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Friday, 24 March 2017

Vale Colin Dexter (1930-2017)

Colin Dexter with his Imperial Good Companion 4
portable typewriter in Oxford in 1977.
Inspector Morse creator Colin Dexter has died in Oxford, England, aged 86. Born Norman Colin Dexter at Stamford, Lincolnshire, Dexter was a crime fiction novelist who wrote the Inspector Morse series of books between 1975-99.
He began writing mysteries in 1972 during a family holiday: "We were in a little guest house halfway between Caernarfon and Pwllheli [in Wales]. It was a Saturday and it was raining - it's not unknown for it to rain in North Wales. The children were moaning ... I was sitting at the kitchen table with nothing else to do, and I wrote the first few paragraphs of a potential detective novel." Last Bus to Woodstock was published in 1975 and introduced the character of Inspector Morse, an irascible detective whose penchants for cryptic crosswords, English literature, cask ale and Wagner reflect Dexter's own enthusiasms. 
TV series: John Thaw  as Chief Inspector Morse (right)
and Kevin Whately as Detective Sergeant Lewis.

Friday, 17 March 2017

In The Shadows of Bobby Vee and Elston Gunnn

Calling himself Elston Gunnn, Bob Dylan unsuccessfully auditioned as a piano player with Bobby Vee's group The Shadows. Dylan is seen here typing on an Olivetti Lettera 32 portable
Hank B.Marvin's 1959 Fender Stratocaster.
A then 19-year-old Tony Meehan, left, was the original drummer (behind Hank B.Marvin) with Cliff Richard's band The Drifters, who later changed their name to The Shadows, causing Bobby Vee to change the name of his band to The Vees. Meehan, seen here with Jay and Tommy Scott and a Facit typewriter, as executive producer and chief A&R man for the Shadrich recording company, had, six months earlier, virtually dismissed The Beatles as a recording group. On January 1, 1962, The Beatles were auditioned at Decca by Meehan. Beatles manager Brian Epstein had paid Meehan to produce the recordings. Decca rejected The Beatles, instead choosing The Tremeloes, who auditioned the same day. A month later, Meehan expressed condescending comments about The Beatles’ audition and The Beatles moved on to George Martin at the Pharlphone (EMI) label.
Bobby Vee sadly fell victim to Alzheimer's disease in Rogers, Minnesota, on October 24 last year, aged 73. The last time I was talking to Bobby was in June 2006, when he told me the great story about the time he stood in for Buddy Holly. It happened the night of "The Day the Music Died". Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens had died in a plane crash outside Clear Lake, Iowa, at about 1.07am on February 3, 1959, and a little more than 17 hours later Bobby and his school band were sharing the stage with the like of Dion DiMucci and Waylon Jennings in the Winter Dance Party show at Moorhead, Minnesota, determined not to perform That'll Be The Day (That I Die), Blue Days, Black Nights or even, for that matter, Rock Around With Ollie Vee.
        Bobby and his older brothers and their schoolmates had been eagerly looking forward to seeing Holly live in Moorhead for weeks before the show. Once Bobby, who earned pocket money as a newspaper boy, had got over delivering the bad news on the doorsteps of Fargo, North Dakota - that Holly was dead - he and his band answered a call to take the place of Holly and The Crickets at the rock and pop show across the Red River.  The Vee band had long since, thankfully, got rid of its wayward one-key piano player, Elston Gunnn (note, three “n’s”),  a then busboy at the Red Apple Café in Fargo who was also known as Robert Allen Zimmerman, later Bob Dylan.
Bobby Vee with The Shadows, who changed their name to The Vees after seeing the English Shadows perform.
    Already knowing most of these details, what took me by surprise in my chat with Bobby was when he told me the name of the Fargo high school band was The Shadows. Around about the time of Holly’s death, the better known (to Australians, at least) English group called The Shadows had had to change their name from The Drifters, on receiving an injunction stating that that sobriquet had already been taken by a well established (since 1954) doo wop vocal group formed by Clyde McPhatter, one which had had a string of hits on the US mainstream and R & B charts, including, notably, There Goes My Baby in 1959.
Hank B. Marvin, left, with Cliff Richard in the original English Drifters. Tony Meehan is peering out under Marvin's arm.
    I asked Bobby if he was aware of the English instrumentalists. “Oh, yes,” he said. “We changed our name the moment we saw them in a concert one night.” That was in St Paul, Minnesota, in 1960, during a rare early US tour by Cliff Richard, on which he and The Shadows shared the bill with Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and none other than the injunction-toting Clyde McPhatter. Avalon, by the by, had taken the place of the Fargo high school band when the Winter Dance Party continued on from Moorhead in February 1959. “We knew as soon as the ‘real Shadows’ started playing and moving we weren’t in the same league as them, and felt embarrassed we’d even temporarily stolen their name,” said Bobby. “On the drive home to Fargo after the show that night, there was complete silence in the car for a long while, and then one of us said, ‘Well, what are we going to have to call ourselves then?’” They sensibly came up with The Vees.
The English Shadows, with Brian Bennett, left, replacing Meehan, but still with bassist Jet Harris, second left, arrive in Australia in 1961. Lead guitarist Hank B. Marvin is second from right, beside Bruce Welch. Memo Sheldon Cooper: You may think you are the smartest man alive, but a koala is NOT a bear.
    That year, 1960, was momentous for the so-called “real” Shadows. They had a monster worldwide hit with Jerry Lordan’s Apache. Worldwide, that is, as in everywhere except where it really mattered - in the US. Stateside, the version of Apache which went to the top of the charts was an intriguingly intricate one played on a Gibson guitar by the Dane Jørgen Ingmann-Pedersen. On The Shadows’ version, lead guitarist Hank B. Marvin (now 30 years resident in Western Australia, where he runs the Nivram recording studio on Tiverton Street, Perth) played a Fender Stratocaster using Joe Brown’s cast-off Italian-built Binson Echorec chamber.
Jørgen Ingmann and his wife Grethe winning the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest with Dansevise.
     Back then, as the mix-up with The Drifters name indicates, news of what was happening in rock and pop on either side of the Atlantic was far from free-flowing. The Shadows’ distinctive sound came about by mistake. They wanted to emulate the sound of Ricky Nelson’s backing group, and found out James Burton used a Fender. Richard ordered the guitars by mail order catalogue, and a Stratocaster turned up. Burton used a Telecaster. Unlike Brown with his echo chamber, however, Richard and The Shadows liked the Strat sound and kept it.
    That simple twist of fate over Ingmann's version of Apache meant The Shadows were never able to achieve the same impact in the US as they did everywhere else in the world. Marvin influenced few American guitarists the way he did English guitar heroes, like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Mark Knopfler, Pete Townshend and so many more.
The original Ventures, never in the same league as The Shadows.
    Thus the decision of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame foundation in February 2008 to induct The Ventures ahead of The Shadows was perhaps understandable, if no doubt galling for the legends of Shadows fans across the world, including in Australia. The foundation mentioned The Ventures’ Walk Don't Run and their cover of the Hawaii Five-O theme tune, although, of course, the version of Hawaii Five-O which everyone and their dog identifies with is the original TV series theme written and performed by Mort Stevens. Most galling of all, however, was the foundation’s claim that The Ventures provided the “defining instrumental guitar rock in the 1960s”. The Ventures simply do not stack up in this regard against The Shadows, especially the original line-up of Marvin, Bruce Welch, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan.
      I must disclose at this point that the soundtrack of my early adolescence was provided by The Shadows, and although my passion for their music has gradually waned over the past half century, I still regard them as, tune for tune, the greatest instrumental group ever, bar none. I know, too, I am far from alone in this opinion. Yet having said all that, I must also confess the best piece of guitar rock music I’ve ever heard is the intro to Richard’s Move It, which was played not by Marvin but by session musician Ernie Shear, using a blond Hofner with a DeArmond pick-up near the bridge and a Selmer amp. Unbeatable.

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Amazing Horners

In an irresistible flight of absolute fancy, I imagine Patricia Beddison Gray, just turned eight by a fortnight and being baby sat at home at Westridge, Canberra, on the night of March 18, 1932, quietly casting a curse on all journalists. Her parents, Australian Forestry School lecturer Hugh Richard Gray and his wife Judy, had gone out for the evening, to the Kurrajong Hotel for the first Press Gallery Ball held in the nation’s new capital, and were waltzing the night away to the music of the Roxy Dance Band. The reality, I gather, is that Patricia Gray was far too sensible, even at eight, to try to put a hex on anyone, including journalists. Yet in 1980 Patricia and her husband, Frank Benson Horner, published a book, When Words Fail: A Casebook of Language Lapses in Australia, that had every journalist in the country ducking for cover.
        "For the purposes of this book," the Horners wrote, "words fail to meet the user's needs in three ways. First, and most obviously, they fail when they do not convey the intended meaning ... Secondly, words fail when they convey the intended meaning, but at the expense of their continued usefulness … The third way in which words fail to meet the user's needs is by alienating the reader." It’s arguable whether truer words have ever been written about the grammatically indifferent traditional content of Australian newspapers.
A young Pat Horner at a Sydney University reunion in 1953
        Pat Horner began compiling When Words Fail when she was teaching at Narrabundah College in 1968, adding to examples in text books. She was initially drawn to “really exotic mixed metaphors”. Soon the Horners were leaving notepads around their Deakin home to record the howlers they heard on radio and TV. When Frank retired from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, he joined Pat in putting When Words Fail together. Happily, the project didn’t end with the publication of the book, and the Horners’ service to the English language continued for another 18 years, with a regular Saturday column appearing under the same title in The Age newspaper in Melbourne. Pat died in 2000 and Frank four years later.
        In his Canberra Times review of When Words Fail (“Propriety and Elegance and a Bit of the Vernacular”),  columnist Maurice Dunlevy jocularly referred to the Horners as “picking on” journalists, since “Mixing metaphors is the nearest most newspapers ever come to poetry.” Dunlevy said “the language of Australian public life is often as clumsy as a duck in a ploughed paddock”. He believed that “no attack on the press … has been so savage and yet so subtle as that by [these] two Canberrans”. Their work was “wicked and seemingly dispassionate” … “Frank Horner and Patricia Horner have attacked the freedom of the press by ridiculing the freedom with which the press uses language.” Dunlevy added, “Who … cares if the language of the news is as rough as a pig's breakfast? The Homers care, that's who. And because they care they may deprive journalists of their freedom not to care. Their documentary casebook collects examples of when words have failed professional speakers and writers in Australia today and their notes comment on the failures.”
Oh, for such a couple of guardians of the English language “as she’s writ” today. What appears online and in print from the fingers of modern journalists would require not one slim work like When Words Fail, but something of the four-volume, 510,000-word magnitude of Winston Churchill’s opus, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Thirty-seven years on from the appearance of When Words Fail, Dunlevy’s own words have failed and, it’s clear, nobody cares any longer.

A week or so ago I was drawn to this book by its cover, adorned with a wonderful illustration by Frank Horner’s brother, Arthur Wellesley Horner (1916-1997), creator of the Colonel Pewter cartoon strip (which sometimes featured Fleet Street reporter Wesley Upchat). Frank and Arthur were members of an extraordinarily talented family, which also included Aboriginal rights activist John Curwen (“Jack”) Horner (1922-2010). They were the sons of Arthur Horner (1883-1969), a man who rose from being a vice-telegraph messenger in his home town of Riverton in South Australia in 1902 to director of Posts and Telegraphs in the federal Postmaster-General’s Department in 1948.
Jean and Jack Horner

      The wives of the three Horner brothers were equally accomplished Australians: Pat Horner was a teacher, scholar and writer, Arthur’s wife Victoria Ethel Cowdroy (1908-97, also known as Vic Royston, illustration right) a screen artist, graphic designer, cartoonist, illustrator, sculptor and painter, and Jack’s wife Jean Leavitt Horner (1923-2006) worked closely with her husband in the cause of Aboriginal rights. While the achievements of the Horner brothers were at least in some ways recognised, it was a sign of the times that those of their partners were almost never publicised. The angel observing modern events in Arthur Horner’s satirical Uriel Report would, I think, be more impressed by our willingness to salute female achievers than by our ever increasing abuse of language.
Arthur Horner was said to have “had a seemingly limitless imagination and amazing dexterity of vision and technique in the comics medium”.
Born at East Malvern in Victoria on October 28, 1917, Dr Frank Horner joined the New South Wales Bureau of Statistics in 1935 and attended evening classes at Sydney University to obtain a degree in economics. He was seconded to the Commonwealth Treasury in 1940 but was eventually commissioned as a naval officer serving mainly in New Guinea waters between 1943-46. Frank's wedding day with Pat in January 1946 was put back a week because he had come down with malaria on the original date.
After post-graduate studies for his doctorate at the London School of Economics, Frank returned to the bureau as assistant statistician and rose to the position of assistant Government Statistician. In 1958 he joined the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics in Canberra and was appointed deputy Commonwealth Statistician in 1964. Frank was known for his pioneering work in the introduction of social indicators to Australia and for his professional rigour.
Following retirement from the public service, Frank abandoned figures for words and concentrated his efforts on researching early French voyages in the Pacific. He published two elegant works, French Reconnaissance: Baudin in Australia in 1987 and Looking for La Pérouse: D’Entrecasteaux in Australia and the South Pacific 1792-1793 in 1995. For these two ground-breaking books Frank was decorated by the French government. On November 19, 2002, France’s Ambassador to Australia, Pierre Viaux, presented Frank with the insignia of the Palmes Académiques (see image below).

Frank was also passionate about classical music and was on the committees of the Canberra Youth Orchestra and the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.
This “Gang Gang” column about When Words Fail appeared in The Canberra Times in September 1980. Frank and Pat Horner might have been highly amused that when the article appeared in print, it quoted Frank as using the word “badder”, which a reader quickly pointed out in a letter to the editor. Frank replied that he’d actually said “harder” and blamed the reporter’s tape recorder (personally, I’d have blamed the reporter and the sub-editor and the check sub).
Pat Horner’s father, Dick Gray (1895-1979), was born in Oxford in England and died there, but spent more than 30 years of his life in Australia. After serving in World War I, he became inspector of forests on the Nile in the Sudan and in July 1923 took up an appointment as a forester in Western Australia. In 1927 he moved to Canberra to be one of the original lecturers at the Australian Forestry School.
Dick Gray, circled, in 1935. Behind him, to his left, is one of his students, Lindsay Pryor, ironically the son of a cartoonist, Oswald Pryor, and the father of a well-known newspaper cartoonist, Geoff Pryor.
Patricia was born at Waverley Private Hospital on Adelaide Terrace in Perth on March 4, 1924. Her parents moved to Canberra three years later and Pat soon proved to be a brilliant student. She attended Telopea Park School and at age 11 passed a high school entrance examination. Pat then gained a Canberra scholarship from the Canberra High School on her leaving certificate in 1940, aged 16. She did war work at Mount Stromlo Observatory in 1941. The next year Pat produced outstanding results in her first year Arts course at Sydney University; she tied for first in English I and won the MacCullum Prize and the Maud Stiles Prize for women students. She was third in History. Pat graduated in 1946. Clearly possessed of a sharp intellect, in later life she was unafraid to speak out on an extremely diverse range of issues, from opening public libraries on Sundays to National Gallery entry fees, banning casinos in Canberra and saving the city’s trees, building a biological centre and providing better remand care.
Jack Horner, like Frank, was educated at Sydney High School. He then studied art at East Sydney Technical College before being called up to serve in the Australian Army in 1943. In 1950, Jack and his wife Jean travelled to England, where they found work designing and painting scenery for theatre productions. They returned to Australia in 1953 – when Jack started work with the Law Book Company. The couple became involved with the Workers’ Educational Association and developed an awareness of discrimination against Aborigines, which led to their involvement in campaigning for Aboriginal rights and taking an active role in organisations supporting the cause. Jack and Jean joined the newly-formed Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship in 1957 and campaigned for the repeal of the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act 1935. As the fellowship’s secretary from 1958-66, Jack was responsible for campaigns to remove discriminating clauses relating to Aboriginal people from New South Wales laws and he was secretary of the “Vote Yes” Committee for the 1967 referendum to remove similar clauses from the Australian Constitution. Jack and Jean were executive members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Jack as vice-president and general secretary and Jean as the treasurer. They were also members of the Australian Council of Churches Commission on Aboriginal Development. Jack’s works include Seeking Racial Justice: An Insider's Memoir for the Movement of Aboriginal Advancement, 1938-1978 and co-authorship of A Dictionary of Australian History.
* I acknowledge considerable assistance from Harriet Barry, daughter of Pat and Frank Horner.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Champion Couple set off on Copperhead Road for Adelaide

The hills of Araluen were alive with the sound of Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road yesterday as Peter Crossing gave the pub jukebox one last solid workout before he and his wonderful wife Deborah set off from Canberra to Adelaide. The Crossings moved here 14 years ago, initially planning to stay for just a few years before returning to South Australia. Things turned out rather differently, and in the time the Crossings were in Canberra they made many new friends, people who will cherish memories of this charming, champion couple for the rest of their lives. Peter taught chemistry at Radford College, continued his fervent love affair with cricket, presented jazz and blues from “Down in the Basement” on ArtSound with an undeniable passion, wrote brilliantly pithy letters to the Canberra Times and became an committed contributor to the work of the Australian Society for Sports History. Beyond her own day job, Deb was a dedicated Les Mills disciple as a Body Balance instructor and took on a leading role with the Australian Republican Movement. They both deeply enriched and enhanced the lives of Canberrans.
Perhaps one of the nicest things about the Crossings was the way in which they took an active and quite genuine interest in the interests of others. In my case, I was touched that when they travelled anywhere - whether it be to Vietnam, the United States or just visits back to Adelaide - they took the time and trouble to find old typewriters and photograph them for me. These notably included Ngo Ba Thanh's battered Voss portable at the Hanoi Women's Museum and the Sholes & Glidden at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.
 The very least I could do, as a way of saying thanks, was to present both the Crossings with 60th birthday typewriters, painted in “club” colours and suitably decorated. In Peter’s case, the paper plate had the lyrics of Copperhead Road, Peter’s favourite song. But the crowning glory was their determination that I should celebrate my 2014 QWERTY Award among friends at the Crossing home in Curtin. I was unable to get to Morgantown, West Virginia, where the actual presentation took place at Herman Price’s Chestnut Ridge Typewriter Museum, but the Crossings ensured the achievement was properly recognised the next best way. They put on a night to be remembered.
I first met Peter soon after he arrived here. Back then my “One Hits Wonders” series was still running in the Panorama section of the Canberra Times and some Saturdays I included a quiz (with CDs as prizes). One poser I thought my legion of readers would find especially difficult to answer was: “Which single artist won a record six consecutive Record of the Year Granny Awards as a session musician for such diverse songs and acts as A Taste of Honey (Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, 1966), Strangers in the Night (Frank Sinatra, 1967), Up, Up and Away and Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The 5th Dimension, 1968 and 1970) and Mrs Robinson and Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel, 1969 and 1971)?” To my utter astonishment, I received a correct answer (Hal Blaine) within hours of the newspaper being published – from one Peter Crossing. “I have to get to know this guy,” I said to myself. And I did get to know him. Much to my lasting delight and benefit. Positive feedback and encouragement provide the lifeblood for columnists, and over the ensuing years Peter and Deborah selflessly supplied those things in spades.

House sold, furniture moved, and many memorable farewells held, the Crossings left Canberra today. They will be very sorely missed.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Six Years Before the Mast

February 27 marked six years of this blog. It's a significant date. It's also the birthday of writers (in descending order below) Irwin Shaw (1913), James T. Farrell (1904), Peter De Vries (1910), John Steinbeck (1902) and Lawrence Durrell (1912).
More importantly, perhaps, it is also the anniversary of the day in 1812 when the poet George Byron addressed the Frame Breaking Act and spoke out in the House of Lords in defence of the violence of Luddites against industrialism in his home county of Nottinghamshire. Considering myself to be a modern-day upholder of the Luddite spirit, and having smashed in one or two frames (of computer printers), I like to think I've maintained the rage. Byron, of course, duly had a Nottingham-made typewriter named in his honour, and Richard Polt has one:
So I invited these six lovely young ladies to come around and help me celebrate the blog's six years, during which time it has accumulated 2.824 million page views to 2288 posts and 8676 comments. 
Below, this young chap reenacted my own introduction to typewriters, in 1957.
The blog was launched soon after my appearance at the "I Am Typewriter (The Triumph of Continued Usefulness) Festival" in Melbourne and the publication of my first typewriter book, The Magnificent Five.