Monthly Archives: June 2016

Tickling One's Laugh-o'meter

We all know what it takes, visually or aurally, to get our engines running when it comes to humour. But it requires something pretty special to crank up our personal laugh-o’meters to maximum revs. To have us guffawing and snorting, rolling around n the floor, apoplectic with mirth, holding on to our guts for dear life – well, that is the ultimate. For me, visually, it takes a Mr Bean emerging from his kitchen with a turkey festooned over his head; a Basil Fawlty physically and verbally berating his jalopy for all the indignities he’s suffered at its behest or a Victor Meldrew mistaking his cat for the telephone to do the trick. In very recent times there’s been the irascible Cleaver Greene gatecrashing an intimate dinner party via hot air balloon. Aurally, for this punter, there’s nothing better than the rapid fire repartee between David Mitchell and Lee Mack on ‘Would I Lie to You?’ Sometimes I fall off the sofa when those two get going.

But, all of the above, is humour played out for maximum effect on its audience. It’s a far cry from the gentle chuckles that are produced from watching ‘The Meddler’. In this no one is in any way in danger of rupturing something as Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) attempts to find relevance in her life after the passing of a partner – a partner who was the fulcrum of her existence. Her coping mechanism is, well, meddling – meddling in the world of her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). When Lori enforces some boundaries she moves on to her daughter’s circle of mates. Ms Sarandon has come a long way since her wide-eyed turn in ‘Rocky Horror’. Although perhaps not quite in the came league as Streep, she is now a veteran who can still pull an audience. In this she is thoroughly believable as as the well endowed (financially) widow who’s struggling to remain positive in a situation where the world can quickly turn inwards and be shut out as one follows an inclination to go to ground. The film, for those of us of a certain age ourselves, could lead us to take stock of our own situations and engage in an inner debate about what ifs. I know I couldn’t imagine going it alone without my wonderful Leigh.


Last century I was very partial to the manly ways, gruff voice and bristling moustache of actor Sam Elliott. In ‘The Meddler’ we have a new version of Sam for our now not so new millennium in JK Simmons. At first Marnie pushes away any notion of love re-entering her orb as a suitor is set up for her. But an accidental encounter with Zipper (Simmons) is a different kettle of fish altogether and she finds herself drawn to him, together with his rustic lifestyle. His quiet, hands off approach works away at her defences.

This is not an offering that will make many top tens for the year. It’s just something that lightly tickles the funny bone for, as Marnie re-invents herself with the help and hindrance of those around her, she’s in a better position to take on how many years remain to her. We can leave our screening room with a smile to continue on into the fraught world of our own ageing.

From Kiwi-land comes a movie to ratchet up the laugh-o’meter. It’s ‘Hunt for the Wilder People’. Yes, it’s somewhat rough around the edges and some of the acting, even from the redoubtable Sam Neill, is a tad on the dodgy side. And, yep, some of what goes on doesn’t make a great deal of sense in director Taika Waititi’s production. But it does rate five stars for heart and that more than makes up for its other faults. In it we encounter many a comic weirdo as the story-line plays out. Neill plays a crusty bushman, not adverse to living off the land. He, too, is suddenly bereft of his life partner, leaving him floundering and suddenly responsible for the care of a ward of the state. When he arrives at the isolated property of Uncle Hec (Neill), the tub of lard, citified teenager, Ricky (Julian Dennison), is singularly unimpressed with his new surrounds, but gradually he thaws and develops a type of affection for the place and his carers. The sudden death of his partner has Hec under suspicion for kidnapping, so he and the kid go bush big time, leading the NZ constabulary on a merry chase up mountain and down dale.


Those of us who have had time in the teaching game are well aware of misfits like Ricky, struggling with the lack of love they receive and flaying around, too, for relevance. Young Dennison well evokes this, but he also possesses some serious chops when it comes to comedy and his playing off the veteran is a joy. Adding to the pleasures is some petty awesome scenery. Forget the film’s deficiencies. At the packed house screening Leigh and I attended we joined everybody else in enjoying this Kiwi gem immensely. It looks as though it will conquer Oz, as it did its homeland back across the Tasman.


Ramping it up several more notches is ‘The Nice Guys’ – who are anything but. It is, though, a hilarious romp. If you found copious humour in the ‘Lethal Weapon’ franchise, or ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’, then this offering is for you as some of the same people are involved in its making. I had no sooner recovered my breath from one comic set piece than we were amidst another. Frenetic action abounded as Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) duck and dive through LA’s tawdry 1970s underbelly. Crowe plays straight man to Gosling’s hapless goofiness which sees the duo beset by all sorts of mayhem. The NZ icon’s reactions to Gosling’s prat falls and dimness are priceless, leading to a full-throttle attack on our laugh-o’meters. Aussie ingenue Angourie Rice, as March’s practical tweenie daughter, doesn’t quite steal the show, as the young fellow does in the previous movie, but she’s pretty damn good considering what she is asked to do in this effort from director Shane Black. It was a far different world this movie was set in – pre-digital, pre-political correctness; a world before the fun police took complete control and this is milked for all it is worth. I am hoping that, like ‘Lethal Weapon’s’ Gibson and Glover, there’s at least another sequel for this in the pipeline. Gosling and Crowe are guffaw inducing comedy gold.

As the great philosopher/songster Jimmy Buffett once remarked ‘If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane’ and I thank these three movies for helping me keep insanity at bay for a while longer.

Trailer for ‘The Meddler’ –

Trailer for ‘Hunt for the Wilder People’ –

Trailer for ‘The Nice Guys’ =

The Mother of all Squawkers

Clutching the microphone hotly in their hands, they totter up onto the stage on skyscraper high heels, threads of sparkly dress clinging to their nubile forms. They wait nervously for the backing to crank up, then they open their mouths and are away, hoping to sway the judges. In truth, many of them sound okay in the lower registers – their voices quite acceptable, if generic. But, as the chorus builds, oral orifices are extended to their widest and they commence to emit such atonal screeching that they are a danger to eardrum and glassware everywhere. On cue the adoring over-excited teenage audience erupt in rapturous applause and they holler ecstatic approval as the judges fist pump and start dancing on their chairs. Invariably all seats are turned or, ‘It’s a yes from me!’ is uttered in unison. I call them the squawkers. I can’t stand them. Just ask my lovely lady. She’ll tell you.

Now, really, I don’t watch much of this sort of programming, but my little secret is that I am quite addicted to the chair turning section of ‘The Voice’. For me the ‘battles’ of that show are a real turn-off, but only last night I was sucked into the ‘lives’. In these each of the quartet of judges get to select one out of four of the remaining finalists from their team, based on performance. Sure enough, the first two judges both selected squawkers, despite the quite awesome talent ranged against them in competition. At least Delta and Ronan had a bit more taste. I doubt I’ll be sucked in again. It really does, in no way, resemble a test of talent if almost every female contestant who is shapely and can squawk gets a gong. I know full well any with a great country voice will be given their marching orders now that Keith Urban is no longer involved. I’ve also seen some terrific Jimmy Barnes-style belters not last any distance, despite them being arguably the male equivalent to the squawkers.

So where did this confusion first occur that squawking could be considered a hallmark of a singer with the chops to make it in the music business and conquer the world? Could it be sheeted home to the truly appalling (musically speaking) Florence Foster Jenkins?

Until now this trail-blazer was a woman known to only a few cultists who were familiar with her, the unwitting cause of one of the great hoaxes of history. But, as a result of two biopics on her being released almost simultaneously, she has crossed into the mainstream. And here’s something those of you who know me well would have thought I would never concede on a matter of cinematic quality – the English language take on her is somewhat better that the sub-titled one.


Both films, though, do make good viewing. It was just that one had Meryl Streep, one didn’t. Catherine Frot, who some consider to be held by the French in the same regard as Streep is by Hollywood, was terrific in her portrayal of Jenkins – the American just takes it to another level. Both, in being padded up for their roles, put me in mind of Susan Boyle, although in no way is that lady a squawker. She has the voice of a nightingale – these two actresses were just plain crows. I don’t know so much about Frot, but from what we know about MS in the excellent, but underrated, ‘Ricki and the Flash’, the Streepster can really belt it out most tunefully. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been for her to produce the off-key barnyard hollerings and screeches required for the film.


The eponymous Anglo-American effort also had the advantage of being helmed by director Stephen Frears who possesses an excellent track record, including ‘The Queen’ and ‘Philomena’. It is also the one that sticks closest to the facts and has the added charms of Hugh Grant as Jenkin’s hubby in a marriage never consummated. He is in fine form doing his usual schtick, as well as some engaging soft shoe shuffle. But almost stealing the show is ‘Big Bang’ alumni, Simon Helberg, playing the diva’s pianist. His disbelief, on first acquaintance, at what comes out of her mouth is priceless.

In both productions the filthy rich FFJ is surrounded by sycophants praising, to the hilt, her anything but melodious singing for their own ends – usually a decent slice of her pie. Some feel sorry for her; some indeed love her, but are going along for the ride. The French version also has a sub-plot of a destitute vocal accompanist whose star rises as that of Madame Jenkin’s falls. This provides a modicum of youthful glamour that the other doesn’t require.

The real events happened during the years the Yanks were involved in World War Two; Jenkins giving her vocal dexterity a public airing at Carnegie Hall to raise funds for the GIs. Frot’s ‘Jenkins’ is set in France immediately after the prior global conflict and this time the charity were the veterans from that country. In it her name has been Frenchified to Marguerite Dumont. Andre Macon takes on the husband’s role, tying himself in knots, as does Grant, trying to come up with ways to keep the terrible truth in-house. In both the climax is a grand concert that brings the house of cards all tumbling down – albeit in two completely different ways.

Although both Frot’s and Streep’s Jenkins are silly women to the max, such is the skill of both actresses, the audience, by the end, are completely in their corners. It’s the way her vanity is seized upon and pandered to by those around Florence/Marguerite that, in part, causes this. Her husband(s) does it for another reason, other than to feather his own nest. It is interesting to check out the real FFJ on-line and YouTube her performances – although the end credits of the Streep film provide part illumination.


Yes, the french have been gazumped here in my view – just this once, mind you. But some reviewers have disagreed. Sandra Hall, for the Age, states that ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ ‘…is fun, but ‘Marguerite’ is the one that keeps you thinking about Florence’s yearnings long after her squawks have finally stopped ringing in your head’.

Now, if only those squawkers from ‘The Voice’ et al could be told the hard truth, as Jenkins should have been all those years ago.

Trailer – ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ =

Trailer – ‘Marguerite’ =

The real lady on YouTube =

Sleep With Me – Joanna Briscoe

I remember her well – but not her name. And, like Sylvie, she may have been French – or of French extraction. As with Sylvie, she too was not beautiful in the classical sense – she also had the prominent nose of the novel’s protagonist. She differed in that her complexion was olive rather than pale. But like Joanna Briscoe’s calculating vixen, she caught one’s attention – perhaps for her imperfections as much as anything. Not all men are drawn to perfection in their fantasies.

The young woman I am writing of did captivate. It wasn’t only me – she drew men in. Some of my male colleagues were on the way to being bewitched too. She liked their attention, seemingly craved it. Unlike Sylvie, she didn’t seek to completely control their lives – just be involved with them in the workplace – and out. According to one female friend, who was not impressed with the way she distracted the males she worked with, this exotic addition to staff preferred to save her flirtations for the married fellow. My friend claimed the object of her scorn felt safer as, for them, the line – and it was definitely drawn – would be harder to cross. To use more basic parlance, it was less likely they would place the hard word on her. I had no intention of crossing any line but, for a while, I craved attention from her, some sort of intimacy – and she gave it, in small tantalising doses. I was, I hope, no self-centred plonker like Briscoe’s Richard. It was a serious case with him. But, I guess, for a while I was mildly obsessed. I remembered one guy, who was similarly smitten with her, started boasting to me he had only to click his fingers and she would be his for the taking – that he could bed her in a flash. I was terribly offended by that, for, in my view, simply saying those words made him unworthy of her. I resolved to do all I could to prevent that from happening – although how I had no idea. In the end she ditched any connection with the both of us and turned her attention to another bloke and that was that. I have no idea what became of her and it all happened so many decades ago. Whether she posed the question ‘Sleep With Me’, the book’s title, to any of the other male members at the work place I have no idea, but I doubt it. Sylvie was not so reluctant in that department. Reading the tome drew my thoughts back to my own not so forward enchantress.

sleep with me

But it wasn’t only with Richard Sylvie played mind games, but he became so over-wrought with lust for her that, in the end, he found he had little resolve about staying true to the woman carrying his baby. He was head over heels with the desire to ravish her for all he was worth. His partner became a focus of this temptress’ attentions as well, as happened with other aspects of Richard’s wider world. If one, on reading the publication, feels that there is much more than meets the eye here, then that person would be correct – but I’m not giving that away. Richard, Leila and Sylvie form a triangle of hedonistic connivance that can only lead to the ruination of one or more of the participants.

‘Sleep With Me’ is much deeper than the page turning light and fluffy summer read alluded to on the front cover of my edition. It certainly doesn’t get right under my skin as another of its praise-singers writes (Maureen Freely of England’s The Guardian); it being set in the UK. It was not up to the standard of ‘You’, the only other of the author’s oeuvre I’ve read. With ‘You’, it is obvious that Briscoe, partner of another very fine author in Charlotte Mendelson, does indeed have the ability to get under the skin – just not with this one.


Author’s website =

Much to Answer For

My lovely lady was in need of connection to social media and we were far from home, visiting the warehouse franchises at Devonport’s Stony Rise. It seemed the only available wi-fi was at the adjoining McDonald’s and therefore it was necessary to put aside my natural disinclination and enter. It would be the first time in more than a decade I had done so and despite the ‘classy’ ads that now attempt to sell it as a more upmarket option, it seems little had changed from my previous forays back in the mists. There was an unattended pool of unidentifiable liquid to be stepped over at its entrance and at that time of day the place seemed full of acned, lank-haired youth all working away at hand held devices – either that, or young mums with snotty nosed toddlers from the bogan side of town. Obviously, to use their facility, we needed to order some tucker. I scanned the unappetising menu board and asked for one of the cheaper burgers. It arrived in a grease-smattered brown paper bag and the contents reflected that. Inside two thin slivers of a bread substance was a grey slab of presumably meat product accompanied by a tired bit of lettuce smothered in bright yellow mayonnaise. It tasted of nothing and thankfully was gone in a few mouthfuls. I was thankful to be out of the place once Leigh had completed her time in cyberspace. It’s a similar story with that other ubiquitous provider of fast tucker, KFC. I must admit I do find their offerings much tastier, but it’s the sourness in the tum and the foul-breathed belching after consumption that turns me off their product.

Of course it’s not only in take-away food that the franchise model, in the retail world, has taken over. It abounds everywhere – a by-product of globalisation, nudging out all forms of local individuality in the selling of consumer items. That’s why I love strip-shopping streets in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, but even these are under threat as the big guys circle.

I think it is incredibly ironic that the word franchise, derived from the French, means to ‘free from servitude’. I wonder if the employees of 7-Eleven have felt much of that freeing feeling in recent times?

So who is to blame for all this? Who came up with the notion of franchise? I almost used the word abomination, but that is far too strong. If I think about it, much of my retail therapy is, nonetheless, carried out, reasonably enjoyably, in such outlets.

If we delve back to when it first came into being we can blame a country (the US, who else?), a religion (Christian Science) and one incredibly impressive and entrepreneurial woman (the remarkable Martha Matilda Harper). Had she not come along, I daresay someone else would have hit on the notion, but she was the first to build something almost from nothing. Hers is a story worth the telling. So thank you Katie for bringing her to my attention.

Martha mh

She had longevity, did Martha Harper. Born in Canada in 1857, she passed from the planet in 1950. The Ontarian was one of ten offspring and she was bound out – ie, placed in that aforementioned servitude, to assist her father, a struggling tailor, support his large family. It was during this time, labouring for a holistic physician who took a shine to her, that she was introduced to her lifelong passion. He was an atypical character for the time who believed that good scalp care was fundamental to well rounded health. Robust brushing of the hair was, he taught Martha, essential to virile blood flow – that and the application of his hair tonic, made to, what else, a secret formula.

It was his death in 1881 that set her on her life’s path as he passed on the recipe for his tonic to Martha in his will. Later that year she crossed the border to settle in Rochester, New York State, still as a servant – this time to one Luella Roberts. She soon gained a reputation within the circle of her employer for her hair dressing abilities. In those times this was all done within the household, either by servants, or independent hair specialists making house calls.

As the new century approached the US was abuzz with entrepreneurial fervour and change. Even in Rochester there was talk of votes for women. It all filled Martha’s mind with possibility – even the idea that a lowly servant could become part of the American dream. She had squirreled away some savings from her servitude over the years and toyed with the whys and wherefores of transforming her hair skills into a business proposition. But, before she could advance that idea, she fell ill. Her treating doctor just happened to be a practicing Christian Scientist. His success in bringing her back to fine health caused her to become a follower of his religious persuasion with the words of Mary Baker Eddy being firmly implanted in her mind.


Martha soon felt well enough to start to pursue her dream. She figured that her long years in service made her fully aware of how to pamper her social betters and a notion formed that it could be done more economically from a shop front than trailing around to the abodes of prospective customers. Chancing her arm, she used her meagre savings to open up in downtown Rochester, quite near, in fact, to one George Eastman who was setting up Kodak with similar hopes for success. Both businesses thrived. Hers was aided by the fact that she purposely invented a reclining shampoo chair to add to her customers’ comfort. The prominent citizenry of the burb flocked to her premises to partake of her salves to their busy lives. And she was the best possible advertisement for her own brand of hair care. Just look at her locks in the accompanying images. Did Eastman photograph her? I wonder.

She soon came to have some very highly esteemed spruikers too for her talents. There was Mabel Bell, missus of the supposed inventor of the telephone; suffragette leader Susan B Anthony and even a first lady, Grace Coolidge. Due to her success, it was suggested to her that she establish another outlet for her wares and procedures in the Windy City to open in time for its World Fair of 1893. As she couldn’t be in two places at once, she decided it would be an agent of the mother shop, run by another, but to her strict guidelines. Thus it became a franchise – even though this term for what she initiated did not come about for some time. This model was based on how the Christian Science church thrust out its tentacles across the nation. And after the success of the Chicago venture, Martha used the same formula for further expansion.

All products sold by her agents were manufactured in factories she set up, all staff had to be trained in her special schools and she instigated national advertising campaigns just as that industry was starting to take a form we would recognise today. She maintained the strictest quality control with all products being organic – untouched by the chemicals that her competitors, when they got going along similar lines, were enamoured of. Martha made it her calling to employ only servant girls or poor working class women. The Harper Method, as her franchising became known, had a humane heart at its core, although it catered mainly for those from the top end of society. She was an early exponent of tycoon philanthropy. How refreshing compared to the oft corporate greed of these times, although, of course, there are many who still follow her example.


Her heyday were the twenties and Harper’s Harperites (agents) strove to bring out the beauty of the inner woman, later turning their attention to their men folk as well. Over time her prominent customers included Danny Kaye, European royalty, the Kennedy family, Lady Bird Johnson and even the German Kaiser.

When she attained the age of 63 it was time for Martha Harper to start to wind down her own involvement in her company’s affairs. She married her 39 year old assistant. He took over the business and ran it till 1972 – twenty odd years after Martha’s death.

In wedlock she was never Martha McBain, again bucking the norm by retaining her maiden name throughout her long life. She had the same attitude way back in 1900, attending classes at the University of Rochester, despite the explicit by-laws banning women from doing so.

Her story makes me wonder if the American dream is still possible in the US for women from her type of background. The recent film ‘Joy’, based on a true story, suggests it was still an attainable goal at the end of last century, but today? I wonder if even Martha Harper dared dream of a woman President, let alone a black one?


Her Commemorative Stamp

The Three Lives of Ingoushka

Will you indulge in a little game of ‘Who Am I’ with me? Some of you may remember her. She had an impact on this old fella once upon a time. Perhaps she may have had an impact on you too, way back in the mists.

Here we go. I was born Ingoushka Petrov in Warsaw in 1937 – not a good time to come into the world, particularly with a Jewish mother. My Polish accent in later life would, to some ears, make me sound incredibly sexy and exotic. In the early sixties I became an actress in Berlin, later having roles alongside such luminaries as Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, after making my English-speaking debut in ‘Doctor Zhivago’. I played Queen Galleia to John Pertwee’s Dr Who in several appearances in that icon of the small screen. I was married three times, with the first being to my hero. But as for what may have bought me into your orbit once upon a time? Well, I was famous for two reasons. One – yes one – was because of my breasts, which I rather exposed quite a lot of on screen. The second were my fangs. They really didn’t appear all that often in my movies, only in titles such as ‘The Vampire Lovers’, ‘Countess Dracula’ and ‘The House That Dripped Blood’. But maybe you remember them too. The press at the time were quite enamoured of me for both reasons. They dubbed me ‘The Queen of Scream’. Well then, who am I? Do you know? If you do or don’t, I think you’ll find my whole story more that just a tad interesting.


By the early seventies your scribbler was studying at UTAS in Hobs, living at at hall of residence, sadly for males only. My love of movies had been triggered by the greater selection of offerings available in the big smoke compared to my former provincial town. And I was very much aware of Ingoushka. She seemed to only appear at the old Elwick Drive-in, so often I would take my jalopy out there, usually in the company of like-minded mates who also were not adverse to the good lady being presented unadorned, along with her blood-sucking mandibles. Those were the early years after the strictures of censorship were loosened. For some time we had been governed by god-fearing old men in darkened rooms having the say over what we could and couldn’t view. Ingoushka, unlike many who simply teased back then in that brave new age, delivered on what she promised. Of course she was a member of the Hammer film studios stable of voluptuous beauties. In fact, when she first auditioned, she fronted the head honcho of Hammer, James Carreras, sporting the most revealing of her assets type dress she could squeeze herself into. She reported in her autobiography, ‘I turned up at Jimmy’s office in a maxi-coat, a mane of hair, lots of make-up and high leather boots. I walked up to him and opened my coat like a flasher. I was wearing the tiniest and lowest cut dress you can imagine. He took me darling, but not in the way film moguls are said to!’ He offered her a choice, horror or porn – the latter most likely akin to offerings popular at the time like ‘What the Milkman Saw’ or ‘Confessions of a Window Cleaner’. They were more innocent days. But she chose the former. Ingoushka, by this stage Pitt, as a name, though, wouldn’t cut it up there in the credits – so she became Ingrid, Ingrid Pitt.

Her trajectory upwards was immediate, although her stay at the top was brief. The early seventies just about saw her out. She made guest appearances sporadically in the following decades till her death in 2010, but she was never one to let the grass grow under her. She simply re-invented herself when the popularity of vampire movies waned. She turned to writing to earn a living. She made up for quality with volume – she just wrote and wrote and wrote some more. She’d have a go at anything. She started off describing the conditions the first Americans were forced to endure after a stint living with a tribe of them in Colorado. Then she turned her hand to fiction, usually, to capitalise on her name, in the horror genre. She wrote columns for magazines and later on-line. She even penned scripts, submitting some to ‘Dr Who’ – never successfully, but she came close with a few.

When the popularity of a Hammer revival, at the turn of the millennium, bought with it screenings of her retro-fangwork all over the UK, she cashed in writing titles such as ‘The Ingrid Pitt Bedside Companion for Vampire Lovers’ and ‘The Ingrid Pitt Book of Murder, Torture and Depravity’. As well there were her memoirs she, fangs in cheek, called ‘Life’s a Scream’.


But as fabulous as her lives on screen and as quite the wordsmith were, her third life – the one she led prior to her notoriety in the movie industry – was perhaps even more hair raising than anything she acted out for the camera or wrote about.

Of course, to be of Jewish heritage in Poland during the war years was a dire situation to be in and in 1942 her family was picked up by the Nazis. She and her mother were separated from her father and elder sister and the pair were transported to the Stutthoff concentration camp. She witnessed her mother’s best friend summarily hung and one of her own little companions raped and beaten to death by guards. Come the Russians the pair were released and commenced to trudge between the various holding camps for survivors to try and find father and sister. The family were remarkably reunited, but such were the privations her dad had undergone at the hands of his captors he died a short time later.

After that life obviously improved and the young Ingoushka started to dream of a future and the shape it may take. Acting caught her imagination. We know from later events that she was a force of nature and it was not long till she moved to East Berlin to pursue her dream as the Iron Curtain was coming down. She became associated with Helene Wiegel, second wife of Bertolt Brecht, acting in his works in Helene’s theatre company. Unfortunately the redoubtable Wiegel was a strident critic of the communist regime and soon the Stasi came calling. Miss Petrov was about to take the stage for an opening night performance of Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage and her Children’ when some uniformed goons turned up to shut it all down and take in those responsible. Ingoushka did a runner. Hot on her heels were the thugs and as a last resort, she took a flying leap into the River Spee. The current took her, fully costumed, across the city to the American zone where she was spotted by GI Laud Roland Pitt Jr who, without hesitation, jumped in and bought her to shore in his his arms. Her hero. Sometimes life truly does resemble the movies. They fell in love and married.

It didn’t last for nothing could get in the way of her dream. The unstoppable Ingoushka Pitt continued on her drive to stardom. Of course, in the end, she made it to the delight of young men far away at a drive-in in Hobart.

Despite horror giving her that pathway to success, in an interview for a New Zealand newspaper four years before her death, she admitted she rarely watched or read anything to do with the genre, stating ‘I think it’s very amazing that I do horror films when I had this awful childhood. But maybe that’s why I was so good at it.’

And she was. Of course, in the digital age Ingoushka is only a mouse-click away on YouTube in all her fanged glory, bosoms heaving. Make that click and you’ll see what I mean. We were all so innocent and unworldly back then and she was ripe for our desires. Sometimes I think we were far better off in that era then when what she did was about was about the extent of it.

Life's Never Easy

I didn’t realise the convolutions. It wasn’t till after the viewing of it that I read Paul Byrnes critique of ‘Mia Madre’ in the Age to see what he thought. I’m afraid his opinion of it was more praiseworthy than mine. To me, the convolutions he revealed were almost as interesting as the film itself – which is another way of saying I’ve seen far better this year. That being stated, there were several scenes of magic within it and I was wiping away tears at the end – which, I am afraid, is nothing unusual for me.


The convolutions? Well, darling of the Italian film industry, Nanni Moretti, lost his mother during the making of his previous cinematic offering and this film concerns a brittle, harried film director (Margherita Buy) – and Moretti has her retain her own name for this role. She’s obviously playing him, according to Byrnes – just a female version, perhaps channelling his inner feminine self. This is a take on the old, much tackled chestnut of a film within a film – this one about union unrest. Buy, as the director, had the added pressure of a marriage going on the rocks, failing to have any idea of what’s going on with her daughter and her mind is playing tricks on her. Part of the problem with this movie is that it segues between reality and fantasy without the usual stock filmatic warnings, leaving the audience to work it out for themselves. We become quite adroit at this as it progresses – a tribute to the director I guess. To cap it all off, for Margherita, her mother is dying – a fact that she finds difficult to accept, as no doubt Moretti did, in the making of ‘We Have a Pope’. To complicate matters, Moretti himself plays the director’s brother in ‘Mia Madre’. The brother is more accepting of the situation and practical about his mother’s condition than his sister. He has stated how much he enjoyed playing the type of man he wishes he was. Yep, sure was convoluted

Then mega-star Barry Huggins turns up to play a lead in Buy’s movie. He propositions her (unsuccessfully) on their first meeting, has an over-inflated view of his own talent, but unfortunately can never seem to remember his lines. John Turturro, as Huggins, steals the show. His celebratory dancing is joy to behold, as is his flaying around for excuses for his inability to recall dialogue. He ‘fesses up, in the end, to the cause.

Mia Madre01

Byrnes sums it all up when he opines ‘It could be a little faster, a tad more upbeat, a pinch funnier,…’ but the French critics in particular, conversely, lapped this one up. One film journal labeled it the best film of 2015 from anywhere. It must have lost something in translation as far as I am concerned.

Trailer =

Melbourne Vignettes '16 – 02 – It Was Don, Wasn't It?

Yes, the more I think about it, I am sure it was definitely him. That it was Don.

She was hovering. Every time I looked she had crept a little closer. I began to speculate as to why she was there – but I’ll never know the answer to that. Flying out of the state that Saturday morning I realised I was in the company of minor celebrity. In the boarding lounge, such as it is at Hobart (supposedly) International Airport, the special people had been called to the plane first. Parading past my seat were Luke Darcy, Cameron Ling and Richo. They’d been in town for the big Friday night game at Blundstone Arena, the first AFL encounter under lights at the local venue. I watched out for Sam Lane, but sadly she was no where to be seen. The previous evening I had tuned in, somewhat bemused, as the Rooboys gave the Tigers a right royal shellacking at Blundstone. On Saturday eve, in my hotel room, I watched similar happen to Essendon at the hands of Freo over in the West, so the Channel Seven commentary team was in for a big day in the air. Following them out onto the tarmac came Damien Hardwick, members of his coaching team and a handful of young men I took to be players, although none of their recognised stars. Once boarded, a couple of rows down from me, I could see midfield stoppage coach, Brendon Lade, in his seat, his knees up around his chin. The confined space in cattle class is not obviously designed for giant former ruckmen.


It was at the luggage collection bay I first spotted her. She was dressed head to toe in Blues regalia and her eyes were firmly fixed on Dimma. It only took a glance to tell that she was in some way intellectually impaired. I was also, to some extent, hovering as I legitimately waited to pick up my case. I am ashamed to say I was engaging in a little ear-wigging too. Their emphatic loss from the night before was naturally the prime subject matter of the Tiges’ management members surrounding me, one on his mobile telling how the previous evening in Hobs all that could go wrong went wrong. Watching on tele it certainly appeared that only one team had come to play – the other, the ones with the yellow stripe, found that, in the freezing air, it was all a little too hard. Sorry Richmond supporters.

But now my mind was on the girl and not on the Richmond Football Club’s woes as she edged even closer to the group around that team’s coach. They all looked pretty gloomy that morning at Tullamarine. Eventually she must have decided she had been waiting long enough for the important question she had to ask Hardwick. She was now close enough to reach in and tap him on the shoulder – which she did. Her query, which she was fit to burst to ask, consisted of just two words.

I watched on with interest as I felt his response to her could tell me a great deal about Dimma the man. He was certainly a positive and affable fellow in his television persona – but I suspected this was not the best of days to be interrupting a debriefing. Those two words? Simply, ‘Where’s Jack?’

Of course, those of us enamoured with the game, would immediately know she was referring to Jack Riewoldt. He’s one of the stars of the team, a quixotic and charismatic figure. Hardwick turned and faced the girl, did not smile, but politely, without embellishment, told her that he wasn’t on their flight. He waited to see if she had anything else to inquire. She did – ‘Is he coming soon?’

Dimma responded that he thought that was the case, but couldn’t guarantee it. He then turned from her to resume his conversation with his acolytes. There was no reference to the girl as she moved off, satisfied, if perhaps disappointed, with his answer. He certainly did not make any derogatory comments about her to those in attendance. To my mind he handled the situation perfectly. He was respectful of her and gave her his time – as fleeting as it may have been. He certainly lost no brownie points from me as a result of the exchange. As to why such a fervent Carlton supporter was hanging around at that time of morning is intriguing. Perhaps that is what she does – checks out the teams returning from interstate games to catch a glimpse of her heroes. It wouldn’t be the Blues that day as they had a home match. Good on her I reckoned – she wanted Jack and she was brave enough to find out from the top man as to whether she’d be in luck.

And she sang to me. Just briefly, but she did sing to me. I was meandering around the ‘Henry Talbot:1960s Fashion Photographer’ exhibition at the NGV Australia when I arrived at a certain photograph at the same time as a tall statuesque blonde, pushing an infant in a pram, together with another woman who was around my age. The image we were all focusing on was entitled ‘Billy and Jackie’. I immediately recognised the male model involved but heard the younger woman ask the elder one ‘Who are they Mum? You knew everyone in Melbourne back in those times.’
The answer, ‘Don’t be silly darling. I didn’t. And I have no idea who they are.’ – and they proceeded to move off. That was too much for me so I piped up and informed them the bloke was Billy Thorpe. The mother turned around and came back. She peered again at the image and extolled, ‘Of course it is. How could I have missed that face. Look at him. He was so young back then.’
I replied something to the effect that we all were so much younger then. She smiled at me and started singing, just quietly, so that her daughter didn’t hear, a few bars of ‘Forever Young’, grinned once more and headed in the direction of her familial companions. It was a lovely moment that will stay with me. Back in the sixties we were all going to be forever young. It didn’t happen.

talbot billy

There were other encounters and sightings. Travelling in on the Skybus from the airport that same Saturday morning I found myself opposite a woman from Salt Lake City, very excited to be in Oz, with her two teenage children. We started chatting – turns out that after four days in Melbourne she was flying south to visit her cousin in, of all places, Dodges Ferry. She hadn’t been to Tassie before and had many questions to ask. I sat next to a couple at the footy. The poor woman. She was a Collingwood supporter but spent her time listening to her hubby raucously cheer on the Doggies when she wasn’t fetching him beers to keep him well lubricated. When he disappeared at half time we started chatting. She was a librarian from Canberra and we talked books until the game and hubby were ready to resume. On my final night, seeking out a proper sit down meal rather than take-away, I happened on Toscani’s in Acland Street, near my hotel. Italian, I partook of a delicious lasagne served by its sole waitress, a delightful young Korean who, at 27, thought she was quite old. I wish. It was a very quiet Monday eve and we got to talking. She was keen to know about my island and she told me of her future hopes – to become a permanent citizen of our country and to set up a restaurant specialising in the tucker of her home country. We chatted so much my pasta treat had decidedly cooled by the time I got to it. Best of all, she gifted me with dozens of radiant smiles. There were dreams of limitless possibility in her eyes. Let’s hope that our country will continue to be a place where that is always possible.

I continued my love affair with the trams of Yarra City. I had an adventure in taking the 109 to Kew to visit a friend recovering from a health issue. Brother Jim was on the mend and maintaining his sense of humour despite what life has thrown at him recently. This mode of transport is a great way of encountering people and getting a feel for the multicultural nature of our second city. There was the German tourist sitting opposite on one journey who was obviously not on the best of terms with his travelling companion. He was furrowing his brow over a map so I inquired if I could be of assistance. Turns out the reason for his frustration was that his wife was not satisfied with the standard of our big two Aussie supermarkets and had demanded that he take her to an Aldi which, being European, was obviously far superior. He was peeved that so much time had to be taken out of their time in Melbourne to hunt one down out in the suburbs. His parting words to me were, with a nod to his missus – ‘Once a German, always a German.’ Then, on another ride, there were two beautiful young ladies standing a short way from me, lost in each other’s presence, gently caressing and cuddling. We have come of age in such matters as there was no staring; no one batted an eyelid. If only I could say the same of some of our Neanderthal politicians.

I attended two very close and pulsating games of AFL, viewed several fine exhibitions (200 Years of Australian Fashion at the NGV definitely worth catching) and went shopping. My pointing of the camera was mostly in abeyance due to the weather, but one morning I took an early morning perambulation along the St Kilda foreshore and delighted in that milky light off the water that sometimes can be caught around the bay. I hope my resulting images did it justice.


And, the more I think of it, I am positive it was him. My lovely lady and I love to celebrity spot and one of her best was sharing an elevator with Mark Seymour of Hunters and Collectors fame. Well, I was about to enter the lift at my Carlisle Street hostelry when I had to step back for a figure departing. As he emerged he looked up at me. I realised instantly that I recognised him. It was the quiff of hair that gave it away. So distinctive – it had to be him. Don Walker, of Cold Chisel fame – the man who has written so many of their iconic anthems. As good as Mark Seymour? Could be – if only I was completely sure.

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

It reminded me of the excellent documentary made a few years back, much gonged, about those back-up singers who provided the fire power on the choruses for many of the hit songs that have become embedded in the fabric of our lives. They were unsung, if you’ll excuse the pun. Only now are they receiving some belated recognition. Often they covered for the vocal limitations of the guy or gal front of stage – the ones that couldn’t make it up high. Of course, these anonymous performers all mostly had aspirations to be big-time too. When our own Renee Geyer tried her luck overseas, she became one of the best in the business when her own career didn’t take off in the US – and the stories she now tells of those times behind the limelight! Yes, Kim Echlin’s ‘Under the Visible Life’ reminded me of ’20 Feet From Stardom’. It is well worth seeing on DVD if you possess a love of music. As for the book – well….


The novel tells the story of two gifted musicians who – and it’s no spoiler to write it – never made it either. They were both jazz pianists. One, Afghani-American Misha, due to the openness of her parents mixed marriage, had to flee the country of her birth. Initially this took her to Pakistan where her mother and father were murdered for their brazenness, then on to the US. Katherine, also the result of a mixed marriage, is bought up by her struggling mother in Canada. From an early age both come under the thrall of jazz and the musicians, usually black, that drove that genre. They become gifted on the keyboards and when they eventually encounter each other, a fair way into the tome, they find they have an almost spiritual rapport on their chosen instrument.

At that time, though, jazz was soon to play second fiddle (sorry, just have a compulsion to pun) to new beats emanating from another form of popular music, rock. That, plus the other obstacles that fell before them, meant their careers, together or apart, were very much second tier. They were also women. It was still not easy for their gender to make it in a man’s world. Their trials and tribulations from the immediate post-war years through to the eighties are recounted.

I was attracted to the book by its retro cover, all orange and black. Once taken down from the shelf, the glowing reviews for it inside the front cover ensued a purchase. That it had music at its core was, for me, also a selling point.

But, perhaps because of the type of music they were so enamoured by, or the slow burning manner with which the story unfolded – usually not an issue – I failed to be fully drawn in. Without doubt it’s an interesting read, but my appreciation of it was not up there with those rave recommendations. One critic felt it delivered ‘…a clinic on how to conjure emotions readers didn’t even know they had. This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.’ (Quill and Quire) I could not concur.

This, Kim Echlin’s fourth novel, comes from a writer obviously highly regarded in the land of the maple leaf. She has been praised for her daring in choice of subject matter; her elegiac, beautifully honed prose and her ability to produce story-lines that are uniquely arresting. Is that she failed to move me down to my gender? I wonder.


A Month of Sundays

It seems a month of Sundays ago now that Anthony LaPaglia starred in what I feel is the best movie our country has produced. Forget ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’, Muriel’s Wedding’ and others lauded as such. For me, the slow burning ‘Lantana’ (2001), set in a very fecund Sydney, overloaded with sweaty humidity and oodles of smoldering tension just under the surface ready to explode, stated that our nation had come of age in film-making. Anthony LaP, playing opposite Barbara Hershey and Kerry Armstrong, was the perfect fit for the lead.

We know his story – an Adelaide lad, smitten with soccer, heads to La-La Land to try and make it a career in the movies, but, in the end, did so on the Hollywood small screen rather than the big. He did make films along the way, demonstrating he’s no one trick pony – often in very sensitive, but underrated, roles. He came home for ‘Lantana’ and nailed it. And now he’s returned to the city of his birth, for the first time in forty years, taking the lead in this little ripper – ‘A Month of Sundays’.


Some critics have panned it, for the production takes, well, a month of Sundays to get going. Other scribblers on the subject, like my old pal Paul Byrnes for the Age, has celebrated its lack of bells and whistles, to make something he describes as having ‘…a brain and a heart.’ I concur. It has that in spades.

Look out, if you are fortunate enough to see it, for the deft touches – for instance, what’s going on at the back of screen when there’s talking heads in the foreground. It is quite illuminating on Aussie, or is it Adelaidean, suburbia.

ALP plays Frank, a man without a hope in hades of coming to grips with the grief and associated lassitude that envelopes him. His marriage to Wendy (Justine Clarke) is kaput now that she is a huge television identity in a local soap, starring alongside Gary Sweet. His son won’t have a bar of him and his beloved mother has recently passed away. And he smokes almost continuously. He’s in a bad way. He’s just going through the motions in his job in the real estate game and it’s hard to see why boss (John Clarke playing John Clarke) keeps him on. We eventually get to figure that out.

Then out of the blue comes a phone call and Frank has his mum (Julia Blake) back. She gradually gives him the tools to cope a tad better and third time director Matthew Saville subtly milks Frank’s getting of wisdom for all it’s worth.

For me the beauty of the film is all in Frank’s doleful face. Anthony LaPaglia is no longer at his zenith and it shows. But along with ageing he has been gifted with something quite wonderful. He doesn’t have to verbally articulate his pain – one only has to observe his beaten-down visage. Silence has as much impact as words. But when words are spoken, particularly between our sad sack and boss Lang, they are a joy to behold.

Gee I hope this movie does well. It deserves to. It’s that pure pleasure of the small stuff that gets me every time.

month of sundays

Movie Trailer =

Young Migratory Mother

It was surely just a coincidence that I discovered it so close to the place where we first met, wasn’t it? I mean, I don’t believe in karma and all that nonsense – so it was just a little coincidence then, okay? Maybe, but as I remembered the many hours spent with her, it was a significant small coincidence. The discovery that bought it flooding back happened not so long ago – just a few weekends past when I’d returned to where it had all began, Chicago. I must admit it has stayed on my mind since – the coincidence. Played on my mind so much that, when I returned, I did something about it. But finding out more didn’t make it go away. I had wondered, off and on, over the years what became of her – but now, it has reached obsession status – and I can’t be fixated on her. It’s not right; it’s pointless. Not now, so many decades down the track. The past is the past. You’d agree, if somehow you’re out there reading this, wouldn’t you? I know, when she first disappeared I felt bereft for a while. But back then there was Sharon, so I moved on pretty quickly. It wasn’t as if there was anything between us, just a quickly formed casual friendship that obviously meant little to her – or maybe it just seemed that way. The reason she left my orbit so abruptly I’ll never know. She told me so much of her story and now I have more to add to it, but do I want the full version? We’ll see. So, I’m thinking, if I write it all down, I may get the woman out of my system. Right?

I had flown to Chicago to catch up with my son, Jim, his wife Livvy and my two grand-kids. I don’t make the effort to see them as often as I would like. Jim’s always busy running the company and Liv has her hands full with the imps, as I call them, although they’re far too old for that moniker these days – as they tell me often. About ten years ago I retired and moved from there to NYC to be with the new lady in my life. Jim took over the operations of Meatpackers at that stage. It’s a restaurant chain – a very successful one, if I do say so myself. Under Jim it continues to thrive. He’s moved it into Europe – by the time I left I had expanded into most major US locations. We keep it simple – the best steaks to be sourced locally, matched with the best reds to be had on the planet. Simple – but effective.

My marriage to Jim’s mother, Sharon, broke up soon after I met Shelly. She, Shel, was a manager of one of my Big Apple outlets and we hooked up initially at a franchise heads’ conference back in ’89. She was unattached at that point in time – I was soon to be. My kids had grown, but Sharon and I? Well, we had not grown in our relationship along with them. It was a cold and chilly affair by the end, but Shel soon warmed me up. It’s fair to say there was instant mutual attraction. We were lovers by conference end. I threw in the towel to my vows at the altar pretty quickly. It’s never as simple as that, of course, really – but it was the right decision for me. I followed Shel to New York soon after. We’ve been lucky – happiness second time around for both of us. And she’s given me another set of grandchildren. Shel, in some ways, reminded me of her back then – a tall willowy blonde for whom time had been relatively kind. There was a presence about both women that made you sit up and take notice when they walked into a room – with Shel, as with her almost doppelganger from back in 1963. I had never previously had an affair whilst with Sharon, despite the occasional temptation that had come my way – I knew that with Shel it would never happen again.

Jim and Liv picked me up from O’Hare and drove me to their lakeside condo, about an hour away if the traffic was steady. I intended five days with them, dividing my time between going out and about with Liv and the kids while Jim worked, or otherwise I expected to be catching up with the latest on our business in the down-town office with my son. I had nothing to worry about on that score – it seemed we were flying. And that’s how the visit turned out, almost.

As is perhaps to be expected, life had changed markedly since I started work at a Chicago bar/come diner back in the early Sixties. The Union Stock Yards have now long gone, but they were  in operation then, past their peak, but still employing plenty – enough to give Dwight’s Place healthy custom. Dwight himself was a crusty old fellow – about my age now. He wasn’t going to be around much longer I could tell. He was rumbling on more and more about retirement. He’d been in the restaurant trade all his life. I’d been working in such for a while too by then – ever since I was old enough to serve alcohol. Now, approaching thirty, I was effectively the boss of the place and was figuring it was time to settle down. Sharon did a little waitressing in the joint and we had become a number. I had in mind to propose that we made our relationship more official. By then I’d been putting a bit aside for a while and was sure I could interest a bank in my business prospects when it came time for Dwight to call it quits.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Yep, it was ’63 when she came into Dwight’s on the first occasion. I know that because my mind was on the tele as Kennedy was being reported on the news as having given his famous speech about being a Berliner. Little did we realise the terrible event that was about to befall the nation only a few months away. She was up to the bar before my attention fixed on her. It was unusual for a woman to come into Dwight’s at any time. It was a male sort of place – just the basics – beer, whisky and stomach lining fried tucker. We were open twenty-four seven to cater for the shifts starting and finishing around the clock at the cattle yards, slaughter houses and freezing plants that operated in the immediate vicinity. These days Meatpackers operates more upmarket, but it was a different time back then and women in our place were an exception, especially ones who ordered beer with bourbon chasers, as she did that first time.


As Dwight wound down I had given myself the evening shift. It was usually quiet between the six o’clock to seven meals and midnight, heating up at the late hour when many of the workers knocked off. So I had time for her, not that she was overly forthcoming that first evening. She reordered twice, sitting quietly on the end stool – and left after an hour or so. I thought little more of it until she reappeared the next night – and frequently after that. Always the same order, repeated twice. But as we came to know each other she started to linger longer, sometimes almost till the midnight rush.

As I said, she was a tall blonde, very purposeful in her movements and precise in speech. She never waffled, even as I came to know her better – but there was a warmth about her too. If I had to pin her age down I’d say late forties/early fifties – her face wasn’t heavily lined, giving evidence that she took good care of her skin. Apart from that, make-up didn’t feature. She wore blue-denim coveralls – I never saw her in anything else in all the evenings she graced Dwight’s with her presence.

Gradually she opened up to me. I liked a bit of a chat with the regulars and once I’d broken down her initial barrier to my charm, she was quite forthcoming. She didn’t live far away as it turned out, but had finally found a job closer to home cleaning some of the offices in the vicinity with a crew of three or four. She liked the hours – afternoons into the evenings, leaving her mornings free. There was no wedding ring on her finger – I spotted that early on as I was thinking of popping the question back then to Sharon. It took a while for my patron to bestow on me her first smile – but when it emerged it was worth the wait. And she did possess a sense of humour. Whenever Red Skelton or Lucy came on the tele she often convulsed in laughter. It was good to see her lose her inhibitions, in my presence, as time went on. She stared asking me questions about myself, as I did her. I talked of my plans for the years ahead – of taking over Dwight’s, of wedding Sharon and maybe having a family. And in my quizzing I soon had a fair amount of information on her life, to that point in time. And here’s what, over those months in her almost nightly company, I found out.

Although she’d lived in our windy city since the war, she still had the remnant of a southern drawl and sure enough, she’d been bought up in Texas. I cannot remember exactly where in that large state she spent her childhood, but I do recall her saying it wasn’t exactly an easy one. When the dust storms hit in her late teens, though, it became considerably worse for her. She’d married young – had to. Again her husband’s name has long gone from my memory, so let’s call him Dave. Her family took Dave in under their roof too, as well as a newborn. A second quickly increased the pressure on the now virtually untenable farm to support them all. In the end they had a decision to make. It was made easier by a neighbour who informed them he was heading to California where there was money to made on the Bakersfield oil fields. And there was room on his truck. She spoke, back then, of the many adventures to be had en route. There were humorous tales. There were tales of hardship. But my overriding memory was her telling of the constant gnawing of hunger as she and Dave always put the children first. On reaching the West Coast state they terminated their journey at Edison, just outside Bakersfield. It was just a camp-site, but with the truck and a little canvas two families had a sort of home together. While they waited for news about positions with the oil companies they turned their hands to seasonal fruit and vegie picking around the district. Their upbringing meant they were farm-hardened to the sort of work ethic required and soon a little cash was rolling in. Life was starting to look up for these battlers. Dave was successful in gaining a position so, after around six months in the camp, they moved into town and rented some rooms in a boarding house. Then, a year later, came Pearl Harbour. It wasn’t long before Dave joined up to do his bit and she lost him at Iwo Jima. For a while she persisted on his pension, but she soon found that, with two kids, the dollar simply wouldn’t stretch. And life without Dave was pretty bleak as well. When a call came from her sister, also widowed by the war, with an offer to share accommodation, she accepted. It was a long trip to Illinois on a Greyhound bus, especially for the kids. But once she arrived, she soon made a go of it, picking up any menial work she could lay her hands on to help out her sister with expenses and to provide all she could for her two offspring.

She was still living with her sister when she turned up at my workplace. I remember her referring to themselves as ‘…the two love-starved old spinsters’, although later in the piece she did tell me of some of the men she’d had dalliances with along the way. But none could match her Dave, so they didn’t last long in her affections. As for her kids – one married out in LA, the other still living in Chicago. They’d done all right for themselves after a rough start, she reckoned.


I had really started to look forward to her company in Dwight’s. She rarely came at weekends, but was there most week nights. She never varied her order nor her outfit. I figured our chats did us both good and I was reluctant to see her give me that goodbye wave as she departed. Then, as suddenly as she had appeared she was gone. I never laid eyes on her again until this recent trip back to Chicago

This occurred on my last morning in the city by the lake. I’d had a great time with Jim and the grandchildren. And as my flight back home wasn’t till later in the afternoon, I decided to return one last time to that old stomping ground where the sale yards had been till their demise in ’71. It was there that she had briefly impinged on my life – but my thoughts were far from her till I entered that shop. I was due to meet Jim for one last lunch after I had wandered around on my own for a bit – I wasn’t to know, when I set out, that that lunch was going to be mainly about her. He listened with interest as I related most of her tale to him, along with what I had discovered that very morn. He was seemingly engaged and kept me talking on the subject – and in the blink of an eye it was time to leave the city for O’Hare.

Yes, I was feeling quite nostalgic that morning in any case. There had been a bit of that lately. I was getting on. I knew it would probably be another good while before I saw those kids again, although Jim had promised to bring them out to NYC for Christmas. I loved Shel’s lot, but there was nothing like your own flesh and blood. I knew back home they would expect something from me, so I had my eye out for a souvenir place during my meanderings. There were plenty of those around now the place was more gentrified and with it being popular with the tourists. With numerous to choose from, what compelled me to land in that one?

It was more a stall in a small indoor market than a shop as such. Above it was a sign, ‘Postcards Galore’. I thought – a few postcards of the city for friends and maybe something cute for the kiddies. The seemingly thousands of cards were arranged in sections under labelled headings. I found some pictures of dolls in national costume for the two girls, together with a couple of old-fashioned fire-engines for Shel’s grandson. He was fixated on trucks and boy stuff. I know, it was all very sexist of me. I was rifling through the section marked Art and Photography when, to my utter disbelief, I found her.

In my memory it was one of the last nights she visited the bar. We were chatting away when she suddenly asked something akin to, ‘Would you like to see a photo of me when I was younger?’ Of course I replied in the affirmative and from her bag – I always found it somewhat incongruous that she carried a handbag to go with her dungarees – a tattered envelope emerged from which she withdrew an equally tattered image. I was touched that her ease with me allowed her to gift me a viewing – it certainly wouldn’t have happened in her early days of drinking in my company. With its creases and smudges, the black and white depiction of a more youthful her looked much travelled and much cherished. Maybe the showing of it was her way of saying goodbye – she gave no other hint of vanishing from my night-shifts at Dwight’s at all.


I guess, even in her coveralls, she had an air about her that was very sensual; very beguiling despite her age. There was a mild flirtatiousness between us and in all honesty, I think, if there had been no Sharon, I would have been tempted. And her younger self looked something too.

It took me a while to twig that morning. I examined it for sometime because, in the back of my mind, was the notion that, for some reason, it was terribly familiar to me. Then it clicked. I stepped back in amazement. I felt somewhat shaken. When I turned it over and read what was on the back I knew, without doubt, I was right. It simply read ‘Dorothea Lange. Young Migratory Woman. 1941.’ I repeated her name over and over in my mind for a while. Dorothea Lange. Well, that just didn’t seem right. And only then did I realise. She was the photographer. Then I recalled. She had told me about her that night. Told me about the photographer lady with a limp who came calling that day long ago and captured her for all time. Imagine, after all these years, there, in a small retail outlet, in amongst the Mona Lisas and Whistler’s Mothers, I found her again.

Back then I also took my time in looking her over. The younger version seemed to have none of the, well, I guess you could call it stateliness or something, even chutzpah maybe, of her older self. I asked her to tell me about the circumstances of its taking. She then told me the story of that particular morning in some detail. It was obviously a seminal event for her as she recounted it with clarity. The bar was quiet, as was usual for that hour of night. I was only interrupted a few times in its telling to pull a beer or pour whiskey shots.

She sipped on her tipples as she gave me her account of the photographer’s visit. She reckoned she came along when she and Dave were at their lowest. In the fruit and vegetable picking they were engaged in they were hampered by the responsibility of childcare. Most farmers forbade accompanying children as a distraction and there were few at the camp on the outskirts of Edison willing to take on a whole day of caring for the children of others. Many, like them, had to split their days – one went in the morning, the other for the afternoon. Even then sometimes the little tots were alone for the changeover, restricted to a playpen. A day’s work was worth $2.25 to them – I certainly remember her telling me that. It was peanuts, even back then, but they could scratch an existence from it when the work was regular. If not, they relied on the generosity of their camp mates. It was tough, but she tried to get through it as best as she could, firm in the belief it was only temporary. She was very particular about her skin, she informed me. Being pale, she burnt easily and so ensured that her head was well-covered. The only luxury she allowed herself, only rarely, was the cheapest skin lotion available at the general store up the road. She used it sparingly every day. The long hours pulling turnips, plucking cherries or whatever the task was, exhausted her, even if she was only at it half days. But it was her attention to her appearance, even in those bleak days of labouring in fields, that made her stand out and perhaps caught the photographer’s eye. I have now come to know Dorothea Lange’s work well, due to my history with our mutual friend. My lady didn’t possess that beaten down appearance as did so many of the haggard, desperate women Lange took her samples from during her time with the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ denizens of that testing era. With this subject there was hope in her demeanour, as well as perhaps a modicum of defiance. She would not let it beat her. That was what her face told that day back then, as well as when renewing my acquaintanceship with the photo in more recent times.


The morning in question she was getting herself organised for her shift. They were due to pick peas thirty-five miles away and she was about to hop up into the truck when she spotted a lady, with a camera, making her way to her. The woman introduced herself and asked if she was agreeable to having her photo taken. Assent was given so the photographer’s assistant jotted down a few details about the subject – obviously my customer, sipping her ale opposite. It was all over in a flash back then, but she told me she did ask for a copy of the image to be sent to the nearest mail pick-up, the general store.

What I saw was the younger version of my friend, up against some sort of building, with washing in the background. Her face was shaded by that all-important hat and her hair seemed to be cropped short – far removed from the long blonde tresses she disported on her visits to me. Later on she remembered being told that the woman worked for some sort of government agency reporting on conditions in the transient camps that dotted the outskirts of most towns in that area of California. She told me she had no idea what use, if anything, was made of the photograph taken that morning. She soon forgot all about it. She had far weightier problems on her mind, such as day to day survival. It had completely flown from her mind when, shortly after that encounter, the news came through that Dave had scored a job maintaining the rigs on the oil fields. He’d be earning oil money – good money.

She felt it was a positive omen for the future and for a year or so it seemed that way. They soon had rented rooms in Edison and planned to take out a bank loan for a car. As they were leaving the ramshackle camp for the last time they called into the general store and found a letter waiting. The envelope, the one she still carried the photo around in after all those years, was marked with the words ‘Bureau of Agricultural Economics’.

Of course, as I recently found out, the person who took the image of her on my postcard was one of our country’s ground-breaking women, particularly in her field of bringing to the attention of anyone who would listen the plight of the poor in the US during those hard years. But I didn’t know that until I went and investigated Dorothea Lange at the New York Public Library shortly after I came back from Chicago. She is automatically associated with one of the nation’s iconic images, the similarly titled ‘Migrant Mother’. This one she took at the height of the Dust Bowl in 1935 – a photograph that seared the conscience and helped usher in the New Deal. But, for me, nothing compares to the one I have now framed and placed on the desk in my study. That one is personal.

Business-wise the seventies were great for me. Dwight duly retired with my worries about the demise of the sale-yards subsiding as first the demolishers and then the builders moved into the vacuum to transform the location. The bank looked favourably on my plan to take over Dwight’s Place and gradually it too was transformed, along with the area it served. Once I had it all in place I renamed it Meatpackers in memory of all those guys it had served over the years of the cattle yards. As the next decade approached the demographic of that part of Chicago started to change – less blue collar and more aspirational. We changed with it and revamped the whole joint. Meatpackers became lunch and dinner only. We went where the money was by only offering the best cuts of locally sourced beef and the best reds we could find. The combination worked and the original Meatpackers took off.

We expanded Lakeside, then into the surrounding states. By the time I retired we had fifty-two franchises spread around the country, all operating on the same formula. Admittedly, all this took a toll on my relationship with Sharon and I don’t blame her now for how she treated me in those last years before Shel. We were both ready to move on. It was harder with the kids, Jim and Carey, but I think, with my lovely lady’s help, I have rebuilt those bridges. My daughter is a nurse in Washington State, but she too has a stake in the business. I couldn’t be happier with my life where it stands at the moment – my life with Shel in the Big Apple.

As for my trip to that NY library to discover more about the photographer of my postcard and to perhaps find out something of what became of its subject, the following, in a nutshell, is what I came up with.

One book I examined said Dorothea Lange was the woman who ‘…humanised the Great Depression’. She was born in 1895 and had a difficult childhood. Her father abandoned the family when she was twelve and she contracted polio, leaving her with a life-long limp. In 1919 she opened a photographic portrait studio in San Francisco and was immediately successful. She married in 1920 to painter Maynard Dixon, the union producing two sons. By the time the Depression hit she was over portraiture and started taking her camera out of the studio to capture what was happening on the streets, particularly snapping the now many down-and-outs living rough. Government officials noticed what she produced. As a result they came calling. This led to her crusade as a chronicler of the forgotten Americans during the thirties and forties. Her work ensured they didn’t stay shoved under the carpet.


I discovered her marriage failed and in 1935 she remarried to a man who shared her passion for assisting the poor. During the war she turned her attention to the plight of American/Japanese in internment camps, putting her offside with the government. The post-war years saw her involved in many projects associated with the downtrodden, often on assignment for ‘Life’ magazine.

And now, it seems there is only one more door to open – to find out this particular subject of Lange’s name and try to uncover what became of her. I know that these days it’s getting easier and easier to do. But my inclination, at this point, is to let it lie where it is now situated. Maybe, given time, I’ll feel not so obsessive once the dust settles on committing it all to paper. Over and over I’ve tried to recall the name on the envelope – did I think to look back then? Presumably I would have already known her name so perhaps I didn’t need to. It has disappeared from my memory cells and that is all I know. It felt good, therapeutic, doing this. Maybe, just maybe there will be another instalment.
Paul Bentine 1999