Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gunsynd - the horse who stole a nation's heart (and mine)

I was ten years old, and furious that Mum was making me wear a dress. I was a tomboy and while I owned two dresses I rarely wore them. And this was such a special occasion for me: Mum was taking me to the races for the first time, something I'd been begging for for ages. Horses and dresses don't mix, I argued, and Mum stated that women didn't wear trousers to the races. They hadn't in the 50s, anyway!

I could wear the dress or we wouldn't go at all.

Reluctantly I put the dress on. It had a patterned purply top and hot pink skirt. Very 1973. No way was I going to miss the races as my hero would be racing: Gunsynd, the Goondiwindi Grey.

Gunsynd had taken the public's imagination by storm. He was a dappled grey, and a character as well as a winner.

We watched him head onto the track, with the number 1 saddlecloth. It was 31 March, 1973 and he was entered as top weight in the Rawson Stakes at Rosehill. We sat in the stand as Kevin Langby took him onto the straight and turned him for a warmup on the way to the barrier gates. The horse stopped, and Langby gave him a nudge; but it was a game between them. Langby knew Gunsynd wouldn't budge until he was ready. The grey turned and looked up at the grandstand, and the crowd went wild. It was only when it seemed the horse was satisfied with the reception he'd got did he respond to Langby, turn and canter away. And that was part of the Gunsynd legend, the Gunsynd character which so endeared him to racegoers.

I have the race book beside me as I write this, and note that I'd got Mum to back him for me and won $2 on him. He carried 58kg and won easily.

He would only have three more starts before heading for retirement. His last run was in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick almost a month later, and I remember watching on the black and white telly at Narrabeen with my grandfather. Pop had put 25c on him for me at the TAB, and we were breathlessly watching the race. So close… so close… but Apollo Eleven, carrying less weight, pulled away to win and the mighty Gunsynd finished his career in second place. The entire country wanted him to win. The roars from the crowd were as much disbelief as cheers for the handsome grey who'd tried so hard. Poor old Apollo Eleven may have thought the cheers were for him, but the grey knew better.

Apollo Eleven may have won, but Gunsynd had the last word. In the saddling paddock, he bowed to the crowd like a circus horse, one foreleg bent and his head near his knees. The crowd went ballistic. I have a newspaper clipping still of the photo of Gunsynd bowing. It's never been mentioned who taught him to do it, or whether Langby gave him a signal, but it was pure showmanship.

Photo from barnesphotography.com.au

It wasn't just Gunsynd's character and track record which caught the public's imagination. The horse was the story of four small town blokes from Goondiwindi (pronounced GUNdawindy) in Queensland, who pooled their money and bought a colt and called him Gunsynd, for GUNdawindi SYNDicate. Gunsynd only cost them $1300 but earned them more than $280,000 and was the highest stakes winner to date. He put the little town of Goondiwindi on the map and fulfilled the great Australian dream of buying a bargain horse who turned out to be a champion. It's a story mug punters dream of emulating.

His owners were Jim Coorey, Bill Bishop, George Pippos and Winks McMicking; ordinary blokes with jobs, farms or their own small businesses. Bill Bishop is the only surviving member of the syndicate, and he was - and I love this - an SP bookie on the side. Read Bill's story here.

At the height of his fame Gunsynd inspired a song by country singer Tex Morton. No, not the Tex Morton who sings rock-blues, but a former cowboy-hatted version. I have a copy of the single. It has a photo of Gunsynd in full flight printed on the record. Here 'tis:

Gunsynd never won the Melbourne Cup. He won just about every major mile race on the calendar, however. And he won hearts Australia-wide.

As a sire he didn't throw any real champions; he had a few useful sons and daughters but none of his own calibre. My aunt and her family were lucky enough to visit him at Kia-Ora Stud near Scone - visiting Gunsynd was invitation-only as even in retirement he was still wildly popular - and sent me a photo they'd taken of him rearing up for the crowds on an open day at the stud. I still have that, in its frame.

Sadly Gunsynd was put down in 1983; he had been operated on for polyps in his nasal system a couple of years before, but the polyps returned and were affecting his breathing to a point where letting him go was the kindest and most sensible option. I cried when I heard the news; so many memories from my racing-made childhood were tied up in Gunsynd.

There's an in-depth and excellent history on Gunsynd here at the Barnes Photography website.

(And you know what? At the races on Rawson Stakes Day in 1973, plenty of women and girls were wearing trouser suits. Boy, did I ever feel stupid in my dress!)

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Great Sortout continues… and moves to Etsy!

A couple of weeks ago I opened a couple of Pandora's Boxes - namely a large camphor wood chest and a smaller one. They were full of clothing Mum had kept for whatever reason:

  • Some were mine from my babyhood and toddler days, lovely quality stuff
  • Some were hers from the 40s and 50s
  • Some were mine from my adulthood and I confess I was responsible for putting them there

I sighed. It was a sigh of nostalgia and a sigh of frustration, as it meant more sorting out and deciding what to do with stuff. Yes, I could leave it there. It wasn't hurting anyone. But living here I feel a bit stifled and overcome by STUFF from time to time. I don't need all of it. I don't need half of it.

So I sorted and got five piles:

  • Back in the camphor wood. This included some of Mum's old 40s and 50s lovelies, as well as some clothing she'd made for me in the 80s, which was of a superb standard and - bugger it - doesn't fit over my bum anymore. However, I love the clothes and know how much love, frustration and pricked fingers went into making them.
  • In the bin. Some of the toddler clothes were simply buggered. They had been good once but obviously I was hard on clothes as a kid. Mum must have kept them for sentimental reasons but they were my clothes after all and I can decide what goes. There was also some very holey woollen underwear. Nuff said.
  • For my granddaughter - or step-granddaughter. There were several very good items, classic in look or unique enough not to look dated - which I've parcelled off to her. Sadly that only got rid of about six items.
  • For charity. This was a small pile as a lot of the stuff is dated but I managed to find some items which wouldn't sell on the internet but were suitable for charity, in good condition and quite classic in style.
  • On sale. eBay is my weapon of choice but with so much vintage stuff on hand I decided to start an Etsy shop. I'm delighted I got the name KeepCalmNBuyVintage… anything with the Keep Calm… theme is highly popular. One little pink day dress in particular is beautiful and pristine. Fit for a princess. I hope it sells and goes to a good home. I have no reason to keep it; I can't remember wearing it but I suspect I was posed in it for a birthday photo, possibly my third. It must have been very expensive at the time. The label shows no signs of repeated washing. Knowing me I would have yelled that I'd rather be wearing shorts or trousers, the tomboy that I was.
You won't be surprised to hear that the camphor wood chests are both still quite full even after all that. I'll have to do another purge in six months. The first run-through was rather emotional for me. There were things I just couldn't part with right now; it's only been a few months since I lost Mum.  Half the time I was sorting I was missing her dreadfully - the other half I was expecting her to walk into the room saying, "You can't throw that good thing away!"

So my sales continue. I've had a run on my babyhood/early childhood toys. Mum had kept nearly all of them and I threw most of the stuffed toys away as they were no good for charity. Too old and manky. I kept Ted and Kitty though!! Lovely Ted, my best friend until I started school, and Kitty, a cat who used to meow and has been loved so hard her fur and ears have disappeared. 

I had some great wooden pull along toys and early Fisher Price toys which sold on eBay, many of them not for the prices I'd hoped for, sadly. However, a Tonka truck I had got three figures, which was just champion!  

Now all the toys have been sold and I'm onto odd homewares. I can't understand why a Wedgwood dish as new and still in its box isn't getting bids. A film splicer and a pair of scratched opera glasses sold on eBay though, as did an orange cow money box and other mid-century goodies.

There's another box high up in one of the cupboards which I packed for eBay etc earlier this year, and once I've cleared the current crop of sales I'll get started on that one.  

Then when they're all sold I'll go through the house again and work out what else can go. My office has a bookcase of books from the 40s and 50s and I really don't know who'll take them as they aren't first editions. Some of them I'll keep and I'm trying to read my way through them to see if there are any more I want to hang onto. I may have to bring an antiquarian book person in. 

There are also some lovely anthologies from the 20s and 30s for children, particularly girls, and I won't part with them for anything. "The Big Book of School Stories for Girls", for example. The relevance of English boarding schools to Australian girls has to be pondered, but Mum said books such as this were her Christmas or birthday present, to be treasured unconditionally. I suspect they were second-hand when she received them, too; it was the Depression and my grandparents wouldn't have been able to afford brand new books. And you know what? I'm truly enjoying the stories! A lovely diversion when I want to get away from the computer for a bit.

I'd like to say that I'm saving everything I make from selling my childhood and other items, but I'm not. Everything I've made has been spent on day to day living. Wish I could unearth a Picasso in a cupboard but Mum hated his work!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Good old golden rule days?

I was making the bed this morning and my mind digressed - as it often does with tasks that don't rely on much brainpower - to another topic. For no reason that I can think of, I remember my Nan telling me that 'schooldays are the best days of your life.'


I hated school. Hated it from day one. It took me away from my Mum, my animals, my books and everything else I enjoyed at home and thrust me in a room with about 30 other kids and most of them, in kindergarten, were dumbos who couldn't read or write (at the risk of sounding like an annoying prat, I could do both by the age of 3. I was bored shitless in the first couple of years at school.). 

Coupled with an anxiety that having had one parent bugger off, the other would as well while I was at school, my early schooldays were filled with anxiety. Would Mum be there at 3pm?  (She invariably was.)

Things improved a bit over the next few years but I was never happy at school, and when Nan made this proclamation when I was about ten and later when I was a teen, I didn't believe her. 

It's lucky I wasn't the suicidal type because by the time I hit high school, the thought that life couldn't get better than this was a living vision of hell. 

I guess Nan meant that while you were a child you were free of adult responsibilities, of pregnancy and childbirth, of running a business, paying tax, avoiding bankruptcy, struggling to find pennies to pay for your children's dinner, not to mention finding rent. She was born in 1902 and had a successful bakery business with my grandfather in the 20s only to lose it in the Depression. Then there was WWII… For Nan, schooldays in a sleepy country town must have seemed like a blissful haven before adult life began at 16.

Now I'm struggling to pay bills, to find money to pay taxes, selling things from the house I won't use or don't like to get some cash, panicking because I have $50 to last till the end of the month, all the usual stuff people do. But do I think my schooldays were better than this? Nope. They were still hell.

I'm just glad social media wasn't around when I was a child or teenager. It was tough enough getting teased face to face. But back then kids didn't suicide because of bullying. We fought back. Or I did. I tried to chase Michael Tw*gg and punch him in the face when he made fun of my bicycle in primary school (sadly I couldn't run fast enough. He was a little bastard), and when a couple of fellow pupils tried to chuck my bag over the side of the ferry in high school I pushed them hard enough to almost send them overboard and got left alone after that. 

I'm digressing - as usual - but are we bringing up kids to be more namby-pamby than in previous generations? We are bringing up a generation which has an expectation that they are perfect and deserve to be totally pandered to. Often the entire household revolves around a child's or children's activities. Nobody says No to them any more (do you know that childcare centre workers aren't allowed say 'No' to kids in their care?). Nobody tells kids they are naughty or bad in case they get a complex about it. Nobody threatens a smack because smacking on the bum appears to be outlawed too. You can't send a child to a naughty corner because then you're excluding it from its classmates. 

Spare me.

We had a teacher in year 5 who was a serial hair puller, a punishment reserved for talking in class and other crimes. We survived. Mind you Wendy whatshername had a chunk of hair pulled out one time and that stopped Mrs E from hair pulling for a while.  Mrs E would have been sued or arrested today.

Had Mrs E seen Wendy's imaginative if not totally accurate drawing of "A Hairy Dick" she would have done more than pull hair. That drawing was one of the highlights of the year and circulated the classroom covertly. I imagine a counsellor if not the the social services would have been called in and Wendy subjected to careful and perhaps leading questioning about her father. Wendy's story was that she saw her Dad galloping from the bathroom to the bedroom and drew it from memory. In those more innocent days, I am sure she wasn't lying. Kids will always draw rude stuff.

And this - the year of the hair pulling teacher - was probably the best year of my schooldays. I had finally made good friends and was relatively popular with my classmates. Sadly that all changed two years later. I hated high school with such a passion I was a reasonably mute, pathetically law-abiding student in order not to get a detention. Any extra hour spent at that place filled me with horror. The knowledge that it took an hour to get to or from school didn't help. I just wanted to be at home, writing; working on a novel. 

Working life, when it came along, was a revelation. Nobody minded you talking. You could even tell jokes. And get paid for it. You didn't have to wear a poxy uniform (another of my absolute hates). I started work the year my old classmates were having conniptions and breakdowns studying for their HSC, and I couldn't have been happier. 

It says something about me, or the high school I went to, or the culture in the place at the time, that I have a lot of trouble thinking about it in any affectionate way. I read the regular bulletins I get in the mail from the place and am constantly astonished that there are so many 'old girls' who view it with love. For me it was a prison, and one I was grateful to finally escape from.

Sorry Nan, but you were wrong. xx

Monday, May 19, 2014

Trespassers will be composted

After five months of feeling guilty about chucking fruit, veggies, eggshells and other organic matter into the bin, we finally got a compost bin for our new house. It nestles under the edge of a 45 year old camellia, and gets the western sun to warm it. It looks a bit like a Dalek in disguise. I'm surprised it doesn't shout "Exterminate!" every time I open the lid and put more veggie peelings into it.

I visit it daily and turn the contents with a stirrer that looks like a long metal corkscrew. Already the contents - my fruit and veg scraps, together with coffee grounds, tea leaves and the like, plus a healthy proportion of dried leaves - is starting to look like compost. Once I see a few worms in there, I'll be truly happy. The system will be working.

Buoyed up by living a bit greener, we have also bought ourselves a rechargeable lawnmower. Mum used to have a lawnmower man, John, whom I was quite happy to keep on in the role, but he's gone AWOL. He was going backpacking in Asia for six weeks in February, but I haven't heard from him since. I've tried phoning at different times of the day and his phone just rings out. I'm quite concerned about him, actually. I don't know anyone else who uses his services so can't contact them.  I hope he's OK.

But, sans John, with a lawn growing madly after a rainy autumn, we debated what to do. We were doing it ourselves with a whipper snipper and a little push reel mower (i.e.,. I was the motor!), but that was a pain in the teeth. The push reel jammed on every twig.

We considered other lawnmower men, but most of them work on a schedule. They come every couple of weeks whether you need the lawn doing or not, and you are duty bound to pay them, and they all charge more than John.

So I decided we would DIY as it would get us fit. I looked at petrol mowers, and recalled the childhood days when Mum would mow the lawn with our 1960 Scott Bonner and it was a pain in the arse to start.  I looked at electric mowers and rechargeable mowers and most of them wouldn't have the grunt to do justice to our lawn. It's big and sloping. Finally I found one that would: Eco-Mate.

As luck would have it, the Eco-Mate importer was awaiting a new shipment and had a demo model for sale, which had only had about two hours' use. It was nearly $100 off the list price, so G and I grabbed it. It rocks!  It's half as loud as a petrol mower and all you smell is the delicious scent of freshly cut grass. The downside is the battery is humungous so it's quite a heavy unit, but it's well-built and - bliss! - starts every time. I found it easy to mow the main lawn even though it slopes. I did the higher slopes outside our chimney area and that was bloody hard going. This week G did the higher slopes and he found it hard work too, but we both agree it's a great bit of kit.

Eco-Mate can do up to 90 minutes' work on a full charge; you don't even have to remove the battery to charge it if you don't want to, either; just run the charger up to the unit. Even after ploughing through our overlong grass last week it was still half-charged when we'd finished.

I've been doing the edges with hand powered grass shears; I found an manual edger in the garage and it's shite. It just hacks at the grass, but the hand shears work a treat. There's an electric edger in there too and I'm unsure whether that still works. One weekend we'll try it, but I do worry about G and electric lawn tools. Every time he gets the whipper snipper out I wonder whether he'll chop the cord in half! He can be rather slapdash. Hence I haven't suggested we try the electric edger yet.

And not for us the awful noise of the leaf blower. Seriously, I hate those things. I don't mind the ones that actually hoover up the leaves, but all the neighbours have lawnmower and maintenance men who use leaf blowers, and they simply blow the leaves off the neighbours' drives onto the road, where they end up in the gutter and storm water channels. Annoys me no end. They all seem to work here on a Wednesday and I hear leaf blowers in triplicate. We have a big garden broom and decent garden rake and of course the new compost bin will be delighted with our leaves.

To end this post, apropos no reason at all except it's pretty, is a photo of one of my camellia flowers, Paradise Vanessa.

Monday, May 5, 2014

I'm dreaming of a …UFO?!

Sometimes I dream about UFOs. I dream that I am on the patio here or inside watching out through the windows. It's always nighttime and the stars are bright in a clear sky. When I have these dreams they are so real and vivid I wake in the morning convinced they actually happened. Which does make me wonder: was the sky above my house visited by other beings?

I had another of them last night.

In this dream I was on the patio with someone - was it G, was it Mum? I can't recall. We were watching the sky over the top of the Michelia which is currently growing above the height of the balcony railing, when I noticed a thin shape with 5 bright, starry lights in the sky in front of me. The shape itself was dark, barely discernible from the sky around it. It was a disc shape, thicker in the middle and quite sharp and thin on the ends; your classic flying saucer.

Then it began to move west, and somehow changed shape to be something bigger, chunkier and wedge-shaped. The tiny star-like windows became long rectangular windows glowing gold. There were little lights or windows on the top and bottom of the craft. When it moved off, it was at the speed of a jet aircraft coming in to land over our house (we live on a flight path), so it wasn't going terrifically quickly.  We watched it head west-south-west and out of sight over the neighbour's roof. It was low in the sky too, not much higher than the jets who lower their landing gear over our house. But much, much bigger than any airliner.

It felt so very real. In my dream, I started thinking. I was aware I WAS dreaming, but also thinking that perhaps I should wake up and look out the window. In the end I stayed asleep.

The rest of my dreams last night were also on the weird side, if occasionally amusing. Many years ago I owned a 1983 BMW 323, and in my dreams last night I still did. It wasn't my daily driver, it was more like a car I was restoring. My daily driver, Minerva, must have been in service as I was driving a big clunky 1980s Ford Falcon which I believe was a loan car from the service people. I was trying to reverse the Ford out of the garage without hitting Bimmer, but I couldn't. I bumped poor Bimmer's front wing, very gently though, leaving not even a dent. Bimmer took offence and drove itself out of the garage, swung hard left and onto the lawn, where it sat churning its rear tyres crossly until smoke started to come from them.

I begged Bimmer to stop and calm down, and was also thinking of my lawn - the poor buffalo grass has an ongoing fight against being taken over by rubbishy grass, and now it had car tyres ripping it up! Bimmer was upset, though and wouldn't let me open the door and turn the ignition off. It took off across the lawn - westward, like the UFO - and did a circuit of the house somehow and entered the street via our neighbour's right of way. Then it tore off, with me running up the hill after it calling, "Come back!"

I was standing on my lawn, feeling bereft, when Steve H, an actor on whom I had a crush when I was eleven or twelve, walked down the hill and up my path, onto my lawn and stood beside me. He looked 25 still, and his longish dark hair was tied in a ponytail. "What do you think of my hair?" he said, indicating the ponytail. I touched it. "It's so soft," I cried.  We were standing in front of the garden at the base of the chimney, which was planted out with the plants I put in a couple of months ago.

"Your BMW is back," Steve said, and Bimmer was - but had been converted into a ute! A little white BMW 3 series ute! The car drove into the neighbour's drive across the road and ignored me. Like a disgruntled cat, it had chosen a new home. Steve and I watched it. I called it but the car resolutely ignored me.

Then I was opening letters. One was from Dan the Man in Can(ada). Talk about visiting the past in my dreams last night. Dan's letter had photos of people at a beach, a northern hemisphere beach somewhere… there was no writing on the back. There was one photo taken from the top of high dunes of a crowd of people walking by the water's edge. It was overexposed and sunshine flooded it; it looked deliciously warm to this sleeper on a chilly Sydney autumn night. Then one of Dan himself. Then one of Dan with a girl who had long blonde hair. And another of the couple. Dan's letter was a chat-up letter, but how on earth he expected me to react positively to him when he sent photos of him with another girl was beyond me. Dan always did have an ego. And yes, it was Dan as I knew him, younger Dan, as I was younger too in my dream.

I remember an adventure type dream as well, but not as clearly. I was running through dunes to a beach myself, but it wasn't Dan's beach and I was on some kind of mission. Was I a private investigator? Possibly. I've been reading too many PI books lately. I was tailing someone, someone whom I didn't know. However, that dream didn't stick in my mind as strongly as the others I had last night. I also dreamed I found some of my short stories I wrote as a child, principally about my favourite tv show Follyfoot, and one of them had been printed and bound as a one-off. I was stunned; we didn't have the money or knowledge to bind one of my stories as a leather-covered hardback. I read some of it; it was rubbish; awful writing, but then I suppose I was only about eleven when I wrote it.

I wonder what tonight's dreams will hold? I suspect I may need another blanket on the bed!