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Saturday, 22 March 2014

Koalas, kangaroos and sheep

So I'm sat in my sister's house late at night, sipping Isle of Jura, and wondering how everyone is getting on. 

She has flown off to Teneriffe with her old college friend, leaving me to look after her aged and possibly ailing cat for a week. My son's in England with his girlfriend. Rachel has gone back to Southampton. I've not seen Al in ages. And Susan is as as far away from Scotland as you can get, without leaving the planet. 

So I take another sip and my mind wanders back to my first contacts with Australians, many years ago. I can remember a pervert, a garrulous and tiresome cook who couldn't stand Scottish weather, and a female rugby player who stole my heart and my socks. 

Then I read about funnel web spiders, which are so ferocious they jump up and bite you in the neck, even if you climb on the table to escape them. I've since learned that might not be true, but it scared me, I can tell you.

So for a while I wasn't keen on Australians or Australia. Then along came Guantanamera and my feelings softened. 

The name means "woman from Guant√°namo" and it's the title of a traditional Cuban song, with different lyrics down the years, the most successful of which were recorded by an easy listening group called the Sandpipers, based on an arrangement by Pete Seeger.

Now the thing about easy listening is it's damn hard to listen to. Seeger was a folk singer with his heart in the right place but too much twee in his music, and the Sandpipers' song was stuffed with saccharine. 

"Yo soy un hombre sincero de donde crecen las palmas," they sang soulfully, then spoke the translation to the accompaniment of soft guitars. "I am a truthful man from the land of the palm trees. And before dying, I want to share these poems of my soul. My poems are soft green. My poems are flaming crimson. My poems are like a wounded fawn seeking refuge in the forest."

Yeah I know. Me too. This was the year the Beatles released Revolver, the Stones came out with Aftermath and Dylan made Blonde on Blonde. So I tried to mask the sound of the Sandpipers with real music, but their soppy song was everywhere. 

Fast forward 20 years and Scotland is playing Australia for a place in the World Cup finals. I was there at Hampden with my eldest son David, who was eight at the time and got to see Kenny Dalglish in one of his last Scotland appearances. He was a big fan in those days, and so was I.

It was an emotional night. Right after we'd scored the goal in Wales that got us to this play-off, Scotland manager Jock Stein had died suddenly. Stein was the best club manager Scotland ever possessed. Never before or since could our small country boast the top football team in the world, which Celtic were in the second half of the 60s. 

So the place was packed and the Hampden roar louder than I'd ever heard it. Australia got the ball and the crowd burst into tuneful song. The tune was Guantanamera and the chorus should have gone like this:

"Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera"

But those were not the words issuing from 65,000 lusty throats that night. Oh no. What the young Australians heard every time they touched the ball was: 

"Sheep-shagging bastards, you're only sheep-shagging bastards.
Sheep-shagging baa-stards, you're only sheep-shagging baa-stards."

The words fit the music and the rhythm of the song to perfection. It shook the Aussies up, they lost 2-0 and I've had a soft spot for Australia ever since.

My mobile phone rings suddenly, dragging me back to the present, and Susan's smiling face appears on screen. "Watcha, mate," she says. "Are you missing me?"

"Nah," I tell her. "I'm too busy."

"You would love it here," she says. "I've not seen any of those funnel webs you warned me about. I think you made that up. But we have seen koalas, kangaroos and sheep. There are loads of sheep here."

"But not many wounded fawns in the forest or good football players," I say.

"What?" she says. "You're gibbering again."

"Sorry," I say. "Must be the jet-lag."

"You don't have jet-lag," she says, speaking slowly. "I have jet-lag. I'm the one who flew to Australia. You've been sat in Scotland, working you tell me. But drinking whisky since I left, by the sound of it."

"According to relativity there are no preferred reference frames," I tell her. "So there is a valid viewpoint in which you stayed still, Australia came to you and I got the jet-lag."

"I would give you a slap if I could reach you," she says. "Do you want to hear about our day out along the Great Ocean Road or don't you?"

"I do," I say, pouring myself a large one and slinging my leg over the arm of the chair. "Tell me all about it, cobber."

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