“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





27 May 2014


It's something about dress-ups:
a discussion of uniformity with
a bloke who knew all about it

Like a rather hungry rottweiler-mastiff-ridgeback cross I once lived with, I've never taken much of a shine to people in uniform. Something about dress-ups; something about folks who need to look alike; something about the notion that if you design a uniform, be it spiritual, martial or whatever, some pretender will very quickly swell to fill it.

I was always nervous about the Salvos, who appear to have had a bad few weeks in the bullying/paedo/murder allegation stakes.

Poor buggers are discovering message drift.

Their uniform is obviously martial masquerading as spiritual, or vice-versa. 

Whichever way, it's a dangerous combination which to me seems to leave a large inviting door open to people who to me would seem to be pretty much my opposite.

Which is not to deny that in the golden overcrowded smoking years of The Exeter, I always made a donation to old Norma the Salvo when she'd do the Friday night rounds of the East End, perfectly uniformed, rattling her donation bag up and down the street from one bar to another, her crusty old civvy-clad cloth-capped knuckleboxing husband always hovering in her wake, just to keep an eye on the money. He carried a very heavy walking stick.

Norma's bags would get so heavy they'd leave them behind the bar at The Ex while they cleaned up the other pubs and bars in the street. I carried one once to their car. It was a lot of money.

One morning when publican Nicholas Binns was on holiday, I shared the front bar with a bloke who'd obviously done a runner from the hospital for a quiet spell with a smoke and a beer. That was commonplace behaviour for many patients. He was down the billiard table end of the bar in a hospital robe with his head bandaged like a mummy. Looked bad. I was up the front, at what was then the dart board end. The elder Binns, Spencer, was covering for his absent brother behind the jump. There was nobody else there.

Spencer poured me my breakfast stout.

"See that bloke down there?" he asked in a stage whisper. "Who do you reckon that is?"

"I dunno. Rameses II?"

"Nah", he said, leaning forward, polishing a glass."That's the most wanted man in Australia. That's Jimmy Coleraine."

I'd barely had a chance to ask how Spencer could recognise the most wanted man in Australia dressed as a mummy when the bloke under discussion came determinedly up the length of the bar, pulled up a stool and sat in next to me.

"Hullo," the mummy said, putting his hand forward. "I'm Jimmy Coleraine. How the hell could you tell who I am?"

I said I had no idea who he was. Spencer went down the other end and polished glasses.

Jimmy, a cat burglar and master escapee, was famous for escaping from everywhere. His championship was somehow evaporating from the horrid maximum security division at Pentridge Prison, now long since shut for humanitarian reasons. He did that H-Block jump again. Jimmy could slither out of anywhere. He had the screws jinxed: it seemed he could pass through a locked door like a spook.

We talked that morning about uniforms, and the types who tended to inhabit them. Salvos, priests, coppers and screws. Et cetera.

Turned out in that his years on the streets and in prisons, Jimmy'd been bashed so much by so many that his face - he pulled some of the bandages to the side to show me - had become such a cobweb of scars it looked like a lace doily. It was time to do something about it.

He'd read in the newspapers in Pentridge about the excellent work of the Royal Adelaide Hospital plastic surgery team led by David David, and had checked out and made his way across the border to have his face sorted. Once he'd scored his initial appointment, the doc took one look at his face and became transfixed on one of Jimmy's cheeks. In the midst of all that scarring he'd spotted a melanoma.  So instead of smoothing the countenance of my charming drinking companion, they'd scooped out half the poor bastard's cheek.

Not happy.

That week I gave Jimmy my Salvo donation many times over once his mysterious government stipend had siphoned itself into Spencer's till. In return, he gave me the first chapter of his autobiography, which I still have.


Jimmy taught me a lot about dealing with people in uniform. Obviously a bloke with such a miserable income combined with his wantedness and need for lots of smokes and drinks would find it a bit tricky to stay in the Hilton. So he stayed round in Whitmore Square, with the homeless drunks and the Salvos. 

He'd be locked in there for a week in their drunk tank, fed and watered, until the day his mysterious cheque came in, when he'd bring it round to The Ex and drink it all in one hearty session, then wander back and surrender again to the uniformed folks to clean himself out. He patiently performed this ritual until his face was vaguely presentable and all the dressings came off.

Before Jimmy'd finished his next week in the safe arms of the Salvos, there was a Grand Prix ball, when all the ladies of Springfield got their diamonds out of their safe deposit boxes, wore them to the Hyatt and went home to collapse dribbling fizz with the ice left on their bedside tables. Somebody went through the bedrooms of Springfield that night and cleaned out mansion after mansion, tip-toing around the slumbering drunk rich.

I never saw Jimmy again. But I got back at the uniformed Salvo bully who went inexcusably nuts when I once smuggled Jimmy in a can of VB and a packet of Escorts.

I conducted a huge champagne tasting for Christmas publication, I think in The National Times. Between pours, my stewards anxiously eyed the great stack of expensive bottles building up in the cool room. Hundreds of 'em. 

I'd bought a shipment of stopper corks, so once I'd sampled my glass from each bottle and made my evaluation, and the stewards had had a sip, the stopper went in and the bottle went back in the fridge.

At the end of day two, Howard Twelftree (writer) and Timothy John (painter), who made perfectly good stewards without uniform, helped me stack all the cartons on the back of Tim's truck. We drove into Whitmore Square, straight across the lawn to a large circle of recreational drinkers, sitting there around a flagon beneath a Moreton Bay fig. They eyed us suspiciously, thinking we looked like trouble from the Council or somewhere.

We pulled up. I wound the window down.

"You blokes drink champagne?" I asked.

Cynical grumbling. Nobody looked up.

"Do you blokes drink champagne?"

Eventually one barked "Of course we drink fucking champagne."

"Good," I said, climbing down.

It took us a few minutes to unload that truck. Without a word, we stacked those dozens up on the lawn. Bollinger, Cristal, Mumm, Dom, Heidsieck, Lanson, Möet, Krug, Billecart-Salmon, Laurent-Perrier, Gosset, Gratien, Pol, Veuve, Pommery ... brut, pink, demi-sec ... every exotic, expensive fizz imported into the country came off the back of that truck.

Nobody moved. Then we climbed back aboard and drove away into the traffic.

My last viewing of those gentlemen saw them standing in a ring around that mountain of Christmas fizz, just gazing at it.

I reckon the hardarse Whitmore Square Salvo learned a bit about champagne that night. 

Serves 'em right. Jimmy woulda loved it.

Bloody uniforms.


Alfie Pardoe said...

Great story ..

Jesse said...

Read this last month but decided to comment now. Having grown up in Adelaide, I can picture the final scene perfectly. Beautiful. Has that story ever come back to you?

hamish laurie said...

A wonderful story Whitey and yes i'm not a fan of uniforms either. The Salvos have always given me the yips - good & bad but the yips non the less. Does this make me normal?

Anonymous said...

I loved that article more than is probably healthy in a middle aged man.
It fed my resentment of authority AND made me thirsty.

OSr Group said...

Really wonderful story. I like it.
Flush door Manufacturer in India, Veneer manufacturer in India

dipstik said...

i hope jimmy took enough ice to fix his face respek