Brain graze


EVERYONE has a day stamped emphatically in their memory.
Mine is November 23, 1956, and as far as I can remember, my first encounter with Geelong.
For a six-year-old it was a day of bliss, of seemingly never-ending new or rare sensations. And
justification for an argument any time someone suggests nothing ever happened in the 1950s.
Dad had brought me to Geelong for the day along with a truckload of wool bound for Dalgety's store.
The city seemed a frenzied metropolis to a kid from a farm outside a small country town. There
appeared to be street after street of shops offering all manner of delights; movie theatres that unbelievably showed pictures every night; and traffic lights like rainbow icy poles. I was there only an hour and already couldn't wait to get home and tell the other kids.
The woolstores were like a fort -- The Alamo -- had recently been on at the local flicks -- from the
outside. Inside were bales of wool as far as you could see. Enough to put an overcoat on every Pommy (Englishman), Dad said. And he always followed it up with: ``Now, if we could just get every Chinaman to wear an overcoat.''
Dad's wool apparently fetched top dollar, and off we went up Moorabool Street on a spending spree. He bought clothes for Mum and toys for all us kids and the two of us had lunch in a cafe where we were served by a woman in a black dress with a frilly white apron.
And that's where I experienced new pleasure sensation number one: a chocolate milkshake. Who could
forget that delicious foam, the chilled canister, the lump of icecream at the end? It was heaven on a straw.
Later we went down to the railway pier and Dad talked a sailor into showing us over his ship. The crew seemed eager to show us everything and when I remarked how friendly they were, Dad said that was because he gave the sailor two bob and his crewmates hoped he'd give them some money, too.
We went back to the woolstores where Dad met some other sellers and we all walked back up town to a
I'd been to pubs with Dad before, but never one quite like this. Down the end of a narrow bar was that
magical cyclops we'd only heard stories about down in the country _ a television set.
And flickering out to the unwavering attention of the bar crowd was that other wonder of the moment _ the Olympic Games.
I stared, oblivious even to my raspberry lemonade, as Australia's Charles ``Chilla'' Porter and American Charlie Dumas staged a drawn-out contest in the high jump.
How can they jump so high? I wondered silently. It's more than their own height.
Gradually the Russian, the Swede and the other Australian were eliminated, leaving Chilla and Charlie to fight it out.
Just as the event approached show-down time, the big sweating bloke behind the bar yelled something,
Dad and his mates poured down their beers and before you could say 6 o'clock swill we were back out in the street.
We had to wait for the next day's paper to report that Dumas had cleared 6 feet 11 1/4 inches to win the high jump.
We collected the truck and headed for home, about 140 kilometres away.
But first we had to eat, and Dad pulled in at a fish and chips place in Belmont where he said they
always had the freshest flake in town.
Of course, all those salty chips required a thirst-quencher, and Dad bought me my own bottle of Coke.
Another rare treat.
It was to prove too much of a good thing. As we chugged up the Mt Moriac hill, abdominal turmoil set in and before Dad could pull over, the windscreen of the old Bedford was awash with vomit.
It was an imperfect end to a glorious day and an unforgettable introduction to Geelong and the modern
urban world.

A dear old friend died recently while I was away on holidays. Jack was suffering from a number of ailments but he refused to let them get him down and always had a smile and a few cheerful words. This is a story I wrote three years ago bout him and his ancient trade.

Story Bernie Slattery
Barrels of work
IN his humble way, Jack Harkins is a living
museum exhibit.
Perched on a stool in his North Geelong
shed, Jack practises a craft that is almost
5000 years old, yet likely to disappear in
approaching decades.
Jack is a cooper, one of a handful left of
the dozens who built and repaired barrels in
Geelong in the decades up to the 1960s.
At 74, Jack has been retired for 10 years,
but still keeps his hand in making small port
barrels and other containers for family
Like all the old trades, coopering has a
rich character that eludes modern tech
The aroma of freshly planed hardwood,
the well-worn but carefully tended hand-
tools, the sure, swift tradesman's
movements _ you'd win the lottery before
you found these qualities in a stainless steel
barrel factory.
And isn't the completed product a joy to
behold? Carved staves held in place by
hoops and shaped so exactly that not a drop
of liquid will leak. Yet, plenty of sweat drips
from the cooper as he immerses the barrel in
steam, then holds it over fire while
hammering a series of hoops over the now-
curved structure.
When completed, barrels over the
centuries offered up all manner of worldly
delights: the best of wines, heart-firing
whiskies, convivial beers and stouts, oils
and vinegar, salted meats and seafood and
fruit and vegetables.
In its way, the humble barrel has been as
important to the advance of civilisation as
the wheel. Without the barrel _ in fact, a
form of wheel itself _ most goods would
have remained where they were made.
Exploration and trade would have been
much more limited.
In his genial, unassuming way, Jack has a
quite pride in the craft he plied for around
50 years. ``It was a trade where you could
always learn something,'' he said.
He left school at 14 to take up an
apprenticeship at Sims Coopers at Corio
making barrels for the meat trade.
Jack was lucky to get into the trade as it
had been very much a closed shop with jobs
handed down from generation to gener
``But during the war the manpower
shortage forced them to let some outsiders
in and I was one of them.''
After completing his apprenticeship, he
spent two years at United Distillers making
barrels and vats to store the immensely
popular Corio brand of whisky.
Competition for labor was intense and
Jack moved across to Geelong's own brewer,
Volum, until its closure in 1958.
He returned to the distillery and worked
there until it closed in 1988.
Although he was trained in every facet of
the trade, Jack's barrel-making ability was
not challenged a lot at the distillery. ``We
made a few hog's heads, but it was mainly
repair work,'' he recalled.
A skilled tradesman could make two
barrels a day.
Although about a dozen coopers worked
in Geelong in the 50s and 60s, Jack said
Carlton and United Breweries in Melbourne
was the big employer, with about 200 on its
books before metal barrels took over.
Coopers saw the writing on the wall when
the Coopers Union folded in the 1960s. In
an irony that Jack still chuckles over: ``We
joined the Metal Trades Union.''
He can now count remaining Geelong
coopers on one hand. ``There's Ray Chand
ler, Humphrey Bolger and Gordon and Matt
Berry,'' he said.
Goodwill in the industry was exemplified
in a sacrifice made by the last two
apprentices signed up in Victoria, Greg
Campbell and Gordon Kent. ``There was a
credit squeeze in 1961 and some coopers
were to be retrenched,'' Jack said. ``So they
volunteered to look for other work and save
the jobs of some older fellows.''
Is it any wonder coopers enjoyed a
camaradarie absent in today's dog-eat-dog
Wife Sue fondly remembers distillery
families joining for social activities. ``It was
like we were all one big family,'' she said.
And did the coopers sample the contents
of their handiwork? They had to, joked
``Oh I think the majority liked to make
sure the taste was right.''
Sue said the coopers justified having a
drink by saying ``It's our bread and butter''.
The work could be hard and dangerous,
Jack stressed. ``You could be swinging a
three pound hammer all day, every day,'' he
said. ``But you still had to be very exact in
your work.''
And you had to be careful. ``At Port
Melbourne one day a 45,000 gallon vat with
48 hoops on it burst and almost knocked the
building down,'' he said. At least one worker
was seriously injured in the accident.
Out in his shed, surrounded by staves,
hoops, adzes, backing knives and hoop
punches, the retired cooper says he has no
``You could be working with someone and
you'd think they wouldn't know anything
more than you. But they would. They could
teach you something. You could always
learn something new.''

Ancient craft
TOMB paintings suggest that straight-sided
wooden buckets bound with wooden hoops
were made in Egypt as early as 2690 BC.
Vessels described as barrels are men
tioned in the Bible and in ancient Greek
literature in the fifth century BC.
In medieval times, when a couple were
married they would visit the cooper for
buckets for water and for milking'; bowls
for washing and dolly tubs for laundering;
pickling vats for the kitchen; storage vats
for flour and barley; a churn for making
butter; tubs for cheese; and a vat, casks and
tubs for home-brewed ale.
Larger stronger casks were needed for
transporting gunpowder, wines and oils.
In the cities, coopers came together in
guilds, in order to create a closed shop.
On completing an apprenticeship, a
cooper became an enfranchised freeman of
the city.
Those who fell foul of the guild had to
leave the city if they wished to practise their
trade and set up as village coopers.
The expansion of trade under the Tudors
stimulated demand for the cooper's craft, as
did the 16th century proliferation of
breweries and ale-houses. By 1591 it was
said there were ``Twenty great brewhouses
between Fleet Street and St Catherines'' and
they attracted many of the best coopers.
Gradually technological advances dimin
ished the cooper's opportunities, first with
galvanised and enamelled buckets, bowls,
pots and drums and more recently with the
arrival of metal barrels.
As demand for the craft dwindled,
coopers took on other manufacturing to
A sign above a cooper's shop in Hailsham,
East Sussex early this century spelt out the
As other people have a sign
I say _ just stop and look at mine!
Here, Wratten, cooper, lives and makes
Ox bows, trug-baskets, and hay rakes.
Sells shovels, both for flour and corn,
And shauls, and makes a good box-churn,
Ladles, dishes, spoons and skimmers,
Trenchers too, for use at dinners.
I make and mend both tub and cask,
And make 'em strong, to make them last.
There's butter prints, and butter scales,
And butter boards, and milking pails.
N'on this my friends may safely rest _
In serving them I'll do my best;
Then all that buy, they'll use them well
Because I make my goods to sell.


For more than 10 years I wrote a weekly column for the Geelong Advertiser titled "Around the Traps''. It was chatty, gossipy and folksy. Through numerous ordinary folk contacts I managed to get all sorts of yarns about blunders, red faces, hilarious scrapes and worthwhile human actions. It was critical also, mainly of all the things that annoy us: bureaucrats, nanny staters and those who abused positions of trust and independence. Unfortunately a new guard at the paper brought it to an end in 2001. However, I've retained hard copy files and over the next few months intend to rewrite selected passages, perhaps with a view to publication. From time to time I'll post them on this site. Feel free to comment or expand. A sample:

A BUILDER of this town, known to his pals as Chooky, has a reputation for such enthusiasm for his work he can be somewhat of a hazard to be around.
Ex-apprentices speak in hushed tones about being rained on by off-cuts, hammers and drills when Chooky labored full-bore above the rafters.
Seems the only toiler at risk one day was Chooky himself. We're told he ripped his saw into a beam with such gusto he didn't realise he was standing on the unsupported section of timber!
Only one storey actually. Just a few bruises.

Blokes are all right after all, declares born-again 70s feminist Peggy Noonan. The Wall Street Journal columnist's post-September 11 reflections articulate the changed world view of uptown commentators who don't carry idealogical baggage. In her column Noonan expands on the new 21st century man of her neighbourhood. "Yes, yes, yes, she's got it so right,'' a 30-something female friend exclaimed. So, flex 'em fellas. Here's a sample:

I am speaking of masculine men, men who push things and pull things and haul
things and build things, men who charge up the stairs in a hundred pounds of
gear and tell everyone else where to go to be safe. Men who are welders, who do
construction, men who are cops and firemen. They are all of them, one way or
another, the men who put the fire out, the men who are digging the rubble out, and
the men who will build whatever takes its place.

And their style is back in style. We are experiencing a new respect for their
old-fashioned masculinity, a new respect for physical courage, for strength and for
the willingness to use both for the good of others.

You didn't have to be a fireman to be one of the manly men of Sept. 11. Those
businessmen on flight 93, which was supposed to hit Washington, the
businessmen who didn't live by their hands or their backs but who found out what
was happening to their country, said goodbye to the people they loved, snapped
the cell phone shut and said, "Let's roll." Those were tough men, the ones who
forced that plane down in Pennsylvania. They were tough, brave guys.

The State of Victoria is in meltdown. Wayne Carey, a high priest of the state religion, Australian Rules Football, has been sacked by his club for having an affair with the wife of a team-mate. The whole messy business came to a head at a party Sunday night when Carey and the woman were caught inflagrent delecto in a toilet. Fists were thrown, tears were shed and Carey, captain of the Kangaroos, formerly North Melbourne, was voted out by his team-mates. The blats have consumed entire forests reporting the sorry matter over three days, TV teams have been scouring the country for new leads and the talk-back nongs have forgotten all about kids overboard, G-G cover-ups and Kirby-crawlers. As usual, the media pulse-taker of Melbourne, Stephen Mayne, has dug deep for an encompassing account at Crikey

Thursday has learned that active FBI Special Agent Robert Wright is about to blow the whistle on his superiors for hindering investigations that might have prevented the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Judicial Watch, the public interest law firm, scheduled, then postponed, a press conference for Wednesday where Wright, cloaked in anonymity until now, was going to tell the whole story.
The shocking details should be out in a few days.
Wright complains that when he tried to continue and pursue certain terrorist investigations, he met with retaliation from his bosses and from the Justice Department who made it clear that they wanted the
probes to go no further.
Prior to putting off the news conference, Judicial Watch said that "based on the evidence, the FBI Special Agent believes that if certain investigations had been allowed to run their course, Osama
bin Laden’s network might have been prevented from committing the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks which resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocents.”

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth over Bill Heffernan's obsessive campaign and revealing speech to the Senate about a High Court judge's predeliction for young chaps and more importantly, apparent cover-ups, when this matter was investigated. ABC types are leaving themselves vulnerable with their outspoken concern for this judge's career, when these accusations have not been adequately investigated. The same folk a week ago were calling for the G-G's career to be terminated when his only crime was not to act on much lesser charges made with far less credibility than a detailed speech under parliamentary privilege.The full speech is at crikey

Edward B. Driscoll, Jr. in spintech provides an excellent backgrounder on blogs and how the incompetent, biased, dumbed-down mainstream media contributed to their burgeoning popularity.


EVERY recovering hippy's favourite wise-acre P J O'Rourke explains in this piece from Jewish World Reviewwhy California is in the midst of an enormous
stupidity crisis. Californians have been sitting in the
dark because . . . they didn’t turn the lights on.

Between 1988 and 1998, California’s electricity
consumption increased by 15 percent while the state's .
capacity to generate electricity shrank by five percent.
Why is this so, as Julius SM would ponder.
Simple, explains the Rourkster:

Californians didn’t want dams across their rivers,
derricks on their ocean, power lines across their
borders, or fossil fuel smoke in their sky. These
might interfere with all the smart things Californians
do, such as hang-glide. California was going to rely
on “negawatts” – dramatic power conservation.
(But California regulators put price controls on
electricity that lowered prices, and even
Californians weren’t dumb enough to skip a
bargain.) And California was going to rely on
alternative power generation.

With all the puffery from Silicon Valley
start-ups, wind farms wouldn’t be a problem. And
doesn’t Gwyneth Paltrow’s star shine bright enough
to operate a solar panel? But it turns out that
alternative power generation is an alternative,
mostly, to generating power.

Californians are people who insist on growing their
own vegetables, but they won’t dig up the pretty
lawn, won’t plant anything for fear of getting dirty,
and they use fragrant bath salts from The Body
Shop instead of smelly compost. Let them make
their crudités with crab grass. President Bush was
wrong to grant an extension of executive orders
requiring out-of-state utilities to supply power to
California. And everyone is wrong to listen to
Californians whine about electricity deregulation.

Then PJ gets serious. Read no further if you blame rampant corporatism for LA LA Land power crisis.

JAY NORDLINGER of National Review Online illuminates the nuttiness that passes for intellectual pursuits on US campuses today. Nordlinger hones in on the University of Michigan's seventh Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, and a sidebar attraction in which students are encouraged to engage the metaphysical by counting grains of sand. Hard to parody, the author says. Agree, but it's a worry given that most crazy things American end up here.