Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Chapter 1 - The Old Main Drag

Charlie in Arran 1984

This is kinda what I call a 'Histoblog.' In other words it's about stuff that happened in the past which I hope some people might find interesting. I'm going to add to it every few weeks, and tell the story of my family's life with a much loved VW camper van.

Part 1 - Discovery

In 1967, when I was 14, a momentous event took place that was to affect the course of much of the rest of my life. Friends of my parents, who were travelling the world in what I later discovered to be an early model Volkswagen camper van, came to stay with us at our home in Dubbo, Australia. Dubbo was at that time a medium sized town in New South Wales, slap bang in the middle of the wheat – sheep belt. The earth for many miles around was bright red, sandstone in origin, and indeed Dubbo is the aboriginal word for ‘red earth.’ Farms were so massive we talked proudly of owners who had to drive 50 miles to the front gate to pick up the mail (almost certainly an exaggeration), or who took most of a day just to drive round the perimiter fence (almost certainly true).

To be 14 in such a town can only reasonably described as long periods of tedium interspersed with longer periods of tedium. This monotony was ocasionally interrupted by the odd bout of sheep rustling or kangaroo invasion, and once, most famously when when the population reached the dizzying heights of 20,000. This landmark event inspired the powers that be to declare Dubbo a city, and begin a week long jamboree of celebration involving the Premier of NSW, a circus, dancing girls, an official launch, a parade, and a motorcade which toured regally up and down the two main streets - Macquarie St and Talbragar St – for most of the day.

For all I know they’re still at it: the ritual was well known, and probably survives to this day - up Macquarie St, turn right into Talbragar St, chuck what is affectionately known as a uee (u-turn) at the end of Talbragar St, left into Macquarie St, uee (pronounced ewe ee ) at the end of Macquarie St and so on, until terminal boredom or death intervened. I always hoped that girls in short skirts would intervene – but it rarely happened.

Given that the nearest cinema was a mere 45 miles away in an even smaller and marginally less interesting town called Narromine - this ritual was a popular pastime the local (male) youth used to mistake for entertainment on a Friday and Saturday night. It involved sitting in bright metallic purple utility trucks (Utes), and parading slowly up and down the above mentioned circuit – the main drag – smoking, trying to look hard but casual, and whistling at the local girls, who carried out a similar perambulatory pattern, but only on foot. On such small things are childhoods built, and mine was certainly enriched by this weekend promenade, but somewhere at the back of my mind I suspected that there should be more to life, and I was soon to be proven right.

Of course, at that age I was still slightly too young for girls, and instead had put my faith in musicians such as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Cream, and my romantic – but hazy – idealisation of all things English: Carnaby Street, swingin’ London, football - although I had little idea of how this was actually played - and for no particular reason, fish and chip suppers, which I imagined fondly to be enjoyed by salt of the earth types on their way home from the football through the mean - but still romantic - streets of Bradford or Bingley or somewhere similarly industrial. As far as I was concerned (and still am, having now lived here for 30 years) England was the cradle of civilisation, the font of all things good, and home to some wicked rock music.

Part 2 - Slight Diversion

I know that by now you’ll be tapping your fingers and thinking to yourself “when is he going to tell us about this ‘momentous event’ – bet it turns out to be a damp squib”, but I need to digress slightly in order to explain the background to all this. You see – and invariably people in the UK are shocked to find this out, believing completely in the Australian twang which even after 30 years remains in my voice – I was born in England. Ipswich to be precise, but I guess nobody’s perfect. My hankering after the ‘mother country’ was therefore fuelled by not only by rememberance of a former life but also by the smouldering indignation that I’d been removed from all the happenings at home, just as they’d started to, well, happen.

It had come as a complete surprise, when, at the tender and impressionable age of ten, my parents - who had never previously done anything more interesting than getting out of bed - announced we were to circumnavigate the globe and settle in a small town in the middle of Australia. My father – a doctor opposed to the NHS just as everyone else in England was getting into the idea, had met a man in a pub who turned out to be another doctor, and in a rash, presumably drunken moment the two had agreed to join forces to set up a practice in the smallest, remotest place they could think of – in this case Dubbo.

I don’t really remember a great deal about life up to that point, but I do remember having been quite content in Ipswich doing the usual stuff that kids did in those days – playing marbles in the school playground, listening to Round the Horn and The Goons on the radio, playing cricket, football or any game involving small spherical objects in the street, playing with my go kart (also in the street – why were the streets so much safer then?) and hearing for the first time the strains of She Loves You wafting out of someone’s kitchen window. This latter event was also fairly momentous, but is another chapter in this story.

It followed then, particularly given that I shared the innate conservativeness of most young people, that I didn’t really want to leave Ipswich, but felt that humouring my parents was probably the best policy. Subsequently – following an eight week voyage that involved the Suez Canal and stops at various exotic locations - we found ourselves in a strange and inhospitable looking country where huge water tanks and strange metal windmills inhabited a landscape made up of of red earth, red dirt that blew with every gust of wind, roads that ran straight for hundreds of miles, scrubby bits interspersed with more scrubby bits, and houses built on stilts with wooden verandahs all round. Australia is of course so much more than this, as I later discovered, but it’s amazing how much of an impact early impressions make on us and how long they stay with us.

And so back to where I began. You may have guessed from the title of this tome that whilst this uprooting of home and country was certainly a momentous event, it is not the one referred to earlier. The one I’m talking about was of an entirely different magnitude, being an inspirational rather than physical jolt to my comfortable location in the space /time continuum. Just a few times in an average person’s life they feel lifted, transcendent and aware of something almost spiritual, and nothing had quite prepared me for the experience I was about to encounter. In later life I encountered it again when I got married and when each of my three children was born, but until that point I had no idea that anything quite as uplifting could exist.

That the feelings of entirely new possibilities, of endless open roads and windswept locations, of driving through the night for no other reason that it was possible, of different cultures and exotic beaches, were engendered by the squat and somewhat dusty object that had come to rest like a beached whale under the canopy leading to my parent’s garage, came as quite a surprise. I’d always been aware, in a Roy of the Rovers way, of the role played by discoverers and adventurers, but they’d always seemed distant and remote and required to wear ridiculous pith hats or say things like ‘This tomb is cursed, I can just feel it.’ This was not a particularly cool or desirable way to carry on in my view, but the vehicle that sat in front of me now was decidedly cool and pointing to a future of seductive shininess.

It had a slightly menacing split windscreen, giving the appearance of an aeroplane (a Messerschmitt I decided, which given its origin was quite an educated guess), and this impression was heightened by the small cooling fins that ran across the side doors and down the sides at the back. It was obviously a vehicle intended for transporting people in style, but it was also more than that. It had – oh joy - a cooker and a sink and sometimes in the evenings my parent’s friends would sit in it on the step, cooking meals which evoked images of far away places. Particularly important in my estimation, it had bunk beds where you could sleep, which suggested this was a travelling home you could take anywhere – something we now take for granted in the age of huge American motor-homes, but at the time completely revolutionary. It carried the spare tyre on the front, giving it the rakish appearance of something that really meant business, and I was told, although I never got to see this bit, it had a roof which could be elevated, thereby making the inside so large you could stand up.

It was love, or maybe lust, almost at first sight. Like Toad I could see myself thrilling to the joys of travel, proceeding through deserts, mountain ranges, rainforests with equanimity, always with a “yarn” to tell, always being bought a pint in some far away outback bar. I decided, before my parents’ friends drove away into the sunset, that one day I would own such a wonderful machine.

The fact that one day this schoolboy dream eventually became a reality, was due almost entirely to one man’s lack of organisation and the quick thinking of another…..

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