Monday, July 25, 2011

The Continental Barber

Things I like about Sydney No. 64: The Continental Barber

I couldn't say that I like going to the barbers anymore. Once upon a time, yes. Now, as middle age approaches, or rather quickly hurtles past, it's not nearly so much fun. Sitting in front of a big mirror looking at my receding hairline and watching greying clippings fall to the floor isn't quite like sitting in front of a big mirror having black hair bleached white and cut into the latest 80s crop is it?

Ah me, oh my. Even the back of my neck looked wrinkled today.

However, I am fascinated by going to the barber these days, ever since I discovered the Continental Barber in Crows Nest.

Hidden in an arcade which was obviously built with great optimism in better days but which is now a sad thoroughfare through which you can hear ghostly winds and see the tumbleweed blowing, the Continental Barber lights up the dim interior with its neon sign. Alongside is a similar sign advertising Shoe Repairs and Heels While U Wait - it's that sort of an arcade.

In the window of the Continental Barber hangs a sign along with a photo of the two Continental Barbers themselves, busy with some customers. It urges you not to waste time and money - they have two chairs and two barbers inside...Still going strong after 44 years (the number is changed by hand as the years tick by). Frank & Michael - a father and son team.

To be honest, they are doing themselves down here...Very frequently I turn up at the tiny Continental Barbers to find not two but three barbers busy cutting hair. Frank, the father, is usually squished against the back wall with barely room to move around his customer. Michael, the son and the most popular and in demand, is always at the window. It is for him that people often wait, rather than taking the first empty chair. In the middle you never know who'll you get - an ever-varying cast of (usually) elderly barbers seem to rotate the chair.

Today, I got someone I have never seen before. Although the shop was empty Michael was busy eating his breakfast and his father, it turned out, is on holiday for a grand nine weeks, back home in Calabria. He fell off a ladder recently and I think needs time to recuperate (and to stretch out those elbows a little).

The Continental Barber has no telephone. That is how old-fashioned it is. A radio plays all day long - a mild-mannered station of phone-ins and bland pop. Today they seemed to be discussing a recently-released or jailed paedophile - or that's what I presume. All I caught, suddenly blaring into the momentary silence, was a woman saying "He took my son to the park and made him take his trousers down and play with himself" which was rather startling as we'd just been discussing the merits of southern Italy...

Here is Michael - unfailingly polite and charming although I do wish he wouldn't ask at the end of each haircut whether I'd like my eyebrows trimmed. Do they really need it? Good grief.

Behind him you can spot the old-style till they still use to bank all their riches. A haircut used to cost a mere $18 which made tipping easy - I'd just hand over a twenty dollar note and tell them to keep the change (ooooh, how generous you're scoffing. But you'd be surprised how many people I watched take their two dollars back). Today however the haircut cost $20 which threw me completely. I had no change and had to leave them tipless. $20 is still ludicrously cheap. Back in London nearly three years ago my barber cost at least twenty pounds. And despite the rapidly falling pound and the ever strengthening dollar this is still not comparable.

Sitting in the barber's chair is the only time when I really inspect myself at length in a mirror. And as I intimated at the beginning of this blog this is no longer a pleasure. It never really was. So I try to avoid looking at my reflection and look instead at my surroundings. At the Continental Barber this is always worthwhile. The unguents! The oils! Their antiquity! Their provenance! Just extraordinary!! Frank, the father, has obviously been hoarding some of them since his first shop opened...

These are not things you can buy in a shop. Frankly, they are not things you would want to buy at all. In particular, there is an old bottle, dimpled in the middle as if to imitate the curves of a woman's body, containing a discoloured oily liquid which looks as if Frank was given it by his father back in 1932. The label is indecipherable from a distance and I've always been too timid to ask to take a closer look. Perhaps it is one of those mysterious things offered for use only "at the weekend"...Next to it is something sprayable in a blue and white cannister which looks as if its meant for the car not your head. Ear and nose trimmers dangle down from the shelves - presumably for sale.

Frank or Michael always ask at the end of a haircut if I would like any wax or gel. Not recognising any of their products as being something that has safely passed animal testing regulations, I always decline. The anonymous white bottles have tropical sunset labels on them as if they'll magic you away to some island paradise but I've smelt the contents on other people and the effect is more Essex than Tahiti.

Having your hair cut is a strangely intimate thing, with some stranger looming over you able to peer into your ears and to fuss about with your collar, their armpits frequently in your face.  This enforced intimacy creates an atmosphere at the Continental Barber which resembles that found inside a church rather than a shop. Customers are more often than not completely silent (perhaps busy praying that that cut-throat razor doesn't slip) and neither Frank nor Michael seem to initiate conversations. If you begin talking they are always more than happy to chat back but they have obviously, with their 44 years of experience, learned that silence is the way to go. They certainly never seem to have a conversation amongst themselves which makes me think there must be an unwritten rule between them not to. Often the entire place is full, all three chairs busy, and no-one is saying a word. I'm intimidated into silence too. To pass the time I'll flick glances over at the other customers to see if they look as ugly as I do with only their heads visible poking out of a synthetic black sheet and their hair mercilessly slicked forwards to one side or the other. Thankfully I always discover it's not a good look for anyone.

Most of the customers at the Continental Barber are even older than me - after all, all the younger men are off spending a fortune in hairdressing salons on their asymmetric faux-ironic bleached mullets, just as I once did (but never on a mullet, ironic or not, obviously). As I sit here in the barber's chair today contemplating the cruel passing of time I am vaguely comforted by the younger Continental Barber Michael who tells me that going grey means one is less likely to go bald (although this does immediately make me begin to worry that perhaps then I'm not going grey enough).  As for the absence of young men, I feel secure in the knowledge that, sooner or later, all those men in salons will one day end up back at the barbers being asked "Would you like your eyebrows trimmed with that, sir?" They too will end up watching their greying tresses fall around them like dirty snow, slowly gathering in dismaying mounds around their feet and on the barber's floor...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A pod of pelicans at the Fish Market

Things I like about Sydney No. 63: A pod of pelicans

Early Sunday morning and, before the crowds take over, we're off to the Sydney Fish Market with Daniel's mother to buy whatever is looking freshest to eat for dinner. We take Sniff along for the ride - the smells at the market always drive him mad. He has a worrying propensity to roll around in bird shit at every opportunity and, as there are always a lot of gulls rubbernecking at the Fish Market, there is a lot of bird shit there to send him crazy.

Since we arrive before ten in the morning we have no problem finding a parking space. Much later than that and it is always a problem. Sniff and I head for the park over the road whilst Daniel and Judith check out the fish. It is a very grey and gloomy day and for the first time all the chairs and tables set up outside for the consumption of seafood platters and the like are empty and consequently there are no stray chips or prawn tails scattered about for Sniff to gobble up.

Across the road in the park the ground is sodden and muddy. Underneath a row of arches some itinerants have set up an elaborate camp complete with tents and barbecues. They are up and about, watching a Sunday morning football match being played on their doorstep, smoking and scratching themselves. Sniff scuppers about but isn't keen on the wet and he soon lets himself be dragged back to the market.

I wait outside Claudio's, Daniel's favourite fishmonger, and receive a call from him asking "Bugs or squid?" We discuss this issue for a while, settle for squid, and then, putting my phone away in my pocket, I notice the pelicans. A pod of them, ambling through the carpark.

Now pelicans are one of my favourite birds, large and ungainly on land, but with an effortless flight which makes it a joy to watch them soar serenely through the sky. I never usually get up close to them but this lot were carrying on as if they were just another bunch of Fish Market regulars, squabbling and haggling over prices and over which fish were the freshest. First, they huddled together to discuss tactics. Then, they looked around, left and right, before setting off through the carpark towards Claudio's, an actual living, moving Pelican Crossing.

As a group of pelicans is either a pod or a scoop, I think I can safely say that this was a right regular scoop....

Daniel's squid later that day was absolutely magnificent - he braised them in Rioja with whole shallots served with a very garlicky aioli and home-made chips on the side. I really should have invited the pelican pod along, they were shivering rather...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Things I like about Sydney No. 62: Beachcombing

There are many common things you can expect to find whilst beachcombing on Sydney's inner-city beaches, things which I, as a Londoner, still find exciting. I've discovered lots of shells, some dead fish, various seaweeds, sea-urchins, stranded jellyfish and some crabs. The most ubiquitous objects of all have to be the discarded and broken shells of Sydney rock oysters  - quite beautiful with their pearly opalescent insides. It is always a challenge to try and find an empty oyster with both halves of the shell intact - so far I've found only three...

Unfortunately, when scouring Sydney's inner-city shorelines for treasure there is also a fair chance of coming across a mass of rubbish - plastic bottles, bottle tops and bags, deflated beachballs, syringes, wire. Unpleasant and unsightly things for us and often potential killers for seabirds and fish.

The further out you get from Sydney the more exotic the things that turn up on beaches. Shells become more colourful, more prolific, more varied and generally larger. Daniel and I have made an ever-expanding collection of various shells, augmented most recently by our trip north to Elizabeth Beach, and to fulfill that tiredest of cliches they mostly live in the bathroom, nestled in coloured art deco glass bowls.

And, as I always think the more the merrier, we have a few lines of shells creeping across various surfaces of the house, dust magnets all.

Occasionally, when beachcombing for shells, one is squirted in the face by an indignant occupant who is not yet ready to relinquish their home. Or perhaps you peer into a shell just in time to see a little trapdoor closed firmly shut by pairs of spindly legs. These shells can then be thrown back into the sea although I always wonder what it is like to be propelled in a great arc into the sky and to land with a sickening lurch back in the water when you are the size of a fifty pence piece. Either it feels like the best fairground ride ever or it's enough to give you a heart attack. Do clams and crabs have heart attacks? The world of the sea is truly a mystery to me...

Larger finds than shells are also quite common beyond and in Sydney - dead fish, squid and jellyfish frequently dotting the sand, seemingly placed just so ready to be captured in an artist's still life.

Some of the fish can be quite large...

And then readers of this blog know how Daniel and I found an even larger dead New Zealand fur seal on the beach in the Coorong and how we wrenched off its skull for taxidermy purposes...

This holiday it was the turn of a Wandering Albatross to undergo the Cooper-Brine taxidermy service, its skull is currently at the bleaching stage (which will hopefully get rid of the last traces of the godawful smell it bore). Poor Daniel was given the task of flaying off the dead skin and feathers and of removing its eyeballs, which, predictably, burst in nauseating fashion, spurting black gunk over his clothes.

As we had seen various live Wandering Albatross flying high over the sea it was very exciting to get this skull. We actually found it on the shore of a lake rather than on a beach, but the sea was only metres away beyond a sandbar. It reeked to high heaven and was much more recently dead than our fur seal had been. As we were in rented accommodation there was no question of boiling the skull in a spare saucepan as we did in the Coorong - the stench would have remained long after we left - so we headed to the nearest town and the nearest op-shop to buy a pan in which to do cold-water masceration (which simply involves leaving the skull in cold water until all the flesh can be easily picked off). Later on in the process I had great difficulty keeping the beak sheaths intact...a sort of flexible covering over the beak which you can retain and replace once all the mascerating and bleaching of the whole skull has been achieved. My fingers would reek of death every time I had another go at removing them but I finally got them off after five days of soaking the skull in water and they're now ready for reassembling once the bleaching has finished...

By the way, if there is anyone else out there who ends up spending their holidays boiling and bleaching an assortment of skulls do let me know. I'm hoping we're not alone...

Shells, fish, crabs, seaweed, birds, seals. We've found them all on beaches in Australia. But what we never ever expected to find in a million years was that which we found stranded on Seven Mile Beach on a cold but bright winter's day this July....

We were trudging along the long, long stretch of deserted white sand, our shoes making loud squeaking noises as we walked, easily audible above the buffeting of the wind and waves. A few birds, mostly gulls, flew up as Sniff made marauding half-hearted feints at them. They would circle in the sky above us before landing again further up the beach where, minutes later, the interplay would happen all over again. A single Jacky Winter followed us, hopping from side to side, flicking its tail vigorously back and forth, perching on tiny rocks and cocking its head inquisitively as if waiting for an answer to a question.

I was checking the high tide-line on the sand where shells and seaweed and small stones had been deposited earlier in the day, bending over now and then to pick up a promising-looking shell. The beach was completely empty except for us - no surfers, no four-wheel drivers, no other beachcombers. Daniel, looking out towards the sea, was the first to spot it, this curved shape on the sand, like a scribble on an otherwise empty page...

With a sense of shock he realised it was an enormous great snake. A sea snake, no less.

He called me over and, as we got nearer, we could see marks in the sand which the snake had made earlier, wriggling about in an attempt to return to the sea. Now, however, it was inert, possibly even dead. I peered that little bit closer when, suddenly, its head reared up, looked straight at me, and began to dart backwards and forwards. At which point, I reasoned, this being Australia where most everything seems to be venomous, it was probably wise to signal the retreat.

What we didn't know, as we casually inspected the snake, was that it was a hugely venomous species which, although it rarely attacks when in the water, can become aggressive when stranded on land, exactly as it was now. Sea snakes have the most powerful poison of all snakes. Just one drop would be enough to kill three people and they can deliver up to eight drops in one bite. The Yellow Bellied Sea Snake, for such it was, has the widest range of any sea snake in the world - travelling all around coastal Australia and over as far as the Philippines, feeding entirely on small fish. They propel themselves by the means of their tail which has been adapted into a kind of paddle and which is beautifully marked, like a leopard.

Sadly, they rarely survive once stranded on land. In fact they are usually stranded in the first place because they are exhausted and on the way out - from the effects of battering storms, or from illness, or from old age.

I felt very guilty once we'd returned home to our rented house that we hadn't tried to rescue the snake by returning it to the sea. But once we did some research and read various stories on-line of other people's failed rescue attempts and knowing that once stranded, these snakes rarely survive, I felt a little comforted. And secretly I hoped that it had survived until the sea once more swallowed up all that white sand and enabled it to paddle its way off again across the oceans in search of fish.

Either way, we were overwhelmed by the fantastic opportunity we'd had to learn something up-close and personal of these elusive creatures which, because they make difficult captives, are rarely available to be scrutinised in aquariums or zoos.

Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake, or  Pelamis platurus, of Seven-Mile Beach, Daniel and I salute and thank you.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Laughing Kookaburras

Things I like about Sydney No. 61: Laughing Kookaburras

I was rather taken aback recently when visitors from both Finland and Holland who'd come to stay with us here in our shack in the bush separately declared that they hadn't ever heard of such a thing as a kookaburra. How could this be? The kookaburra is an Australian icon. And of course there's that song...surely everyone knows the song?!

But apparently not.

As a family we used to sing Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree to relieve the boredom of long car journeys, often as a four-part round. Consequently the song has been part of my musical make-up forever, along with similar stalwarts Green grow the rushes, oh and Ten green bottles sitting on a wall. I remember it being a Cubs favourite too (although fortunately I have successfully managed to block out most of my memories of going to the Cubs). Living in St. Albans, we all knew then what a kookaburra was, what they looked like and what they sounded like, despite the fact we weren't ever going to see one making its merry way down Sandpit Lane.

I found the words to Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree magical when young and still do today - the shifting of 'he' to the end of the second line to rhyme with 'tree' gives the lyrics a strange archaic bounce; the word kookaburra is wonderful in itself - fantastical, Edward Lear-ish; and there's that last line which takes on a second meaning in these less innocent times...

"Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry merry King of the bushes he
Laugh Kookaburra, laugh Kookaburra
Gay your life must be!"


I was very excited to see my first kookaburra back in the 70s on my initial trip to Australia and even more excited when I first heard them. After all, they're not called Laughing Kookaburras for nothing. Theirs is a delightful and utterly unique song. It usually begins quietly, gurgling a little, before building up into a raucous, infectious cackle. Once in full flow an individual's song invariably induces another kookaburra to join in, and then another, until the air is resounding with a diabolic mocking chorus. Whenever we sat down to picnic in a clearing in a National Park on our campervan trips, a kookaburra or two would be eying us from the trees above the picnic table waiting for a morsel of food to drop to the floor which they would swoop down on and carry off.

Even now, seeing Laughing Kookaburras almost daily as I do, I still get very excited by them. They seem so quintessentially other (and the other is what I want from foreign places). The name itself is suitably exotic, part of another language, another culture, another past. And although they are supposedly related to kingfishers seeing one is like seeing a kingfisher through Alice's Looking Glass: every part is recognisable but they're all slightly skew-whiff. The beak is overlarge, the eyes set too deeply in a furrow of feathers, they suffer from gigantism, their tails too stubby, the flash of blue wing too surprising. Decidedly odd. And that's before they've even opened their mouths to let rip with that ludicrous song.

Here in Greenwich they start their singing at about 5.30 in the morning which, if you're a light sleeper, is rather wearying. As I mentioned earlier, once one has led off a whole bunch of them tend to join in with their own comments. Fortunately they don't call out to each other for long, you hear them in concentrated bursts only. Once they have their dawn chorus out of the way they tend to be silent for most of the rest of the day, piping up again only when dusk begins to fall and then they are at their noisiest. If you do hear them during the day its usually because they are setting up some kind of alarm system to warn of approaching danger.

They can fly low, swooping just past your head, with a pedantic almost lazy flight. They tend to sit very still on low branches so are quite easy to spot. One or two live on Berry Island, one or two around our garden, three or four around Balls Head Reserve. We've just got back from a holiday on the northern New South Wales coast - an area called Seal Rocks which is all sea, sand and lakes and  National Parks - and there were kookaburras EVERYWHERE. A plague of kookaburras. And they were particularly enormous - gregarious and fat...

To return to that song again. Since we moved to Sydney it has been in the news a fair bit, in fact it's been to court. Perhaps you remember Men at Work's Down Under, an extremely irritating song that topped the charts all over the world (including the UK and the USA - a first for an Australian band)? Men At Work quite blatantly used a riff stolen from Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree which was written by a Melbourne music teacher back in 1932 (she was called Marion Sinclair and she donated her own rights to the Girl Guides). Although the composer is now dead, a publisher sued Men At Work for backdated royalties in 2009. The case went on and on. Was the riff stolen, was it not? (yes, it was decided, they'd stolen the riff). Who owned the rights, who didn't? (the rights belonged not to the Girl Guides but to the publisher, Larrikin Music, who'd bought them for a song (!) in 1990). Who in Men At Work actually stole the riff? (who frankly cares, the song was a crime!).

Men At Work eventually lost the case and had to give back 5 per cent of all royalties on the song backdated to 2002 (a six figure sum - so imagine what they made between 1983 when it was No. 1 everywhere and 2002...) and, despite trying to overturn the ruling since, it still stands.

One up for the composers! Hoorah!

Daniel has pointed out to me that there is a second type of kookaburra listed in our well-thumbed Australian Birds field guide (the Michael Moorcombe one for those who are interested) which he is particularly keen to see. For every time he reads about it a few choice words leap out at him from what is normally an unbiased and scientific guide:  

"The Blue-Winged Kookaburra is more colourful than the Laughing Kookaburra but has rather unpleasant, staring white eyes. Calls described as maniacal, demonic." 

Staring white eyes. Maniacal, demonic. Sounds terrifying. Unfortunately Blue Winged Kookaburras only live in the northern reaches of Australia so we are unlikely to ever see the Laughing Kookaburra's deranged cousin, the Bette Davis of kookaburras...which is a great shame.

In the meantime, once more, altogether now...

"Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry merry King of the bushes he
Laugh Kookaburra, laugh Kookaburra
Gay your life must be!"