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Thanks for the ride, Howard Twelftree

Food & Wine

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Rick Springfield and The Zoot were playing the Mount Barker High School social.  As a responsible prefect, I was on the door, keeping my co-students in and the bad people out.  The only candidate fitting the latter category was a stranger hovering awkward and forlorn at the other side of the entrance.  He wore a crumpled tweed coat, knitted tie, baggy chinos and ancient brogues.  In counterpoint was the perfectly ironed shirt, crisp enough to cut a finger.  He looked at me and said: “Feel like a beer?”

On the way to the pub, which was next door, I became infatuated by his unique gait.  It was more of a sway than a walk.  He told me he was the husband of Mrs Twelftree, an English teacher, who was back in the hall in a miniskirt, groovin’ to Rick’s powerpop rewrite of “Eleanor Rigby”.

We talked about Frank Zappa and sank Coopers’ stout by the pint.  While he was obviously no sprinter in perambulatory matters, it quickly became clear such could never be said of his attitude to a glass.  We were friends immediately, and ever after.

Through what eulogists would call “a few formative years” and biographers “a turbulent decade”, in the ’70s I was part of a small but fizzy bohemian community on Howard’s home patch at Stirling.  It was a festering snakepit of dangerous creatives, all within 20 minutes’ walk of each other.  Scattered through those valleys and rises of misty conifers were musicians, film-makers, potters, teachers, cinematographers and cadet existentialists, and whether it was published or not, mainly not, there was good writing being committed.  We weren’t many, but we were intense. Howard was a few years older than most of us.  We could never have hoped for a more intriguing, thoughtful and avuncular Druid.

Howard’s friends included Maire Mannik, television critic and pioneering computer programmer in the days of punch cards. Chris and Gus Howard, film-makers, were around one corner, and Flinders film graduate Scott Hicks, his partner Kerry Heysen, and her son Scott Heysen, Howard’s beloved godson, were around another. The Binns Brothers, then publicans at The Crafers, lived at the bottom of Laurel, offering a distinct atmospheric counterpoint to the white timber bungalow with its elegant casements that always breathed Joni Mitchell’s latest a little further up that ivy-twined street.  I felt like I was in Vermont.

For a while I crashed at Wayside Cottage, a tiny four-room stone job with a lean-to kitchen.  It was the home of Helen Becze, who taught my little sister art at Mount Barker, and her husband Tony, who studied anthropology but as a conscript during the Vietnam War was in charge of colouring the mashed potato at the Woodside barracks.  Different ranks had different coloured mashed potato.  Howard loved that fool notion.  A rock band also seethed in those four rooms, which were famous for exuding more noise than had ever been heard in Stirling.  I slept with Gus Howard’s vintage Rogers’ drum kit, various guitars, and a bright orange Marshall stack.

The cottage was opposite Robbo’s garage, at the top of a steep rise covered in pines and vines. The path was a treacherous bog.  One night in a freezing horizontal rain there was a meek knock at the door between tracks of the Allman Brothers Eat a Peach.  For once, it wasn’t the landlord threatening to turn off the power.  It was Howard, tweed, tie and shirt, socks and sturdy shoes, with his trousers folded neatly over his arm. He lurched in, flopped himself sideways on the couch and demanded we play the Allmans’ slide guitar frolic, “Jessica”.  I thought he was going to suck his thumb.  When it was over, he bade his humble thanks, folded his trousers across his arm, and went back out into the maelstrom.

We drank to extremes, and marvelled about music, film and literature.

Howard lived with his wife Christina in Goodwill Cottage, in the dress circle of mansions we called the Millionaires’ Square Mile.  Miraculously, the shack’s still there, subsiding in the damp undergrowth beside the Adelaide-Melbourne train line.  It couldn’t be much bigger than five metres by four.  It’s galvo, lined with asbestos securely coated with thick lead paint.  Downstairs was a wash-house, water closet and shower.  Its concrete floor had been poured onto a slope, across which it still seemed to spill, as if it had never set.  The door didn’t work.  Up the rotten outside stairs – avoid three, seven and nine – was a kitchen, living area and bedroom too small for its bed.

The joint rattled like a percussion section in six Richter whenever a big train went by.  And unless there was intrusive consumption underway, it seemed always neat and tidy, with more books than windows.  It smelt of Player’s cigarettes, Harris Tweed and curry.  In that world of Chiko Rolls and egg combos, Howard always ground his own spices.

He kept an old swaybacked trotting horse called Scruples in a meadow now smothered in Tupperware Tuscany, and shared a pony called Hockey with Little Scott, the godson he adored.  Beyond that, his lifelong interest in the nags concentrated on more risky investments.  He certainly never invested much in cars: he drove a battered Mini-Minor with no brakes.  I drove him once when he was otherwise abled and at my first attempt at stopping there was nothing.  No handbrake; nothing in the pedal; just crazy speed, Howard snoring beside me, and an urgent need to stop.  To drive, he engineered a magical awareness of inclines, and always managed to bring that Mini to a halt by swerving at slopes or curbs whenever parking seemed appropriate.  On the flat, it was all to do with crashing of gears and a great reserve of blind faith.

We drank to extremes, and marvelled about music, film and literature.  He loved the work of Anthony Burgess.  Upon the release of that writer’s masterpiece, Earthly Powers, he would quote its opening sentence where the narrating cardinal recalled being in bed with his catamite when the archbishop called by.  That aside, Howard’s interest in religion seemed to have withered when a sadistic schoolteacher/priest thrashed him with a palm frond on Maundy Thursday.  After which he replaced any notion of a Last Supper with the eager anticipation of the thousands of repasts to come.

We showed a keen interest in the pharmaceutical world.  I recall one mescaline-greased evening being entrapped by the bats feeding on bugs that swarmed around the old round-topped Ampol petrol pumps at Miss Pimms’ Mount Lofty Post Office and General Store, then climbing under the bridge to watch the Melbourne Express roll past, very close focus.  That bridge was the point at which the train achieved the apex of its steep climb up the ranges from Adelaide.  We’d crouch there in the dark a metre from the wheels as the engines ground over so slowly with their mighty diesels roaring.  After momentum and inertia pushed the whole long thousands of tonnes of business over the crest, it was downhill all the way to Victoria, so the diesels would turn off at that exact point and the carriages clanked by faster and very much faster until they were gone.

Gone to the same whining, keening silence I now abide. Receding. Damn.

Howard was the best at reporting with withering accuracy the nature of meals he’d just had, and the nature of the people he shared them with.

Beginning in The Adelaide Preview, and then in The Adelaide Review, Howard went on to write better food criticism and appreciation and encouragement than anyone else in this country.

He became the best at picking the next biggest, the next nicest, the next most exquisite, be it restaurants, men’s shirts, weird pubs, corrupt pharmacists, Polish vodka, great books, women’s shoes when worn by beautiful women, tailored men’s shirts, perfectly made and presented food, really good shirts and serious drinks.  Did I mention the shirts?

Howard was the best at reporting with withering accuracy the nature of meals he’d just had, and the nature of the people he shared them with.  He would research every aspect; every ingredient.  I will never forget the way in which he observed his table setting.  He would simply sit in silence, absorbing every detail of each new dish. Inhaling it. Then he would eat. Forensically.

Much more will be said about his writing career – I look forward to a bound volume.

But I have to say it is with some trepidation that I anticipate life without Howard John Twelftree’s confounding, constant thirst and hunger and the exquisite manner with which he recalled his servicing of those desires, and others.

There were many others.

Night, dear Brother, and thanks for the ride.  You were a beauty.

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