Sunday, April 1, 2012

This is a slightly longer version of an article that appeared in the Manawatu Standard, New Zealand, on January 20, 2007. — Alan Ireland

As soon as we step outside the airport terminal, we smell it — the smoke. It isn't obvious, as it might be if someone were incinerating rubbish on the other side of the garden fence. All one sees is a haze, betrayed by a blurring of the outlines of buildings in the distance.
Instinctively, we check the expressions of pedestrians for signs of concern. The bushfires have been burning north-east of Melbourne since December 6. The situation is serious. But the faces give nothing away. Incredibly, some people are smoking as they hurry along.
Within minutes, we are hurtling toward the city in a minibus, noting the withered grass between the factory buildings and drab warehouses. "Prepare to die," is the startling message from an insurance company's roadside hoarding.
Looking at the miasma surrounding the city's skyscrapers — closer now, as we approach our destination — we wonder whether death will come sooner than the solicitous insurer anticipates.
"The smoke was much worse three weeks ago," our waiter says that evening, as we survey the city's indistinct skyline from the hotel dining room. "It made your eyes red."
But our fears of slow asphyxiation are unfounded: by noon the next day, the smoke has cleared. We begin our scheduled cruise of the Yarra River under a blazing sun, in 35deg heat, and thank the Almighty for the awning as we head downstream toward the docks.
"There are tea and coffee facilities at the back of the boat," the man at the wheel informs us, as he begins a running commentary. "So if you're stark raving mad, you can make yourself a hot drink."
Later, he draws our attention to the sleek yachts of the "filthy, stinking rich" in a marina, and to the lesser craft of those who merely aspire to be wealthy.
The house on Riversdale Road where
I lived between 1960 and 1962.
If there's one thing I like about Australians, it is their healthy disrespect for power and privilege, their refusal to be impressed by anything that smacks of pretension.
At the end of our cruise, the tour bus driver who picks us up at Princes Bridge is equally irreverent.
"I don't care who you booked with," he says as the door snaps shut. "You're mine now." And with that, he lurches into the afternoon traffic.
En route to the Dandenong Ranges, roughly 40km east of Melbourne, we are entertained with a quiz.
"Anyone from Belgium?" the driver asks. He draws a blank, but is undeterred. "France? Germany? Italy?"
Whenever a hand is raised, the driver responds with a suitably disparaging remark about the country concerned.
The Poms, of course, are pilloried for their alleged incompetence on the sports field.
As a former resident of several countries, including Australia, I don't own up to any nationality. But my daughter responds to the call for New Zealanders to identify themselves.
Bad move. Our irrepressible Aussie pounces on this rash admission of inferior status.
"You can't say anything too bad about Kiwis," he begins generously. "After all, half of them are over here." But the things they do to the vowels of the English language are unbelievable, he informs his captive audience.
The commentary sounds crude, but is actually skilful. The degree of ridicule is carefully calibrated to the recipient's capacity to take the ribbing in good humour.
New Zealanders can't even pronounce "fish and chips" correctly, the driver continues. "They say 'fush and chups'."
The allegation, coming from someone whose compatriots notoriously mispronounce "fish and chips" as "feesh and cheeps", is outrageous. But is anyone prepared to argue with an ocker armed with a microphone?
No one is, and the driver rambles recklessly on. We are not to worry about the speech peculiarities of New Zealanders, he reassures us. He speaks "a fair bit of Kiwi", and will be happy to offer his services as an interpreter if anyone runs into a communication problem.
When we stop at a picnic spot in the forested Dandenongs, the nationalistic banter is forgotten as the driver demonstrates the fine art of making billy tea. This involves swinging the full billy can in a complete circle, over one's head, "to settle the leaves". The driver-turned-bushman does this twice, without spilling a drop, to universal applause.
The trip ends back in Melbourne, in time for dinner aboard the colonial tramcar restaurant as it trundles around the city. The idea is that, as you wrestle with your steak, you peep out at the sights from below the rich Victorian drapes. But although I am a former Melbourne tram conductor, I have no idea where we are most of the time. Only once, when I spot the golden sand of St Kilda beach, do I get my bearings.
The itinerant dinner is, however, a fitting introduction to what, for me, is the highlight of the whole trip: a visit to my old tram depot at Camberwell Junction, where I was a conductor from 1960 to 1962.
I had arrived in Australia as a penniless 19-year-old, and had got a job on the trams because the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board provided a free uniform. All I needed then was a pair of shoes, which I bought with five pounds I borrowed from a helpful ANZ Bank teller.
So much has changed in the city, I am relieved to find that my depot is exactly as it was when I last saw it — on the outside, at any rate. We ignore the "Staff only" sign, and enter the restricted area.
Almost immediately, we are challenged. "Can I help you?" a man calls out from the other side of the tracks that run past the front of the main building.
A W2 class tram, of the kind I worked on.
"I worked here 45 years ago," I reply. I guess that these are magic words that will open all doors. I am right. They do.
What can I say about the next half hour, except that I am deeply touched by the friendliness of the staff? We are taken for a short ride to the shed — the huge building in which the trams are serviced. We then walk back to the main building, where I am shown the roll of honour and the place where my name would be inscribed today if I had not handed in my bag in 1962. I feel a twinge of regret.
I note that, although the interior of the building has been renovated, they have retained part of the old counter on which we used to laboriously count our imperial coins, and one of the tiny windows through which we used to push our neat piles of threepenny and sixpenny pieces — "treys" and "tanners", if I remember correctly.
I almost never made a mistake in my calculations. If I was called back by that dreaded, booming voice over the public address system, I had inadvertently picked up one of the forged florins, or two-shilling pieces, that were in circulation at the time. In each case, the forged piece was returned to me, the two shillings were taken out of my next pay, and my name appeared on the list of conductors whose takings had fallen short of the face value of the tickets sold.
"Do you remember Ernie?" I am asked.
"Ernie?" I reply. "Was he a driver?" The name sounds vaguely familiar.
"He was the Salvation Army man."
The image of a quiet, sober, dependable man returns to my mind. It was always good to know that your tram was being driven by Ernie. He was not the kind of driver who would casually biff an incautious car off the tracks, so that you had to waste about 20 minutes at the end of the day while filing an accident report.
"Yes, I remember Ernie," I say.
"He's still alive. He's about 100, and living in a retirement home not far from here."
Again, I feel regret — regret that, with only one more day in Melbourne, we do not have time to visit Ernie. And regret that comes with the realisation that, if Ernie is 100, I must also be an old man.
Fifteen minutes later, we are back on Riversdale Road, waiting for a tram to take us back into the city centre. We miss the first tram because we are waiting in the wrong place.
My daughter turns to me with her well-practised look of withering scorn. "You were a tram conductor, but you can't even correctly identify a tram stop?" she says incredulously.
"Well," I reply lamely, "it was a long time ago..."