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“There’s a couple of specials on this evening as well,” explained Pelican’s Kiwi waiter, before launching into lengthy and detailed descriptions.

One was a salad containing quince, roquefort cheese, walnuts and leaves, the second a rather fancy fish platter featuring lightly battered oysters with a rich aioli, scallops and a couple of slices of sashimi topped with roe. Both sounded the equal or better of the dishes on the menu – and would compliment Fran’s favourite Pelican dish: the Moreton Bay bugs with hot chilli and garlic oil dressing.

Soon afterwards, the Kiwi returned to take our order.

“We’ll have the Fisherman’s Basket,” said our companion.

Everyone stopped. The waiter looked at him in mock horror.

“Did you just ask for ‘the Fisherman’s Basket’?,” he asked incredulous, as the table conjured images of rubbery, deep-fried, heavily battered and breadcrumbed, unidentifiable fish pieces on a mound of chips.

“Er…” replied the companion, chuckling with embarrassment. “I ust heard ‘cheese’ and ‘fish’ liked the sound of both.”

As he cleared away the last of our plates (by this stage emptied of meatballs, saganaki, bugs, quince, oysters, baba ganoush and the rest, all of which went down a treat), the waiter was still shaking his head.

“Fisherman’s Basket indeed.”

Still, by this time three bottles of wine had been polished off (the Sauvignon Blanc proving superior to the Reisling, much to Bruce’s surprise) so Mr Pub Grub enjoyed the ribbing. What’s more, he and his partner were extremely grateful to have been introduced to the Pelican, in Fitzroy Street, something of a St Kilda institution with its scattergun approach to tapas, wide selection of wines and great location close to the promenade – one of the few places Bruce and Fran miss since moving north (Banff pizzas, Mart 130 and the Taphouse pub in Carlisle Street the other major notables). And, come 2.45am, he wasn’t the one dropping his trousers on the Big Mouth dancefloor like a grinning 16-year-old leaving Fran to explain to the very friendly, but thoroughly bemused bouncer that, yes, unfortunately this man was indeed her husband.

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While you face accusations of disloyalty – of being a plastic fan – when leaving a stadium early when your team is being hammered with only minutes to go there are faintly justifiable excuses: the result isn’t going to change; avoiding the traffic; getting back to the baby-sitter.

But is there any justification for leaving a gig early? Bruce couldn’t think of one on Friday night:

“That’s right, guys. He’s saved all his worst songs for last,” he suggested to the trickle of people abandoning ship midway through the encore.

Still, it was a mere bagatelle for in those previous two hours the Aussie Bob Dylan had delivered a masterful run through his back catalogue. Initial fears that the $80 tickets had bought an evening of muffled sound in the Palais’ upper deck proved unfounded once the fug of Nothing On My Mind cleared and the band’s sound crystallised.

Set among the opulence of the old theatre, Paul Kelly’s restrained set up – the only nod to extravagance the rug on which he alternately meandered, swung his guitar and indulged in bouts of dad-dancing – allowed the music to take centre stage.

“We’re going all over the place tonight,” he annouced early on.

With a canon that switched from some of Australia’s best loved pop songs to moments of tender country heartbreak, it’s a promise he can easily keep. Dumb Things is dropped early in the set, encouraging the first audience roar of the night and much foot-tapping, before the pace slows for When I First Met Your Ma.

What is soon apparent is not just the quality of the songwriting, but the strength of his voice; often employed simply as a spoken word tool, it’s in a live arena – especially one of this scale – that his power to soar is revealed. Complemented by a tight band and his impeccable harmonica skills the music switches from gentle picking through blues and gospel to iconic singles such as Before Too Long and To Her Door. His innate humility even allows Kelly to get away with the likes of You’re 39, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine, a song one could easily imagine being sung – and massacred – by Chris De Burgh.

There are two moments of pure spine-tingling magic, when the stage is cleared to allow perfect, stripped down renditions of If I Could Start Today Again and, in particular, They Thought I Was Asleep. Not a sound was heard from the spellbound sellout crowd through either.

Running them close was Everything’s Turned To White, the story of the fishermen and the dead woman’s body. Written from a woman’s perspective, here it was also sung by a woman, with Kelly’s co-vocalist’s powerful rendition allowing Bruce to overlook the fact it looked like she had just wandered in from an early 80s aerobics class for roly-polys.

There was no room for From Little Things, Big Things Grow (so thanks to Kev Carmody for performing it at the Corner two weeks earlier) but Leaps and Bounds made an unexpected appearance in the first encore before Winter Coat brought the second encore to an epic close. Throughout there was a feeling of timelessness; by never following, mimicking or succumbing to trends he remains always outside of them.

All that remained was for the final encore and From St Kilda To King’s Cross. Bruce, Fran and friends had even braved the cold for a bottle of wine outside on the (finally constructed) promenade before heading to the Palais purely in preparation for this moment. But it never came. The lights went up, Kelly was gone and it was up to Fran to perform the song herself as she left the theatre.

It was a shame, but it’s OK: he probably wanted to avoid the traffic or had a babysitter on overtime.

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So, in their first 15 months Down Under Bruce and Fran have done their best to assimilate into Aussie culture:

  • stung by jelly fish (Fran)
  • bitten by a white tail (Bruce – does anyone know when or if the hairs start growing back on the affected patch?)
  • lived in a weatherboard cottage (next door to famous Aussie musicians and across the road from an Aussie cult)
  • become Pies fans (and recently received a formal apology from a man who was instrumental in that decision)
  • embarked on a road trip to Broken Hill
  • played Keno
  • met Nick Cave
  • obsessed over footy tipping (and, in Bruce’s case, got angry at the TV when results went the wrong way)
  • bought a massive bbq and cooked mountains of snags
  • used words like snags
  • eaten vanilla slice in Ouyen
  • said: “It’s good – we need the rain”, something no Pom would ever imagine saying
  • begun referring to themselves as Poms

and so it goes. They’ve also tried to hurry along their citizenship, not least by catching a mugger and rescuing young drunks collapsed in the road and returning them home.

Fran St Kilda pier

Awaiting Paul's arrival?

Tonight’s a biggy, though: Paul Kelly in concert. At the Palais in St Kilda, too, which should add an extra whoop of delight from the crowd when St Kilda To King’s Cross starts up. (Hopefully the venue will prove more suitable for this gig than it did for the Arctic Monkeys).

Fran was the first to fall for his iconic Aussie charms. And boy did she fall. One afternoon she started crying while walking along Smith Street just thinking about How To Make Gravy. That’s right: thinking about it… When Bruce surprised her with tickets for the show it was like watching a five-year-old susceptible to sugar rushes being force fed half a kilo of Redskins washed down with a gallon of Coke and a couple of sherbert fountains then let loose on a bouncy castle. When she later got hold of Songs From The South vol. 2 and realised he penned Every Fucking City – the tune she rewrote into an Ancient Mariner-type odyssey with her road sisters while travelling the States in pre-Bruce days – it’s a miracle she didn’t shift a couple of tectonic plates.

Bruce, on the other hand, has been pretty 50/50 about the guy: Leaps and Bounds yes, Bradman (which reminds him of his attempt aged 10 to write a stat-heavy biography of Ian Botham) no. However, he just heard If I Could Start Again for the first time while listening to the hits collection on repeat shuffle and reading this fantastic Robert Forster article and found his emotions stirred and his anticipation for tonight growing.

Well, as some wise man whose name escapes me once wrote: “From little things, big things grow…”

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f1

Hanging out the first of the day’s many washes in advance of tomorrow’s royal visit from Mr and Mrs Bruce Snr, Bruce’s ears were filled with an unfamiliar sound. There, in the background behind the welcome tootin’ of the Khamun birds that moved to Collingwood from the Yarra Bend around the time of Black Saturday (don’t worry, Tutan, we’ll look after ya!), was an unfamiliar, yet persistent, drone.

Yes, folks, it’s grand prix time. Woo hoo! Time to see which mega-shilling firm can make the fastest multi-million dollar car with which to propel their own highly paid personality void around a load of tarmac quicker than another 19 voids. Never quite understood it, really, although Bruce’s cousin did point out that his Sunday ticket also allows him to watch from afar as a geriatric with a guitar makes big windmills with his arm (don’t forget the cortisone injections, Pete).

The thing is, Bruce and Fran had assumed that, having left St Kilda behind, they’d be done with it. When you live just off Grey Street, you accept the benefits (lots of twisted hookers, unsubtle tracksuited pimps and fantastically hairy hobos to ogle day and night) will be balanced by the negatives, such as the four days of racing at Albert Park.

When you move north of the river that divides “US” from “THEM” you expect a bit of peace and quiet when Bernie’s circus rolls into town. Alas, it seems even the top end of Collingwood (we’re practically in Clifton Hill, ferchrissakes!) is not immune.

Admittedly, the additional 7km breathing space has altered the sound of the engines from that of a swarm of pissed off hornets into a herd of mildly peeved Friesian cows but, when all’s said and done, is that really an improvement?

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While Fran’s appendix was rupturing in Sydney to an accompaniment of oysters, scallops, mussels, wine, beer and vodka, Bruce was enjoying a first taste of St Kilda institution Claypots.

That he was throwing down $5 glasses of cabernet sauvignon and wittering away to a cast of misfits rather than rushing to be by his stricken wife’s side was a situation entirely of Fran’s own making. After all, if you’re in terrible pain, don’t attempt to convey the message by quoting lines from popular music. Send texts saying: “I’m in excruciating agony and think I may die” rather than:

“I’ve got a bowling ball in my stomach”

because as anyone who is familiar with Tori Amos’ debut album and career highpoint Little Earthquakes will know, that’s a line from Crucify and therefore could never expect a response other than:

“I’ve got a desert in my mouth”

which, funnily enough, Bruce awoke to when learning the following morning of Fran’s panicked dash to hospital…

Still, back in Claypots and aided by the wine (and a glass of the lovely German pilsner on offer), Bruce was delighted to have found somewhere in the Acland Street area with genuine charm.

The rough hewn wooden bar with animatronic cat and dangling rubber man, French music, greasy spiced nuts, promise of $5 seafood paella and Sunday swap shops (with oysters) transported him somewhere far away – a nebulous place somewhere near the Mediterranean, perhaps.

Something very fishy

Fran would love the outdoor area with its stone fountain bath and fairy lights; Bruce enjoyed it for its inhabitants: in particular an elderly chap called Tony in feathered hat and scarf who would later be seen losing at chess to a young dandy in a three-piece tweed suit who turned out to be a playwright with a dark comedy starting at the Trades Hall in the coming weeks. Geoffrey would even pop up there on a later visit to continue an earlier conversation from Cacao.

Certainly, there was more than enough of interest for Bruce to resist his companion’s increasingly pained pleas to head to the dour horrors of the Doulton Bar across the road. And that was before the pianist-in-suit turned up to croon (admittedly somewhat atonally) on the piano for an hour or so.

Subsequent visits to the adjoining fish restaurant (the bar is a fairly recent addition) have produced some of the finest meals Bruce and Fran have enjoyed since moving to Australia. The Cajun flathead is the tastiest bit of fish the former can recall in recent memory, while the latter’s friends fell wholeheartedly for the whopping $120 Red Emperor they destroyed some weeks later, their happy memory of the night enriched by the female Eastern European accordion and fiddle duo who chased them from the bar and down Barkly Street afterwards.

There appears to be a sister venture – Gilgamesh, in Gertrude Street – that will hopefully atone for the fact they can no longer walk to Claypots in ten minutes since relocating to the north. And, fingers crossed, this venue will attract rather less of the peroxide blonde, Botox-ed to the hilt old-enough-to-know-betters and their smarmy other halves than the St Kilda establishment.

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Bugger

Bugger

“It’ll just be a junkie messing about,” said Fran as the intercom started buzzing at 2.30am.

Little did she know that the buzzer had already infiltrated Bruce’s dreams and quickly convinced him that they were expecting visitors at this early hour.

“No. We’re not expecting anyone. Get back into bed,” she added sternly as he pulled a pair of trousers from the floor.

Too late: he was off.

Just as well really. Walking towards the intercom the flecks of bright, reflected light on the black and white monitor slowly coagulated into the word: “POLICE”.

“Are you the owner of car registration *******?” said the officer. “Your car has just been involved in an accident.”

Is that it?

His brain’s REM state still lingering, Bruce was filled not with panic, but with excitement. His bright red Magna stolen by underworld crims, used in a bank robbery then forced off the road into a ditch in a high speed police chase. Ace!

Or maybe a joyrider had taken it for a spin, lost control and gone flying off the edge of the West Gate Bridge, plummeting onto the deck of a passing tanker.

“Er, OK,” he said. “I’ll be out in a sec.”

Truth stranger than fiction? My arse. Some idiot had backed a removal van into a big old Ford Ute, ploughing it into three other cars, of which Bruce’s was part of the sandwich filling. Thankfully, the car behind came off far worse – a write off – and the Hoonmobile was still mobile.

But still, if you’re going to be woken at 2.30am by cops telling you your car’s been involved in an accident, you want something a bit spicier than that. Should have listened to Fran and stayed in bed after all.

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Another Bayside junkie

Bruce and Fran were locked in conversation with one of St Kilda Pier’s dwindling community of fairy penguins. It wasn’t much of a conversation, admittedly, more a series of clicks, coos and gurgles usually associated with very small children and blind drunks.

As for the penguin, he was saying nothing.

Bruce’s attention was distracted by a unwittingly ironic plaque notifying visitors that the area is a nature reserve partly funded by St Kilda’s partner city of Ube, in Japan.

“This cooperation to preserve the wildlife on the reserve shows that the desire to protect nature crosses international boundaries.”

Except when it comes to whales, I guess.

Carried away

Fran, already overcome by the wonder of the moment with the penguin (“Can you believe this is our home?”), had her attention distracted too, this time by a couple stood at the very tip of the rocks.

They’d been staring out to sea, but were now gazing into each others’ eyes. Suddenly, the woman leapt forward and grabbed the man.

“He’s just proposed!” exclaimed Fran.

So he had. And she appeared to have said yes.

“I want to go and congratulate them,” said Fran and duly did as they walked past, fiancee with mobile clamped to her ear.

Twenty minutes after witnessing the wonders of nature and the joy of love being realised, Bruce and Fran were stood in a phone box calling friends in New Zealand, one of whom was celebrating her birthday.

At the moment the connection was made, a heavily-tanned woman in pink velour jogging pants and scuffed white sandals appeared at the adjacent phone, having left her post at one of Grey Street’s busy corners.

Her reverse charge call to her dealer made for a birthday greeting that was nothing if not unique.

Happy birthday to you!”

“David? Are you there?”

Happy birthday to you!

“Can you hear me? Where the fuck are YOU?”

Happy birthday, dear Jodes.”

“Ah fack’s sake. Move from where you are. Can’t you hear me? FAAACK!”

Happy birthday to you!

“Ah, get faaacked, ya useless CAAAAAANNNT!”

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