The Sublime And The Ridiculous

By David

For ten years the United Kingdom was my home. And I loved the place – especially Scotland. On this trip back a phenomenon I’ve noticed before has been starkly evident. Some readers may have observed the same thing. After a long period away, when you revisit a place of personal importance, somewhere full of special memories, it is wise to be prepared. Time can cause irreparable damage or bestow unimagined benefits. Seldom are things the same. Revisit the past and the memories you treasure are about to be broken or, if you are lucky, raised to new prominence.

After eight years coaching in Florida the National Short Course Championships in Wellington provided an opportunity to visit my favourite New Zealand restaurant; Il Casino in Tory Street  The place was lovely; a big open fire, soft leather couches and chairs, food to die for and a welcoming owner. When I worked in Wellington I had dinner there every Wednesday night. For old time’s sake I had to go back. Alas, Il Casino is no more; the owner has passed away, the old Victorian building has gone, replaced by a glass and steel office block. Italian salads, tender steaks and fine European wine have been ousted by harsh flat face computer screens. There really was no going back.

With a heavy heart I drove away, certain that the other Wellington restaurant of my past, the Green Parrot would have suffered a similar fate. But at the bottom of Taranaki Street there was still a sign that said Green Parrot. It even looked like the same sign. In 1968 Pru Chapman and I ate at the Green Parrot after training on a Sunday evening. Yes, even in 1968 there were some of us who trained seven days a week. Pru was preparing to swim for New Zealand in the Mexico City Olympic Games. I walked in and the tables looked the same, even the “windy” one close to the door was still there. And then I knew that all was well in the world. The waitress brought out a plate of thinly sliced white soggy bread. For 45 years every meal at the Green Parrot meal has begun with a plate of white, soggy bread. I had a huge steak and toasted Pru’s memory. 1968, them were the days and at the Green Parrot they still are.

Swimming New Zealand was a huge disappointment. After the years in Florida I came back to New Zealand and the sport was a shambles. The centralized model that was being built when I left was in total control. The Millennium Institute commanded all the resources; demanded all the attention. The rest of New Zealand was a swimming waste-land bereft of ideas and starved for attention. The jury is still out on whether the new lot are going to be any better. The centralized model has not been dismantled. People like Christian Renford have not started well. After an early junket around New Zealand he made some scathing comments to Radio Sport about the standard of New Zealand coaches. How dare he do that. How bloody dare he. It was his predecessors that bled us dry. It was the policies of Australians that cost two generations of swimmers their careers. Christian Renford has much to make up for. A little humility, perhaps too much to expect from an Australian, would go a long way. Swimming New Zealand is a long, long way from regaining my trust. I think it would be wise if they were just as far from regaining yours.

This trip to the UK has been a very “sentimental journey” full of surprises and disappointments.

The meat plant I built in Perth is fantastic. Well managed, bigger – 500 cattle a day – and better than when I left it thirty years ago. It has become everything I ever imagined and more. Selfishly and personally it is very rewarding to see something that I began – I shot the first steer killed there – grow and prosper.

Time has not been kind to the Station Hotel in Perth. Once the scene of fashionable afternoon teas, lively Scottish Young Farmer’s Club dances and serious business lunches, the Perth Station Hotel is now tired, in need of some tender, loving care.

Gleneagles is full of memories. In the 1980s Alison ran hundreds of miles around its four golf courses. Its steep green hills and long manicured fairways prepared her to win UK, Scottish and NZ National Championships and set NZ and Scottish records. Today Gleneagles looks spectacular. In 2014 the Ryder Cup will be held there and it shows. The tees, the greens, even the club house breakfast are perfect.

If you need a reason to avoid living in London, travel on the Underground at 5.30 any week day afternoon. Thirty years ago it was awful, crowded, hot and uncomfortable. That has not changed. The town is lovely. Its subterranean transport is a “cruel and unusual punishment”.

And then there is the Grenadier. Thirty years ago it was my local. The Grenadier was simply the best pub in the UK. This is how it is described on the “Traditional English Pubs” website.

Tucked away down exclusive Wilton Mews, on the corner of Old Barrack Yard, the patriotic Grenadier is painted red, white and blue. A bright red sentry box tells you, if you hadn’t guessed, this is a pub with a military history. The Duke of Wellington’s Grenadier Guards used it as their mess.

Inside it is small, dark and cosy; the ceiling coffee black, the walls dark panelled. The bar counter has an original pewter top, maybe the oldest of its kind.

The walls are cluttered with military memorabilia; bayonets and sabres, a breast-plate and bear-skin. If you’re lucky you may even see the ghost, said to be that of an officer who was flogged to death for cheating at cards. The Duke is said to have played cards here too. This is a gentlemen’s pub.

On this visit I was especially cautious. The memory of Il Casino tempered my optimism. But the Grenadier looked the same. Inside was still “small, dark and cosy”. The menu was promising. I ordered the double Guineafowl and Venison. It was fantastic. The Grenadier was all that I remembered; was all that I could have hoped. Getting there may have taken thirty years and thirty hours on an A380 but it was well worth the effort.

Now, Swimming New Zealand why couldn’t you be like that.