Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The camera never lies

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My late father had a wonderful sense of humour. I remember when the young Queen Elizabeth came to Masterton in 1953 she had lunch at the Empire Hotel. Rival butcher Mr. C. L. Neate, who had only recently settled in the town from Britain, served the Empire with their meat requirements and 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 on 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 very Australian. A visit there a couple of years ago revealed the butcher’s shop has given way to a lending institution and the population is predominantly South East Asian. In the fifties and sixties the white Australia policy was hugely obvious.

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 Dad with a letter explaining this was the staff of the shop where I was working in Aussie.

This was too much for my father. He had a staff of about seven back then so he rang up the laundry, asked for all of our 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 behind our shop counter. Another phone call, this time to photographer Ted Nikolaison, and the shot 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 Australia. Here is a recent photo of our team in Masterton. 

I opened the 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 all 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 the two Chinamen, Tommy and Charlie Wong. Their fruit shop backed on to ours and they had been Dad’s first two recruits as he had sought help 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 used up. In his chemist white smock he looked a little professional to be a straight 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 by 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. Although I went back down the rankings ladder, I never descended to the bottom rung from whence I had started.

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

Like my own children today I always thought fathers were of little use, but I was pleased that mine, with his incorrigible 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.

(First published on March 31st 1999)

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


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