Thursday, 31 March 2016


Insomnia means hearing world news before many other local Aucklanders. Sometimes it’s simply another terrorist attack in far off Istanbul, sometimes a transport shut down that threatens to paralyse the City of London and last night it was sadly, the death of Ronnie Corbett, the little man with the gigantic talent. I am proud to be able to say that decades ago I knew Ronnie Corbett, in fact we worked together at Danny La Rue’s club in Hanover Square, central London. I was a humble club hostess and he took a starring role in the twice nightly cabaret alongside Danny, our employer. This was in the mid nineteen sixties, a few years before his TV career took off and The Two Ronnies became household names. It was obvious, however, that he was destined for stardom. When you work as a night club hostess and sit through two floor shows nightly for six months at a time it’s very easy to become bored and jaded as far as cabaret is concerned. Ronnie never failed to interest, entertain and amuse. He made us laugh, night after night, week after week. I will never forget his Sheriff of Nottingham in Danny’s interpretation of The Legend of Robin Hood. Female impersonator Danny played Robin Hood as a Pantomime Principal Boy which situation in itself challenged imagination. Tony Palmer was a delightfully coarse Maid Marion. But the undoubted star of the sketch was Ronnie Corbett striding the dance floor dressed as the Sheriff and singing a Verdi aria, the lyrics of which had been cleverly modified by the brilliant Barry Cryer, resident writer. And apart from his comic genius Ronnie was a very pleasant and polite man, always stopping to chat for a moment or two when he entered the club, and if he saw one of us sitting alone, always sending over a drink. We all knew he would go on to achieve enormous success as an entertainer and from what I hear from others, despite his world wide triumphs, he always remained that pleasant and polite human being, the little man who truly cared about others.

Sunday, 27 March 2016


The hugely costly Nespresso Pixie Clips machine acquired a few days before Christmas and used regularly ever since has developed a problem! The water tank has begun to leak copiously. I have become so joined at the hip with this machine over the past couple of months that I nearly cried. Frantic Google searches revealed little in the way of help and so on Easter Sunday, though feeling both cynical and unconvinced about the truth of their much vaunted 24/7 technical help line, I put in a call and prepared myself for an afternoon of futile anger and the planning of intricate revenge scenarios. I was quite taken aback to find myself immediately in conversation with an obliging Help Person who not only ignored my initial aggression and comments of the machine not being quite fit for purpose, but who assured me a replacement tank would be couriered out to me over the next day or two. It quite took the wind out of my sails I have to admit. A cautious `Full Marks’ to Nespresso for their commendable customer service. Caution has to be employed because after all I have not as yet received the replacement part BUT when I asked the Helpful One which courier company does the job for Nespresso I was dismayed to hear that it was New Zealand Post. My previous problems getting NZ Post Couriers to reliably deliver anything at all are well documented. I suppose I shall simply have to wait and see….with both fingers and toes firmly crossed!

Thursday, 24 March 2016


Still flushed with excitement regarding the trip of The Ghan I felt compelled to investigate the idea of a similar excursion perhaps from Moscow to Beijing. Seven days on the Trans Siberian has got to have something going for it - after all three days across Australia was magical wasn't it? There are certainly enough web sites devoted to this infamous Russian railway and on first investigation the basic fare seems surprisingly reasonable. However, that might well be the one where the passenger isn't allocated a seat. For just a few hundred pounds though it appears that you can share a four berth cabin though it's unlikely you would be able to choose your traveling companions. A two berth option is rather more costly. On the other hand you don't really make the trip in order to sleep or strike up friendships do you? It's more like an opportunity to examine the vast Siberian wastes as they roll by. After more than thirty minutes of analysis it still seemed like a good idea although I have to admit a slight hesitation when reading about the two `western style' toilets available (was that per carriage or per train one could not help wondering). The `shower hose' that is available between some carriages also caused a frisson of doubt. But I think it was the description of the `included' food (with some ticket options) that made me reassess. Mongolian fried breakfast eggs (somewhat brief description here - no muesli then?) Well I imagine I could do without breakfast to be fair. But a dinner of boiled mutton and cabbage does not really appeal. Not after The Ghan. On balance I feel it might have been better to have done the Trans Siberian first!

Sunday, 20 March 2016


It was the daughter who suggested the train trip, in a slightly echoing voice from her flat in Islington, North London where it must have been very late at night. It would be a lot of fun she thought. Both of us agreed that the last train trip we took together had been anything but boring and that was only twelve hours, Kings Cross to Inverness a couple of years ago. To be honest, three days and two nights across Australia is a completely different proposition. I objected immediately because I knew it would be expensive and I was still paying off the residue of the London visit of September last year. Far too costly I told her and then added that train travel always was. It was then that she announced that for her aged parents it would be very cheap indeed because she intended to pay for the trip. So then I objected even more before acquiescing quite quickly because after all, I really did want to go. Darwin – Katherine - Alice Springs – who wouldn’t want to go? `Fine,’ she said briskly, `You can find your own way to Darwin and we’ll meet there.’ It was there we were to pick up the train to Adelaide and we had to get our skates on because she had already planned time away from work. The husband was immediately sent out in search of air tickets early the very next day. In no time at all we were on our way and I found myself announcing to all and sundry that I had always wanted to go to Darwin whilst the Husband simply commented on how hot it would be and insisted on buying a pair of light weight jeans which is most unlike him I have to say. Generally speaking he is averse to buying new clothes. We spent two days in Darwin before the real purpose of our journey began, time enough to visit the excellent museum and experience the admittedly terrifying `Bombing of Darwin Experience’. Terrifying for me at least, having cut my teeth on the bombing of North Kent all those years ago and never quite recovering from the fear and trepidation that danger comes from above. And overall there was little to differentiate those Japanese pilots from the more familiar German ones. To be perfectly honest I had only recently come to the realization that the Northern Territories of Australia had directly experienced bombardment of any kind - that I had always believed was the prerogative of the unfortunate residents of Kentish towns and villages in the 1940s. You live and learn. Disappointingly most of the old city of Darwin has now disappeared due to Cyclone Tracy in the early 1970s but never mind, it is a splendidly different town to visit with a well developed tropical character. The husband sweltered in his new light weight jeans. The next excitement was that of actually boarding The Ghan for the beginning of our adventure and to walk the extraordinary length of this truly celebrated train is a voyage in itself but you really have to try to do so for to stand at the station simply admiring it from each direction is impossible. At last we boarded, hot and sweaty from our train-side explorations and anxious to get under way. We were travelling Gold Class and found ourselves ensconced in a most luxurious and roomy cabin complete with ensuite facilities plus private bar and tv. The daughter was installed nearby in a cabin for one and as we said our goodbyes to the city of Darwin she demonstrated all the cleverly concealed amenities as she sipped a cocktail called a Moscow Mule. She explained that all our food and drinks came with the tickets and so I ordered one too and thought what a splendid system it was and how deceptively simple. The husband opted for a simple cold beer from our cabin fridge. I suppose I have always had a strange idea about what the Australian outback might look like, imagining flat red desert interspersed with merrily hopping kangaroos. It’s certainly red but there is far more vegetation than I imagined in the form of low growing brown-green scrub and not a kangaroo to be seen. The landscape is unchanging and would certainly be monotonous if it were not for the fact that one is viewing it from the confines of a spendidly luxurious train that almost seems to be from a different age and time. It has all the charm of The Orient Express of my imagination, occasionally brought to life by TV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s flagship crime story. The Ghan bar and dining car is precisely where Hercule Poirot might have spent an hour or two whilst reaching his brilliant conclusions. I think the food on The Ghan might even rival that of The Orient Express in its heyday. It could not be faulted and neither could the service. Perhaps I had assumed we would hack our way through enormous Wallaby Steaks and Crocodile Croquettes and was therefore surprised by the more moderate cuisine that leaned towards Paris and Rome rather than anywhere in Australasia. The only difficulty was making a choice from the truly tempting selection on offer. There is something decidedly exotic about going to sleep on a train; something both snug and mysterious. And there is an enormous excitement in waking from slumber after an hour or two and peeping out of the window to witness a vast blue black outback sky peppered with astonishingly brilliant stars. For an insomniac such as myself this in itself was worth making the trip for. But there were even more delights to come with visits to Katherine and also to Alice Springs. In Katherine we did a river trip to view some Aboriginal cave art but I was too hot to leave the boat and left the viewing to Daughter and Husband. I was looking forward to Alice Springs mostly because of romantic ideas about Nevil Shute though I was more familiar with `On The Beach’ than `A Town Like Alice.’ In the event the iconic town did not let me down and I would have liked to linger much longer. Our last stop before Adelaide was a night time one at a place called Manguri which is about 40 kilometres for the opal fields at Coober Pedy. In the past because of the isolation of the place, Ghan travelers wishing to disembark at this outpost traditionally required a pick up with a local resident. As the train passed through at night it was flagged down by a bonfire and truck headlights. And here at Manguri we were invited to leave the train and try a nightcap served with chocolates by the light of an Outback bonfire, as well as get a full appreciation of the truly dazzling night sky. It was a perfect last stop and one it will be enormously difficult to forget. The three days on The Ghan was one of the most exhilarating trips I have made in my lifetime and I am so, so glad we accepted our daughter’s enormous generosity. And now, having been returned to the staid day to day events of Auckland I am secretly nurturing a growing desire to make another rail journey. Perhaps even to try the delights of The Trans Siberian Express!

Monday, 7 March 2016


As I have pointed out previously, when I first arrived in sunny New Zealand all those years ago, it really was still an outpost of the British Empire incorporating all the usual embarrassing behaviours of the English abroad. The first thing I noticed was what a convivial society I now resided in, the second thing was the extraordinary amount of alcohol consumed and how the consequent outcome of driving whilst drunk was mostly overlooked by the community, including the Police. All and sundry threw weekend parties and just as the novice attendee was emerging from last Saturday’s binge, another bender seemed to be looming up. Life became pretty much a blur. Then there were the memorable dinner parties where young hostesses in long dresses served banquets so impressive that they featured large in my letters home to London. One of the common sense reasons for home dining on such a scale was the sad lack of restaurants. There were smart hotel dining rooms of course where oysters and champagne were certainly available at a price but no such thing as little ethnic restaurants in every suburb. I had to hastily sharpen my kitchen skills because those New Zealand matrons of the early nineteen seventies concocted meals on a scale that these days would deem them serious contenders for Masterchef Downunder. The culinary capability of the average housewife hovered on a level unimagined in the Northern Hemisphere. These were stay at home mothers before the term was invented, women with time on their hands, who managed to keep themselves very busy with curtain and cake making, and collections for good causes whilst also studying art history or child development part time at the local university. Inevitably times changed and now of course there are restaurants of every possible ethnicity on every corner together with cafes that will serve Chardonnay with your poached eggs if you so desire. And as all modern mothers work full time they no longer seem to make cakes, let alone curtains. There is now absolutely no excuse for the frenetic hosting of formal dinner parties though strangely there are a few who are reluctant to relinquish this quaint habit and consequently from time to time you might be fortunate enough to find yourself invited to one. Your hostess will no longer wear a long dress of course and overall the affair will lack the glorious formality of those earlier days but nevertheless it will still be easily recognizable as a Genuine Old Fashioned Dinner Party. It’s good to know that not everything has gone to the dogs!