Sunday, February 25, 2018


Bookie  Blake ,standing with pencil,  at  Fannie Bay Racecourse.
Toiling in  several vineyards in South Australia was an interesting experience , sprinkled with  mirth ,  especially when some  young members of  a  pruning  gang  said I looked like Papa Smurf  with my pointed cap, beard and two-tone  padded Chinese jacket  on  wintry days .   There were  more laughs  when   I  toiled  in   the 10 acre   Arnhem Nursery , run by  Kerry  and Sandra Byrnes , at  Humpty Doo ,  on  the outskirts of  Darwin . 
By Peter Simon  
One  source of merriment  there occurred  when Kerry , who regarded himself as a  dab hand  with  all things mechanical , could not get the  leaf  blower to work .   He had worked on oil rigs in the Philippines and New Zealand  and loved dismantling  engines . 

Yank, yank, yank, yank , yank  on the starter  cord.  Fuel checked , examined  from 57 angles .  No  life, causing  use of colourful  oil industry  toolpushers  language .  With a big event  coming up at the weekend , possibly  the annual  pottery show in the grounds of the nursery , and   the  need  to make  it look  immaculate  like the Garden of Eden  , I sped into  the  industrial area  with  the  blower  to  see the  agents  for  the  infernal machine .

There a  guy took one look at the blower  and  announced it had a  wasp nest up the  spout , preventing  it  to  breathe . Removed , it  went  first  pull .

On a recent  visit  back to Darwin,  I was  picked up   by  Kerry and  driven  to  the  plant  nursery  where  we  had  a memorable feed of  fish and  chips , interrupted   from  time  to  time  by annoying   customers.  
 It  was  so  hot, Sandra   jumped  fully clothed into the swimming pool  to cool off.    During our   enjoyable , wide ranging  discussion ,  I was  surprised  to learn   that  a  very  large  tree  nearby  had  come  from  a  tiny  plant    many decades  ago  nursed  along  by  a  mutual friend ,  the late  Peter  Blake,  journalist extraordinaire ,  once  a  Darwin bookmaker, an  avid   fisherman .   

A great admirer of  Blake , with whom I  collaborated to produce two  Darwin satirical  papers, The  Fannie Bay Whisper and  Troppo ,  I pressed   Kerry, who delivers  a regular  gardening talk on the local ABC radio ,  for   details   of  this  Darwin version of  from  tiny  acorns  mighty  oaks  grow . He  responded   with   an   informative email  after  the nursery had  been   hammered by monsoonal rain, 800 plus millimetres in four days, which washed away part of the roadway , three   trucks   bogged  , witches hats   all  over  the  place.

The   large  "Peter Blake tree, " he wrote ,  was  a Banyan , which  had been  given to  Kerry and Sandra  way back .  Peter  said  he had  found the  tiny tree  growing in  an old  boot   his  young  daughter, Rebecca, had  thrown  into the yard  and  it  had  been obscured by grass  . The  plant was withdrawn  , placed in  a Paul's milk carton, eventually ending up a stately tree  and a  talking  point at  the  nursery .  
Peter  liked  growing  things  in  odd   containers , said  Kerry. He also  grew  seed  sprouts  for  eating  in  his   kitchen . 
 Kerry and I  both went on memorable  fishing expeditions  with  Peter  Blake . On one , Kerry recalled  sitting  in  car  before sunrise,  at a swampy  location down the track  , eating lumpy  sandwiches  Peter  had made  which consisted of  corned beef  and  mayonnaise,  not really  to  Kerry's liking.   Eager to go , still dark ,  Peter had  jumped out  with  his fishing gear  and   waded  into  the  swamp , where  buffaloes  wallowed, poisonous  snakes  were  plenty...true Crocodile Dundee territory.  

After cyclonic weather, Peter  and I set out for some serious fishing at Fogg Dam, near Darwin , where heavy rain  had caused flooding which  cut several channels  through the earthen wall , barramundi  escaping . We were expertly clad , both wearing overalls , gumboots, carrying smart rods imported from Sydney , where Peter had been involved with the innovative  Fishing  News paper which provided fishing news to a commercial radio station ,  and  had  written many  zany fishing columns  for the Kings Cross Whisper, a publication which sold like hot cakes  and  barramundi fillets in  batter  across  Australia .   

We waded through one channel and headed  for  the larger  one where  an Aboriginal   man , barefooted, in  shorts , an  open shirt ,  with  a  mere   handline , was   fishing .  Splashing  loudly  through  flowing  water, we   drew close to  the  fisherman, asked  how  they  were  biting ."Alright," was the  terse  reply, " until  you  came." 

Now living in Melbourne , journalist  Kim Lockwood recalled  another   fishing  trip  involving  a party of  reporters  from  Darwin who  went out to the  fabulous Nourlangie safari  camp .  Peter Blake  and Chris Lindsay were in one tinnie , Kim  and  I  in another . As I recall , the water was seething with  fish  sensing  the  monsoonal  rain  would  soon enable  them  to  escape the landlocked lagoon  into the floodplains . 

Fishing  in  the dark for about four hours , Kim says  we two only caught  five barra  between us .  The others caught a whopping 33 which must have just about sunk the boat . When a  lamp was turned on to land a fish , we  were eaten alive by insects.  We stopped  at  a creek on  the way back  to clean the fish  and slept for an hour on the side of the road, then  went home . He put his  fish in the freezer-only for Cyclone Tracy  to  kill  the freezer  and ruin the fish a  few  days later. The prized , large barramundi I buried after the cyclone forced itself  to  the surface like a hot air balloon  many days later  in a gas  filled  plastic   bag . 

Peter Blake  played a big  part in the bright,  independent   newspaper,The Darwin Star ,  which Kerry  and Sandra   Byrnes  started ,  providing  strong competition for   the Murdoch  Northern Territory News .  Peter  had  worked on  The Star  in  Hong Kong  and suggested The Star as  the name for the new  Darwin paper.    Kerry recalled  seeing  Blake's whole body shake   with mirth  as he  gleefully  subbed  pages and wrote  bright stories .  The Darwin paper was  bought  by  South Australian trucking   millionaire    Allan Scott  who branched out  into  TV and  newspapers .

Sandra and Kerry , involved in publication of  gardening  magazines ,  left   and  started  Arnhem Nursery .  The  Star  eventually  folded  .

Blake had  left  for America before the sale of the paper ,which owed  him  about $1300 in  holiday pay . He had instructed Sandra  Byrnes, who looked after money matters on  the paper, to hold it for a rainy day , when  the money  would  be  needed, perhaps on  a  visit  back to Australia . 
Sandra  received   a call a few days after he  left for America   to urgently wire the money . Kerry  said  Peter had  no  sooner  landed in America than  he went out to "Yonkers", or some other race track , and lost his shirt . Becoming a longtime  New Yorker, a sub editor on the New York Post ,  Peter  joined  a  community  garden  group  in  Manhattan   and  went  on   many  fishing   trips.