“I’ll be in meetings all day but you can take the car and go exploring.”
My friend Jo was zooming down the M3 from London towards the coast, expertly nipping in and out of traffic and dodging belching lorries as I sat in the passenger seat feeling very much on the other side of the world.
It was a few days after my arrival in England; first time outside Australia, no longer wandering inside the jet lag fog, but still hemispherically off-balance. I’d arrived a day after Jo’s house had been burgled; apparently this was a regular enough occurrence that Jo was not overly perturbed. Although not a huge quantity of goods had been stolen, one unscheduled departure was her stereo. Knowing my passion for music, Jo insisted that the first thing we did was drive out to buy a replacement music system. “You know about stereos, don’t you? You can help choose,” she said. “And we’ll go past Buckingham Palace en route.”
Really, that’s all you need to know about Jo. Thoughtful, practical, immensely hospitable, she helped this confused, timorous Aussie find his travelling feet with her warmth and generosity. So we bought a modest stereo system and I was able to be slightly useful by setting it up in her lounge. One CD to have avoided the burglar’s sack was The Road To Hell, Chris Rea’s album of the previous year, so we enjoyed Chris’s husky blues-tinged songs over a glass of red. To check out the tape function we played one of the travelling cassettes I’d compiled to sustain me on adventures. The familiar Australian music and a further glass or three of vino rosso helped the acclimatization process enormously.
Back on the M3, I did have qualms about borrowing the flash company car for the day while my host was working in Poole, but I didn’t let on. What was I to say? “Thanks, but I’m too scared to drive in a strange country (that uses the same side of the road and most of the same traffic conventions)?”
Having provided a hand-drawn map to ensure I knew where we would reconvene at six that afternoon, Jo trotted off to her business meetings and I sat for a few minutes in the vacated driver’s seat contemplating (a) the controls of this unfamiliar European vehicle, and (b) what to do with the day. Concluding that a good start would be (c) getting out of the multi-story car park, I eased the vehicle towards daylight and adventures.
The first excitement came rather sooner than I’d expected, in fact before I’d gone more than a few hundred yards. At the first roundabout, as I broke into a cold sweat trying to navigate across two busy lanes to the exit I wanted, the car stopped. Actually, the engine stopped and the car sort of lurched to a standstill. Assuming my tentative and incompetent driving was to blame, I tried to start the motor. Nothing. Drivers accumulating behind me communicated their concern via restrained use of their horns as I concluded that if the car wasn’t moving by itself, then I’d better move the bloody thing myself.
Round the roundabout just far enough to no longer block traffic I panted to a stop and collapsed against the boot to review the situation. A loitering pedestrian who appeared to have enjoyed my efforts pointed to the yellow line by the curb. “Better not stay there,” he advised, “You’ll get booked.” Thanks mate.
As I was catching my breath another interested party arrived: a local policeman. After I’d explained the situation he kindly wrote me a note aimed at shielding me from the wrath of Poole parking inspectors, known for their steely-eyed adherence to the rule of the yellow line.
These interactions having taken some time, I wondered if perhaps the car might have recovered it’s energy too. Turned the key… Brmmm! Hooray!
Driving cautiously into the countryside I started to relax and look around. The sun was breaking through fitful cloud and I caught a glimpse of some water in the distance. As I crested a hill and saw fields daubed with morning sunlight, I took a deeper breath and loosened my grip on the steering wheel fractionally. That’s when the motor died again. Thinking quickly (or at least, thinking a tiny bit) I pushed the gear selector into neutral, turned off the key, and coasted downhill. It was a hill of sufficient length that, unhurried by any vehicles behind, I had a couple of minutes to contemplate the options as we took the long decline in serene silence. Just as we hit the lowest point and the road began to rise again, I muttered a quick prayer to the gods of internal combustion engines, turned the ignition key and voila! the engine started. But that brief meditative coast had been enough time for a decision to be made; back to Poole I’d drive, surely no more than five or six miles away at most, find a garage where I could leave the car and make contact with Jo. A plan.
Suffused with renewed determination I drove towards one of those enormous British roundabouts where the central grassed area is the size of a football field, indicating my intention to turn left. The car indicated its disagreement by dying for a third time. Rolling to the road edge, just off the carriageway, I felt my resources drain away into a slushy pool of misery and sat for quite some minutes without thinking at all.
In these days of ubiquitous communication devices and constant connectivity it’s easy to forget how isolated you can feel stranded in the middle of nowhere with a bung motor and no idea what to do. I can remind you: pretty fucking miserable.
Eventually I flagged down a friendly van driver and together we nutted out a plan. The car’s manual indicated that there was a dealership in nearby Bournemouth. As that was his destination, he offered me a lift to town and directions on how to get to the dealership. Once there, the corporate card Jo had cleverly left tucked into the manual ensured their co-operation. They dispatched a tow truck — with me along for directions — to collect the dead motor. After hooking up the car and returning to Bournemouth it was a doddle for me to catch a bus back to Poole — or, as I had now re-named it, Fucking Poole — and ensconce myself in the appointed bar with a mere hour to wait until Jo joined me at the end of her working day. How time flies when you’re having fun. I used the space to rehearse various ways to divulge to my friend that not only had I managed to kill her car but that I was not even in possession of it any more. But I needn’t have worried. Jo is a person of formidable resources and after being appraised of the key features of the problem, she sprang into action. Within a remarkably short time a replacement hire car had been arranged, the next day’s work schedule re-arranged, and a decision made that we would stay the night at Brighton, a hundred miles east along the coast.
A couple of hours later, as evening became a memory to ultramarine night, we were zooming along the M27 towards a smart hotel (that famous one on the Brighton foreshore, don’t you know) and it seemed that, at long last, I could exhale. Perhaps Jo would be OK with me playing one of my travel tapes? No need to even ask.
Into the cassette player it chunked. Side one, opening with “Rosanna”, an instrumental piece by Australian band Sebastian Hardie. As the delicate ascending guitar phrase crept out of the speaker I felt something start to unclench inside. The plaintive melody kicked in, soaring on a wave of romantic melancholy that triggered a softening inside that was only going in one direction. “Jo,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster, “Would you mind if I had a little cry?”
“Not at all,” she assured me, turning up the volume to provide a vestige of aural modesty.
Sebastian Hardie’s Four Moments is the debut album of one of Australia’s most European-sounding 70s progressive bands. They formed in Sydney in the late 60s but changed members and styles quite regularly. By 1973 they had evolved their own sound based around the compositions and guitar skills of Mario Milo. Signed to Polydor, they toured with Osibssa and Lou Reed (?!) and released their first album in August 1975. The country’s first symphonic progressive band did rather well with their debut; it got to #13 on the Aussie charts, aided by the single “Rosanna”. There were reports that when Sebastian Hardie supported Focus on their Australian tour they blew the Dutch band off the stage.
The music is rich, orchestral prog, full of deft synthesiser washes and keening guitar. There is variety and melody, delicacy and grandeur. Fans of Camel, Mike Oldfield and mid-70s Yes would be certain to appreciate Four Moments. It is one of only a handful of albums that can sit next to Tales from Topographic Oceans and hold its own, in no small part because it is more focussed and concise. Side one is a suite of four inter-connected pieces (“Glories shall be released”, “Dawn of our sun”, “Journey through our dreams”, “Everything is real”, all written by Mario Milo except the third, a group composition). Although there are occasional vocals, the voice is so well-integrated that I tend to think of the album as instrumental. The lyrical themes convey a sort of humanistic striving, full of non-specific but positive sentiment.
The second side comprises two instrumental pieces, the six-minute “Rosanna” and “Openings”. I love the way “Rosanna” opens with the exact same phrase that ends side one, transposed down a couple of tones. A nice touch that helps integrate the sides. The melodic strength results in these pieces sounding like songs even though there is no human voice.
Hearing Four Moments again after so long reminded me of both its prettiness and essential safety. Yet at its best, the music soars. I also recalled how music, at its best, can ground you too.