“People go to the show to eat junk food

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(This was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald about 10 years ago. But nothing much changes in show food. Crazes come and go, but Dagwood dogs and fairy floss will be there, perhaps forever.)

You wouldn’t even think about eating fairy floss anywhere except at the Royal Easter Show. Or – let’s go right down there – a Dagwood Dog. And while we’re on the subject of canine snacks, what is the difference between a Dagwood Dog and a Pluto Pup? To get to the truth about show food, you have to ask the show folk, or travellers as they often call themselves.

“I make the finest fairy floss in the world” said Bruce Brown, fourth generation showman, husband and partner of Doreen Brown, who’d been given her 50 years life membership badge from the Showmen’s Guild the night before we spoke.

“It’s got to be made with a gas fired machine” Bruce explained, “otherwise it doesn’t get turned into toffee first. The electric machines make shit fairy floss” he went on, his voice quivering with emotion, “they’re only spinning sugar, not toffee and it’s crunchy. Real fairy floss should melt in the mouth.”

The Browns should know. They’ve been in fairy floss for years. “An Indian chap bought it here first in 1928. He powered his machine with the bicycle he travelled on” Bruce said, “then my father Bill Brown and I began making it and selling it in 1938 when I was eight years old. Back then the machines were kerosene fired, and kids turned the spindle. You’d pay them with a stick of fairy floss and a toffee apple and they thought it was Christmas.”

“Now toffee apples were only made by the men” Doreen told us, “the hot toffee was too dangerous for the kids to work with. Pop Brown (Bruce’s father) and my father, Pop Green – they call us the coloured people – would heat the toffee up in a camp oven outside and dip in the apples. We used to dye the toffee with cochineal.”

Even after all those years, Doreen never tires of fairy floss. “I eat it when I’m making it” she says, “and I’ve been making it practically all my life. It’s a mystery thing, all warm and pink and wonderful. The sad thing is people don’t want it on sticks any more. Nowadays we sell it in cellophane bags.”

They’re a tightly knit group, the show folk, a floating village, with most marriages made into another show family. They might do 50 shows a year round the country, capitals and country towns – and maybe a few smaller fairs along the way.

Kathleen Miller, her husband Darren Miller and her sister Jackie are another long time show family. “My grandfather used to sell teddy bears to sailors during the war” she told us “before he started travelling.”

They operate a one family food court on Davidson Plaza near the cattle pavilions. There’s the Dragon’s Wok, The Curry Hut, the Greek Island Café – and an American Barbecue Ribs stand. All these stands are themed and designed by Darren. “It was a lot easier when all you had was fairy floss and Dagwood Dogs” he said.

“Darren and I went to America on our honeymoon” said Kathleen, “we visited a few state fairs and saw we needed more variety in our food. We bought back the BBQ ribs, and it all started from there. We’ve changed with the times” she said, “now we’re fully accredited for health food and safety.”

85 year old Dick Stevens, AKA Dicky Donuts, started on the show circuit in 1942. “I did chipped potatoes and hamburgers” he said. After the second world war, he bought two American Downyflake donut machines. “Paid £2000 each for them. Now I’ve got machines made in Seattle by Tom Bellshaw, the Rolls Royce of donut machines. I got one that’ll do 100 dozen an hour.”

According to Doreen Brown, the first donuts on the showground were made by one Gus Plush “That’d be 60 years ago now” said Doreen, “he’d make the yeast batter up the night before, store it under gauze to rise overnight, then early the next morning he’d make it up into little balls – they didn’t have holes then – and fry them during the day in oil from rendered suet (sheep’s kidney fat). He’d lift them out with a scoop, sprinkle them with sugar and cinnamon, and sell them at 2 for threepence.”

“People go to the show to eat junk food” said Dick Stevens, “they want something they can hold in one hand so they can keep walking. They fill up on Dagwood Dogs.”

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(Every year I eat a Dagwood dog in memory of visiting the show with my father)

And they’ve been doing so since they were first made by one Dick Reilly in the 1950s. According to RAS statistics, 128,000 were sold – and presumably eaten – at the 2002 Show. And the Pluto Pup? The story told to me by many show people is that “a bloke called Turner” – first name unknown – patented the name Pluto Pup after Reilly started doing well with his dogs. Then he tried to patent the name Dagwood Dog as well. That didn’t work, according to Doreen Brown. “We just changed the name on our sign to Dadwood Dogs. But the patent didn’t hold.”

Dick Stevens reckons “you’ll go cold stony broke trying to sell gourmet food at the show.” But there are at least two relative newcomers to the scene who’d dispute that. Tom Wagner is a sausage maker, originally from Hamburg, who has been selling all meat gourmet sausages in a roll at Shows in Sydney and Melbourne since he won the Continental Sausages prize at the Sydney Show in 2000. There’s Bratwurst, Debreciner, Kranksy and others, in a crusty roll with a choice of toppings and – really flash – a scotch fillet roll with onions. And you can eat them with one hand.

We had one final question for Doreen Brown. Why, we asked, is fairy floss mostly pink? “Have you ever seen a white fairy?” Of course you haven’t.

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When the rope snaps.

When the rope snaps, when the long story’s done.

Not for you only but for everyone

These praises will continue fresh and true

As ever, cruelly though the Goddess tricked you,

And lovers (it may be) will bless you for

Your blindness, grieved that you could praise no more.

(From Across The Gulf, Late Poems, Robert Graves published by the New Seizin Press in

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Bob Jones left the planet on January 1st 2016

It is very difficult for me to write of my friend Bob Jones. Not because I can’t remember much about our times together, but because I can remember too much.

As I said in the post on his death, we were partners in mischief. An honest account of that mischief would be interminable. And one other thing.

The death of a close friend, only a few years younger than I am, brings mortality and the finite into sharp focus. As another old Mate Mark Lang said after a little health scare, it reminds you that life is a finite boogie and not an infinite doddle.

Bobby and I met when it seemed that life was an infinite doddle, back in the last year of the sixties, when I joined J Walter Thompson for my first job ever as a copywriter.I had, up to that point, been driving cabs and smoking way too much dope.

Bobby was my designated art director, an incredibly cool surfie from the northern beaches who could draw like an angel, sing and play the guitar. We were under the eagle eye of group head Tony Moon and his art director Jules Sher. Moon was brilliant, mercurial and a bloody hard to work for.

And Jones and I were not as much into work as we were into dope and booze. And sex. Moon endeared himself to us with one hard and fast rule. “If you get pissed at lunch don’t come back to work. You’ll only make a dick of yourself.” But we did work hard and we both learnt how to make ads that worked.

Bobby had a girl friend, Sandra Maddocks (Sam) who he later married. I was married to Sue. But in the tenor of the times this did little to stop our extramarital activities. And while Sue and I divorced after 12 years, Sam was with Bob until the day he died. A remarkably resilient relationship with both partners wandering off along other paths from time to time. What kept them together was a strong and  deep seam of love that wouldn’t die.

But back at JWT, living in the seventies, Bob and I bonded at work and outside work. Dope was smoked, a little acid was dropped, young women were loved and lost or at least mislaid,  but amidst all the frivolity much work was done. There were many times we worked the whole weekend through, day and night, to finish a campaign for the dreaded Moon.

Three years later we left together, and Bob and Sue I went to Singapore where we worked in the world’s craziest agency,  then Indonesia. Sam had already gone to Europe and was, if I remember correctly, doing secretarial work for Robert Graves in Deià

Bob loved Indonesia and especially Bali. He spoke often of wanting to return to trade in antiques, rugs, batiks. He loved the bartering process, loved the antique markets.

In those days the markets in Jakarta were stuffed with treasures from colonial times. We talked of organising shiploads of furniture and sending it back to Sydney. Of course he and I never did, but later, he and Sam did become traders in Indonesia.

The three of us then went to London, Bob went to Spain, and then sent me a postcard. That postcard changed the course of my life.

It was a hand drawn postcard. I wish I still had it. I’ve searched all over. It’s lying in some forgotten pile of letters, notebooks, other postcards. Or else it’s been tossed. What is remarkable about it is not just the deep — and often devastating — effect that it had on my life, but that I can still see it so clearly in my mind’s eye. That postcard cost me peace of mind, maybe a marriage. But it gave me Spain.

Bob had drawn himself lounging in an arched window, strumming his guitar, a wine glass on the sill. Behind and below him were gentle hills, a palm tree, beyond that olive trees, and finally, the sea, the Mediterranean. It was drawn with one of those fine black pens beloved of art directors of the time (when they drew rather than raided web sites for scrap), a Rapidograph, which delivered a fine, spidery, black line.

And although it was only a black and white drawing, the sun shone out of it, the sea was a seductive blue and the palm tree waved in the gentle breeze from Africa. We — Susie and I — were about to enter our second winter in London when that card arrived, a city that I have never liked and then actively loathed (I was almost shot there). A second winter of pushing coins into the slot of the rattling gas water heater, walking to work over rain slick pavements, wrapped in a tatty black fur coat, living with a damp cold that penetrated to the bone marrow, and trudging to Soho daily to earn just enough to keep the whole sordid process ticking over. Bob’s card promised sun, fun — and adventure.

He’d spent the first winter with us in London, before heading south to the island where Sam had lived and worked for several years before going back to Oz. The island was Mallorca, and the drawing on the postcard depicted the view from Son Rullan, a 14th century possessió, just outside Deiá on the north western coast of the island. A possessió was a county estate, a self contained farmhouse which had once housed the workers who picked the olives, pressed the olives and was a in reality a small village. By the time Bob got there, it was in disrepair and, in exchange for free rent, Bob and the others living there were supposed to be repairing it. But I knew none of this. Just that this postcard offered a way of escaping another London winter.

Suddenly, as is possible when you’re young and childless and resplendently irresponsible, we weren’t there, in our crummy flat in the Fulham Road, but on a train rattling through the south of France to the Spanish border.

And then we were living in this huge old wreck of a house and having more adventures than a boatful of Barbary coast pirates. A lot of those adventure, for Bob, were with a beautiful Spanish woman, Remedios. Check out the bottom left hand corner: someone – could have been me – toking on a pipe.Bob and Reme,70s (Medium)[2]

Here’s a shot Bob send me taken during that time,  of Sam, in the background, and in the foreground one of the genial villains of the village, the actor Del Negro, also departed.

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And finally, another of Sam, as an ethereal hippy in a field of wild flowers, by local photographer Heiner Schmitz.

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I’m not going to go on about those times. I’ve written about them (only the names have been changed et cetera) in my book Grazing, but let me sum up my dear old friend.

He was a romantic, from his long blonde hair to his toenails. Facts were not his forte. He lived for beautiful women, beautiful music, beautiful images and beautiful places, especially islands. And although, sadly, he never kept up with his music – he had the talent to have made a career of it – the life he lived had much beauty in it. He and Sam lived in Deià, opened a shop called Islas and once a year, in winter, they travelled to Bali to stock the shop and then toured around the Islands of South East Asia. At least in the early days, Deià was very congenial village set amongst spectacular countryside.

I once called Bob the man who was always somewhere else. He was restless in one place, always ready to move on. Well, to a great extent, that’s what his life was: two places, two lives. And many dreams.

In our last conversation Sam told me she’d be planting a palm tree over his ashes. Which goes full circle back to that postcard that sent us to Spain. It’s the right tree to contain a romantic soul. She was with him, as I said, when he left, as were their two sons, Asher and Aden

Adios Bobby. I am just realising I’ll never sit opposite you at Sa Fonda, talking bullshit and drinking wine – well I’d be drinking wine, you’d be drinking beer. You’d remember your old Mate John T Fisher who’d bellow across the bar “I would kill my father rob my mother rape my sister break a blister for a San Miguel!”

Nothing left to say but vaya con dios or, as is more likely for both of us, the other bloke.

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Another year just turned its back on me

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What a year. Illness overcome (quiet spot in my lung thankfully not collapsed), my first university degree – bit late but better than never­ ­– working with a wonderful family, the Quatrovilles on creating the Danks Street Produce Merchants in the old Fratelli Fresh building (stay tuned), had my portrait painted for the Archibald (didn’t get in) by the talented Robin Lawrence – I’m going to record it as a series of captions.

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Let’s get the politics out of the way. It was an extraordinary year for that. We knew that Abbott was a ratbag and an idiot, but I don’t think anybody  knew exactly how bad he would be. Coal is good for humanity. Death Cult. Stop  the boats. Axe the tax. And in the foreground climate dolts  like Lomberg and the combover queen Maurice Newman. He’s gone, and we all  breathed a sigh of relief when Turnbull took over. Until we realised that he’s just Abbott with charm. Adani. Gonksi. Coal is good for humanity. My theory is that the rightists who really run the country told abbott he couldn’t win an election and crated the theatrical event that had him ousted for Turnbull. Who will do as he’s told as long as he has the top  job. We have to do something about this system. Which brings me to the next and last political statement for the past year.

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Both sides hate them. My dear wife continues to work for them. They have a new leader, Richard Di Natale who, so far, has not  put a foot wrong. And they continue to be #3 by a  long shot in spite of having far and away the most sensible and cohesive policies – not to mention principles – of either the other two.

The next year should prove unfortunately must interesting. Will Mr Adani be able to raise the finance for his deeply dangerous and totally unnecessary mine? As an article on the ABC Drum suggested this will be a decisive decision, not just for Australia but the planet.

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This is my remarkable elder daughter Laura with her bicycle at Sydney international on her way to ride on her won from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok. Do you see the trepidation  on her face? Everyone said DON’T DO IT! YOU’LL BE MURDERED/RAPED OR AT THE VERY LEAST YOUR BIKE WILL BE STOLEN! Well, guess what? She set off in her own quiet determined and prepared way, and had a marvellous trip, meeting only kind and helpful people. Good on her. She came back and is back at the ABC, living in Marrickville and planning more cycling adventures.

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And there is Daughter #2, Paloma, on the right. She is the shameless slut. And  one of the founder  members of Sexual Violence won’t be Silenced, a vocal and active group of young women fighting sexual violence and sexism at first online and then everywhere. IMG_1245

And there are the two of them at Paloma’s graduation last year from Sydney college of the Arts (Laura already had her Masters in creative writing from UTS) Now Laura is doing a post grad degree as is Paloma. And in the meantime Paloma is working at the State Gallery of NSW restaurant while she figures out how to take over the world.

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And we went to Tasmania and to Mona. Won’t write a  lot about this because there’s a blog elsewhere about it. I haven’t been to Tasmania for at least ten years and then my reaction was, what a nice quaint little place with some terrific food. Now, post Walsh, it’s a very exciting place. I’m only talking about Hobart: we went no further this time, next time I want to get down to Bruny as well as explore the whole island more. Indeed so  impressed were we by Hobart we spent some time wondering whether we could live there. Question not yet answered.

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After three years, and working closely with my wonderful supervisor  Professor Paul Ashton, I was awarded a Doctor of Creative Arts for my thesis  Terra Nullius. Culina Nullius: the contradictions of Australian food culture. It was quite the hardest thing I’ve ever written, but at the same time, enormously enjoyable. Just wish I’d done it thirty years ago. But there you go. Reactions have been interesting. One dear friend said “well, there’s tangible proof of your intellectual capacity”, another was incredulous. And so was I. But there you go. So far, it has yielded one book.

The Oldest Foods on Earth: a history of Australian native foods with recipes published in February by NewSouth, thanks to a terrific publisher Phillipa McGuinness. Here’s the blurb:

‘This is a book about Australian food. Not the food that European Australians cooked from ingredients they brought with them, but the unique flora and fauna that nourished the Aboriginal peoples of this land for over 50,000 years. It was to try and understand why European Australians have almost entirely rejected these foods for over 200 years that I wrote this book.”

We celebrate cultural and culinary diversity, yet shun the foods that grew here before white settlers arrived. We love ‘superfoods’ from remote, exotic locations, yet reject those that grow in our own land. We say we revere sustainable local produce, yet ignore Australian native plants and animals that are better for the land than those from Europe.

In this, the most important of his books, John Newton boils down these paradoxes by arguing that if we are what we eat, we need to eat the foods that will help attune us to this land and, he believes, play a part in reconciling us with its first inhabitants.

Along the way, he documents the devastation visited on the indigenous inhabitants by our forcibly removing them from their food sources and the foods that had nourished them.

Newton also shows how the tide is turning. European Australians are beginning to accept and love the flavours of our own foods, everything from kangaroo to quandongs, from fresh muntries to the latest addition, the magpie goose.’

Can’t show you the cover yet because the latest version isn’t ready. But it is,  even if I say so myself, a good read.

And the other great thing I did last year – and will be doing again next year – is working with Peter and Dom Quattroville setting up the Danks Street Produce Merchants. This is a very satisfying project, working again in collaboration – writing is a lonely job – with the Quattrovilles and the prospective stallholders and the very talented young illustrator and designer Emiel Saada whose father George I worked with yonks ago at Leo Burnett.

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Sitting for my portrait with Robin Lawrence was another highlight. Robin is a wonderful artist and human being. We didn’t make the Archibald, but there it is. In oils.

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We’ve had some excellent meals this year – Peter Conistis’ Alpha, Two chaps in Marrickville, Capriccio in Leichhardt, Khaybar in Auburn … but we keep coming back to the arroz negro at Encasa  in Pitt Street. Don’t forget to order chilli and extra alioli.

And I can’t leave 2015 without thanking and praising the wonderful  food group. We meet once a month and talk about… food in ways that the glossies and the newspapers just don’t. It’s kinda  like the Symposium of Gastronomy but a lot more relaxed. Thank you Barbara Sweeney (for the use of your studio) Alison Vincent, Paul Van Reyk, Jacqui Newling, Charmaine O’Brien, Juan Carlo Tomas, Colin Sheringham, Nicholas Jordan, Helen Greeenwood, Alana Mann and Sarah Benjamin.

And finally, my wife, De Brierley Newton. Again, this year as in the 29 previous,  the best thing in my life. Two portraits. Her alone and her washing Banjo, the world’s best dog.

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See in you in 2016, the year of the Monkey. And remember the old Chinese proverb:

‘Unless we change the direction we are headed, we might end up where we are going’