The Auction Room (so far)


Nic steered the Volvo into one of the three remaining spaces. He had left the café with his father at a little past 8 and was surprised to see that the Victoria Rooms were already busy.

“Something good here today by the looks of things, Dad.”
“Only thing I heard of is that Morris Minor. That Keith Davies is after it because of the number plate, so say.”

Keith Davies ran a local coach company, each 72 seater adorned with a number plate that began with the letters “KD”. When he had just three vehicles, the residents of the village from which he ran his empire forgave this conceit, but over the last two years he had won several school-run contracts. His fleet now stood at 7, and neither the yard nor the village could house another mechanised centipede. Someone had told the landlord of the Roses that the Minor was up in the auction, and not forgotten to add the detail of the number plate. It wasn’t long before the great and the good of the village were horrified and word had leaked across the fields to Geoff’s workshop in Highford, an unwanted accompaniment to a carriage clock with a crippled spring.

The heavy doors of The Tank, as father and son referred to the Volvo with an ironic lack of imagination, clunked shut, and they walked to the hall. Directly outside was the Morris Minor of myth, bearing the legend “KD 4736”, picked up and out in silver on the fading grey background of the tin plates. Nic hung back at the large entrance doors, and indicated he was going to roll and smoke a cigarette before going in. His father raised his eyebrows, rolled his eyes and smoothed the last remaining hairs on his scalp in a comically disapproving coordinated move. It was much practiced and Nic always expected it.

Nic circled the old car, an 1100 cc model in good condition. In fact, it looked to have been loved and cherished and its new owner would surely want to keep it intact. To re-register it would harm the provenance and it was certainly not destined to be the base for a kit car, as was the one his uncle had bought years ago. Stripped down to the chassis, and then rebuilt with fibre glass and canvas, the Magenta had resembled a boxy dune buggy, without the clearance or power, but with a Morris grill. It had taken a year to build, and Nic had distinct memories of flying around country lanes in the red curiosity piloted by the long-estranged uncle. No, whoever bought this would cherish it entirely, unless Davies got his hands on it, which would be a shame. Crouching on his haunches, Nic pulled the roll-up from his lips, leaving some shreds of tobacco on his lips. He pressed the smoke out, spitting the remnants as he did so. He really had no idea what he was looking at, but it passed the time, and he spotted some small bubbles of rust near the rear wheel arch. A small blemish for a car so old. The cigarette dropped into a small puddle and Nic made his way inside.

The hall tapered ahead of Nic, long and wide, to the dais where the auctioneer sat. At that moment, his head was cocked stage right with empty hand pointing in the direction of one bidder, whilst his eyes looked stage left along the arm holding his hammer. He pointed at a portly gentleman, kept white beard and what was left of his grey hair well cut. He was a regular in the rooms, and often went up against Geoff for horological lots. Whilst not as knowledgeable as Nic’s father, this opponent had deep pockets and the kind of unquenchable fascination with movements that picked him out as a regular and formidable bidding foe. Geoff referred to him as ‘Buggerlugs’.

“With you, sir, £18.”

He swung his head theatrically around to face the other bidder. Nic let the scene play out without his attention and scanned the room for his father. It took some time, but he spotted him just a few tables of crap away. Every now and again, this fortnightly sale would contain some pieces of genuine worth, but mostly it was the preserve of bric a brac merchants and car booters. Boxes of loosely related junk sat on the tables; typically there were boxes of weights and scales, books, coins and stamps and of course, watch and clock parts, a box of which Geoff was investigating now. Occasionally there were complete examples in amongst the springs, wheels and cases, but mostly the two of them collected pieces to use for repairs. Unbeknownst to one another, Geoff and Nic held a dusty and dim ambition to construct a watch of their own. Neither had the skill to develop one from scratch, and they were both satisfied with repairing the timepieces bought to them by others, as well as giving new life to some of the busted and ancient examples found in the boxes. In fact, Nic could see his father was more focussed on the box than usual.

“What you found Dad?”
“Not sure really. Could be nothing, let’s grab a coffee and I’ll tell you. Don’t want Buggerlugs over there seeing I’m interested.” Geoff darted his eyes across to the winner of the last lot, his bearded adversary.

In a side room, a man and wife team manned the small stove offering bacon sandwiches and the urn that gave life to granules of instant coffee and bags of own brand tea. Geoff and Nic both had coffee, Nic handing over the pound. They moved to one side and perched on a radiator.

“There’s a nearly complete pocket watch in there, a Russian one,” Geoff said quietly to his son. “There’s something odd though; it’s a Russian face but has got a lot of American parts in the movement. Some of the early Poljots used American movements that went to Moscow with the machinery that Stalin bought. Don’t ask me how I remember. Really got me interested, it has. You just know Buggerlugs will want it. So schtum, ok?”

They stayed there, sipping the hot, cheap coffee. Nic watched the steam swirl above the polystyrene cup and felt for his pouch of tobacco. He placed the drink on the floor and slid a paper from its packet. He held it between his right index finger and thumb, whilst he opened the pouch and clasped that automatically between the little and ring fingers of his left hand. Strands of tobacco were evened along the length of the paper by his thumbs, and after two rolls the paper was sharply folded in on itself, creating a satisfying tube. Geoff had watched the whole process. It never failed to amaze him how his son could complete this dextrous task so effortlessly and with a certain dashing panache. He’d never liked to smoke himself, but was of the school of thought that it was quite attractive in others. Not that he’d tell Nic, as he disapproved of the nihilistic nature of the habit.

Nic returned to the hall to make his way outside, and found that there was an exodus in place. The auctioneer was leading the way, and Nic surmised that the car was the next lot. He turned around to fetch his father, but almost knocked into him as he did so.

“The car’s up now,” said Geoff pointing at the catalogue he’d picked up on the way out of the pitched café.

Outside, the auctioneer topped a three rung set of steps, and began the description of the car, to an audience of fifty or sixty. Keith Davies was across the bonnet from Nic and Geoff and offered £500 as the first bid. Nic saw him as the kind of buyer that liked to get to the point, and this lot was bound to go above four figures; others may have started low in the vain hope of a bargain, but in Keith Davies the auction had a realist.

Climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge. Illegally.


So, to the adventure I had at the end of the last century. I was taking the much-worn route on a gap year, taking in Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Australia and eventually Japan. My journey was interrupted by news of my father’s lung cancer diagnosis, and I obviously returned home. My father insisted I continue my travels, and a few days after arriving in Australia, I was given the call to come back once more, the situation was final. Happily I got back in time to see him before he died. Before long I took another full day in the air, and landed in Sydney. After a month or so with a good friend with whom I had started travelling, I found myself back in Sydney, employed by Telstra and living in a hostel on the coast at Coogee Bay. I must say that it was a fairly dark time, sharing communal space with people that held little appeal – a priapic Michael Bolton lookalike for example, or the Scottish alcoholic who, when he wasn’t smoking in the bunk below me at 5 a.m., once accused me of shitting in his sleeping bag whilst he slept in it, after one of his box of port binges. Luckily for me two friends from university were on the way over from America as part of a much larger world tour. Tony and Kris arrived in a thunder storm that had apparently sent some cabin crew into hysterics, telling stories of getting the thumbs up from Boris Yeltsin at the G7 summit in Denver and thankfully providing me with a new perspective. We moved from the beach into town, and dropped our backpacks in a room at The Funk House in King’s Cross.

On our second night there we sat on the stairs near reception, making conversation and friends, rolling joints and cracking tinnies. My mood was elevated and I was as happy as one can only be after being rescued and plunged into good, good times. I sat with another Tony, who would soon become known as High Tone with my short mate inevitably taking the moniker Low Tone, enjoying the happy, welcoming atmosphere; so when an older Australian man came in and asked at reception if there was anyone staying at the hostel who might enjoy an adventure later that evening, interest was piqued. We pumped this strange man, let’s call him Bruce, for more information, and he would give us none more than be ready to do something illegal at midnight and be sober. An offer like that was too much to resist, and we retired upstairs to contemplate what madness may be awaiting us. We sat on sofas, and rolled no more joints. If we were to be doing something that required sobriety, we were at least sensible enough to take the advice. At least we were when someone mentioned it might be climbing the Harbour Bridge. I suffer from crippling vertigo, literally. At height I paralyse. However, the excitement that had been generated had bought others into our circle, and at midnight our line up now included Mike the engineer Rachel the scientist. Quite the gang.

We waited downstairs, wondering which of the two shortlisted adventures we would be having – a tour of the sewers had been mooted, and despite the grimness of such a tour, it was preferable to me than getting high in the other way. He arrived, and Bruce was a strange man. We were indeed going to scale the bridge. It would be his 32nd time, and that night was his 41st birthday. He wanted no financial recompense beyond $10 for fuel for his station wagon, into which we all piled. The journey was quiet, Bruce briefly explaining that we had to move fast once we’d climbed the fence at the bottom, so as to avoid raising the alarm.

So, we parked a distance away from the base of the bridge. We were on the north shore, near the financial district rather than the side where the opera house sits. We took the chance to take a photo, grinning idiots – even at this early part of the evening, the photo clearly shows my smile is rictus, insane, terrified. We turned on our heels after Bruce had finished clicking and moved towards the base. Twice we had to walk in the opposite direction as the police were patrolling. I remember distinctly wishing they would send us on our way. Especially after we learnt that the penalty for our proposed transgression was deportation and AUS$1,000 fine. I wanted neither.

However, naturally we did get to our destination. We started breaking the law – what follows is not only the naughtiest, but possibly the most dangerous thing I have ever done. (I say “possibly” as there was an incident off Frazier Island some months before – we’ll save that for another time). We climbed a chain link fence and dropped 2 metres or more onto the concrete the other side. We rounded the foot of one of the paired stone towers that support the road either side of Port Jackson, as the harbour is correctly known, but almost never referred to as. And there, astonishingly, was the way in – a hole in the side of the bottom arch of steel. We climbed in and once we had all crawled, with hushed guidance from Bruce, through a strange oval hole, we were permitted to turn our torches on. It became clear; we were inside the bottom arch, and the space was approximately 4 feet high, by 2 across. Every 2 or 3 yards was a steel wall with a small aperture through which we pulled ourselves, potholing style. For lithe Rachel and Low Tone, this presented little trouble. Even for me (remember this is many years ago, I was svelte and about 10 stone dripping wet), these holes were a navigable problem – but pity poor High Tone and broad Mike. As the arch rises, the height inside reduces until as it plateaus, it is merely 2 feet high. All of this was fine. We were inside, protected from the rain outside and shielded me from the view, more importantly.

Once we had finished this fairly gruelling first leg, I thought we might be at the top; my mind had completely forgotten that we were only in the lower of the two iconic arches. That misunderstanding was blown from my mind as we climbed out into the very wet, windy Sydney night. Exposed and by now completely horrified by what we were doing (in stark contrast to everyone else who thought this was great), I turned to Bruce and said it was a great experience and do we now just turn around?

Of course not. We had to cross the centre of the bridge to get to the ladder on the other side, that would take us to the apex of the top arch, and then on to the crow’s nest where the red air traffic light bellows its warning to all and sundry. This journey across was taken on hands and knees, about 160 feet above the road below. The bridge across the bridge was about 2 feet wide, steel and devoid of handrails or any enclosure. Just a sheet of metal, with a helpful slippery sheen of rain. My heart beat like some dreadful drum and bass, my breathing was shallow and fast. I inched across, trying not to look at the toy cars going about their business below. My focus was purely on the other side, and time swam elastically. It may have taken 10 minutes, I may have been across in 20 seconds. Surely it could get no worse?

As I recall, it did. The ladder rising to the next arch was a series of ambitiously spaced rungs, rising at 45 degrees. This, therefore, gave me an unavoidable view of the tarmac below. I simply can’t describe the fear I felt. As close to being dead as I’ve ever been. In fairness, I think I blanked a lot of it out. What I do remember is once at the top, a mere 10 metres from the red light, I had no idea what to do next. I couldn’t go back down, and I certainly couldn’t, as was being said, walk the last few metres to the crow’s nest. Again, no safety equipment. But walk it I did. And once there I clung to the light as though it would save me, should the bridge collapse.

The return journey to earth was a quick doubling of the terror, and outside once more, we scaled the fence. As the last set of feet hit the deck, we saw a police car. We scattered and regrouped at Bruce’s car. He dropped us back in the salubrious surroundings of King’s Cross, at around 4am. We went and drank coffee and I was as high as I have ever been, secure in the knowledge that I would never have to do that again.

At 9am I called the Telstra office in Bondi Junction and quietly informed them that I hadn’t been able to sleep. I needed the day off.

Invictpiss


Em invited me out to the flicks tonight, her treat. Off to some place in Notting Hill, The Coronet. £3.50 each, so not much to feel guilty about. INVICTUS – Clint Eastwood (never bettered his work with Clyde) directs, Matt Damon (yes, yes, do the voice) and Morgan “There was something about Andy Dufrane” Freeman star. Aparthied, yada, yada. I respect the struggle, but Em & I get on well and had stuff to discuss. We pulled up a street away from the cinema in her drophead Audi S4 (yes, I did ask if it was her’s), and had a quick glass of wine. Film starts at 7.30, so at 7.32 I say we’re late. Turns out, we were very late, place was busting at the seams, so we went to The Gold, had two more glasses and caught up. Em was my first love. Important to talk and not watch, I reckon. Mind you, Clint & Clyde never talked….

The Joy of Unemployment


Don’t get me wrong – there are more days than not when I am so utterly fucked-off and down-trodden with not working (who’d have thought?) that I feel like 100 year old film, the light at the end of the tunnel just a pin hole exposed to me for less than 5 seconds. I apply for work, I read the ‘papers online, I invent cheap & strange dishes, I edit and I write. In short, I keep myself busy, as one is always advised to. I work in the kitchen, and I’ve become anal about not seeing the sitting room until past 6pm, although the stationing of my new printer in that room means I need to be more flexible. Things are such that I delivered my CV and references to the Irish bar around the corner today – whilst my previous experience is not listed, I’m hoping the references from the two pubs I’ve worked in will swing it; I’ve got a feeling chatter about National Hunt racing might go down well in there.

Anyway, The Joy. I decided to visit my friend Louise today. I went to school with her husband, Chris, and we’re great mates. I lived with Chris, Louise and the then 7 month old Luca for a couple of months last summer, and that little sod got under my skin. Spending that much time with a child of that age is nothing but a priviledge and I count Luca as a mate.

So, it’s just a ramble about a “nice day”. We caught up over coffee and Jaffa Cakes so good I remarked that “These aren’t just any Jaffa Cakes….”. Sure enough, they were M&S Jaffa Cakes. Luca and I discussed his new footballs (regulation and fun size, already displaying an affection to use his father’s favoured left peg) and of course, my trilby. I’m sure he’s crazy for any “ha” as he calls them, but I like to think mine is his favourite. It survives all the torture visited upon it by the unscrupulous “Chumpy”, springing back into its shape.

Anyway, we took off into the park and visited the Princess Di kiddie’s play area, where you can see Luca doing his Commodore Grandfather proud in the boat. Louise was insistent that some A list slebs got in there from time to time, but it’s not the kind of thing that interests me. We strolled off towards the duck pond (along with approximations for “hat”, “flowers” and “horses”, “ducks” is a word in Luca’s vocabulary), but half way there (and I can say this, because on the list of way over 6 billion people that don’t read this blog, Chris is in the high 5,000,000,000’s) Louise suggested we retire to the juicer for a quick pint.

A simple, nice day. And special in its way. I jumped on the public transport home, and ambled the last 100 yards past the very posh cafe, home. Jade Jagger walked out across my path. But, like I say, that’s not something that interests me.

Wasabi Whites & Tomato Yokes


Here is a quick and simple way to make your weekend fry-up more interesting.
1) Seperate you whites and yokes
2) Mix Wasabi to taste with the white, tomato puree with the yokes.
3) Fry seperately, and quickly.
4) If you’re looking to impress, cut the yokes and whites into circles and present as if complete eggs.

Trust me, bloody good, tried it Saturday.

Queensway, Bayswater


Queensway, W2

The area of Queensway in Bayswater just seven minutes walk from Paddington Station is often thought of, with good reason, as a backpacker’s haunt. Whilst there are myriad internet cafes and shop window postcards offering cheap digs, one should not be blinded to the fun that can be had on this street, often referred to as “The Koh San Road of London”.
Within 50 metres of Queensway tube station there is the Queens Ice Skating Rink and Bowling Alley (www.queensiceandbowl.co.uk) and the covered market offering Brazilian and Russian tourists succour and a flavour of home. For an authentic taste of Russia however, one should stop at Kalinka (35 Queensway), a genuine magazine Russian mini market; it has the feel of a black market Soviet establishment and is one of the few places in town where one can buy the delicious Borjomi mineral water from Georgia – to my mind a reason to invade the state on its own.
Further down the road there are many things Chinese, from therapy centres to restaurants, the pick of which is The Gold Mine (102 Bayswater) – booking is advised as there seems to be a permanent queue of Chinese customers from 7pm onwards. If Chinese food doesn’t float your boat, then set sail across the global options afforded to you at the top end of the road. Moroccan, Lebanese, Italian, Malay, Thai, Indian, Japanese, a waffle house, frozen yoghurt (www.myfreshfrog.com) or just honest pub grub; The Prince Alfred offers standard fare.
If you wish to dig a little deeper in your pockets, I recommend the high-end French eaterie, Le Café Anglais (www.lecafeanglais.co.uk), in the elegant shopping centre of Whiteleys. It’s on the corner of Porchester Gardens (where there is a second bowling alley) and houses within its art deco halls everything from Gap to Zara, H&M to Muji. On the ground floor are several tempting Food Inc concessions, specialising in cheese, deli goods and fresh fish. There is an Odeon Cinema on the second floor, but there is so much to see outside on the street, you might want to save a trip to the flicks for another time.

Tubes: Queensway (Central) Bayswater (Circle & District)

Ladies and Gentlemen, introducing Walter Knowles


Walter Knowles left the Red Star building, pleased that he had finally finished his project watch. It had been just over a month since the factory had been renamed in honour of S.M. Kirov and Walter had taken the chance to furnish and cover the mechanism with one of the new faces. He stood patiently for the route taxicab in the dry cold. His hands appreciated the little warmth and protection afforded by the deep pockets in his coat, and the fingers of his left toyed with the crown winder whilst in the right hand he clutched at a packet of cigarettes. It was too cold to remove his hand, and too cold to pull down his scarf. Hence it was too cold to smoke, no matter how much his chest implored him. His ushanka kept his balding head and small ears away from the worst of the weather, but his eyes stung and cheeks were red.

Looking along the street in anticipation of the shared car, a new and welcome addition to the paved streets of Moscow, Walter took in the scene. Not much had changed, aside from the structure of the factory, since he arrived almost 6 years ago. He remained in the same apartment which was visible just 150 yards away in the direction he was looking, on the second floor above Andrei the cobbler’s shop, identifiable by its weathered blue awning. Andrei had at first taken exception to the “inostranets” that had been presented with the tidy three rooms above the shop on arrival. He had coveted the space for his own family, but once he had discovered that this couple had come to help with the construction of a watch factory further along Voronczovskaja, he appreciated them as artisans. And whilst repairing shoes was seen by many as an important, yet simple vocation, Andrei saw it as nothing less than craftsmanship and took great pride in work that was (in his mind) amongst the best in Moscow, if not the whole Soviet Union. It was only a few weeks after they had arrived in 1930 that Andrei had first spoken to them. His wife, Lana had insisted he take borscht and vodka to them. They could spare no more than a little of the red soup for them, and just enough vodka for the three to toast their arrival in Moscow. Andrei was immediately impressed by the few words that Walter was able to speak in Russian, with formal grammar; at home at the Kremlin perhaps but too correct for the streets outside of the centre.

Over the coming months and years, Walter and his wife Ruth got to grips with the everyday language, both in the factory and with the limited circle of friends they had made, which included Andrei and Lana. The decision to stay after so many of the other workers from Ohio had returned to the Buckeye State wasn’t easy, but in the summer of 1932 Ruth had finally conceived. Without family to speak of back in the States, and the terrible unemployment still cast a shadow over the country. There was job security in Moscow and Walter was respected and in the factory.

The taxi arrived. Walter took a look down the street as he ducked into the back seat with one other passenger. He let his mind wander, staring directly ahead. Moscow was a large, large city compared to Canton, but it was merely a magnified mirror. The poverty that they had left behind was here too, and even as they motored down Pushkinskaya towards the centre, old women and men scavenged. He hoped that by following his head, Russia was the right place in which to bring up little Peter. He had no idealistic leaning towards Communism, but he had a comfortable apartment, was able to provide for his family, and was able to indulge himself and his wife. She wanted the occasional dress, which he could easily afford, and he had been able to afford to build a small camera, now hanging from his neck under his coat. As well as being able to customise his own pocket watch over the years, Walter was satisfied with the small scale engineering that he could take part in. With both his projects he was now heading in to the centre of Moscow, to take photographs of the landmark buildings.

His scarf was still around his lower face and his hands still firmly in his pockets, still no warmer. His eyes had begun to thaw and the veins in his cheeks felt crystallised. He turned a cigarette tip around in his pocket, mistaking it for the crown of the watch. Beneath the scarf he grinned at his idiocy as the car halted near Red Square.

His hand came out of his pockets for the first time in half an hour before he disembarked, to rattle some roubles into the demanding mittened palm of the driver. He closed the door with his hips, and dug into coat to free the camera. As he did so, a young man, a boy really, walked towards him with pleading etched on his Slavic features.

“Izvini, droog?” he said.
“Da?” replied Walter, feeling for the cigarette he was certain he was about to be begged of.
“Do you have a cigarette, pozhaluista?”
“Da” and he reached into his pocket, pulling out his watch by mistake.

In an instant, Walter lost his watch and his camera. The camera was torn from his neck, the watch easily rested from his cold grasp. The boy ran and unencumbered by a great coat, easily made away from the strange American, screaming after him in his native tongue. It was enough to attract attention from the politsiya, and by the time he had explained his loss, in tear soaked Russian, the formal kind that he still had occasion to use, he understood that he would not see the items again.