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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Flashback Barton House Canberra

Sunday morning after the night before: chilling out on the front steps; "yours truly" in dead centre, wearing sunnies and checkered shirt. Notice the chap on the far right having a "hair of the dog" from a McWilliams flagon left over from the night before. If that didn't do it, there was always BEX powder and a good lie down! Or one took Vincent's with confidence for quick three-way relief.

It was 1965. The Menzies era was coming to an end. The conflict in Vietnam was escalating. And I had just come out to Australia as a young migrant from Germany. I spent those early years, from 1965 to 1967, and then again a brief period in 1969 after I had come back from South Africa, in Canberra in a place called "Barton House" in Brisbane Avenue, one of the many boarding houses then in existence.

Those were the days of parties, of evenings in front of the telly in the TV Room watching "Z-Car" or "M*A*S*H", laughing at the antics of Agent 99 and Maxwell Smart in "Get Smart" ("Good thinking, 99" was a favourite saying in those days); or being bored to death by Barry Jones's insufferable show-off act on Bob and Dolly's BP Pick-a-Box. And then there were the evenings spent at the Burns Club or in the Newsroom of the "Kingo" Pub across the road, drinking 'schooners' and talking about 'sheilas', followed by a last-minute dash back to Barton House before the dining room closed! And Sunday morning, sitting on the frontsteps with the boys, recovering from the night before, while waiting for the week's washing to run through its cycle in the laundry in the backyard.

It was at Barton House that I was introduced to the culinary delights of Australia in the 60s:    mixed grill, corned silverside, Yorkshire pudding, spaghetti-meatballs, lamp chops, and, as a filla-uppa, loads and loads of steam-pudding drowned in thick creamy custard. And who can forget those dreadful brown-paperbag luncheon packs of baked-beans sandwiches, chutney sandwiches, and spaghetti sandwiches? Is there anything more revolting than a soggy spaghetti-sandwich dripping through the bottom of a brown paperbag? The people who ate that stuff must've been a weird mob indeed!

There were never any seconds - except for steam-pudding!!! - and for a growing lad that meant going next door to the "Greasy Spoon" at Lachlan Court to stock up on Iced Vovos, Arnott's Spicy Fruit Rolls (my favourites!), and spring and Chiko rolls.

I always occupied a share-room because a share-room was cheaper. And some of the room mates I had to share with! There was the ANZ "Bank Johnny" from the Kingston branch who regularly came back drunk, night after night, and who was a master of the Australian expletive - which he used constantly, stand-alone, in between words, even inserted into words! And the WORMALD-employee who would purposefully strut off to work only to be back inside the room five minutes lates, screaming his head off. "They repossessed my car again, the bastards!!!" He regularly fell behind with his repayments, and regularly had his car repossessed. And then there was the postie who seemed to lead a charmed life as he was usually back from work by mid-morning until he was found out to have dumped his mail deliveries at the local tip! And the Kiwi with his already then wonderfully antic ROVER-car with walnut dashboard who loved classical music and played it throughout the night on his radiogram. Remember the radiogram? His was an expensive "HIS MASTER'S VOICE ". My own choice of music at the time were THE SEEKERS and PETER, PAUL AND MARY (although the official chart had already moved on to the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, and Simon and Garfunkel). Typical movies of the day were "They're a Weird Mob" and, some time later, "The Age of Consent". There will never be another time like that! Could I write a book about it? You bet!!!

There was a constant stream of new arrivals, but to a hard core of people - and that included me! - Barton House was "home"! The sort of "home" that prepared me well for the house I later shared in Rabaul with two fellow-accountants and the camp accommodation I occupied when I went to Bougainville Island. And it gave me the confidence and the skills to deal with all manner of people in future years.

And what variety of people I met, and what interesting friends I made! Some of the names I still remember are John Burke, my immediate boss at the Bank, Merv Quinn, another "Bank Johnny" originally from Broken Hill, the other two "Bank Johnnies" Dennis Everitt and Bob Southwell. And Pat Fisher from Foreign Affairs who was forever on study leave trying to learn some foreign languages but never getting past the equivalents of "Good Morning" and "How are you?" and who loved to show off his cricket-whites, strutting into the dining room with cricket gloves, leg padding, and all. And Jerry from the Government Printers who somehow or other had broken his leg and stayed on crutches for years and years, creaming off the insurance companies. The retired dotty surveyor who spoke to no-one and always walked about with his own cutlery in his pockets. In the mornings he would stand outside the communal shower cubicles and rap his walking-stick on the door if anyone dared to stand under the shower beyond what he considered was a reasonable time.

For years after, and in different parts of Australia, I still kept bumping into people who had been at Barton House, who had been chased for their outstanding rents by Peter "Frenchie", the manager, who also ran an "Academy of Self-Defense" (and didn't he need it to deal with some of his more difficult boarders!) They all looked back on their time at Barton House with fond memories and a great deal of nostalgia.