Blessed to be a witness

Friday, 19th August

Madder than a cut snake

Afficionados of The Fast Show will recall the florid, red-faced old gentleman, Rowley Birkin, QC, with wild grey hair, sitting in his gentleman's club, incoherently regaling viewers with his recollections of his expatriate high-jinks: "Cairo!" he would exclaim, then "Mumble mumble mumble... Highly poisonous monkeys... Mumble mumble mumble... And there he was, entirely covered in cheese," whereupon he would crease up with wheezy laughter, before mumbling some more and admitting that, "Of course, I was very, very drunk at the time."

Rowley Birkin exists in non-fictional form, at Leura, NSW, at a guesthouse our Sydney-based friends recommended. The name of the guesthouse I shall not mention to protect the guilty (me), but its name involves throwing rocks, something I suspect most guests would like to do once they've spent a few hours in the company of the charming, but unutterably garrulous proprieter.

Since we had warned about the extreme cold in the Blue Mountains, we decided to eschew the chilly and remote caravan parks for two nights, and stay within heated premises. Our first night was spent at a motel in Katoomba, a nice little art-deco town on the edge of a precipice, with a breathtaking view over what looks like a substantial slice of the Grand Canyon, except jammed full of eucalyptus trees that excrete a fine blue mist, hence the name. As with all vast scenic wonders, its spectacularity defies description, and photographs do not do it justice. Just take it from me: it's awe-inspiring. We found a café that did reasonably nice food, to compensate ourselves for the previous night's disaster, then went for a game of pool at a local hostelry. I even entered the "comp", and though I was predictably knocked out in the first round by a diminutive Chinese-Australian girl, at least she didn't thrash me, and the game did end up with me on the black first before I potted the white and lost.

It turned out that the temperature wasn't freezing at all, and we could have camped, but we had already set our hearts on a hotel, so we took the recommendation of our friends in Sydney. After a brief drive around the pretty little town of Leura, just a stone's throw from Katoomba, we found it purely by serendipity. A very posh middle-aged English lady (also a character from The Fast Show: she'd be the disturbed artist's wife) showed us to a rather tatty apartment, but with a nice log fire, and we took it despite the budget-knackering price of $130. Then she said "I must introduce you to my husband".

In the office we found possibly the most eccentric person we've met for years: a cheery Scotsman with mad grey hair and strange white tufts on his cheeks, dressed in a cravatte, plaid plus-fours and socks with garters. He looked at M, said "my word you are charming!" like an old roué, then started to talk. And talk. And talk.

"Calcutta! Oh yes. Terrible squalor, but of course everyone else was partying all the time, don't know how they managed it, but there I was with the Gurkhas getting fit, which meant I could drink all weekend! Fine chaps, the Gurkhas. But I was up a bloody mountainside in Nepal with a team of sherpas looking for these Gurkhas to give them their back pay, spent three weeks climbing up and down the Himalayas, only found one of them! One! Bloody paymaster docked me two weeks' wages. Have you ever read the novels of George MacDonald Fraser?"

"Anyway, Ireland, well there I was, in Killarney, and I stayed all day in the car park for free, because the chap who ran it was blind in his right eye!" After about an hour of talking to us while we politely hovered around the office, he said "do sit down, sit down!" and talked again for another half an hour. "Blighter had never played golf before in his life, did a round of 157, but got a hole-in-one and won a trip to Thailand!"

"Borneo. Ghastly business."

Eventually we feebly said "we'd better get our stuff into the room", but he followed us and gave us another hour of anecdotes. It turns out he'd lived in Hong Kong for several years during the 1960s and 70s, and I foolishly mentioned that I had too. With this commonality of interest he was prompted to speech again. "And there I was at three in the morning, pissed out of my head, crossing the harbour on top of a walla-walla, sitting with my legs round the flagpole!

"So the owner of the Peninsula called the owner of Cathay Pacific, and they held the plane for me. Hong Kong you see. When I got on board with a haggis in my hand luggage, they pulled out the staff bed and gave me an oxygen cylinder to cure the hangover. Arrived in Tokyo feeling right as rain!"

When we finally got got out of earshot of the man, we spent the next few hours skulking round the place avoiding him, but my first trip out to the van he espied me and followed me back up to the balcony outside the room "Chap's a millionaire now, fleet of Mercedes, but I used to kick his arse when he was a lad. Oh yes, I kicked his arse a few times for cheek. Amazing workers, the Cantonese."

We texted our friends gently to remonstrate with them for not warning us about the man, and one of them replied "Oh yes, he's madder than a cut snake."

He's currently out on the lawn playing the bagpipes.

To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at jim@crowaptok.com.