five weddings & an illusion

broken heart

So the other day I got to interview one of the world’s most outstanding young magicians.

Sam Powers was in town to promote his upcoming role in The Illusionists 2.0 at the Arts Centre in January.

We got to talking about his early career and how, at the age of 18 or 19, he was summonsed to attend an audition for a “private party.”

The call-out for close-up magicians to mingle in the crowd was ignored by many more established talents who were offended by the request they audition. “It’s unheard of to audition for close-up work,” Sam revealed.

But teenage Sam – still wearing braces on his teeth and keen as mustard – went along. “I got the job and I still didn’t know what it was. We had to meet in a car park in Double Bay and get in this minivan with other entertainers and start heading up Bellevue Hill when I realised it was the … Packer wedding.”

I tell you people, this guy is good. Suddenly I was transported back to that rainy October night near the turn of the millennium staked outside the Packer compound along with half the press pack of Australia.

What I wouldn’t have given then to know how Sam made the engagement ring Tom Cruise gave Nicole Kidman disappear. Or about the Cuban cigar bar lined with hundreds and hundreds of the most expensive stogies ever to go up in smoke.

The $10 million wedding of James Packer to swimsuit model Jodie Meares (she later refined the spelling to Jodhi) was the pinnacle of ’90s excess.

It would be the last “celebrity” wedding I attended uninvited, but not the first.

My role as a wedding gate-crasher started in 1991 when Gretel Packer, married financier Nick Barham in the tiny village of Easebourne in Sussex in what was then gleefully described as the most expensive non-royal wedding in British history.

As well as gleaning riveting details of the numbers of lobsters ordered and bottles of Krug drunk at this comparatively modest $2.5 million shindig, I also stumbled onto the fact John Singleton – a guest in the same hotel where I was holed up – had “secretly” married Liz Hayes.

Princess Anne’s wedding to naval commander Tim Laurence at the Craithie Parish Church, close to the royal estate of Balmoral, was next. At least on this occasion the bride and groom did not seek to hide from public or press pack.

The last wedding stake-out was for the second marriage of Fergie, the Duchess of York’s sister Jane Ferguson to Rainer Luedecke at Jonah’s – a boutique Whale Beach hotel and restaurant.

It was New Year’s Day. Having partied in the city I hadn’t made it home to change and Tara Brown – then still A Current Affair reporter – had loaned me her black jumpsuit pinned up with paper clips because her legs are about a foot longer than mine.

It was stinking hot. Most of us in the press pack were hung over and our mood was not helped when a colleague from a rival Sunday newspaper strolled past the security cordon into Jonah’s on the arm of an ancient guest.

I still remember that sick feeling, thinking we’d been scooped – only to find out much later that the reporter had been virtually imprisoned well away from the wedding party.

For all the hoo hah and expense not one of those marriages survived. I guess they just lost the magic.




a chinese banquet


So my old dad turned 88 on the weekend and he wanted to go to the local Chinese for the birthday meal.

We once used to go there all the time as family but it had been years since I’d set foot in the place.

As the number of restaurants and the different types of cuisine available exploded exponentially I’d long abandoned this old favourite for hipper, shinier venues that served dishes like duck sugar cane skewers with nam jim rather than prawn toast.

The world had changed but inside the restaurant time stood still.

The copper-panelled front counter, the fake ferns, even Danny, the ever-beaming host, seemed not to have aged one iota.

He tactfully pretended not to notice our absence, reduced number or even the walking frame upon which my father now depends, but ushered us happily to our “usual” table.

And the food … the food was actually far, far better than I remembered it. Has the change in Australia’s culinary landscape also liberated Chinese restaurateurs so they can offer less bland dishes than those on the early menus?

Or perhaps it was made more piquant by nostalgia.

It was the Chinese, of course, who first opened Australians’ eyes to cuisine more diverse than a charred lamb chop.

In the country town where I grew up the Chinese restaurant offered the only alternative to the largely meat-and-three-veg menu of the local motel or roasts of the RSL bistro.

It was the pinnacle of multiculturalism in the 1970s for a country town to have its own Chinese restaurant, a Greek-owned cafe and, in really go-ahead places – a Lebanese Christian haberdashery.

Those Chinese families were part of the post-war and post White-Australia migration and they would stay and make their lives here, unlike the first wave of “celestials” who came during the gold rush.

It’s always intrigued me how when the Chinese were here in such numbers in the 1850s that so little of their culture and custom became part of the mainstream then.

It was as if they were truly heavenly beings who descended suddenly upon an inhospitable land and just as quickly vanished, leaving behind ingeniously constructed wells, tunnels, funeral rite ovens and coins in the dust.

While there were those Chinese who married white women and settled, the vast majority went home as they’d always intended.

Those who died on Australian soil and were buried here had their bones repatriated by their kin.

The exhumation of Chinese bodies from cemeteries throughout the Victorian and NSW goldfields is intimately tied to their culture and the custom of ancestor worship.

So many thousands came in search of their fortune and in the end the most valuable thing the Chinese removed from our soil was their dead.

We sometimes forget that but for the land’s original inhabitants we are a nation of immigrants.

That there were no fewer than 16 nationalities represented at the Eureka Stockade and one of the first men arrested was an Afro-American.

Yet one of the underlying causes of miners’ discontent – bubbling away beneath the issue of miner’s rights – was the number of Chinese on the goldfields.

Now the Chinese are not only completely accepted and an essential part of our community, but every one of us has an interest in their mainland, with trade and investment with China being worth $10,500 a year for every Australian household.

To my mind, that’s gold.


red letter day


For the third day in a row I’ve emptied our post box straight into the post office recycling bin.

Evidently everyone else has done the same.

The tub of junked mail is overflowing with unctuous smiles of electoral candidates, clamouring pick me, pick me.

How many trees have given their lives so that politicians of all persuasions can inundate us with self-serving gumpf?

It’s an atrocious waste of natural resources, not to mention the time, effort and money that goes into producing material which is at best ignored and worst actually aggravates the recipient.

To my mind party political advertising and most material generated by both sitting and aspiring members at election time fits the definition of junk mail: to wit, “unsolicited advertising or promotional material received through the post”.

But try plastering your letter box with junk mail stickers and it won’t make a jot of difference.

You can complain to the Distribution Standards Board if you find something useful in your mail box like a catalogue advertising cut price turkey – but, the inanely grinning visage of any political wannabe? No!

In the case of “non-commercial material” – i.e. a listicle of the local MP’s achievements – there’s not a thing anyone can/will/could do.

The only way to stop this intrusion is for you to contact those responsible directly and even then they are not obliged to remove your name from their mailing list, the holy grail of mailing lists … the electoral roll.

For that matter why can any incumbent politician or registered political party and their lackeys use the roll to plague people who have been legally obliged to sign up to it for the sole purpose of voting, when voters themselves cannot access it for any purpose other than to verify their own enrolment or – where appropriate – object to the enrolment of another voter?

In an era of electronic correspondence, I can’t see how the printing and mailing component of MPs’ entitlements can be justified.

At the federal level MPs enjoy a $100,000 a year printing allowance, plus a communications allowance worth about $40,000 a year (the equivalent of 50 cents for every voter enrolled in the electorate) and a $1800-a-year-stamp allowance.

I haven’t been able to get a complete picture of what Victorian State MPs are entitled to by way of communicating with their constituents, but one allowance for MLAs equates to the number of voters in their electorate multiplied by $1.10.

So based on a district like Essendon with almost 40,000 people on the roll at the last election, this works out to be worth $43,000.

Now I know that politicians frequently have cause to enter into correspondence with and on behalf of constituents, but ask yourself have you ever received so much as a fridge magnet from your local MP at any time other than election time?

Some government departments – like the Department of Human Services – are now, where possible, communicating with clients through their own private MyGov electronic mail box.

At least if political candidates and parties were required, wherever possible, to email voters we could at least filter them – along with the Nigerian scammers, the bogus inheritance and lotto lures – as spam.

And, for the environment, that would be a red letter day.

on fear & loathing


I love my hairdresser. I love her not just because my head is in her hands but because she’s a compassionate, very funny lady who treats members of her staff as family – and that’s only partly because some of them are.

She is also a loving wife and mum who cares deeply not only about her own kin, but her community.

Whenever there’s a cause to be supported she’s there: flyers in the window and collection tin on the counter; first table booked for the fund-raising ball.

It might be a child with a chronic disability who needs an expensive piece of equipment to improve their life, a dying single mum who wants to leave a legacy for her kids, a teenager with a disorder so incredibly rare that they can be treated only by one very special specialist in the United States.

Warm-hearted is this woman’s middle name, and yet I’m afraid she’s the start of something very ugly.

People wonder where hate begins … it begins with fear-mongering: a viral bullet moulded by pragmatism and political expediency then shot into a crowd with the utmost disregard.

My hairdresser, who would cheerfully admit she wouldn’t know the difference between a dirndl and a drachma, has been listening to the news with her family and is now very concerned about ISIS and burqas.

Ruby (her nine-year-old daughter) asked me if they (Muslims) were going to kill us,” she said as rubbed shampoo into my hair a little vigorously.

I mean it seems unlikely but …”

It doesn’t help that Public Transport Victoria has removed the garbage bins at Flinders Street, Southern Cross, Parliament, Melbourne Central, Jolimont, Richmond, Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong railways stations in response to the “heightened terror alert”.

Fear is creeping across the countryside like a cancer.

One of my colleagues, Melissa Cunningham, who works for the The Courier (Ballarat), reported recently how a woman crossing the street was yelled at by a ute driver spewing profanities and racist slurs who demanded she “go home”.

She was totally mystified until she realised she must have been mistaken for a Muslim because she’d wrapped a scarf over her head to protect herself from a sudden downpour.

Then last week another colleague, Virginia Millen, reported how a Muslim woman’s arm was broken after she was pushed to the road in a sickening, unprovoked racist attack.

Our federal government is encouraging people to turn against their neighbours with increasingly hysterical rhetoric.

But Tony Abbott buddying up to the big boys as some kind of anti-terrorist hall monitor is a distraction.

It’s a distraction from people dying in Australian detention, a distraction from a budget which punishes the poorest, a distraction from the many contradictions between what this government claims to stand for and what it does.

We have a government that doesn’t hesitate to spend $500 million a year to send Super Hornets to drop bombs on Iraq, but awards the contract to supply boots for our troops to Indonesia ahead of the Australian company which has kitted them out since World War II just to save a lousy few hundred thousand dollars.

Noisily repatriating bodies from the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and chest-thumping in the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin might win approval at home, but won’t stop the world from noticing Australia’s refusal to help fight Ebola or how we push boatloads of refugees back into poorer countries’ waters.

Why have we become so small and mean?