Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The camera sometimes lies

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Last week I wrote that my father had a wicked sense of humour and then described his party-trick penchant for anonymously pinching women’s bottoms. This trait will not have been universally admired so I have decided to reveal his jocularity in a more favourable light.

For instance when the young Queen Elizabeth came to Masterton in 1953 and had lunch at the Empire Hotel their dining room had their meat requirements supplied by rival butcher Mr. C. L. Neate, who had only recently settled in the town from Britain. Immediately after the lunch, while the Queen and the Duke were still driving out of town to their next destination, he wrote on his shop window in white poster paint: “The Queen ate our meat.” Quick as a flash my father wrote on our shop window: “God save the Queen.” One of the national weekly periodicals at the time, concluding a story of the incident, asked: “Would you buy meat from a man like that?” Fortunately many did.

In 1961 I went to Sydney to work in a butcher’s shop that had won an award that year for the most modern meat market in Australasia, Dick Stone Ltd. at Rockdale. Rockdale is one of Sydney’s southern suburbs, back then buoyant and predominately white Australian.

The owner of the shop was Richard Setten Stone. He had three shops in Rockdale; one called Richard’s, another called Setten’s and the award winner, where I worked, called Stone’s. Each was independently managed, mine by a hard taskmaster named Jimmy Blakemore, and each shop had a fierce rivalry going with the others. When I first started at Stones, as I was unknown to the staff at the other two shops, Jimmy Blakemore would send me to spy on their prices and report back. We would then undercut them. This, despite them all having the same owner.

Stone’s had a staff of eleven butchers and we were constantly busy. There was always a sea of faces at the counter waiting to be served. One evening, at around closing time, I managed to assemble everyone behind the counter and take their photo which I sent back to my father with a letter explaining this was the staff of the shop where I was working in Aussie.

This was too much for my pater. He had a staff of about seven back then so he rang up the laundry, asked for all of the white coats and aprons to be delivered back to the shop post-haste and then rushed around the neighbouring shops seeking recruits to boost his complement for a return photo. Dad managed to line up 17 people to pose for the picture. Another phone call, this time to photographer Ted Nikolaison, and the image was taken, processed and sent to me at the shop in Rockdale. A simple note attached said: Dear Rick, thanks for the photo of the staff in the shop in Sydney. Here is a recent photo of our team in Masterton.

I opened the large cardboard-backed envelope at the shop, saw the possibilities immediately, and soon had all the staff, including Jimmy Blakemore, gathered around me to see the photo. They were amazed, none more so than the erstwhile manager, who had justifiably been treating me like a serf/peasant type from lowly New Zealand. His attitude warmed markedly when he saw the apparent size of our family business. “What did all these people do?” he was keen to know. He was particularly intrigued by Tommy and Charlie Wong. Their fruit and vegetable shop was adjacent to ours and they had been Dad’s first two recruits as he sought to increase, albeit temporarily, the number of his employees.

Back then I could think quickly on my feet so I told the impressionable manager that they made the smallgoods. I said that they locked themselves in a backroom each morning and produced, with secret herbs and spices, the best sausages in the country. People, I prevaricated, came from far and wide to taste Long’s oriental polonies. Next on his question list was the huge bear of a man in a bow tie and chef’s hat. This was George Bogala, actually the Yugoslav cook at the A1 Restaurant, but I told Jimmy that he broke down all our beef. I said he could single-handedly process about six bodies of beef in a day, and that he kept a bucket of cold water on the floor beside him so he could dip his knife in it from time to time when it got too hot.

I found various jobs for the photogenic conspirators including gift shop owner Jack Whiteman, Army Stores proprietor Frank Pool, abattoir manager George Brown, plus two hairdressers, Mel Catt and George Corlett, all of whom had been press-ganged into posing for the photo. Pharmacist Wayne Snowsill had arrived when all the coats and aprons had been allocated. In his chemist white smock he looked a little too professional to be a butcher so I told the boss that he was a window dresser. This was the too much for Jimmy Blakemore. “You employ a window dresser?” he said incredulously, and now saw me in a totally, if unjustifiable, new light.

From then on I was looked upon as something of a guru in the field of meat retailing.

Jimmy would constantly ask me, as we were completing some task, if this was how we would do it in New Zealand. I enjoyed my newly acquired status and milked it for all it was worth. Once I had established myself, about six weeks after the photo had arrived, I admitted the deception. Fortunately Aussies enjoy a good joke and although I went back down the rankings ladder, I never descended to the bottom rung from whence I had commenced.

Wellington’s Evening Post published the story and cleverly captioned the accompanying photo: “Camera proves Masterton butchery a much larger joint.”

Like my own offspring today I always thought fathers were of little use, but I was pleased that mine, with his curious sense of humour, had given me the opportunity to excel in a country where New Zealanders had about the same credibility as the Irish have in England.

“Everything is funny as long as it is happening to someone else.” - Will Rogers.


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