September 26, 2017

Beermat of memory and loss

It’s not much to look at, the beermat from the former journalists’ watering hole, Montgomery’s in central Hobart. It’s not as striking as the fiery red one from the Coopers brewery in Adelaide, with a beer barrel at its centre, or the shield-shaped one from Fullers in London, in ochre, advertising a bitter called London Pride.

The Montgomery’s beermat is in monochrome, with a simple line drawing of the pub on the corner of Macquarie and Argyle streets, as unpretentious and understated as the pub itself.

I found a collection of beermats in my study recently, the beermats taken at random from pubs and bars up and down the country, and beyond, as you do.

I don’t know why I take them, drunk I suppose, wanting some souvenir of a night of revelry. Over the years they serve no purpose other than to add to the junk which accumulates in the top drawer of the desk in my study. I toss them out when I eventually find them because I have absolutely no recollection of the nights and events which somehow led to the beermats ending up in my pocket.

So here I am in the process of tossing a Coopers beermat collected in Adelaide into the bin. The London Pride one also flies through the air along with, ironically, a beermat depicting a World War Two Spitfire acquired from a pub in Kent.

Lastly I hold the Montgomery’s beermat in my hand, and glance at the picture. “It wasn’t even a good picture of the pub,” I mutter to myself, looking at it critically. All the same I can’t let go of the beermat and let it fly towards the bin. It conjures something emotional, visceral in me. It’s as though it’s got a life and condemning it to the bin is to condemn it to die.

Just a simple black and white picture on a beermat and I feel just a little teary. Sitting in my study, an arm’s length away from tossing a beermat into a waste paper basket, I struggle to determine if it is tears of loss, or laughter, that threaten to run down my cheeks, or legs.

Montgomery’s was the last “official” watering hole in a working life spent at the typeface, as a newspaper journalist. I use the word “official” because I can’t think of another to describe a place which was part workplace and part a scene of relaxation and recreation, if playing pool and darts can be described as recreation. Montgomery’s was a place to escape from the tensions of work in official, and unofficial, breaks and then a place to relax, to chat with colleagues – reporters and sub-editors – and friends not in the newspaper trade after the work was done.

When Montgomery’s closed about four years ago I wrote on Tasmanian Times of its demise, not only expressing shock at the “closed” sign on the door but the demise of the institution, worldwide, of the hangout for journalists which had been the watering hole.

Montgomery’s closed simply because the Mercury had moved its office to another location in Salamanca Square but the writing had been on the wall for a number of years, as staff numbers at the Mercury shrunk and the new breed of journalists found less interest, or less time, to go to the pub during their break, or at the end of their shift.

I was talking of working journalists at the time.  What had escaped my recollection of press pubs I had known on four continents was the role they played in the lives of journalists who had retired. Together with being a bridge between work and play, these pubs also served as a meeting place, a point of contact between the working journalist and those who had left the industry.

That connection has gone, and this becomes apparent when you retire yourself and lose that link with a profession which has sustained you in income, camaraderie and laughs for a working life, in my case more than 50 years.

I can’t think of a pub from the old days in which wordsmiths put out to grass didn’t at one time or another turn up at their former watering hole, usually on a Friday when journalists still on the payroll had been paid or were flush with the weeks’ reimbursed expenses.

It provided a great meeting of minds and anecdotes. The new breed of journalist could learn from the experience of the old-timers, not only experiences to share but tales of caution. How many times did I hear of the dangers of drinking too much free booze at civic functions, of the reporter who threw up over the mayoral chain or, worse, who goosed the mayor’s wife.

  *                  *                  *

I’m sitting in my study, flipping a Montgomery’s monochrome beermat between my fingers, putting it down, picking it up. What brings on a melancholy, a sense of loss, is that I have been robbed of the chance to tell my stories to a younger generation pursuing careers in what I still call a craft. And no doubt the younger generation would have stories themselves. The new Mercury watering hole in the Barcelona bar and bistro over the Salamanca Square from the newspaper’s office does not lend itself to old hacks pointing out journalists are the first recorders of history. And anyway, one of my older crew complains he is always ignored when trying to order a drink at the crowded bar, especially during happy hour on a Friday night. I don’t believe him of course; he simply remembers the press bars of old where it was in the interests of the management to look after the interests of their established, big-spending clientele.

I actually like Barcelona, and I like the new breed of journalist I find there on infrequent trips to the square. I say infrequent because I don’t want to appear like some old fossil dug up from the past, or worse a new media groupie. And I never get to tell my stories which is just as well; I’d keep on talking until well past happy hour.

So I’m sitting in my study on a Friday night ignoring invites to go to Barcelona, studying a Montgomery’s beermat, thinking of stories I’ll never get to tell, at least in an environment I consider not conducive to them. And so I start to tell stories – three of them – to myself.

  *                  *                  *

Early one Friday night the editor of the Sunday Tasmanian strode into Montgomery’s and ordered drinks all round for his colleagues. The early, feature pages of the Sunday newspaper had been put to bed, and a riveting front-page lead was ready to be processed the next day.  It was time to celebrate, although it must be said that during the course of the week there had been many a reason to take ale.

The editor was in his customary black, dating from the days he had studied theology and for a brief time entertained the notion of being a Church of England minister.

In his enthusiasm to describe what was in store for readers on Sunday morning, the scoops ready to be put to print, he backed into the pub’s blackboard advertising the specials on the menu that night.

The editor’s shirt was a linen one and the chalk from the blackboard stuck to it readily, forming a perfect outline of the words and prices advertising rump steak, fish of the day and parmigiana, chicken or beef.

Although the menu on the shirt read back to front, when the editor stood in front of Montgomery’s main window opening out to Argyle Street, it could be read perfectly reflected in the pane.

As the editor, arms flaying like the sails of a windmill in a high wind, excitedly regaled his audience with the daring-do of his news gathering team during the week, customers in Montgomery’s were persuaded by his colleagues to quietly peruse the menu reflected in the window, and then order.

“Steak, please, medium rare, no sauce. Table Three”

“Fish, no tartar. Table six”

“Parmigiana, chicken, salad instead of chips. Will take it at the bar.”

The editor looked nonplussed, confused, believing that the customers merely thought he was bar staff, a waiter maybe, seeing he was dressed in black. He told them, politely even if he showed a measure of annoyance at being interrupted in his story telling, to order at the bar, before continuing with his paper’s news gathering exploits over the week, especially as he had a growing audience apparently hanging on his every word.

Then some wit, and a few jokes.

The editor’s colleagues, gathered around him, were convulsed. I laughed so much I couldn’t breathe.

Instead of twigging what was going on, especially as those ordering from the menu kept glancing at the window with Cascade Ale embossed on the glass, the editor continued with his stories, no doubt convinced his qualities as a raconteur were holding an audience beyond the newspaper fraternity which was growing by the minute.

It was my Alf Garnet moment, a scene from the British comedy Till Death Us Do Part, in which the bigoted, loud-mouthed Garnet discovers he is the life and soul of his own local in the London Docklands. When he gets home he boasts that he is the most popular person in the pub, until he glances in the mirror and sees that his son-in-law has painted a smiling face on his totally bald head while he is asleep in front of the fire.

Not that my former colleague was bigoted, or a big mouth. He just supplied a moment to treasure in the best tradition of the journalists’ pub.

  *                  *                  *

The singing trout incident was kept hush-hush within the Mercury for a time, before its details leaked out over several pints of Cascade Draught one Friday night.

The journalists switching their attention from the Mercury to the Sunday Tasmanian on a Saturday night tended to take their business to another pub further down Macquarie Street, because Montgomery’s hosted karaoke sessions at weekends. The noise during these occasions were not usually conducive to making conversation about journalism, but from time to time journalists from the Mercury had been known to take the stage for renditions of such karaoke staples as My Way, orThe Green, Green Grass of Home.

Saturday nights offered the chance to linger in the bar of the Hope and Anchor because the Sunday Tasmanian had an earlier first edition which went to press an hour before the Mercury’s. One Saturday night, when the staff learned there were minimal changes for the second edition which the night editor was attending to, more ale than usual was consumed.  On his fourth or fifth pint, one of the sub-editors took a shine to a novelty plastic trout attached to the wall, a kitsch representation of the kind of thing which decorates the walls in hunting and fishing lodges. Only this plastic rainbow trout turned its head sideways when a button was pressed and sang a 1970s pop song, Take me to the River.

So much mirth and fascination was engendered by this trout that the journalist who couldn’t stop pressing the button decided to take his interest in the trout to the next level. He lifted it from the wall when it had stopped singing for the last time, and hid it under his coat.

He had decided Montgomery’s was lacking without it, and the pub would never be the same if it did not grace its walls, and provide competition for the karaoke singers.

So there we were, staggering up Macquarie Street late on a Saturday night with one of our number hiding a singing trout under his coat.

The trout was not to be silenced on its liberation from the Hope and Anchor. It popped its head from under its new owner’s coat, and merrily sang Take me to the river, drop me in the water to two young women who happened to be passing, giving them a shock they were not expecting on a Saturday night.

The journalist entered Montgomery’s with his prize and a barmaid who had learned of what had gone on at the Hope and Anchor, shouted above someone singing an Abba song: “Is that a trout in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me.”

The laughter had barely died when the miscreant realised the seriousness of his deeds. The trout spent a night on the wall of Montgomery’s before, discreetly, being returned to the Hope and Anchor next day. The Hope never noticed its trout had done a runner.

  *                  *                  *

A sub-editor on the Mercury was nicknamed “the Duck” for reasons I never established. He hailed from Sydney originally and, being a keen yachtsman, had washed up in Tasmania in the wake of the Sydney-Hobart yacht race many years previously. I also never established if he had sailed in the blue ocean classic, or had merely come to Tasmania to report on the event for a yachting magazine.

Nonetheless, he had never raised his anchor again after reaching Tasmanian shores, and this at the end of his shift was planted firmly at one specific spot in Montgomery’s, close to the taps and in a little alcove in which he was never disturbed by passing traffic.

The Duck was known for his bad temper. He demonstrated a general dislike of people unless they were Montgomery regulars, or journalists of about the same age as himself, which was late 50s. Most of all he hated young reporters and would berate individuals both in and outside the office about their reporting, grammar and spelling. Needless to say, the young reporters avoided him, and took up station at the other end of the bar.

The Duck was of grizzled appearance with a salt and pepper beard and he could have fitted the stereotype of an old salt, or the ancient mariner but no one would call him such to his face. The nickname “Duck” was as far as the monikers were allowed to go.

Friday nights were difficult occasions for the Duck when end-of-the-week revelry and happy-hour prices attracted people to the pub who were not regulars.

“Fuckin’ once a week drinkers,” he would bawl out when waiting to be served longer than usual, and the crowd spilled over into his spot at the bar.

On such occasions he would give anyone invading his space a rigorous nudge to the ribs with his elbow, something he had learned from junior grade rugby league in New South Wales.

If Fridays were difficult for the Duck, that certain time of the year when Hobart was invaded by end-of-season Australia rules players from the mainland were far more disconcerting.

For some reason, over several weeks, the post-season footy booze tours always made Montgomery’s their first stop, before forays into pubs closer to the waterfront and along the Salamanca Strip.

On one such occasion the Duck had left his corner of the bar to order the revellers to turn down the volume on the juke box. Protesting angrily, they agreed after the landlady intervened. A little later one of the footy players encountered the Duck in the lavatory and gave him a not so playful kick up the backside while he was standing at the urinal. One of the pub’s bouncers, reporting for duty at the start of karaoke night, had been in the lavatory at the same time and was about to order the footy player off the premises when the Duck took matters into his own hands. In a flash, he gave the young man who was probably a third of his age, a right hook to the mouth. The footy player responded, punching the Duck in the eye before he was wrestled out into the street by the bouncer.

Next day, the Duck’s day off, he sat at his favourite spot in Montgomery’s, something he usually did when he was not working.

He nursed a black eye, the hand which had delivered the right hook was swollen and the Duck had difficulty holding his glass. The knuckle which had hit the footy player full in the mouth had been cut my one of his teeth and the landlady ordered the Duck down to the Royal Hobart Hospital for doctors there to have a look it. By this time the swelling in the hand extended to under the Duck’s arm. The wound had become infected, poison was swilling through his veins and the Duck was ordered to a hospital bed, where he stayed a week while the wound was drained constantly.

The Duck returned to Montgomery’s something a hero. Even those who didn’t particularly like his company, liked the invasion of the footy players and their raucous behaviour even less.

For the Duck it was drinks on his colleagues for a week, but not on the house. The landlady was less than pleased with his behaviour. Nonetheless, she ignored a suggestion from the bouncer that the Duck be shown the door; he was more trouble than he was worth.  Anyone else would have been banned for life but different rules applied to journalists misbehaving themselves at their watering hole.

*                  *                  *

Montgomery’s reopened a year or so after its closure, with a new proprietor, a new décor, and new clientele. But one of the old gang, from the old days, still couldn’t pull himself away.

I see the retired sub-editor when I pass the pub with a new name, the Fluke and Bruce, although these days I have a more virtuous destination in mind, the gym at the Hobart aquatic centre. The former sub-editor stands in the spot the Duck inhabited before the Duck was called to the great newsroom in the sky. After the Duck’s funeral the proprietor of Montgomery’s placed a model yacht above the place where the Duck used to sink his 7oz glasses of Cascade Draught but when I pass I note the yacht has gone now, cleaned out by the new landlord along with the other paraphernalia of the pub’s past, including a battered old typewriter.

Sometimes the sub-editor who now regards the Fluke and Bruce as his local – coming in from the suburbs once a week to drink there – is not in the Duck’s domain, he is seen standing on the steps of the second of the pub’s entrances, having a “smoko” Wednesday afternoons, sometimes Monday.

He’s big and stoic, standing motionless except for the slow movement of his hand as he puts a cigarette to his lips. He takes a slow draw, and just as slowly tweaks his finger, so it sends ash to the pavement.

Strangely, he reminds me, slow and lugubrious, of a male African elephant I saw once, standing on an island in Lake Kariba, in Zimbabwe.

The building of the Kariba Dam and lake in the 1950s flooded ancient elephant migration routes through the Zambezi Valley, denying elephants seasonal movement from one part of the African bush to another. The old elephant was still trying to make the crossing, finally giving up when he realised his destination of old was now several kilometres out of reach.

On Macquarie Street on a Wednesday afternoon there’s a metaphor for an elephant waiting for a crossing of the Zambezi River which will never come. I drive past the Fluke and Bruce, but never stop and never go in. The pub under a new name, without its past clientele speaking in headlines, represents a destination of craic and memories that are on some foreign shore, out of reach.

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