateway to many Inca ruins and an interesting city itself, with architecture a combination of original Incan buildings overlaid with Spanish colonial architecture from the early 16th century. The Spanish had the good luck to invade just as an Incan Civil War was underway, and were thus able to divide and conquer relatively easily. Cuzco Cathedral is half Inca stonework (the temple of Kiswarkancha) with Spanish trimmings, and the altar too is a Inca/Spanish hybrid; pilfered Inca silver reworked into a priceless altar piece (‘pilfering’ is a common theme in many of my memories of Peru.)

When altitude no longer gave us headaches or shortness of breath, we took buses onward to several Inca ruins. Those at PISAQ had spectacular views out across the valley, as an American hippie guy wandered through the ruins doing mystical mumbo jumbo with a water divining rod. From Pisaq village we rode another ‘bus’, which turned out to be the back of a flatbed truck. Standing crowded into this jalopy like a herd of llamas taken to market, a nearby peasant stared at me intently, as if to say; ‘I have to be here, but why the hell are YOU here, gringo?’ After a bouncy ‘bus’ ride, we stayed overnight at URABAMBA and ate at a cafe run by a small family where the wife was Inca and the husband was Peruvian-Japanese. They had two cheeky little girls who kept calling us ‘gringo’ throughout dinner, to much hilarity from the girls, chiding from Mum & Dad, and laughter from us.

After an early breakfast with them next morning we caught another ‘back of the ute express’ to the ruins of OLLANTAYTAMBO, and we had our lunch amongst fantastic examples of the distinctive intricate Incan stonework.

Next, we connected to the train to AGUAS CALIENTES; a distinctive little village, in that its main street is actually the railway, with restaurants and cafes opening directly onto the tracks (as far as I could tell, the only way to access this town was by rail). After staying at the night, we rose before sunrise to hike up to MACHU PICCHU and be there when it opened at 6AM. Our pre-dawn walk up that hill was where I saw my first humming bird, which seemed an otherworldly fairy to me; a magical bejewelled creature flitting through the jungle. On entering Machu Picchu, we had the place to ourselves for a few serene hours. 

Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is one of the few tourist destinations I’ve visited that was much better than any photograph can convey. The weather and lighting constantly changes; one minute mysterious & misty, and brilliantly sunlit the next. The 360° experience of the place defies capture within the borders of any picture. We were very lucky to have seen Machu Picchu that particular year. Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s been there since describes it as inundated with tourists, but even at its busiest in 1989, Machu Picchu wasn’t busy at all (thanks perhaps to the bad PR of the Sendero Luminoso) and remote areas of the site were empty. 

A gruelling hike up Huayna Picchu allowed us to look back down on the entire site; it was was spectacular and completely empty, but for a few llamas munching the grass. After a full day exploring this wonderful place, we walked back down the winding path to dinner by the tracks at Aqua Calientes, and to write and post letters.

In 1989 it was still possible to ride a local train all the way back to Cuzco, which we did the next day. In many of my travel adventures I rode trains, and I regret not taking more photos of those wonderful old machines, the engine and smokestacks of steam trains I rode in particular (in Burma and China). When looking through my old photographs I’m aghast at what I’ve no record of, but in those days of analog photography I had to be frugal, often down to the last few exposures on a roll of film. Replacements were not readily available in remote areas, so I had to be choosy. But I did get a few shots of riding the trains in Peru.

Back in Cuzco, I bought an exercise book for notes and scribbles (the sketches were all work related, sadly) but some notes survive:

notebook entry, May 2nd 1989 – Cuzco Peru:
“The start of a new diary as my last one, along with my camera, was stolen two weeks ago from my hostel room in Arequipa while I was sleeping. I’ve more or less replaced the camera already with an (obviously stolen) Nikon I bought at a camera store two days after the theft. The diary will be harder to replace of course. I’ve seen the highlights sites of Peru with Peter and his friend Stuart. All we’ve got left is to visit Lake Titicaca and then head on to La Paz in Bolivia”

On a 6 hour bus trip to lake Titicaca, I sat next to a very cute child that reeked like a very smelly llama. Mind you, I was no fragrant rose myself at the time. In a region where water was still carried to your basin, a bath was the last thing you’d waste it on. Thankfully, this funk was offset by something refreshing; as the bus jounced up winding dirt roads fragrant eucalyptus forests reminded me of Australia. These trees, native to my homeland, were planted in the early 20th century in arid regions of North and South America. Growing well in dry soil, they stabilise it from erosion and flourish in the conditions of the Peruvian altiplano. Recently there have been efforts to replace the eucalyptus forests with native trees, but in 1989 there were still many such forests near Lake Titicaca, and the smell of gum trees brought on a wave of nostalgia for a certain Australia who’d not been home for 3 years. 

In PUNO we met a big Kiwi bloke & his girlfriend, anxious because he’d been bitten by what might’ve been a rabid dog, and the local clinic didn’t have specialised needles for the procedure. Stuart dived into his bottomless blue Tardis (cloaked as a blue backpack) and pulled out a full set of rabies needles. Stuart really outdid himself that day! The Kiwi scurried off to begin his course of injections. Later, we 3 were in a restaurant eating our regular of  ‘pollo con arroz & Inca Cola‘ when a gaggle of happy kids walked by outside. They noticed 3 gringos, and reflexively went into an elaborate pantomime of abject misery, asking for money. We’d seen such zombie beggar performances before all across Peru, often prompted by the kids’ own parents, but this time the theatricality of the routine was so plain that we called the kids on the artifice. They gave some “you got me” shrugs, laughed, and went back to being natural kids again..

From Puno we rode a boat across LAKE TITICACA, stopping briefly at one of the famous ‘reed islands’, a huge raft woven from reeds and caked dirt. It seemed a very grim existence to live there. The children were all beggars hassling for sweets and pencils. Our eventual destination though was AMANTANI, a beautiful island with no electricity, plumbing, or tourist amenities of any kind. Local families came down to the little jetty to offer accomodation to travellers in their own homes.

notebook entry, May 6th 1989 – Amantani, Peru:
Stuart Peter and I just arrived on this (Amantani) island about an hour ago after a 4 hour boat ride across the lake from Puno. The altitude (12,000 feet) means that the sky is deep blue and the atmosphere is clear, almost to the point of suggesting that there is no atmosphere at all. Upon arrival we arranged to stay in two separate homesteads. Peter and I in one, and Stuart in the other. The place we are in is probably little different to a peasant cottage of Middle Ages Europe. This island seems untouched by the rampant begging that one can see in frequented areas of Peru.”

On Amantani people had a weather beaten look, and even young children often had noticeably old looking hands. I took this to be the effects of the strong sun at high altitude and a life spent working out of doors. We stayed in a little stone farmhouse with a young family, and the courtyard was teeming with guinea pigs scurrying this way and that. How cute! As we were taken to our room I heard a distant SQUEE! and soon our hosts served a dinner of something scrawny; ‘Ah, Guinea Pig! Magnifique!‘ (it had about as much meat on it as a baby’s hand). Après pig, Peter and I went out on the roof, only to witness the most beautiful night sky I’ve ever seen. The view of the Milky Way is much more spectacular in the Southern Sky but is utterly magnificent when seen from 12,000 feet in an area with no pollution & no electricity (and thus zero light pollution). I’ll remember that sight for the rest of my life.

Back in Puno, we met the Kiwi (rescued earlier by Stuart’s needles) and a likeable scrappy Aussie, and all traded travel tales over a meal. I have many memories of such conversations while travelling, where people shared personal disasters to comedic effect. The Kiwi told a cringe-ably hilarious story of being mugged by caca on Titicaca; diarrhoea on his own trip across the lake. Oh no… The boat was merely a big dinghy and had no ammenities. With no choice but to hang his huge white arse over the side, he was given a bucket by the captain to uses as a loo. This added an amplified WAH WAH acoustical effect to an already mortifying predicament, much to the horror of a captive audience of locals also riding the boat (and the hilarity of us listening later). I commiserated with my own similar terror toilet tale. We all traded Peru ripoff horror stories, and again, I remember thinking that if so many others had been ripped off too, then perhaps I was in good company.

At COPACABANA we crossed the border into BOLIVIA, and onward to LA PAZ. In 1989, Bolivia was so much more relaxed than Peru. A multilingual Canadian at our hostel (who’d traveled repeatedly to the region) said the reverse was true just a few years prior, when Bolivia had been tense and Peru had been easy going. When reading about La Paz today, it seems to be crime-ridden again, so perhaps it has taken its traditional position ahead of Peru in the pick-pocket pecking order. For many years I had a few trinkets I bought at the Witches Market in La Paz, from a charming old lady. I’ve lost them now sadly (whatever they were they were, they clearly weren’t LOSS charms).

The ‘witches’ market’ in La Paz.

notebook entry, 16th May 1989 – La Paz, Bolivia:
“I have had my first ever game of golf at the highest golf course in the world here in La Paz; 9 over par on just about every hole. Another sport I can add to the long list of games that I don’t particularly enjoy. Stuart has gone back to England, in fact he’s probably just about touching down now as I write.. as we head off to Cochabamba. Today we went up to 4,800 meters (15,700 feet) to visit a beautiful ice cave. We shared a taxi cab out there with a few English people, a Scots lady & her Spanish boyfriend. “

My first ever game of golf, at the highest course in the world.

The US$/Peruvian INTI exchange rate almost doubled to our advantage while in Peru, so the free-falling economy wasn’t all bad news (says the foreign carpet bagger). Before his departure, Stuart bought an obscene amount of almost worthless devalued INTIS, to use as business cards when he got home to the UK.

The ice cave visited outside La Paz is a non event now, melted due to global warming. I cannot remember the name of that cave, so I can’t be totally sure, but it appears that you must go much further and mount quite a strenuous hike these days to see such a sight, whereas in 1989, a bloke was able to drive us practically all the way there, and it was only a brief hike from the road. Next, was a 7 hour bus ride to COCHABAMBA.

notebook entry, 18th may 1989 – Cochabamba Bolivia:
“Sitting in a kind of cake shop in the (Cochabamba) town square. Caught a bus ride from La Paz day before yesterday, an overnight trip of about 7 hours that arrived at about 4 in the morning. The bus station area was very busy until daybreak with buses arriving and unloading the huge high stacked piles of luggage from atop their roof racks. Peter and I ate at a street stall table till daylight. It reminded me of a similar stall I spent a few minutes at while changing buses in Dali, in China; a blue black sky and a full clear moon and the little halfway village ringed with mountains, (and in the similar memory) old Chinese people doing Tai Chi in the streets already hustling and bustling a 4 or 5 in the morning.”

After a brief visit to Cochabamba, Peter & I went back to La Paz briefly, before heading back to Peru. La Paz back to Lima was done in two MEGA BUS TRIPS. Firstly, La Paz-Puno-Arequipa, a route with particularly steep and windy roads. One time it was Pete’s turn to act as luggage-guard in the aisle seat as I slept. I awoke with my head against the window to an utterly heart stopping view out my side of the bus; a precipitous sheer drop, falling away thousands of feet from the road as the bus wobbled along a windy mountain trail. Peru’s winding hillside roads were frequently dotted with little crucifixes, each representing a traffic accident, and it was a sobering thought that each of those crucifixes thus represented about 60 people, if each bus was as crowded as the one we rode in.

La Paz, Bolivia.

After a night in Arequipa beat kinks from our spines, yet another MEGA BUS TRIP took us all the way back to Lima. Having had experience with the dodginess of Peruvian bus travel in general, and Arequipa in particular, we decided not to budge from our seats on this last marathon bus ride. If one of us went to the loo or buy snacks at a rest stop, the other guarded the bags. This worked well for the first 15 hours of the gruelling 16 hour trip, but was thwarted when the bus driver kicked us off the bus, just outside of Lima. We made a fuss but he shooed us off anyway. Grabbing our luggage, we grudgingly got off and had a proper sit down meal together. When the signal came to re-board, Pete went to the loo in the restaurant and I was the first at the door when the driver unlocked the bus. As I took my assigned seat there was already a dude already sitting behind me, which struck me me as weird, but I didn’t think too much about it at the time. Peter rejoined the bus from his potty stop, the bus filled up with the rest of the passengers, and we were on our way again.

Not far from Lima, the bus went through a security checkpoint. A posse of soldiers came aboard, bristling with weaponry, checked IDs, searched here and there, then got off and waved us on. About 10 minutes further down the road to Lima, the bus inexplicably stopped again, out in the desert near a few cars parked by the side of the road. I felt a weird sensation under my arse; “What the?” and turned to see two shady characters behind us, pulling about 8 bags of coke (or heroin, or god knows what) from slits under our seat cushions, flashing we two gringo patsies shit-eating grins as they left the bus… It was a sobering moment when we realised what had just gone down, and what would have happened had the soldiers found the illicit stuff, whatever it was, under our seats. The bus driver must have been ‘persuaded’ by these goons to vacate the bus, giving them time to plant whatever they didn’t want the soldiers to see. Out of 60 seats, they’d chosen the two young gringos as fall guys. I was fed up with such nonstop shady shenanigans, and was looking forward to getting the fuck out of Peru by this point.

Lenticular Norwegian Jesus birthday card bought in Cuzco, Peru.

notebook entry, 28th May 1989 – Lima Peru:
“Other than the possibility of having been the unwitting accomplices to drug smuggling operation, the trip from AREQUIPA to Lima by bus went smoothly. Hopefully only a few days away from departure to LA. At present I’m wait listed for next Tuesday evening’s flight. Hopefully by Monday I’ll get onto the reservation list.”

In a neighbourhood out by the beach (that could have been LA if you squinted your eyes) we visited Lima’s MUSEO de ANTROPOLOGIA. It was meaningful to see its archeological artefacts after visiting the sites where they’d actually come from. Display after display mentioned the by-now common theme of theft, with a new angle; foreigners (sometimes galleries & museums) stealing priceless artefacts from Peru. Not long after this trip, perhaps sometime in 1990, I saw one of the INDIANA JONES sequels. The famous adventurer archeologist struck me as a monumental dick this time around, as he galavanted about the 3rd world nicking cool shit from the various peoples of remote planet Earth. That fact was completely lost on me the first time, when I enjoyed Indy’s derring-do along with everyone else, so this understanding of the ramifications of his actions was something acquired on this Peru/Bolivia trip.

Not long before we left Peru, I was helping Peter take a long exposure nighttime photo of Lima’s Government Palace, not far from our hostel. As we hunkered down and fussed about with cameras and tripods, our equipment drew the attention of jumpy palace security guards, armed to the teeth as usual. It was startling to be engrossed in something so mundane as setting up a tripod to take a photo, only to be eyeball-to-muzzle with machine guns wielded by grim-faced, leathernecks with eager imaginations..

Presidential Palace, Lima.

notebook entry, 30th May 1989 – Lima Peru:
“Sitting in the Japanese cafe across from the hostel. These are some of the friendliest people I’ve met in Peru. It’s quite a laugh communicating in a mix of Japanese and Spanish. I first met them 6 weeks ago, on my first or second evening in Lima. Just saw Peter off on his bus to Ecuador, it turned out to be an enjoyable trip. My flight leaves tonight. Judging from the number of entries in here about my flight, it’s easy to see that I’m keen to leave this country!”

I had envied Stuart’s beautiful Fedora, and decided to splurge on one of my own in my last few days in Lima. I arranged a ride to the airport via a connection at the hostel, for a very late departure, at around 1AM. My passport departure stamp says; MAY 31 1989, arriving in Los Angeles around lunch o’clock.

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I soon forgot that Fedora on a Greyhound bus. I bought myself a lovely hat a few times in my travels, but lost them  very soon after (the first hat was bought in Korea and lost in China, the second hat was bought in Peru and lost somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco). I can keep a crummy $5 ball cap for 15 years, but will probably lose a lovely Fedora within a week.

Mostly I went travelling by myself. I’d meet people along the way, travel side-by-side for a day or a week, but inevitably separated ways. The trip to Peru & Bolivia was the only time I traveled the length and breadth of a country with companions, and I’m glad of that, because traveling through Peru in 1989 on my own wouldn’t have been enjoyable. It was a very tense time, with politics topsy turvy and the economy in free fall. My trip to Peru at times harrowing, and the fondness I have for the adventure is because I did it in the company of two fine friends, one had since childhood and the other made on this trip.

Oct 222017
 

Late 1996, I resigned from Colossal Pictures, the only full time staff position I’d ever had. By then I’d been working in animation for 15 years, but recent job disasters had soured me to the industry, and I was unsure what to do next. After traveling for a few months, I’d decided to focus on the enjoyable aspects of being a cartoonist by creating some projects of my own, and by February 1997 I came back to San Francisco to draw. Although my plan was to save money by working at my kitchen table, Robert Valley suggested that I sublet some space at an animation studio he’d founded in 1995. I did, and it represented a turning point in my creative life.

For several months I didn’t think about paid work, but came up with silly characters and goofy situations for them to be in. I’d recently created some characters for a company and loved the creating part, but the process of getting it made wasn’t a fun experience at all. To rekindle the joy I once felt at being a cartoonist, I resolved to make something primarily for fun. My own thing, not tied to schedules, budgets and the whims of others. I started doodling in the solo medium of comics, and gradually, I began enjoying drawing cartoons again. ROCKET RABBIT, SEPHILINA, and many other personal projects, were all born out of this period of play.

Rocket Rabbit Rocket Rabbit Rocket Rabbit

At around the same time, more freelancers moved in to Robert’s studio; Bosco Ng, and Steward Lee, two more colleagues from our Colossal Pictures days. Maverix slowly became a shared workspace for a loose collective of freelance artists, each working on their own professional or personal projects, while sharing resources and sometimes collaborating on certain jobs, and my American freelance career had begun. More artists joined; Sho Murase, Derek Thompson, Vaughn Ross, and Robert’s brother, John. I’d been on staff continually since arriving in the USA, but once Maverix became my base of operations I could try my hand at a variety of different projects at many different studios, both in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Following various leads (from ex-Colossal Pictures colleagues) I worked for ILM (‘Frankenstein’) Pixar (‘Finding Nemo‘) PDI (‘Tusker‘) and on various commercials and shorts projects at Wild Brain.

The balance between my career, private life, and personal projects had always been hard to manage. When working in a professional studio, I’d get wound up in the cogs of production and think of nothing else but my job, but working at home as a freelancer didn’t give enough structure and I’d waste my downtime. At Maverix Studios however, I had the freedom of a freelancer with the routine and inspiring camaraderie of a studio, allowing me to do my personal projects for the first time. The studio changed its spelling from MaveriCKS  (initially named for the NorCal surf spot) to MAVERIX, to mark the transition from the commercial studio it once was to the collective it had become (besides, that domain name was available). Around 2000 we bought a shared G4 computer (the first time I’d ever used Photoshop) and soon after got a shared website:

Maverix at times became a hive of industry, that expanded from the core membership to include friends helping with various animation projects (commercials and the like) and this meant that it was often a raucous place to work, with loud music, people playing video games, a barking dog running around, and friends of friends dropping by with beers. It could be a difficult place to concentrate in, and ironically I sometimes had to work on my kitchen table at home simply to get away from the noise in my paid workplace, but it was always an energetic and inspiring place to brainstorm, despite those distractions. When we were buzzing with activity, we’d take breaks by playing video games. I remember those competitions fondly, even though I was the loser every time, and the brunt of good-natured smack talking that was a fun feature of these bouts of digital fisticuffs.

During a slow spell at the studio in early 2001, Bosco Ng, Derek Thompson, and I were sitting with nothing to do, and somebody suggested that we should each make a comic for that year’s Comic-Con and actually exhibit. We’d all been attending and submitting portfolios for years, but actually making something to sell had never occurred to us before. We were perhaps inspired by the recent example of a colleague from ILM, Steve Purcell, who had a Comic-Con table the year prior to sell his own artwork. We decided to do something similar ourselves and just make something for a change, instead of getting raked over the coals by snotty art-directors at portfolio reviews. Many times throughout my career, in eager beaver conversation in pubs or coffeeshops, such notions had been mentioned before (“let’s make an animated short!” etc) but this was the first time we followed through, and made the things we said we’d make: three separate comic books.

We knew nothing about printing or exhibiting, but it was remarkably easy to exhibit at Comic-Con in 2001; there was no waiting list, and in February 2001 we booked a table for July that same year, which would be unthinkable now. We’d committed to exhibiting and the ensuing period of making stuff remains one of the most pleasant stretches of several months in my entire career. Each day, the three of us would come in to the studio, jazzed to draw our comics, excited about what we were each doing, and what the other two guys were doing too. My effort was NERVE BOMB (my first Rocket Rabbit book) Derek made BINDU (a collaboration with Brian McDonald) and Bosco made METALUSION. We got them printed just in time. It is quite common for a group of artists to self publish these days, but it wasn’t as common back then, and we got a good reaction simply because of the novelty of a booth containing three artists selling their own stuff. A high point was when Mike Mignola visited our table and bought our books.

I got a rude shock when I finally got my bill from the printer. I’d cut the print deadline very close, and asked the printer to ship a few hundred of my comics expedited direct to San Diego, so they’d make the convention deadline, and ship the remaining 1800 books to San Francisco, at regular rates. They instead sent ALL the boxes to San Diego. The bill for expedited international shipping (from Canada) for 2,000 books was brutal. As that last minute transaction had been all arranged on the phone, I had no paper trail as to who said exactly what & when, so when the printer sicced a collection agency onto me I had to pay up. This was my first lesson that getting things printed was often the sour note in self publishing..

The next few years saw all Maverix members exhibiting their own projects at Comic-Con. There was the annual drama of getting various personal projects drawn and printed in time for the show, shenanigans with printing companies, Kinkos, or ink-jet printers. Hare-brained money-saving schemes to drive to the Con, all Maverix members crammed into a rented van, like the Scooby Doo gang or some lame rock band. Several years of fumbled bookings in shitty San Diego hotels, and assorted shenanigans; Robert accidentally drinking Sho’s contact lenses (twice) or getting stranded in Tijuana without his passport. Oh, such tales could be told (and might be one day.)

Maverix was a chaotic band of loons that nevertheless helped me break the cycle of my own creative lameness. I am not sure why it took me so long to actually make something of my own, except that when younger, I had no idea how to get things printed or made. Researching the means of production wasn’t easy in the 80s and 90s, and it’s only relatively recently that those technologies have been accessible to your average Joe & Jane. Even so, I deeply regret not getting off my arse many years earlier and making something. Anything. I always thought about it, but somehow had the feeling that I needed permission or validation from someone else to move forward. The younger generation of artists today do not make that mistake, and self publish books and make short films right out of school. This is definitely the way to go. When you’re young and before you have a family, you should make stuff of your own as much as you can, as personal projects are the gymnasium where professional artists get to train their creative muscles and stretch themselves.

Maverix became known as a fun place to hang out. The studio was not far from San Francisco’s South of Market club scene, and would often serve as a staging area for night club away teams, and after-parties. There were themed movie nights (“Ape Night” or “Monster Night”) or we’d simply gather to watch the latest anime blockbuster or foreign hit film on Bosco’s groovy projector. Maverix knew how to throw a very fun party on any pretext at all, and members of other bigger studios would all mingle on our common ground.

On the fateful day of September 11, 2001, I was the only person working at Maverix. This was before the era of carrying the internet in your pocket, and I was unaware of the world-changing attacks on The World Trade Center. I walked into work early that morning, and assumed that the police vehicles surrounding City Hall were there for another episode of ’Nash Bridges’, and continued to the studio, where I was working on paper and therefore not connected to the internet. By mid-afternoon, no one else had come to work but I didn’t think much of it, because Maverix was the kind of place where people kept odd hours. Later in the day, I went out to get something to eat at a nearby deli, where the the radio broadcasted something hectic in Korean. The guy making my sandwich was agitated about something in New York, but didn’t speak clear English, and I assumed it was a sporting event. After I walked all the way back home at about 11PM that night and turned on my TV, I finally saw the nightmarish images of airplanes dissolving into the Twin Towers. It still took 20 minutes for it to sink in that this was NOT a movie. That this was real. For the next 24 hours I stayed glued to the TV trying to make sense of it all. Al Qaeda who? Osama Bin What? Why?

My girlfriend at the time was in Europe traveling with her family, stranded by the USA flight ban imposed in the wake of the attacks (for everyone other than the fleeing Bin Laden family). It was a stressful and gruesome time. At the national level there was great distress, but many things in my own life started to fall apart after 9/11. Freelance work started to dry up almost immediately, and most of my friends were out of work for a long time. As the disasters stacked up – political, personal, professional, financial, psychological – it was almost comedic, like a sequence from a movie where a shlub (a Jerry Lewis or a Jim Carrey) is subjected to one humiliating pitfall one after the other, to teach him ‘a lesson’. The difference being that everyone was experiencing this spiral of disaster at the exact same time. For me this grim period culminated in a bitter break up with my girlfriend in September 2002, leaving me dejected about life in America, about relationships, about work, and human beings in general. It took several years to find my optimism again.

The original 9th Street address of Maverix Studios was in a seedy part of town. My memories of Maverix itself are overwhelmingly positive, but any negative memories come from that low-rent tawdry neighbourhood, rife with petty crime and scuzzy ne’er do wells prowling about. I had two different bikes stolen from inside the studio itself within three months, and I wasn’t the only Maverix member to have issues with theft. There was a strange ecosystem of Fury Road shantytowns in the alley behind the studio near our dumpsters, ruled over by a semi psychotic Hobo Warlord in camouflage combat pants, stripped to the waist. This methed-up alpha hobo was known to us as ’Hatchet Man,’ because we’d often see him out our back window flexing his muscles and practicing tossing his tomahawk into a telephone pole; wzzzz THUD! We’d have to thread our way gingerly past Immortan Joe and his underlings to put stuff in our own dumpster.

The back alley shanty town would grow, and periodically the city would swoop in to roust the squatters, and steam clean their paste off the alley. Then another shanty would slowly re-assemble, only to be purged when it too became a festering sore. The City wanted to offset costs for these frequent cleanups, and clearly the hobos had no money, so The City would attempt to send US the bill for these cleanings. One time I was at home in the shower in my own apartment when there was furious rapping on the door, with an officious voice demanding; “Open up! City Trash Police!” (or some such). I opened the door in my bath towel to be confronted by a guy we came to call ‘The Garbage Nazi‘, an enforcer with the city who’d found a scrap of rubbish in the alley bearing my name and address, and this was to be the justification for a BILL from City Hall; if any of our trash was strewn about by the human racoons that lived in the alley (as it often was) we’d get hammered by The City for alley cleanup. There were already stiff penalties for not having a padlock on our garbage can. However the entire system broke down when the guys driving the garbage trucks and emptying our dumpsters wouldn’t put the locks back on after emptying our trash. Then our garbage cans became prime scavenging sites, and even impromptu porta-potties for Hatchet Man and his homies (yes, not kidding).

The initial draw to the area was cheap rent, when most businesses around us were fabric sewing sweat shops, likewise taking advantage of low costs. The first wave of internet start ups happened around that time, and when the tech boom hit the neighbourhood, suddenly those crappy sweatshops were turned into tech lofts and the area was awash with hipsters on scooters. But the .com boom of San Francisco wasn’t all glamour. Sometimes, when working late, we’d overhear tawdry transactions taking place in the medieval monkey cage in the back alley below the studio. It’s a strange disconnect to be working on a child’s cartoon at 2 in the morning, when you hear some drunk tech-nerd stumble out of a nearby bar to haggle a drugs-for-sex swap with a hobo-junkie. This sleazy Blowjob Bartertown was an aspect of the SF tech boom not covered by WIRED magazine.

Maverix soon lost its lease due to the escalating crazy rents brought on by this .com boom, when our landlord suddenly wanted us to pay something like $10,000 a month for a space that cost less than $2000 a month previously, which was very indicative of the greed of that time. The combo of tawdry sleaze & crummy infrastructure and high prices was brutal (and became the problem with San Francisco in general). When it was time to renew our lease in 2003, we couldn’t afford to be in the area any more, so the studio moved to 17th street and the new space was infinitely better than the original place. By that time, some of the members chose to become a proper LLC company, and the loose collective dissolved, and I left Maverix (thinking that we could barely manage the studio trash cans, let alone file paperwork for an actual company). This separation was 100% amicable, it was simply that our different goals for the studio had changed. Although I was no longer officially a member, I still participated in many Maverix events, and often dropped in on my old studio mates. We are all still good friends to this day.

One of the things I was most happy to collaborate in were the Maverix charity art auctions. The first was held out of a desperate need to express our love and support for our friend Mike Murnane, who’d been brought low by a tragic accident. He required surgery but had no insurance, and thus no funds to cover his ballooning medical expenses. The broader Maverix community came together to generate money in the only way we knew how; by making and selling artwork. Organised in a matter of weeks, this first auction raised a significant amount of money, even though many of us were out of work ourselves at the time. It became the first charity fundraiser of many, and such auctions became regular events at the studio. People from Pixar, PDI, ILM, Wild Brain, Ghostbot, and other studios in the Bay Area all assembled for good times and good causes.

This was my first experience of artists doing what they do to raise money for charities without any goal of self-promotion. I have seen similar things since, but for me the Maverix auctions were always the best. They may not have raised the cash of bigger art auctions that came later, but they were always all-inclusive and immensely rewarding to be part of. Lately, I’ve had a visceral sense of what such fundraising activities can do for a person who’s been medically devastated, when I was a beneficiary myself (in 2013). Though the money is very welcome, I found the support from the community to be the real force for good.

I’d recommend any freelance artists who work at home to find like-minded friends to share a workspace with, at least once in your career. In my opinion, an essential ingredient to make the whole thing work is a sort of rulebook (or ‘manifesto’ if you prefer) to ensure that the day to day nitty-gritty of bill paying and trash removal happens smoothly, and it it’s clear in everybody’s mind’s to what extent the studio is a workspace, and to what extent it is a fun space. If you can get those things mutually understood, this is one the most satisfying ways to work as a commercial artist.

When I first fell in love with San Francisco in the early 1990s, the Bay Area had a healthy cross-section of big studios, medium-sized studios, and small studios. Over 25 years later, the middle of that ecosystem has died. There are still a few big places (impenetrable fortresses like Pixar, and ILM) and a few tiny studios too, but the mid-size studios are gone (perhaps because animated commercials are neither so common nor lucrative as they once were). Mid-sized studios were my favourite places to work, providing the bulk of the freelance jobs for people doing what I do, while taking more chances on younger talent than bigger studios. I miss these mid-sized studios a great deal. A lot of innovation is happening in the South Bay in GAMES, but my focus has always been on animation for broadcast or film, and in that respect San Francisco is not the vital town that it once was, sadly.

In 2011, MAVERIX STUDIOS finally closed its doors, marking the end for this fantastic collective of independent, Bay Area animation artists, though ex-members have gone on to work on many high-profile projects in a wide variety of media, from comics & games to film & TV. All members look back on the studio with fondness, despite some setbacks here and there. It was quite an achievement that such an unwieldy group of screwballs could operate so well for so long, during some very difficult years in the Bay Area media community, when many studios with ‘business plans’ and MBAs all went kaput. For many years I’d toyed with the idea of making some projects of my own, but it wasn’t until Maverix that I actually did it, and interestingly, it made me a more professional worker for others, when I had an outlet to do my own thing. Becoming a self publisher led to exhibiting at comics conventions, which I did for about 10 years and got a lot of satisfaction from. Being a member of Maverix Studios remains one of the most fruitful periods of my career.

Founders of the Maverick commercial animation studio: Robert Valley Jeanne Reynolds.

Initial members of the Maverix Studios collective: Robert Valley, John Valley, James Baker, Steward Lee, Bosco Ng, Sho Murase, Vaughn Ross, Derek Thompson.

The 3rd wave: Tom Rubalcava, Osamu Tsuruyama, Tony Stacchi, Sergio Paez, Ted Mathot, Chris Petrocchi, Garett Sheldrew, Ed Bell.

Other friends who collaborated, or hung out: Patrick Awa, Mike Murnane, Gennie Rim, Granger Davis, Lyla Warren, Charlie Canfield, Dan McHale, Chris Carter, Charlene Kelley, Victor Gascon, Sam Hood, Dedan Anderson, Joel Hornsby, Jamal Narcisse, Lance Hughes, Ken Kaiser (and many more!)

Sep 302017
 

Although I’ve worked in animation since 1982 and loved the medium my whole life, there was only one time that I made an animated project on my own (apart from flip-books). At the age of 15/16, my obsessions were WARNER Bros CARTOONS, STAR WARS and MAD Magazine, influences clearly seen in the crudely made parody finished over a year later. In 2014 I found the spool of super-8 film containing all 6.5 minutes of ‘SPACE FLiK‘, and transferred it to digital media. Watching it again for the first time in over 30 years brought back so many memories…

Initially, I’d intended to fully animate the whole thing, but quickly realised that would not be possible. Apart from the time that it would take, I couldn’t find (nor afford) animation cels. I made a few myself (out of shirt box lids and the like) but only enough for one scene. Even animating on paper presented its own problems (the pencil-mileage of redrawing backgrounds, or not having any backgrounds at all). After fiddling around, a hybrid technique developed; some scenes animated and shot on paper, some scenes done with cut-out animation (inspired by Terry Gilliam‘s book on the subject) and some animated scenes on paper, with individual poses cut out and temporarily glued to my few reuseable cells (or manipulated under camera on a homemade multiplane). It was not the ‘Illusion of Life‘, by any means, and barely even the illusion of the Illusion Of Life. It was NAFFimationâ„¢.

The drawing was fiddly but was something I loved to do, whereas the filming took me into unchartered waters of complexity and frustration. The only camera I’d ever owned was an Instamatic, and I knew nothing at all about exposure & focus, and had to learn by trial and error (heavy emphasis on the error) with a borrowed super-8 camera. In those pre-digital days, we were never sure what we’d shot on film till it came back from the processing lab, when I’d discover badly exposed sequences, weeks after shooting them. My town had no lab for super-8, so the film had to be sent away to be processed, and this iterative cycle of – shoot, wait, watch, scream, reshoot, wait, watch, scream, etc – took a lot of time. Time which ran out long before I was done. The borrowed camera had to be given back to the institution that owned it, and I had to simply remove failed scenes from the final print and submit it to my HSC art course.

Finally, after more than a year of drawing, and a few months of tinkering with borrowed camera and editing equipment, the premiere screening of all 6.5 minutes of ‘SPACE FLiK‘ was in the ‘good room‘ of the Baker family home in 1981 (on a borrowed super-8 projector) for an enthusiastic group of family and friends. The second screening was for examiners of my HSC. Hilariously, the third screening was at the Sydney Opera House in early 1982, at the National Youth Film Festival, where none other than Peter Weir was keynote speaker. My high school art teacher Ross Cochrane had heard about about this contest, and suggested I enter my film. I did, and it was accepted. By the time of the event, I already knew that I’d not won anything but was thrilled to attend and see all entries, including my own, screened in that famous building. I was very impressed with the quality of the other films shown, and some of the award winning young filmmakers went on to become prominent within the Australian film industry.

We contestants all received detailed critiques of our films written by the festival judges, who were film critics, film makers, or film lecturers at various universities. In my memory, the feedback was savage and I regret to say that I threw it away, but the truth is that all these critiques were absolutely right and I’d enjoy reading them now. At 17, I’d already understood the technical mistakes I’d made (bad timing, shoddy focus & exposure, etc) but the tragedy of expending a Herculean effort on a flimsy parody, rather than something original of my own, was only starting to dawn on me. Sadly, I became ashamed of this silly film. Although I’d intended to show SPACE FLiK to the animation studio in Sydney (Hanna-Barbera) where I’d hoped to work (and eventually did) my film was never screened again after the Opera House Ego-Massacre (besides, pro studios didn’t have super-8 projectors, and I didn’t either, so it wasn’t easy to show even if I’d wanted to).

However, all these many years later, it was wonderful to see this fun reminder of the eager young dork I was back then; a wide-eyed fan in a pre-internet small town with no resources and even less of a clue, but with enough raw enthusiasm to make a film anyway. When I discovered that the box containing the film spool also included all the original 1981 artwork, I began a fun project to restore mis-shot & deleted scenes, and add the simple soundtrack that I’d planned long ago, but didn’t then have the resources to do. A 53 year old professional learning Premiere-Pro simply to fiddle with his own teenage amateur work is self indulgent perhaps, but as the original project was a Star Wars parody, a Lucas-style revised “Special Edition” should also be fair game for the lampoon;

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been waiting 35 years, till the ‘technology was available‘ to complete my ‘original vision’. Without any further ado, please enjoy ‘SPACE FLiK: The Corrector’s cut‘.

Jul 252017
 

Sell ticker rain jurrs, wee chwonn?!” Said he. “Huh? Oi dahnd unnerstehnn wotcha saiyin!” Said I. It was my first day at primary school in Glasgow and a mutually unintelligible clash of regional English accents was under way; Glasgow Scots vs Rural Aussie. Like me, the other kid was a knock kneed 9 year old Celt, but wearing a belligerent expression on his pasty dial, and I had no idea what his agitation was about.

Another ginger haired Scots tyke told him that my incomprehension was because I was Australian, at which my stroppy interrogator huffed off someplace, muttering (I think) about kangaroos. Dad later decoded this tense exchange for me after school, as we trudged home along the Crow Road shivering in the clammy gloom (Glasgow nightfall was as early as 3:45pm in winter, meaning that it was already twilight when I got out of school, and pitch dark by the time I’d walked home). Dad said that my adversary had been asking “Celtic or Rangers, which one?!“ but this was still utter gibberish to me, even when I understood the individual words. Dad explained that the boy’s question had challenged me to swear allegiance to either of two local soccer teams who were mortal enemies. What I know now but didn’t yet understand back then was that the important subtext of the question was that one of these teams was historically Catholic and the other was Protestant, and my inability to understand the question had probably saved my head from being punched in, as I was Catholic. The wrong answer in that area. More to the point, I didn’t (and still don’t) give a toss about sports anyway, but as luck would have it, I’d soon assert myself as a soccer savant purely by accident.

The school had one soccer pitch where multiple games were played concurrently during our lunch break. Exactly how many only became clear by counting the number of goalies in each goal mouth, often upwards of four. These kids had to make sense of multiple matches and call any game headed toward goal as “MINE!” when other goalies would briefly step aside to let him face the oncoming storm. I was running in this swirling melee myself, trying to understand crisscrossing swarms of tykes in the exact same school uniform kicking a multitude of soccer balls every which-way, when a ball cannoned out of nowhere, savagely caromed off my face and into goal. By pure luck, it was the ball from the game I was associated with and won a point for my team. With ears still ringing and my face throbbing five shades of red from chin to hairline, I did my best to pass off this fluke as a famous Australian header technique, and was hailed as the athletic hero of the day by one and all. I further cemented my schoolyard network when it turned out that a few classmates were Cub Scouts.

I had been a Cub Scout in Australia, and after my family moved to Scotland I joined a Cub Scout pack near our new home in Glasgow. I was a novelty right away because of my old style blue uniform and distinctive Australian merit badges. The Scots wore khaki/green outfits and their way of denoting rank was ARROWS on the sleeve (like sergeant’s stripes) whereas in Australia it was BOOMERANGS. I’d earned a bronze boomerang by accumulating a few art/craft merit badges and my one great Cub Scout achievement; raising the most money in a ‘Bob a Job‘ fundraiser. In every other field of Cub Scout endeavour, requiring bushcraft or physical coordination, I was mediocre at best. Like a dog pack, a Cub Scout pack could sniff out the status of other Cubs by merely looking at this resume of little boy achievement on our uniforms. (If this merit badge system continued into adulthood you’d know immediately if your date was worth your time by his ‘Good Boyfriend‘ badge — semiotic icon: peeing with seat UP). In my brief time in Scottish Scouts I attended weekly meetings where two grown men referred to as ‘Akela & Baloo‘ (in kilted scout outfits) tried to channel the energies of their pack of little wolves toward the high minded ideals of the organisation (a lot of ‘Queen & Country’ bollocks in hindsight) while the pack itself often focused on a simmering rivalry with a similar organisation of tribal brats a few blocks away (that variation on the ‘Lord Of The Flies With Supervision‘ concept was called Boys’ Brigade).

The main memory I have of my time in Scottish Scouts is of a several-day trip to the Scottish Highlands. After a bus drove us Cub Scouts all the way up there, we slept in a large empty hall, rather than tents as I’d done at similar Jamborees in Australia (called ‘Coroborees’ down our way) but inside camping worked well in the Highlands, as the weather was shitty most of the time, and the pack went rambling on moors and craggy coastlines between intermittent downpours. One afternoon we Cub Scouts were dodging rain and amusing ourselves back at the hall when I noticed a concerned huddle of Akela & Baloo. They glanced furtively at me and discussed some paperwork, before quietly taking me aside and asking me; “are you Catholic?” in hushed tones of concern and fear, as if asking “do you have ebola?” Weeks earlier my parents had filled out a permission form for me to go on the trip, with the usual stuff (medical issues, allergies, and so on) and even though the religion section clearly stated that I was Catholic, Akela & Baloo appeared to need further verbal clarification from me to believe this particular detail (apparently unnoticed until we were already on the trip). Upon careful consideration, I had to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure, but; “Maybe I might be Catholic?” Their tension eased a little; “So your family doesn’t go to church, then?” they enquired. “Oh no“, I corrected, “We go every Sunday“. Their shoulders sagged. “Where?” I described the drive from our house in Glasgow to our church, and Akela & Baloo drooped even further, exchanging looks. They seemed to know where I meant, but I could not decode their reaction.

At the time, I was oblivious to the pickle that me & my form had dropped them in. I did not yet understand the distinction between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ at the age of 9, but in Britain of the early 1970s, with the IRA tossing bombs about the place, and Catholics being occasionally shot by military forces in Northern Ireland, it was a very important distinction indeed. Later that same year my family saw ground zero of this Catholic/Protestant clash in Belfast. I still have jagged impressions from that day, of a broken grey town, spooled with barbed wire, patrolled by grim-faced troops wielding machine guns & driving Saracens, all seen through the wide goggling eyes of a small boy from a small town half a world away. At numerous checkpoints our family car full of 4 tiny children was inspected by armed soldiers, as my family drove through Belfast on our way to connect with a ferry back to Scotland. It was the first time I’d seen a real machine gun, and by the end of that day I’d seen quite a few. 21st century Britain is afraid of Muslim terrorism, but in 1974 Muslims were simply the people who sold us comics and sweeties at our corner store, and terrorism was the exclusive speciality of Catholics.

These many years later, I understand this context for the furtive glances and kid gloves that Akela & Baloo handled me with back then, when I was a little boy; Catholics were clearly testy nutjobs, and God only knew what the Australian variety might be capable of. Better find this kid a Catholic church pronto, unless his roo-riding parents launch an Aussie Left-Footer fatwah on the Jordan Hill scout hall. However, even in Glasgow we had to drive a long way from where we lived to attend a Catholic church (I remember my family picnicking near this church after mass, when a throng of angry blokes in orange shawls appeared. “What are those men yelling about?” I asked Mum & Dad. “Us!” they replied, as Mum gave me my sticky bun). Way up in the remote Highlands, Akela & Baloo had less options for finding me the right flavour of church to kneel in.

That Sunday we Cub Scouts got up VERY early before church and went for a long drive in our bus out into the beautiful heathered bleakness of a Scottish Highland moor. To my surprise, the bus stopped at an intersection out in this barren landscape and Akela gestured at a tiny rustic chapel, saying this was the right church for me, that they would pick me up after mass, and to please be patient as it might take a while. I got off the coach and walked over to the tiny stone chapel out in the backside of beyond, as my Cub Scout pack zoomed away to attend their own brand of Church on time. Imagine that classic scene in a western where all the owl hoots in the Dodge City saloon turn to see the new gunslinger walk through the swinging saloon doors. Now substitute the dusty saloon with a tiny rundown chapel on a Highland moor, for the piano player swap a Celtic crone seated at an organ, replace the bar patrons with a few elderly parishioners, and the new kid in town standing backlit at the door is me, in my garish Cub Scout uniform. Thinking back on it now, I must have been a bizarre sight from the point of view of these Highland parishioners waiting for mass. Outside they’d heard the squeal of brakes, the pneumatic hiss of an opening door, and turned to see a solitary sawn off creature in blue crossing their threshold.

In total silence I took a pew at the very back of the tiny chapel and waited. Slowly, more craggy Highlanders came in and took their seats. It was only then that I realised I’d broken with some local protocol. Unlike my parish, these Highland Catholics preferred that all lads sit on one side of the aisle and all lassies on the other, and I had been sitting amongst the womenfolk (though I fixed my mistake after communion). When the service got under way I had great difficulty in understanding what was being said. I’d eventually learned the rhythms of Glasgow speech, but this Highland Scots accent was impenetrable to me. It occurs to me only now that the service may have been in Gaelic, depending on where I was, but I couldn’t even guess where it might have been. Wherever I was, it was a long way from everywhere else, and my Cub Scout pack had gone well out of their way to get me there. Thankfully, although the priest’s words were opaque to me, I knew the rhythm of a Catholic mass by heart, and when to stand, sit, kneel, mumble or be silent.

After the mass ended, the tiny congregation quickly dispersed and hobbled away into the mist. I’m racking my memory as hard as I can now to remember if anyone queried me after mass. Even though it seems reasonable that somebody might be curious to know the identity of the mysterious tiny stranger in the blue uniform festooned with arcane symbols, I don’t have any recollection of even one of this taciturn crew talking with me, not even the priest. Let’s assume however that the good Father did check in with me, if only briefly, and after I assured him that I’d be picked up presently, he too hightailed it back into the Highlands. Thereafter, was a very long wait in the misty middle of nowhere until the rest of my Cub Scout pack returned.

Later, when I got back to Glasgow and Mum & Dad heard about Akela & Baloo’s furtive pre-church interview, the efforts my Cub Scout pack had taken to get me to a Catholic church, get to their own mass, and then drive back to pick me up, it became clear that none of it was necessary. Though touched by these efforts, Mum & Dad wouldn’t have minded in the slightest if I’d been taken to a church of another denomination. However, Akela & Baloo had never encountered someone of my peculiar breed in their Cub Scout pack ever before, and decided the best policy at the last minute was to be sensitive to causing offence. Everywhere in Scotland was a clan and/or a feud. Were you Catholic or Protestant? Celtic or Rangers? Campbell or MacDonald? Cub Scout or Boys Brigade? Highlander or Sassanach? Akela & Baloo clearly knew the protocols of dealing with Scots clans, and erred on the side of caution.

Our school too was divided into clans of a sort, the separate competing school houses (Harry Potter style). My schoolmates with classic Scottish surnames displayed their traditional clan tartans with utmost pride, on scarves, socks, hats, and other clothing accepted in school uniform rules. Not just clans, but hierarchies too were important. As a school newbie, I initially sat in the seat closest to the classroom door, and it took me a while to understand why the teacher (a fierce though loveable Scottish war hammer who could’ve been the model for Professor Minerva McGonagall) would rearrange our desks every fortnight. I eventually learned that placement of students within the classroom denoted their academic rank (a variation on the the at-a-glance merit badge ranking system used by Cub Scouts). Everyone knew exactly where you were within the hierarchy based on seating order; the front seat closest to the door (where I’d started) was for dummy numero uno, and the kid sitting over by the window at the back was class brainiac (for the record, I’d almost climbed to my traditional academic sweet spot of ‘the middle’ by the end of my time in Scotland).

With this pecking order humiliatingly displayed for all to see, each child asserted their own hierarchies in constantly revised lists taped to the underside of their desk lids. Not just the standard lists of fave bands, movie stars, athletes, and so on, but also best friend lists. These were prominently displayed as each student opened their desks to retrieve a book, when surrounding classmates would check to see whether their own currency had risen or fallen in these multiple social stock exchanges. My own ranking, if I made any lists at all, was once again ‘bottom of the middle’. It was all a lot to keep track of; the ‘LIKES’ of 1970s social media.

It was while in Scotland that I learned about British comics (such as Valiant, Beano & Dandy) and my drawing made a quantum leap as a result. I eagerly digested daily TV helpings of Brit Sci-Fi (Doctor Who, Space 1999, UFO) and Supermarionation (Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and Thunderbirds). In Scotland I belatedly learned to ride a bicycle, camped by Loch Ness (fervently seeking Nessie) visited real castles and torture dungeons, and was impressed by many other things that made indelible impressions on a little boy. But my time there was extra special for personal reasons too. Though raised in Australia by Australian parents, I’d actually been born in Scotland (in Edinburgh while my father studied there) and my mother was of Scots ancestry on her father’s side. She was a STUART (clan Stuart of Bute) and during the year I turned 10 years old and my family briefly lived in Glasgow, I learned about my mother’s clan so fierce and proud; THE SCOTS.

Jun 202017
 

The Japan Rail Pass was grossly expensive to someone used to meagre 1980s Australian animation wages but I forked over my hard earned cash anyway, for a chance to explore the length and breadth of a country I’d long wanted to see.

Only available for purchase outside Japan, The JR Pass is valid on ferries and trains (even snazzy Shinkansen ‘bullet trains’) for up to 21 days. In 1986 it was almost as expensive as an air ticket to Asia, and was an exorbitance for a 22 year old who barely payed his rent, but its bargain-value was proven upon seeing crazy Japanese prices. While thoroughly exploring Tokyo I hatched a travel-plan; head north on the main island of Honshu, catch the last snows of Winter up in Hokkaido, travel back down Honshu to the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, and end my grand tour in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto.

However, when trying to validate my JR Pass at Tokyo Station I learned it was invalid with the type of visa in my passport, and could only be refunded outside Japan at the office where I’d bought it. Thoroughly deflated I sulked around Tokyo while deciding what to do. I could no longer afford the itinerary I’d set my heart on, tried to find work (without any luck) and considered heading to Korea or China instead. An enterprising traveller at my guesthouse urged me not to give up on the JR Pass, reasoning that its rules might not be common knowledge. The officious bureaucrats in the JR main office knew them in detail, but somebody in another station might not. Sure enough, I eventually found an employee who saw a ‘foreigner rail pass’ held by a foreigner, and cheerfully stamped my JR Pass without checking my visa status. BINGO! With a start-date of March 6th, 1987 I had 3 weeks to see as much of Japan as I could.

Leaving Tokyo, with my JR Pass and a small bag (containing clothes, camera, guidebook, rail-timetable, & sketchbook) a map of Japanese Youth Hostels was my second most useful possession. These days I can book accommodation anywhere in the world from my cellphone, but in the pre-internet age it was daunting to find lodging in countries where you couldn’t speak (or even read) the language. The Youth Hostels Association provides a network of budget accommodation, and in 1980s Japan it was extensive. Typically, bathing was in the Japanese communal style and beds were in dormitories, giving you a modular posse of like-minded travellers if you wanted it. Breakfasts were usually a raw egg in a bowl of rice and seaweed to wrap it in, a strange concoction initially, that eventually I looked forward to. My first stop was Nikko, to see the Tosho-gu shrine (burial place of  the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate) and countless other shrines and temples in a beautiful mountain setting. In subsequent visits to Japan I came to realise that I’d not seen Nikko at its best that first time (my favourite season is Autumn) even so, I was floored by the beauty of the place and the wealth of things to see.

This trip was where my enthusiasm for travel began, kicking off a several-year period where I lived out of a bag and put many miles under my feet. However, I was a meandering traveller and rather lazy about it at times. That was soon to change, due to the influence of a local dynamo:

JOURNAL ENTRY, MARCH 7, SENDAI: “The blistering pace in which I have surged up and away from Tokyo is in part due to the itinerary of a diminutive local known, to me as Matsunaga-san that I have been travelling with since Nikko, where we met in the youth hostel. His idea of travel is to zip from one site and onto the next. The best example of this happened this morning when we arrived at the railway station with half an hour to go until the next train. We jumped into a taxi and sped to the very next town to a museum. He said “please hurry we must leave Museum at 11 AM for train!” It was 10:52. Slightly disgusted but amused also, I declined to shell out (money) to blast through what was potentially an interesting museum in eight minutes. Rather, I waited outside and took photographs. He emerged breathless and hurrisome as ever, and our waiting taxi driver sped us back to the train station where we just caught our train. Once again we zipped to another site, This time a Castle, (Aizu Wakamatsu) with barely enough time to pause and take a photo.”

I recently found a bag of maps, tickets and tourist pamphlets from 1987, including my youth hostel cards. Each hostel in Japan recorded a stay with distinctive stamps, with rewards if you collected enough. Perhaps Matsunaga-san was obsessed with these, or maybe he was simply one of those goal-focussed types.

JOURNAL ENTRY: “While in a temple I may become distracted by an old lady sweeping the stones, or a photography session going on by the gates. Matsunaga-san is hopping from leg to leg with impatience while I stand to observe these things. Thankfully I have not tried to sketch anything yet; that would certainly cut into his schedule.”

My tendency to dawdle, or sit in a coffee shop and look out the window was automatically corrected by the 21 day time limit of the JR Pass. Sloth was already being mauled by frugality without the extra bustlings of Matsunaga-san, and we amicably parted at Matsushima. Supposedly one of the ‘3 great views of Japan‘ back in the days of Basho, and by 1987 it had clearly been a tourism mecca for quite a while. After checking out the great view, you’d turn 180° for the great view of the crowds looking at the great view, and beyond them the great view of the shops selling views of the other view. This was perhaps my first trip where I reflected on the absurdity of being a tourist who was annoyed by the ravages of tourism. Something about seeing a place changes that place itself (quantum tourism mechanics) and in Japan, where there are so many people doing the seeing, such realisations are quickly brought into focus. Celebrating my freedom from the hectic scheduling of Matsunaga-san, I luxuriated in a daylong walk along The Bay of Matsushima, famously dotted by hundreds of tiny islands.

24 years later these islands shielded Matsushima from the full force of the 2011 tsunami, and places heard in the news leapt from memory as towns I’d stayed in long ago, including wave-pounded Ishinomaki. Nearby Onagawa was devastated by quirks of its geography when a funneled inlet amplified the tsunami’s force and 10% of its citizens were washed away. This fishing village (where I long ago transferred from train to bus) became a site of tragic heroism when Mitsuru Sato, the manager of a fish canning plant, rescued all his trainees but was swept away himself. I remember an early morning bus ride, winding through rainy valleys and past misty factories, strangely beautiful the way such places can sometimes be. That looming industrial shadow may have been heroic Mitsuru Sato’s factory, but internet maps reveal another candidate; the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant. Though much closer to the epicentre than the failed Fukushima plant, this reactor withstood the destruction. The difference was building on higher ground, choosing higher safety over lower cost. The foresight of engineer Yanosuke Hirai saved Onagawa’s reactor, and the building became refuge for a community whose homes had been washed away.

I was passing through this area to see Kinkasan, a tiny island at the the end of the Oshika-hanto peninsula. With a population of 32 people, 240 monkeys and 600 deer, it had been called ‘one of the holiest places in Japan‘. Half expecting a holy site ringed by trinket shops selling tea-towels of the holy critters, I arrived to a good news/bad scenario. Kinkasan was every bit the serene island of scenic beauty I’d heard about, but I’d not done my homework and its infrastructure shut down November to March. Accomodation was closed and there were only 2 daily ferries, so I contented myself with ambling about the misty island and barely took a photo, let alone sketch. The island was so pretty that I considered sleeping rough outside, until a fall of light rain brought me to my senses. It would be unpleasant to be out all night and cold and rained on. Wistfully, I got on the last ferry and plotted my next move. Retracing my ferry/bus/train steps got me to Ichinoseki well after hostel curfew. Sleeping in a bus stop held no allure whatsoever, and in fractured Japanese I enquired at the railway station about hotels. A worker understood my plight and walked me to a nearby minshuku where I got a room, and spent the rest of that evening in a lounge squatting at a kotatsu drinking with off-duty rail workers, already several beers into a good night. Their jovial companionship briefly convinced me that I was conversing in Japanese, whereas it was simply that such conversations follow the same pattern anywhere, and misunderstandings are smoothed over by good spirits (and spirits).

Even 30 years ago my next stop was reputed to be overly touristed, but I was pleasantly surprised by GeibiKei gorge. Even a tourist trap can be charming if you’re the only tourist in the trap; I had a barge all to myself, poled up the river by two bargemen, a glass roof allowing me to admire the gorge while sitting by a heater, sipping tea. It was another misty day, serene and beautiful and the bargemen were cheerful. Seeing as there was only one tourist, and him a foreigner besides, the lads stopped at a few shrines along the river to gather money. I doubt they’d have openly raked this loot in front of your typical praying Japanese punter tossing coins for good luck, but with only me, they figured what the hell; “Oi, Kenji, save us a trip and hop out and grab the dosh.” Next, I hopped the Shinkansen to Morioka where it terminated (in 1987) and transferred to Aomori, catching an early ferry next day to Hakodate on Hokkaido, where I met two American Mormons on their ‘3 year mission‘. In contrast to frosty Tokyo Gaijin, these missionaries were eager to talk, and not simply to proselytise (I got the impression that they were lonely). Hakodate had a great atmosphere, helped along by its old wharf area buildings, wooden trolley-cars and whimsically musical pedestrian lights (playing ‘comin’ through the rye‘). At the end of my whirlwind 1987 tour of Japan, Hokkaido was one of the places I’d wished I’d lingered longer (eventually travelling all around Hokkaido in 1989).

Back on Honshu, I was eager to see Hirosaki Castle, which I’d read was the real thing rather than a postwar reconstruction in concrete (as at Aizu Wakamatsu) but it didn’t fill my expectations. I’d eventually realise that Japanese castles couldn’t top memories of childhood visits to British castles, with their foreboding silhouettes, dungeons, murder holes and torture chambers, setting my morbid little-boy imagination afire. The aesthetic of Japanese castles is completely different. Rather than projecting ‘menace‘, they’re ‘pretty‘, and these cake topper cuties are better compared to a chateau, another building made to impress but in a completely different way. Show pony rather than war horse. Japanese castles were lacy confections made of paper and wood, meaning that few survived the 1945 exertions of General Curtis LeMay (and his OddJob; Robert McNamara). Any castles not destroyed in WW2 had already been flattened countless times by typhoon, quake, or fire (or all of the above). Truly ancient castles just don’t exist in Japan.

A long train ride on The Gono Line took me along Honshu’s northernmost Japan Sea coast, where the tracks were very close to the sea, revealing stunning vistas of bleak grey beauty. I’m not a train-nut by any means but enjoy countries with well-developed rail networks for the simple reason that I can’t drive, making countries like Australia or the USA problematic to navigate in anything but the most perfunctory fashion. Japan’s extensive rail infrastructure gave me scope to explore, and I enjoyed switching from high-tech Shinkansen to dinky trains (with only 2 or 3 cars) to see remote parts of the archipelago. Staying in a tiny coastal town called Fukaura, I walked further along the coast the next morning, before another long train ride took me inland to… a dead spot in my memory. Unsure of which route took me to my next remembered destination, no maps jog my memory, nor is there any ticket stub, photo, or sketchbook-doodle that clarifies those lost days of my 21 day journey. Such voids are a reminder how frail memory can be. Without photos, letters, or conversation to keep neural pathways alive, our experiences wither. Moreover, the memories we do have are often exaggerations or simplifications of what really happened. Several trips, conversations and people become consolidated over time, and who said what gets jumbled around. Crosschecking photos and documents from that time reveals a sequence that differs from the memory I’d been carrying for 30 years. I’d forgotten visiting some towns, even though I’ve proof that I’d been there. These inconsistencies are part of the motivation to write memories down, before they curdle or evaporate entirely. Which is a long winded segue to my next remembered stop;

I arrived by twilight to a snow covered hostel run by a cheerful family near Tazawako, a beautiful lake in snowy Akita prefecture. The woman running the place cheerfully urged me to have bath before dinner, and I was led to a bathhouse a short walk away by a little boy holding an umbrella, to shield me and my toiletries from the thickly falling twilight snow. It was a beautiful night as he chattered at me happily, led me to the ‘sento‘, gave me the umbrella and scampered back to his Mum at the hostel. As I sat in the lovely Japanese style tub, soaking in hot water up to my earlobes, I thought of  the wholesomeness of the ‘bathhouse’ concept in Japan, made all the more beautiful by the snowy setting. Growing up in Australia, I had seen snow laying all around only once or twice, and even then it was patchy slop. My plunge northward to Hokkaido was partly an attempt to find deep snow, but the snow in Hakodate was slush. At Tazawako, snow was piled thickly and there was nobody around but me, as early the next morning I walked partway around the lake, before heading onward by local train to connect with a bullet train back to Tokyo, spending the night before heading onward the next day by Shinkansen.

The most beautiful of the many castles I saw on my first trip to Japan, Himeji Castle loomed on a hill in the centre of town, finally delivering the skyline-dominating profile that I associated with a defensible castle. I spent a day walking around Japan’s largest castle, taking photos in misty rain, until night fell and light finally failed. Atypically, Himeji Castle is largely authentic construction from the early 1600s (though the site dates from the 1300s). Though the city around it was firebombed in WW2,  the castle survived when the firebomb dropped on it failed to detonate. The next day I went onward to see the sobering Peace Memorial Museum at Hiroshima, a reminder of the further industriousness brought to bear on the Japanese after those fire-bombing missions ended. A people long-pounded by typhoons, quakes and tsunamis had developed a resilience that is hard to overestimate, but Oppenheimer’s crew finally broke Japanese wartime tenacity, at terrible cost. The information within the museum wasn’t presented hysterically, and didn’t need to be. A simple statement of the ghastly facts of 1945 was enough to set mental wheels in motion, extrapolating frightening destruction if the latest generation of slaughter-tech (proudly crafted by our best and brightest) were ever unleashed. Coming out of the museum, I was hollowed out by the experience. Hiroshima was the only time I saw money gathering in Japan, and the people soliciting donations were from a charity for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Every person coming out of the museum gave generously.

After visiting beautiful Miyajima nearby, I rode the Shinkansen to its westernmost terminus, which in 1987 was in Fukuoka, Kyushu. The timetable indicated my arrival would be mere minutes before departure of the local train I needed. Bigger Japanese train stations can be overwhelming (a statistic that stays with me was that Shinjuku station served 3 million passengers daily in 1986) and I doubted I’d be able to get my bearings and make my connection in time. Normally this wouldn’t matter as trains were so frequent, but I needed to connect to a local train, and from that to another, to get to my intended hostel before curfew. Time was of the essence. Arriving at Hakata Station, I took the easy way out, simply doing my by-then standard pantomime of a confused foreigner, hoping to find a sympathetic soul. Remarkably (and typically for Japan) I did. He was an average Japanese ‘salaryman’ in suit and brief case and no doubt had his own connections to make, but when barraged with questions delivered in broken Japanese (and frantic pointings at maps with circled destinations, and timetable connection times) he immediately grasped my situation. Snapping into action, he bustled me through the crowded station, urging me to follow him with all haste, down stairs; Hai, Haiyaku! along a corridor teeming with people; Oide! up some more stairs, and along again. He got me to my train and seated, with time to spare. After thanking him profusely and waving our goodbyes, he reappeared at my window a moment later with a simple meal he’d bought for me from a platform vendor, just as my train departed. I’ve often thought how lucky I was to have my first solo travel adventure in Japan. I later learned that in other countries throwing yourself on the goodwill of the locals can be to paint a ‘fleece me‘ sign on your head, but in Japan the people were always gracious, helpful, generous and honest.

One of Kyushu’s many scenic railway journeys took me past views of early Spring blossoms to Aso-San, one of two active volcanoes on the island. As the train came within sight of the volcano I was awestruck to see red lava flowing down the mountain! When I checked in to the nearby hostel I was told that the ‘lava‘ streams were actually thousands of people bearing flaming torches in a fire festival. Wonderful! I couldn’t wait to attend, but discovered that this distant spectacle was in the process of ending. I became shrill; Surely there must be a taxi service or something? Can’t I just walk there? But as far as I was able to discover, there was no way to get to this spectacular culmination of the month-long ‘end of winter‘ celebration before it ended. Dame Desu! I suspected the truth was that hostel staff didn’t want the kooky gaijin wandering off into the night to play with fire, after he’d signed in and become their responsibility, but I had to make-do with watching the fire orgy as it climaxed from a few miles away. The next day I went up to the crater, in the company of other young travelers from the hostel who’d been up there the night before and assured me that the festival was utterly sugoi!

Impressive though it was, unfortunately my imagination had been set ablaze the night before and it was hard not to smoulder.

JOURNAL ENTRY: “I saw an active volcano at Mount Aso. No big deal really. It belches out smoke while dried out old ladies sell souvenirs on the lip of the crater.”

That’s the bitterness of a thwarted 22 year old kicking himself for not researching his trip more thoroughly (and those old ladies were actually sweeties). Just one day earlier (4 hours, even!) and I could’ve participated in the fire festival rather than merely watch it impotently from afar. I realise now how lucky I was to see what I saw. To stand in one of the biggest active volcano craters in the world is no small thing, and the Aso-san crater is often overwhelmed by sulphurous fumes, or cable-car access is closed due to earthquake.

Kyushu still had another active volcano and I bustled further south to see it, via another beautiful train journey down the west coast of Kyushu. The closer I got to Kagoshima the more excited I became to see Sakurajima, the iconic volcano belching fire over Kagoshima, like a Japanese Vesuvius. But it was another case of vulcanus interruptus. Bucketing down with torrential rain, it was hard to see (or do) anything in Kagoshima.  The weather still hadn’t changed after staying the night, so I kept moving, contenting myself with a few looks at colourful posters rather than Sakurajima volcano itself.

I went up the east coast of Kyushu, then inland to Takachiho Gorge. This beautiful area was accessible in 1987 via the Takachiho Railway from Nobeoka, before that line was swept away by Typhoon Nabi in 2005. In Japan you’ll often hear of destruction wrought by earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, and every temple or castle you visit has been repeatedly rebuilt (no wonder a people so often pounded by nature and science would invent Godzilla, the ultimate city-smashing temper tantrum). The train followed the river all the way to Takachiho, with town after town nestled in nooks between water and tracks. This area was another I could have spent more time in. The weather was lovely and the scenery beautiful, but with only a few days left on my JR pass I pressed onward to the Kyushu east coast and Beppu, a hot springs town where any hot water bubbling out of the ground is fenced off so a fee can be charged to look at, sip or sit, in it.

I walked through these places with a French woman I met at the hostel and neither of us were impressed, until stumbling onto a pretty spring garden with small hot springs completely ignored by the crowds and the guidebooks. Minimal entrance fee, cups of tea served by a nice old lady in a quiet teahouse. Best of all, I found round the back one of the tourist traps a wonderful boilerhouse, presumably sitting over a geyser. Marvellous thing it was; belching steam, alive with pipes and valves, all covered in mineral salts. This was often the pattern; I’d head towards a ‘destination’ that might be a disappointment, but there was usually something else around that made it worthwhile (life itself is often like that too). A quick ferry ride from took me to Yawatahama in Shikoku, the smallest of the 4 main islands of the Japanese archipelago.

After staying in Uwajima, and walking to the castle there, I went onward by local train to Kochi and looked around its castle too, which retained prewar splendour high on a spectacular hill. Kochi was a deserving of more exploration, but I moved on. After chasing elusive volcanoes and castles, I was in the mood for scenic beauty which Shikoku has in great abundance, and I wanted to get as far as the picturesque Iya Valley before my JR pass finally expired, on March 26 1987, the day I drew these sketches;

The hostel I checked into that day was a treasure. Japanese Youth hostels of the 1980s were always clean and affordable, but could be be either an ugly spartan blockhouse or a lovely traditional building, and you could never be sure which until check in. It was hostel roulette. In the Iya Vally I came up a winner, as the hostel was affiliated with a temple and the building and grounds were lovely. As I soaked in the tub of the hostel’s bathouse, I was startled by a shadowy monster emerging from the surrounding steam. This looming leviathan was the pendulous netherbits of another guest staying at the hostel (one of those beanpoles that becomes a tripod when their pants are off) entering the communal tub. He was a likeable fellow from Tennessee, and over the next few days he, I and a Canadian woman (we 3 were the only hostel guests) explored the valley. Firstly, we went on long hikes, but eventually hired bikes and took on a mountain bike course. It took us 11 hours and we were exhausted as we stumbled into the hostel way after curfew. Ouch. Next day we went on another walk, got lost again, and dreading being late again back to our hostel, we hitched a ride from a very sweet woman who took pity on us when we stuck out our thumbs.

After the Iya Valley, I took a train north and stayed in Takamatsu,  visiting the wonderful Ritsurin garden (before departure of my overnight ferry back to Honshu). Later that same year in Suzhou, China, I saw many classical Chinese gardens being rebuilt after the ravages of the not-then long ago Cultural Revolution. Interestingly, consultants hired by the Chinese government to retrain the Chinese how to do Chinese gardens were traditional gardeners from Japan (which of course had learned how to garden from the Chinese in the first place) and Ritsurin supplied some of the expertise.

JOURNAL ENTRY, APRIL FOOLS DAY 1987, NARA: “Coming into Osaka Bay at 5:30 AM is quite breathtaking. The light at that time transformed an otherwise ugly harbour into something magical. I walked through Osaka fish market and the city itself most the day, before coming onward to Nara, a pretty town with by far the largest concentration of historical buildings I have yet seen. For what it’s worth I can say that I’ve been on all the major islands of Japan.”

Doing the travel blitz is OK for a few days, but maintaining that rhythm for weeks is a drain (as snippy asides on these sketches show). Blasting around seeing a different town every day blurs it all together, and occasionally staying in one place is essential for me to really get to know a country, at even a superficial level.

By the time I arrived in Kyoto, I’d been a proactive power-tourist for long enough, and was again ready to meander and relax, spending a few weeks enjoying the cherry blossom season of April 1987. I stayed in a guesthouse occupied by both temporary travellers like myself, and longterm tenants living & working in Kyoto. Most were young, probably just out of college, and very similar despite coming from various countries, but one tenant was unlike any other I ever met in years of traveling.  He was much older, possibly as old as 45 (gasp) and didn’t fit the typical backpacker profile. He was a short-haul truck driver from Tacoma Washington, with mixture of broad American mannerisms and a childlike wonder about his present situation. Always sunny and kind, I gradually inferred some sadder parts of his history, which only appearing as sidebars to the main conversation and were never worn on his sleeve. The more I got to know him the more impressed I was that this fellow had plunged into the unknown. When asked what set him on the road, his answer was very much like my own; he’d always been fascinated by far away places. He had little money, apart from somebody renting his truck back in Washington. He was under no pressure to head back home and we explored Kyoto together before it was time for me to leave.

When I’d thought the JR Pass wasn’t going to work, I’d been told that Japan was a wonderful place to hitchhike. Though the Japanese did not often hitchhike themselves, and may look askance at those Japanese who did, they were generous in picking up foreign hitchhikers. With JR Pass expired and my funds low after months in Japan, I hitchhiked from Kyoto back to Tokyo, getting rides from an outgoing truck driver in a garishly decorated truck (in the Japanese style) and a businessman whose car would PING PING berate him when he went over the speed limit, much to his chagrin (I later found out such nagging cars were standard). Back in Tokyo I picked up the bulk of my bags from storage, before heading to Korea (and later China).

My first trip to Japan had started in Okinawa (via ferry from Taiwan) then onward by ferry to explore Tokyo, before activating my JR Pass. What a bargain it had been, giving me a whirlwind introduction to a country I’ve revisited many times over the years, and love to this day.

Jun 012017
 

A major misstep in my childhood was made while wearing my first pair of rugby boots (which were actually a pair of cheap sneakers in my case.) At the age of 7, I’d never even heard of of rugby league, having just moved to the Australian mainland from Tasmania where we didn’t play the game, but my new classmates had been playing it for a year already. At this new school the game was revered like religion, demonstrated by the fact that our coach was a red-faced, constantly screaming (at me anyway) Catholic priest. Father Footy was a much-loved coach by those who adored rugby, but utterly useless to someone like me who wasn’t naturally imbued with the joy of football, and whose family had never explained the game.

On the sidelines of a freezing football field in a New England Tablelands winter, we puny wee athletes prepared ourselves for battle; outsized jerseys were pulled over big noggins and thin necks to cover scrawny & shivering rib cages. Spindly little legs mottled by the harsh cold thrust out of baggy shorts into big black nobbly boots, that were almost as nobbly as the boney little knees knocking together above them. Father Footy too was decked out in full rugby kit and boots, as he led a troop of pint-sized athletes onto a boggy football field on a frosty day, to vie for a ball that seemed as big to me then as a sack of potatoes would be to me now. People who didn’t innately understand God’s Game were apparently unimaginable in the theology of Father Footy, who never even considered that the new boy from interstate might actually need some tuition in the rules. Father Footy blew a piercing blast on his referee’s whistle – FWEET! – my first ever rugby game was underway, and I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do.

In TV shows or movies of those times, Catholic priests were either portrayed as innocuous Mickey Mouse types (like the priest from MASH) or tortured souls (like the young priest in THE EXORCIST) but I’ve never seen the likes of this particular priest portrayed in the media. He was macho, dispensing gleeful knuckle-crushing handshakes and cheerily rough-housing us boys and all the parish loved him – dads, mums and kids alike. Father Footy’s reputation, and the status of Catholic priests in general, was unimpeachable in those bygone days, which is hard to believe in the 21st century when priests have become punchlines to tawdry jokes at best, and the focus of major heartbreaking court cases at worst (including Father Footy himself, decades later) so it’s hard to convey the stature of priests before that fall from grace. Within the Catholic community of an Australian small town in the early 1970s, priests were held in high regard indeed and especially a rugby playing priest. God’s right hand, man’s man, the archangel Gabriel in cleated footy boots; his authority on matters moral, spiritual and physical is hard to overstate.

However, as no instruction had been forthcoming from our so-called ’coach’, and I was already in the midst of a game I knew nothing about, I attempted to dart about the muddy football field in as purposeful a manner as was possible for someone who hadn’t got a clue what his purpose actually was. Spying another sawn-off athlete, likewise dashing and darting, I sidled up to him and, whispering out of the side of my mouth, asked what we were expected to do. Gesturing to a big letter ’H’ at the end of the freezing quagmire, he said that if the ball was ever passed to us we were to carry it between the giant letter H at each end, which he referred to as “goal posts”. This seemed simple enough, but just to be safe I decided to keep my purposeful darting a discreet distance from all the action, rushing forward as if I was ready for something only when the focal point of the game had moved beyond me. This strategy was working quite well, when my purposeful darting accidentally blundered into “the zone” and the ball came my way. Urged on by the other teeny players, and some incomprehensible screamings and urgent flailings from Father Footy, I picked up the huge football and, like a monkey carrying a watermelon, I purposefully darted to the nearest goal posts I could find. Miraculously, no other player came close as I dashed heroically toward my target and the roar of the crowd receded in my ears as I planted the ball triumphantly, and turned around for my accolades.

Howls of protest and angry jigs from my team mates were matched by hooting laughter and finger pointing by the opposing team. Both of these sounds were blown away by a red faced angry blast from the gaping maw of Father Footy, who was passionately upset about some Sacrilege or other. I was transfixed by the foaming spittle at the sides of Father Footy‘s screaming mouth as he made it clear to me that I had scored a point for the other side. This ability to simultaneously evoke contemptuous laughter, disgust and anger was to set the tone of my athletic ’achievements’ for the rest of my life. Eventually, I became inoculated against such humiliation through constant exposure, and would learn that if the world treats you like a clown it’s best to act as though you intended it, but being the object of universal derision was a new experience on that particular day. Overwhelmed by the scope of my own apparent ineptitude, I started to blubber and bawl. This made Father Footy more furious than ever, which caused me to bawl even more, leading to more red-faced yelling, and so on. We were a breeder reactor of humiliation & fury by the time Dad showed up at the end of the game to take me home, and after hearing my blubbering recap on what had happened, he gave the footy priest both barrels from his righteous-indignation parental blunderbuss. Turns out that Dad and Father Footy were schoolmates back in the days of yore, and it appeared that there was no love lost. There was a high volume red faced screaming match in which Father Footy said I was a cry baby (which was true) and Dad challenged Father Footy’s inattentive coaching skills (also very true). This brouhaha unfolded in front of a bunch of other parents who’d just arrived to pick up their own kids, aghast that anyone would ever challenge Father Footy about footy, and on a footy field no less. GASP. Thinking back on it now, this may have been the Ground Zero Moment for my lifelong awkwardness in regards to sports.

In movies (or even the real world) parents may be resented for not supporting their children at ball games, but personally, I dreaded family members showing up, prefering as small an audience as possible for my bumbling ineptitude. If I felt any ill will toward my parents on the subject of sports it was that they made me participate in the compulsory ritual in the first place, rather than give me parental permission to opt out of the ordeal, as other ‘sensitive‘ souls had been allowed to do. Though my parents confided that they too loathed sports in their own schooldays, they nevertheless insisted I participate, invoking the phrase ‘character building’ more than once. There was no way out. Thus, a knock kneed & freckled Sisyphus played rugby on joyless winter weekends, sometimes being driven to nearby towns to undergo his grueling character-trials there. Waist-high to a crowd of adult onlookers high on parental adrenaline rushes, we tiny players scurried by, chasing the ball. As contorted fright-mask faces screamed and bellowed with vicarious passion, I could never grasp what all the frenzy was about. To me, rugby was incomprehensible torture. A pain-in-motion conundrum. It was physical humiliation algebra.

As a full grown adult, I was introduced to the idea that sports were something that people who enjoyed eachother’s company might do together, for fun. This novel concept made me wonder if perhaps I too might have enjoyed sports, if I’d been introduced to them in a spirit of joy rather than drudgery. Why, even now there may be a parallel universe in which a version of me enjoys watching and participating in games (I am obliged to conjure a science fiction scenario even to countenance the possibility of a physically co-ordinated me). However, even in such an alternate reality it’s difficult to imagine having the almost orgasmic connection to sports that most men have. When romantic couplings are heard through neighbouring apartment walls the male participants are probably inaudible, but you’ll definitely hear male climaxing when a ball game is on TV next door, and if it happens to be a championship game, the lowing rumble of male pleasure and pain will moan forth from bars and apartments across the entire town, like a rutting frenzy at the zoo monkey house. I’m grateful to be free from that primal-ritual-ballyhoo, and my Zen-like detachment is due to a Catholic priest; Father Footy. 

May 102017
 

21st century Shanghai, with its ultra modern skyline and high fashion boutiques, is barely recognisable as the time-stuck town I visited in the 1980s, when the dominant fashion designer was still chairman Mao. Even Shanghai hipsters of those days still wore blue worker’s smocks and caps with the little red star, and the architecture of the city was unchanged from the 1940s, though what was once a posh hotel under the British might have been turned into a factory under the communists. This great city was my port of entry into China, and I enjoyed exploring it.

It was while wandering randomly through the streets and back alleys of Shanghai in 1987 and taking photographs of whatever took my fancy, that I got a sudden red alert from my lower intestine; PURGE. I have no idea what had precipitated the crisis. Dodgy dinner the night before? A greasy breakfast that very morning? Or a simple case of travel tummy? Whatever was kicking up a ruckus downstairs, it was urgently shoulder-charging my emergency exit and I needed to find a safe place to deploy, preferably free of women and impressionable children, all of which were in abundance in a crowded Shanghai back alley with no lavatory in sight. Sweat broke out on my brow as I concentrated on a full body kegel.

I’d learned a few survival words of basic Mandarin while working in Taiwan the year before, and one phrase of special importance was “廁所在哪裡?” which I used to ask a local man the way to the nearest lavatory. While my pronunciation was probably terrible, my body language was eloquently telling him that something wicked his way cometh. He gestured emphatically down one end of the street and I dashed away, while he made to clear the blast area himself. Sure enough,  a little further along I saw a hand written sign in Chinese characters, I recognised as “MEN’S TOILET“, and an arrow pointing down a side alley.

I’d already been in Asia long enough to know the necessity of always taking toilet paper wherever you go, as most toilets won’t have any. Clutching this small packet of toilet tissue in my hands like a magic talisman, I hobbled along as urgently as I could with buttocks clenched tighter than the fists of a Kung Fu master. It wasn’t the first time (nor the last) that I struggled with that oh-so delicate balance between moving quickly but not so fast that I’d precipitate the inevitable. At the end of that alley I followed another arrow pointing to another alley, and more arrows pointing up a rickety staircase, along a landing and down again, then out along a muddy track into a vacant lot to a simple concrete shed with a tin roof. A sign identified this as my target, and with great relief I dashed into this crude outhouse with all possible speed.

It was one big room with a concrete floor in which were two room-length trenches piled intermittently with human excrement. Amazingly, some fellows who’d made a few such piles had decided to hang out, enjoy the ambience and read their newspapers as they squatted astride this mess, rather than seek a more pleasant atmosphere elsewhere. “I can’t do this” I thought to myself and immediately walked back out the door I’d just come in. “Get back in there, NOW!” barked my bowels. With a deep sense of dread, I re-entered, straddled the poo-sluice, dropped my pants and squatted, telling myself I could pull the pin on my gut-grenade and depart the reading room before the dust settled, and anyone was any the wiser that I’d even been there. So intent were the other gents on their own business, that none of the members of this elite gentlemen’s lounge had noticed me.

YET.

Imagine blowing a tuba into a bathtub full of rice pudding and you might come close to simulating the hellish cacophony that ensued when I assumed ‘the position’ and finally released my tenuous hold on the situation. It was a monumental case of heinous anus as the poltergeist inhabiting my nether regions was exorcised, and flew out of me like the malignant ghosts fleeing Indiana Jones’ Lost Ark, accompanied by the sound of a flock of psychotic cockatoos all playing the kazoo. Every other man present in this doorless, toilet-less toilet was startled by all my sound & fury, and turned around as-one to survey the source of this loo-hullabaloo. Judging from their expressions of immediate surprise and delight, I can only imagine that in 1987 finding a westerner straining red-faced in their communal squatter was a first for these fine gentlemen of Shanghai.

Abandoning their Worker’s Dailys they stood up and gathered around me, gesticulating in my direction and having an animated discussion, as I continued bearing-down on my gruelling chores, still trembling like a sick chihuahua. I was aghast when one old guy went around behind me to examine my efforts with what appeared to be great interest, as if he were merely inspecting a broken drain-pipe (as, in a way, he was). I tried shooing him away, to much guffawing and hilarity from the rest of my standing ovation. It was one of the most ghastly embarrassing moments of my life (until 25 years later when paralysed in hospital, and daily supervised trips to the lavatory became my crucible of horrors). As my reactor-core cooled, and my aftershocks echoed sonorously throughout the tin shed and died away, I frantically finished my business to peals of laughter, then scuttled off back the way I’d come, distancing myself from this arena of my humiliation.

Over the next few years of backpacking through out-of-the-way places, I came to learn that most long-term travellers have similar experiences, where one’s own gizzards conspire to rebel against the hapless wanderer at the worst possible moment, and in fact I’d gotten off lightly. At least I’d made it all the way inside what was locally considered a toilet, rather than being caught out in public by an intestinal-highjacking, as had happened to other poor unfortunates I met. It was hearing such horror stories, compounded by my own mortifying experience of this particular day, that taught me to always travel with a packet of IMODIUM, which is a kind of concrete stopper for the colon. Even though using it must be like conducting a laboratory chemical experiment in one’s own innards, I’d chew tablets of the evil stuff as if they were Chiclets when backpacking in certain countries, preferring to freeze-dry my digestive system rather than ever again be Shanghaied.

Nov 052015
 

I first started working at the Hanna-Barbera animation studio in Sydney when I was 17 years old, joyfully working on some of the crappiest cartoons ever made. I remember that time as one of great personal triumph, but also profound and enduring heartbreak.

The inbetweener: cartoons

I’d wanted to work in animation since I was 8 years old but thought such a career wasn’t even possible in Australia because I’d never seen a cartoon with Australian voices. When attending a weekend animation seminar at the age of 15 however, I learned that many American cartoons on TV were actually made at a big animation studio in Sydney; Hanna-Barbera. This was an alleluia moment for a lifelong cartoon nerd and I set about getting a job there. After mailing them letters and drawings for a year or more, they finally responded by sending me a drawing test. Using character model-sheets as a guide, I was to pose Hanna-Barbera characters in as many different situations as I could. The model-sheets were from “Kwicky Koala”, the last ever cartoon by Tex Avery, a TV series that was made in Sydney the year before. (The characters “Ratso the rat” and “Dirty Dawg” were where the great Tex Avery ended his career, but where I started my own).

Hanna-Barbera liked my attempts at drawing their characters and called me in for an interview, and Dad accompanied me on the long train journey from my hometown to Sydney. While the typical animation/cartoon portfolio of today is badly drawn anime, back then it was poor man’s Frazetta; lumpy drawings of awkwardly posed, axe-wielding barbarians, accompanied by equally misshapen warrior maidens in brass bikinis, whereas my own portfolio consisted of a few illustration jobs I’d done in my hometown. When I showed my T-shirt designs, cartoons for the local newspaper, and some illustrations for the school magazine, to my surprise and delight Hanna-Barbera offered me a job on the spot. I was 17 years old and could barely contain my excitement, and it took the tag-team of Mum and Dad to calm me down and counsel me not to throw off my final year of high school with only a few months till my final exams. To stop my teen-whining about their repressive parental fascism, they compromised by allowing me to work at Hanna-Barbera during term breaks in my final year of high school.

In September 1981 I was unbelievably excited to have several weeks working as an animation assistant, an ‘inbetweener‘, at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney. I stayed with my Aunty Marg and Uncle Keith near Manly Beach, and caught the 144 bus to St. Leonards and the Hanna-Barbera studio, where I worked my arse off every day and eagerly stayed late most nights. Every animation studio I’ve worked at since has at least one annoying spotty-faced, cardigan-wearing, eager beaver, and in 1981 it was me; “Animation! Oh boy!” One memory of this time which doesn’t involve me sitting at a lightbox and quivering with febrile excitement from head to toe, was going into downtown Sydney to see a new movie that everyone at the studio was talking about; “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” which had just opened in Australia. Hollywood’s early 1980s power couple of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had just produced a bouncing baby mega-hit and I was working in showbiz myself. Life was just peachy-keen. When my time as an inbetweener was over I went back to finish high school as per the agreement with Mum and Dad, secure in the knowledge that I’d lined up a job for myself when I finished high school (which was just as well, because a few months later I botched my final written exam so it’s fortunate that I wasn’t relying on my HSC marks to get a job). Hanna-Barbera had a late-starting season in 1982 and the timing was perfect, as my family had a lot going on that year and I was glad to be with them.

My mother had given birth to the last of her seven children, my brother Alex, in mid December 1981, and began having mysterious seizures culminating in a particularly terrifying fit after she’d come home from hospital. In the many years since, I’ve often thought about the unbelievable bad luck that not only did my mother have that seizure at all, but that it occurred at the exact moment she had a pan of boiling water in her hands. One minute earlier or later and her hands would’ve been empty. She’d have still had the seizure but would’ve fallen to the ground otherwise unscathed and been spared the intense pain of being doused with a spilled pan of boiling water. So much misery hinged on the quirks of an instant. Apart from the agonizing burns this brought her, it also made for a puzzle of symptoms for the doctors to pick through; partial paralysis, ongoing seizures, burns, all after a history of blood clotting.. Which were causes and which were effects? Answering these questions was the focus of early 1982, when Dad (and later myself) accompanied Mum to Sydney for a variety of medical tests and examinations at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Back then they didn’t have the wonderful brain imaging gizmos available today. I’ve recently had brain scans aplenty and the resolution these days is surprisingly clear, but in 1982 the images were hopelessly vague and ambiguous, like photos of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster, and just as likely to cause wooly theorising. There was a dark smudge on my Mum’s brain scans but what was it? A blood clot? Or perhaps something more sinister?

the inbetweener: brain scans

With any other organ in the human body, the very next step would be surgery to find out what that ominous shadow actually is. However, cutting into the living human brain – the repository of what makes each of us actually ‘us‘ – is only a last resort. First, many tests were done in an attempt to surmise what that shadowy thing might be but they were all inconclusive, and the mystery of what horror lurked inside my poor Mum’s head was not resolved until she underwent a brain biopsy; the crude and invasive process of opening up her skull and cutting into her brain to look inside. When Dad and I visited Mum after this grim procedure her head was shaved and the horrifying scars on her skull were bandaged, but I was keenly aware of their presence. She had pipes going into her nose and mouth and was connected to electrodes and monitors. It was a nightmare image that haunts me still. She was weakly conscious though, and gave us a reassuring little smile before needing to rest. It was a sombre ferry ride back across Sydney Harbour to Manly. Although I’d always thought she’d pull through her ordeal, and had blithely reassured her many times, I finally sensed in that knowing part of my guts that my dear Mum would actually die, and when we got back to my Aunty Marg’s house I lost my composure and broke down in grief at the realisation.

The doctors soon confirmed what I somehow knew; she had terminal brain cancer and not a blood clot as was previously hoped. Mum decided to return to our hometown rather than submit to a treatment at a Big City specialist hospital that would not save her, but merely prolong a hospital stay far from her family and her newly-born child. We all returned to Armidale to await the inevitable and Mum was setup in her own room at the hospital near our house. Depending on her strength sometimes Mum would come home for the day, where our focus was on her comfort and hers was on getting to know her youngest child, Alex, (who was not even one year old when months later Mum finally died). I’ve recently had to endure a tiny fraction of the physical difficulties that my Mother went through, a mere crumb by comparison, but I now have a visceral reminder of what a brave and wonderful soul she was. I already knew this, and felt it keenly, but more recently my appreciation for her ability to persevere bravely in the face of hopeless heartbreaking hardship now verges on awe.

One night, after hospital visiting hours were over, I went to the Drive-In with my mates to sit in the back of my mate Phil’s ute, and watch a movie and drink. Drink quite a lot, in fact. I’d already downed substantially more booze than my meagre alcohol capacity, when I stuck my head in the cab to ask Phil to pass me another bottle, at the precise moment he slammed the door. It should be noted here that the door to Phil’s ute was ‘sticky’ and always required an extra HEAVE to close. A force that was applied to my skull, and it rang like a gong from the mighty blow. There was much hilarity, even from me, and as I lay down in the tray of the ute I heard my own laughter as if from afar but could feel no pain, which should have been a sign. The chattering voices of my mates faded in my head, leaving me in a mental still point as I looked up into the star-mottled blackness of the night. Without the distractions I’d prepared for it, my mind dwelled on horrifying realities- the cruel specifics of my mother’s predicament and the fact that she’d soon leave us forever hit me every bit as hard as the truck door had pounded on my skull, and I started to quietly sob. At first my mates thought I was joking, but quickly realised what was happening. They drove to pick up supplies, and took me out into the bush someplace where they built a fire and we sat and talked through the night. I cannot now remember the details of what was said. I was drunk, and probably mildly concussed, but I do remember how much it meant to let out my grief while being supported by my friends.

The long-awaited telephone call from Hanna-Barbera finally came. They wanted me to start work for good but once again it was not a simple decision. Now the issue was not finishing high school, but that my Mother was terminally ill. Mum however was adamant that this time I go and start work so that’s what I did, vowing to travel home each weekend from Sydney. I regret that decision with all my heart now, and wish I’d stayed home in Armidale till the end. All these many years later a few more months with her would be so much more valuable to me than a few months being an inbetweener on “The Animated Mork & Mindy show”. If I could go back in time I’d counsel my younger self much the way my parents had coached him the previous year; ‘don’t throw this time away, you’ll regret it later‘, but in mid 1982 I moved to Sydney to live with my Uncle John in Manly Beach and start work at Hanna-Barbera in earnest. My first day on the job there was one of those snafus that often happen in production, where the person who’d interviewed and hired me the year prior, and who’d finally called me down to Sydney a mere few weeks earlier, no longer worked at the studio and his replacement had never even heard of me. When I suggested she call the other guy for clarification it transpired that he’d gone to England. In the days before email, getting prompt feedback in such circumstances was out of the question so that was a squirmy moment to be sure. Thankfully, she gave me another try out and I re-won my spot as a member of her department, and threw myself into the work with nerdy teen intensity, coupled with the need to distract myself from bigger realities. After years of yearning for it I was finally working in animation at last, though not under ideal circumstances.

the inbetweener: desk

When not at work, I spent many weekday evenings at the cinema, and 1982 was a great year to use movies as a distraction from my troubles, with “Blade Runner“, “Road Warrior“, “Wrath of Khan” “ET“, “Tron“, “Tootsie“, “Poltergeist” and other such fantastic faire. Ironically, all these years later, re-watching the escapist movies that helped me hide from my emotions back then brings back that complicated mix of real-world feelings to me now as fresh as ever. In fact, there are a few movies from that time that I simply cannot watch at all, especially one that my Mother herself loved, often playing the soundtrack music in her hospital room that year (merely hearing that melody now, over 30 years later, brings on a tidal wave of raw emotions from that time).

After working Monday to Friday in Sydney, I caught the Friday NORTHERN MAIL TRAIN at around 9:00 PM from Sydney’s Central Station for the chilly overnight journey to the New England Tablelands, finally arriving at Armidale at about 8 AM Saturday to be with my dying Mother and family. Rural NSW trains had some truly antiquated rolling stock as late as the mid 1980s with compartments that seated about 8, and they weren’t heated even in winter. Sometimes the conductor would toss a heated brick ‘foot warmer’ under the seats. City folk unfamiliar with this drill were aghast; “Is that it?!” they’d cry, dressed on the assumption that there’d be heating. We country folk wore sturdy greatcoats and Ugg boots (which were merely a cheap way for Aussies to keep our feet warm till LA super-models ‘discovered’ them). We’d laugh hollowly that, yes, the pathetic brick was the extent of the heating and add that the really chilling part of the arrangement was that the brick would be long-cold before we got to the really icy spots in the mountains. We’d offer a blanket and thermos of warm drink to the newbies lest we shared the compartment with a frozen corpse by Murrurundi. Many people, including Australians themselves, are unprepared for the fact that anywhere in Australia is COLD but my hometown, and the New England Tablelands region in general, will take those people’s breath away in the winter. The journeys were slow, with the train splitting at Werris Creek and if the cold didn’t mess up your sleep then 30 minutes of to-and-fro shunting sure would. I’d finally be getting to sleep when we arrived at Armidale. I remember at least one time when I dozed through the stop and poor Dad had to step on it and drive to the next town and meet the train there (at Dumaresq or Guyra).

The travel schedule was punishing but my time away from the sorrow each week, and the distractions of work and travel, allowed me to compose a cheerful demeanour when visiting Mum, as the last thing a terminally sick person needs is visits from hangdog sad-sacks. In my weekly visits home, Mum was curious about my new life as a worker in the Big City. She’d always taken a keen interest in my adventures even when I truly had none, and ever since I was a small boy it was a ritual of the day to sit with Mum in the kitchen after I’d come home from school. She’d take a quick break from whatever she was doing (probably preparing food for her brood) and have a cuppa with me and ask about my day in school or how things went with various of my mates. Now that I was working she was full of curiosity and enthusiasm for this seemingly exotic new life I’d somehow found for myself, asking me about the details of the job and my new life in Sydney. Often in my life since I’ve thought how my Mother would’ve liked certain things in my adult life. To meet my girlfriend, hear of my adventures abroad, or my professional exploits. I know too that my siblings who are now parents themselves wonder how Mum would have enjoyed being a grandma (for the record, I think she’d have liked it very much, and would’ve been a wonderfully attentive grandparent). So I feel blessed that, in my case, Mum was able to see me start my own career and express her joy at seeing me finding my own way in the world.

the inbetweener: hospital

As the months of her decline wore on, Mum’s communication skills suffered due to the expanding evil in her head, so she mostly listened while we did the talking, but the spark of her keen intelligence never left her eyes. Intelligence minus the ability to communicate may seem a contradiction, but I’ve recently had the experience myself of desperately trying to speak from within a mind that has lost the neural connections to speech. It is utterly terrifying, though in my case I saw daily improvement rather than daily decline like my poor Mum. Despite the overwhelming number of afflictions that beset her last days, and they mounted one-by-one as time wore on, she never gave in to ‘why me’ bitterness. One of the incredible qualities that my Mother possessed was her warm stoicism, and although all of us around her were increasingly distressed by her tragic situation, I never saw Mum herself rail against the cruel circumstances that had befallen her. The cancer robbed her body of the ability to speak at the precise moment when she had so much to say, and this often made her heartbreakingly frustrated, but her ordeal never caused her to vent at medical staff, God or Fate. Now that I’m more than ten years older than she was then, I’m even more amazed at the grace that this brave young woman, my dear Mother, brought to her plight.

I remember my Sydney-bound return journeys, as the train rushed through spectacular sunrises over the coastal regions around Gosford, the verdant beauty at odds with my sadness at what I’d seen that past weekend. My head out an open window, the wind tousled my hair as I swept past beautifully lush mountainous areas over foggy deltas, and inlets flecked with low morning cloud, and ruminated upon my Mother’s increasing frailty. The train click-clacked over railway bridges and through towns as I came closer to Sydney and prepared for the work day ahead. At Central station I’d grab something to eat, then transfer to the North Shore Line to St. Leonards, and go to the studio. It was a strange double life; shuttling back and forth between inanely detailed work on a cheesy animated TV cartoon in Sydney, where none of my coworkers knew of my family’s predicament, and being at the bedside of my dying Mother in a small country town, where the entire community was aware of our tragedy. My job-title that year was ‘inbetweener’ but it summed up the half-here-half-there state of my existence as well. Weekdays in the city, overnight journeys to weekends in the country, then catching the Sunday overnight train back to Sydney to be at work again on Monday morning, all through the mid-year winter months until November 1982, when Mum finally died, about a fortnight after her 39th birthday.

The day before, my Uncle Keith had phoned me at the studio to say that Mum had taken a turn for the worst and I should head home to Armidale immediately, by plane if possible. Flights were all fully booked so once more I caught the overnight train, and arrived too late. She had died in the night. Tears did not come to me that day. Instead, I was left with a hollow empty feeling. Cancer creates disorienting shifts in the apparent progress of time. It is both excruciatingly slow – a death rattle prolonged over months – and shockingly fast, as the person appears to age years overnight. The grieving process is drawn out into a gruelling emotional marathon, and the horrified realisation of loss happens long before the death itself. With me, it had been back on the day that Mum had her brain biopsy, I’d felt the cold and terrifying certainty of it, wept in anguish at what was about to happen and I’d been grieving ever since, but the actual day of her death I was numb as a plank. It is a sad and terrible thing to watch someone that you love deteriorate in front of your eyes. There can be an impulse to stay away and spare yourself the sight of someone who was once a powerful presence in your life reduced to a mere wisp, and that inclination brings with it stabbing pangs of remorse. I myself felt a strange relief after my Mother died and hated myself for that at the time, and for a long while afterwards, even though I knew that my Mother too was grateful to be done with her pain.

the inbetweener: Mum's grave

As her body failed her and she prepared for her end, Mum was in many ways ready to go, though she made it quite clear that she would whole heartedly regret not seeing her children grow older. Mum died in the company of my brother Rob, who was 12 years old at the time. In those last days, when she was so weak as to be drifting in and out of consciousness, family & friends were taking turns to visit Mum and read to her despite being outwardly unresponsive, hoping that she might hear our voices and be comforted. Rob was reading to Mum when she suddenly woke up. As Mum’s friend Phyl rushed to find a nurse, Mum’s eyes looked at Rob, and then she died. This was a shocking burden for a 12 year old boy to bear, but I told Rob many years later, in his adulthood, that I will always be grateful that he was there, so that poor Mum did not regain consciousness in an empty room with nobody she loved by her side at the end.

The first time most of her children had ever experienced the death of a loved one, it was of their own darling Mother. Children usually ease into awareness of death as firstly, older, more distant relatives die, but all our Grandparents and many Great Aunts attended Mum’s funeral, and most of our parish was there too. The entire process was very harrowing and has left a mark on my clan to this day. Certainly it has left a mark on me to this day, it fills me with sadness to even think about it. That a woman so young should die, at 39 years old, survived by a husband and 6 of her kids, including an 11 month old baby; it seemed so unfair that I was coldly angry about it for quite some time. Try as I might, I could not adopt my Mother’s warmly humane stoicism back then, much as I admired it, but I try to apply her example in my life now. There is an instinct in all of us to help our friends through the dark passages in their lives by pointing out a ‘silver lining‘, and while there’s sometimes wisdom to that approach I’ve never found any optimistic consolation to offer when someone dies. There is no ‘upside‘ to it. We must accept that death inevitably happens to us all, good people as well as bad, healthy as well as sick, young and old alike. Personally, I believe that there’s no divine reason for it, but by the same token, there is no one to blame for it either.

The year I started working in animation was a landmark year for me, and one full of conflicting emotions, both then as it happened, and now as I reflect back upon it. Joyfully, I finally got my foot in the door of a job I’d always dreamed of but as I crossed that exciting threshold, tragically, my young Mother was stricken with terminal cancer and taken from us. Even now, the feelings from that long-ago year are brought vividly to life each time I go back go to my hometown, as my visits there have been so infrequent, living abroad for nearly 30 years. Perhaps we all feel the death of our own childhoods, often associated with a specific place, but the year that I turned 18 and my childhood officially ended, was the exact same year that my Mother died. My trips back to Armidale are always ever-so faintly tinged with sadness, because I associate them not only with the end of the childhood I once had there, but with my sad journeys home in that last year of my beloved Mother’s life. But, as the first-born of all her 7 children, I was was blessed to have had Mum’s loving guidance all the way up to my own adulthood, unlike my younger siblings, so I consider myself very much the lucky one among us.

the inbetweener: family photo
Vicki Patricia Baker (née Stuart) 1943-1982

Feb 222015
 

At around the age of 15, I met a group of older teenagers who’d already finished with high school, shared a house and lived on the dole. I thought they were the height of teen cool because they could do whatever they wanted; woah.

TeenageCamelot_1

I was still obliged to wear my school uniform and kow-tow to ‘the man’ but these young gents were free, living in a largish house near the centre of town that was a meeting point for we other teens to drop in at all times of the day. The lads were anarchic sages and their house a chaotic Valhalla– a marvellously ramshackle and glorious pigsty, financed by the gentlemen tenants’ pooled dole checks. Like ancient Greek philosophers, they lounged about and pondered many things while quaffing ale, spinning tall tales and trading japes while getting stoned, and playing their raucous music at top volume. They were a much-envied teen leisure class. Yet, there was trouble in paradise.. with only sufficient funds to cover rent and food OR drugs, at least one essential ingredient of their Bohemian lifestyle was bound to be lacking each fortnight.

One drug-addled evening, while ruminating upon this conundrum with empty stomachs, the teen wise-men had the epiphany that a solution to their cashflow problems was to steal a sheep. The paddocks around town were chock full of lamb chops just walking about, and the merry men reasoned that this supply of ‘free’ food made it possible to eat AND pay rent AND buy recreational chemicals. Genius! Enthused with this idea, and infused with drugs, they eagerly piled into an old truck like madcap clowns crammed into a clown-car, and off they went to nick a sheep in the dead of night. Chasing a sheep hither and yon through paddocks round and round all night long will deplete the energies of even the most stoned of stoners, and when the poor sheep was finally cornered and stuffed whimpering into the ute, those gentlemen of leisure were stone cold sober.

TeenageCamelot_2

The sheepnappers drove back into town mid-morning, one anxiously sitting in the back of the ute with his parka draped nonchalantly over the sheep to disguise the lads’ still-bleating dinner from curious passers-by. I walked into the scene at this point when, back at their H.Q. in the cold hard light of day, the exhausted and now-sober away-team contemplated the logical conclusion of their midnight black-ops mission– namely, the butchering of the wailing animal. The elephant in the room was actually a sheep, and who exactly was going to kill it? The humans became sheepish at what they’d done, even as the sheep itself became more stridently vocal in its desire to go home, yawping mournfully as one shifty-eyed stoner after another wiped his hands of the responsibility of knifing poor Sheepikins. “Not me! I drove the truck!” “But I caught the sheep!” “Well I won’t do it, I came up with the plan!” and so on.

Eventually, it was agreed that one of them had a mate who was a butcher (or worked at the abattoir, I never understood which) and he could do the dastardly deed. This buck-passing breakthrough was celebrated with a fortifying bong-toot or two, as the terrified sheep shat-a-tat its pellets on the kitchen floor. The finer points of lining up the illicit back-alley butchery would take another day or so, and in the meantime all the surrounding households were alerted to the presence of their new neighbour; a wild-eyed sheep constantly bawling for its life from within the wastrels’ garage. Armidale’s finest were alerted, the sheep was rescued from the dinner plate, several twitchy deadbeats were grilled by John Law, the farmer was reunited with his homesick animal, and a few stoner ne’er do wells were charged, but I never knew who, or of precisely what, because their house disbanded.

TeenageCamelot_3

After several months of their acquaintance I finally realised that a group I’d previously seen as The Round Table of Cool was merely a Teen Three Stooges on drugs. Yes, they could do whatever they wanted, but these galloots’ choices of how to use that precious freedom was invariably asinine. Tragically, they were tempted by a plump Sheep Fatale, and so the golden era of Stoned-A-Lot Camelot fell.

Jan 132015
 

In late 1996 I was in a mood to travel. There was an impasse in my life and, as with similar confusing junctions before and since, I hit the road, spending Christmas in Britain with friends, planning to head to Paris in the New Year, by way of the train through the CHUNNEL.

Paris1996_97_RERParis1996_7_gendarme

Nobody was riding the EUROSTAR train that year, and with good reason. In addition to a recent tunnel fire, The IRA (an Irish terrorist organisation) had tried to blow up The Chunnel from the British side, and not to be outdone, The GIA (an Algerian terrorist group) had vowed terror strikes from the French end, while labor strikes (a Brit terror tradition) were threatened at British Rail. The general public was wary of being caught in the crosshairs of technical failures, industrial disputes, two terrorist plots and mother nature– being flung at high velocity through a claustrophobic tube beneath the British Channel was still a relatively new concept in 1996– and people who wanted to cross it flew instead. The panicked marketing departments of both British Rail and France’s SNCF offered great deals as an incentive to put caution aside and ride the flaming-undersea-terror-express, so I did, on a nearly-empty train from London’s WATERLOO INTERNATIONAL STATION (Eurostar service switched to St. Pancras Station in 2007).

This wasn’t my first time in a high-speed train. Earlier, when working in Paris in 1990 I’d ridden the TGV, and earlier than that, when living in Japan in the 1980s, I often rode the ORIGINAL Bullet Train, the SHINKANSEN (an Aussie friend in Tokyo hilariously observed; “that thing goes faster than a sharp stick!”) So my experienced eye was initially unimpressed by Eurostar. Though it looked the part, it dawdled till the coast because British Rail hadn’t yet upgraded the tracks from London to the Channel, and the Bullet Train couldn’t truly ’bullet’, lest its 1990s high-tech slickness was shaken to pieces on the 1890s tracks. Thankfully, it picked up speed in the Chunnel and when it made landfall in France hit a cruising speed of 176MPH for a remarkably smooth and speedy ride to Paris. I’d made the Paris-London flight several times before, and although the flight itself is markedly quicker than the train, that speed is more than offset by getting to your departure airport, check-in, customs, immigration and bag retrieval, and the journey from the airport into the city at the opposite end. The Eurostar was downtown London to downtown Paris in about 3 hours.

paris1996_7_DaveCigarParis1996_97_TonyReading

Weeks earlier, when planning the trip, I’d told Tony and Dave that I’d lived in France, and smugly assured them that Parisian winters were mild.. cross-dissolve to: France’s frightfully cold winter that year. We spent most of our time indoors, enjoying Paris’ wealth of bistros, bars and museums with our pals Simon & Tanya, and had a great time. Nevertheless, we were in the “City Of Light” and felt obliged to see Paris, and occasionally braved the arctic weather to ‘enjoy’ the scenery through chattering teeth. After traipsing through the picturesque cold, Tony, Dave and I and paused to take in the view from the middle of one of the beautiful bridges across The Seine.

As we leaned on the guard rail, we saw some rubbish drifting by in the water below us; an LP record album cover of Simon and Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” floated into view in the swirling eddies under the bridge. We each saw this freakishly-apt moment of coincidence at the same time, looked at each other with a wide-eyed laugh, then watched “Bridge Over Troubled Water” meander in the currents of the Seine and float off under the next bridge. Cheered by this quirky piece of random chance, we headed into a nearby bistro to discuss the joys of synchronisity and 1960s folk-pop over a chocolate chaud and a croque monsieur..

A few days later, we three travellers went our seperate ways, and I took a side trip to Denmark before heading back to London on the Eurostar from Paris’ GARE DU NORD STATION. I entered a totally empty train carriage, put my bags in the baggage rack near the door, and took a seat up the other end. It seemed I’d have the luxury of an entire carriage to myself until just before the train pulled away, when a large group of largish men bustled aboard and occupied the back two rows. Brit athletes in suits, I thought, perhaps returning from a game in France? The Eurostar depated and I enjoyed the French countryside zipping by until the train entered the Chunnel, when I went to the dining car to eat and write letters (on-paper letters, remember those?) telling family and friends about Chartres Cathedral, the Catacombs and other tourist sites I’d seen in my brief forays into the frigid French winter. I finished my writing and went back to my seat.

Paris1996_97_SimonDrawing

Paris1996_97_Tanya

Pulling into LONDON a mere 3 hours after departing PARIS, I went to get my luggage from the luggage rack by the rear door of the carriage, and absent mindedly noted that in the midst of the large group of very large men was a smaller, rather ugly fellow. Perhaps he was the manager of this burly group of be-suited athletes. He looked like a balding Mr Bean with glasses… Wait, is that Rowan Atkinson? I did a double-take, I knew that face.. it was unmistakably SALMAN RUSHIE, surrounded by his bodyguards. For a time, Rushdie must’ve had the most recognisable ugly face in the world. His hooded-eyed mug was always in the media back then, after The Ayatollah Khomeini placed a Fatwa on him for writing the Satanic Verses. Many famous writers could be passed in the street without being recognised (it must be a pleasantly anonymous occupation for a famous person to have) but not so with Rushdie. He’s highly recognisable even now, but more so back then at the height of his notoriety, when his Bond villain gaze was on magazines and TVs almost daily. As I pondered these things, the rapidly spinning wheels in my mind must have been audible to Salman’s wall-of-muscle, and they gave me their undivided attention with intense alphadog stares. I grabbed my bags and scuttled away.

As I stepped off the train, I thought about my brief brush with fame. In the past, it had already struck me (as it has many others) that famous actors were much shorter in real life. Based on my brief meeting of Rushdie, I wondered if the similar principle with plain-looking famous folk is that they are even uglier in person? Being instantly recognisable must be one of the curses of fame even at the best of times, but extra uncomfortable when under a Fatwa; a game of “you’re it” with homicidal nutjobs weilding rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs.. Clearly, Rushdie’s security team had chosen this mode of travel precisely because there were less people on the Eurostar that year. Their entourage was less likely to be ’made’ by the loons, and there’d be less collateral damage if they actually were. Then it hit me; I’d not only had a brush with fame by meeting Rushdie, but had worsened my odds in my brush with terrorism too. As well as the two terror groups I already knew about, The IRA and the GIA, who’d vowed to blow the Chunnel and therefore had me in their sights by proxy, I’d been riding a train that had been a potential target of a third terror group; the deadly yo-yos unleashed by the Ayatollah. Had they known Salman Rushie was sitting behind me, they would most certainly have shown up, guns-a-blazin’..

a BULLET train indeed!