The phantom pot-plant pincher of Mosman Park

| November 5, 2013 | 0 Comments

Eric Firth continues his account of life as a ten-quid pom in 1970s Australia.

You learn, early and uncomfortably, that flies are one of the biggest menaces in Australia. They’re everywhere: in your eyes, ears, mouth, hair, tea, coffee; sharing your sarnies, up your nostrils; swarming into the house the minute you open your fly-screen-protected door, and ruining any outdoor entertainment you had foolishly planned.

Take the famed Australian barbie. It’s a hundred degrees and some sadist has built a scorching fire. The smoke is near blinding you, but through the pain you just spy a piece of meat you fancy. You stick your fork in, but before the steak’s halfway to your mouth it’s covered in the black demons: and you’d be really disgusted if you knew what they do whilst on your grub. Don’t ask.

If British flies bother you, don’t even think of taking on Aussie ones: they’re the undisputed gold medallists. I did notice, though, that when the temperature got into the mid-90s they disappeared like they do in British winters. Clever little beggars.

From the early 1970s garden swimming pools became fashionable, but I noticed as I went past a few that there was rarely anybody actually swimming in them. In fact I never even saw anyone sat out by them: just the odd one standing there seemingly thinking, “Remind yourself what you bought this for when there’s a beach and thousands of miles of Indian ocean half a mile up the road?”

They were also dangerous. A too-frequent story on The Six O’Clock News was of some poor child having fallen into the pool and drowned. Maintenance, too, was expensive: in short they were a total waste of time and money. Anyway, who wants to sit outside swatting off flies by day and mosquitoes by night? That’s torture, not pleasure.

Then came the time of “the phantom pot-plant pincher of Mosman Park”. One morning our Welsh neighbour said that some bludger had stolen her pot plants during the night. The following morning, two more reports of stolen pot plants. This went on for weeks. Every morning someone would wake up to find their pot plants missing: just not us. But one morning my wife, big smile on her face, said, ”Look!” pointing to where our pot plants had been sunning themselves for the last few months. They’d gone – the phantom pot-plant pincher of Mosman Park had finally struck at 2B Fairlight Street, and we sighed with relief. We’d become the only ones in the area whose pot plants hadn’t been stolen and we were worried, imagining our neighbours muttering, “A bit funny I reckon, that the only pot plants still around are those poms’ at number two.”

Actually the thief was lucky they were there, since every morning the newspaper lad would fly past our house on his bike, slinging my copy of the West Australian in the rough direction of the door and just missing the plants. If the paper was soaking wet, and it often was, the newsagent refunded your money, but I doubt he covered damaged pot plants.

Also, around midnight, I’d often hear footsteps creeping about outside. It was a while before I learned they belonged to the mikman, “Milko”, not the phantom pot-plant pincher. Milkos have – by law – to deliver the milk to every doorstep before the sun gets up; if not it turns sour in very quick time. One day I remembered when I was a kid, how ex-servicemen who’d been abroad in India, the Middle East or Africa would tell tales of it getting so hot there you could fry an egg on the pavement, “Aye lad, tha could that”. So I tried it – and tha can. I just dropped an egg on the patio floor and in less than seconds it was rubber. Can’t beat old soldier tales.

I worked for a short time in a factory. There was an Aboriginal lad working there, and one day he just walked out without a word. I asked a workmate about it and he said that at some time or other, all Aboriginal Australians get a call to go on “walkabout” (i.e. undertake a journey to the ancestral land). They could be anywhere: at work, in the middle of a conversation, at the doctor’s – anywhere, anytime. The call comes from within, pulls them and they go. If the call comes while at work, weeks or months later they return, expecting their jobs to be there as if nothing had happened.

Soon after I was laughing at a story in the paper. It was about a man who would come » home from work every day, take a shower then sit down to a well-deserved meal. But as often as not, this would be interrupted by some annoying cold caller or religious evangelist ringing the doorbell. On this occasion, the man, finally fed up, roared, “That’s it, I’ve had enough!” He then ripped off his shorts – all he was wearing – and slung them across the floor. His embarrassed wife pleaded, “No, don’t, please don’t!” but he threw open the door and yelled, “YES?” It was the Avon lady. One ding dong too many.

Some time around 1977 comedian Bob Hope visited Perth to perform, and my oath did the Aussies let him know that their state was bigger than Texas. The state premier, Sir Charles Court – father-in-law of legendary tennis player Margaret Court – let Hope know almost the minute he stepped off the plane at Perth airport. “Welcome to Western Australia, bigger than Texas.” Both Texans and “Westralians” tend to shout a lot about their states as though size is everything. In contrast, we “biggest county” Tykes are known for our modesty.

Bob made sure that everybody knew he was born in England: he seemed very proud of it. I did wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that Perth, despite its Scottish name, is considered Australia’s most English state capital, with the main thoroughfare being St George’s Terrace.

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