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Amazing Aussie Bastards
By Lawrence Money
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Lawrence Money
All rights reserved.
Sultan of the tower
If it featured anyone other than Peter Janson, the Tale of the Two Swedish Tourists, the Naked Penis and Lord Rathcavan would probably seem rather far-fetched. But if you do feel that way, you obviously have not had dealings with Percival Pierre Gustaf Janson, the cigar-smoking, whisky-drinking, car-racing Amazing Bastard who appeared in Melbourne in the early 1960s and turned the empty tower of a city hotel into a high-rise apartment that swiftly became a cross between a London private club and a Hugh Hefner bunny hutch.
Of course, to those who have had dealings with Peter — and tens of thousands of their names are carefully recorded in his dog-eared contact book — very little about this ageless mystery man comes as a surprise. The unexpected is entirely expected, the eye-poppingly outrageous is mere commonplace. Besides, the story of the Swedish tourists and the naked penis is a first-hand account for which I can vouch, having played a cameo role in a sojourn that began in the early 1990s when Peter, with whom I had previously travelled through India, suggested that I write a travel piece on Vienna for The Sunday Age, the newspaper employing me at the time. He said he was heading through Austria and had contacts there, so I checked with the travel editor and, yes, her section would be most interested in an article. While Peter's Austrian connection got to work on accommodation and flights, I began collating the necessary research material. But less than a week later this was rendered unnecessary by a call from Peter's domestic lieutenant at the time, Sean O'Brien.
'Crow,' he said, using the nickname Peter had bestowed upon me, a process he applies to most of his pals. 'Janson wants a word.'
Peter came to the phone. 'Crow, the buggers in Vienna are mucking us around. Your accommodation is okay, but they refuse to cover your meals. They can't treat you like that!'
I scoffed that it was no problem and that I would be happy to cover those myself, but Peter remained incensed.
'No, Crow, fuck 'em, we'll go to London instead.'
London? But the Pommy capital had been covered in travel journalism a zillion times, and unless there was something topical it was doubtful that my newspaper would be interested. I hesitated. 'I'm not sure about that, mate.'
However, my concerns proved immaterial, for within days Sean rang again. 'Crow, Peter wants a word.'
He was outraged once more — while complimentary five-star London digs had already been arranged there was a growing dispute over extras. 'They refuse to provide a butler,' Peter roared.
'A butler for your room, Crow, so bugger 'em. We'll go to Northern Ireland.'
Butler? Northern Ireland?
The mind boggled, the travel plans swirled before me like a London pea souper, and God only knew what the travel editor would make of it all. But there was no time to deliberate: within the week Peter and I had kangaroo-hopped for 36 hours through Austrian and British and Irish airports (somehow seated in first-class Lauda Air with economy tickets) and were sipping tea in the kitchen of a country villa owned by Lord Rathcavan and his family, a three-storey mansion on 400 hectares outside Belfast.
Splendid fellow is Rathcavan, a journalist and hereditary peer by the name of Hugh O'Neill, a pal of Peter whose children greeted him like a beloved uncle. Rathcavan suggested a boat ride the next day, and thus it came to pass, but the Irish Sea was wild and icy cold, the howling wind whipping spray across Rathcavan's open-topped boat, and we were all chilled to the marrow. We returned to the villa as Rathcavan's charming missus was preparing a picnic lunch to be enjoyed in their gardens. The spring sun had finally begun casting about its warming fingers, the grass glowed green, birds twittered on the branches — a bucolic scene indeed, but one that was destined to be upended by the Great Doodle Disaster.
I galloped up to my second-floor room, thawed out under a hot shower, changed into dry clothes and rejoined the assembly below to find Peter dozing in the sun on a banana lounge. He had removed his red cravat, white undies, black socks and black shirt, which were arrayed along a hedge to dry out in the sun. He was wearing only his black pants with the red braces, which he had slipped off his shoulders to encourage an even tan.
Various people began to arrive, including Sven, a Swedish tourist, who, with his wife, had rented one of the small cottages on the massive estate. Rathcavan was keen to introduce them to his colourful pal from Australia and approached the slumbering figure, barking his name. Peter awoke abruptly — indeed, too abruptly — and leapt to his feet, extending a hand to Sven and his missus and expressing his great pleasure in making their acquaintance. He has remarked in the years since that, for a fleeting instant, he thought he was a bit of a chance with Mrs Sven, given the way her eyes had travelled so swiftly from his face to his mid-groin, where they remained transfixed. But it was for only an instant.
Mrs Sven's horrified expression — and a startled 'I say, old chap!' from Rathcavan — alerted Peter to the sorry fact that, in springing to his feet, his unbraced trousers had fallen to his ankles and, with undies still drying on the hedge, there was naught to screen the naked Percy doodle-dandy. There it hung, still somewhat reduced in dimension by the chill Irish Sea but sufficiently stout to wiggle slightly in the gentle Celtic zephyr that wafted across the lawn.
Alas, Peter's attempts to remedy the situation served only to compound it. As he sat down again on the banana lounge, reaching desperately for his strides, the immutable laws of physics came into play and the impact of his derrière on the seat's central section triggered an equal and opposite reaction in the hinged lounge terminations. Each flap rose up to smack him on either side of the head, sending him tumbling backwards onto the lawn, a fleeting glimpse of Antipodean buttock being his final salute. As witnesses observed later, the great Charlie Chaplin himself could not have performed better.
Those who know Peter Janson well will not be surprised by this report. Certainly not John Haddad, the Federal Hotels chief who found Peter at his Melbourne office door one day in 1967, wanting to know what plans there were for the empty five-storey tower atop the company's historic Federal Hotel on the corner of Collins and King streets. 'I told him it was just gathering pigeon droppings,' says Haddad, 'and he asked what we would charge if he built an apartment there. I said if he paid for the work he could have it for very little.'
There were builders and cranes and delivery trucks there before you could say 'Amazing Bastard', and the city's first high-rise bachelor pad was up and away. Once it was completed, The Australian Women's Weekly was there in a flash, reporting in October 1967 that the new resident was 'young man-about-town Peter Janson', who had a 'reputation for extravagant parties and for being addicted to luxury'.
Peter told the Weekly, 'I think one should either live in the heart of the city or way out in the country. I hate suburbia.' The Weekly said he had spent $20 000 converting his tower into an apartment, describing a 'magnificently restored rosewood staircase spiralling from the bottom floor to the top of the tower and carpeted in a rich dark gold'.
However, behind the scenes there were a few teething problems. Within months the hotel building manager noticed that the telephone bill for the property had soared, and an inspection revealed that, through some silly error by workmen unknown, Peter's phone lines (which have always been in the plural) had somehow been spliced into the hotel's network. The bearded sultan of the turret did his best to look surprised at this discovery and even more so a month later when an escalating hotel power bill prompted management to check the wiring, only to find some foolish workman had spliced the wrong cable into the wrong socket, leaving Peter feeding off the juice for the Federal.
He uttered his favourite apologia when things go awry: 'I haven't been so embarrassed since my helicopter was repossessed.' It is a line he has employed many times since, because, well, Peter's Projects — and there have been many — do tend to push the envelope. He came to Melbourne as a racing-car driver and was the first to overcome the ban on advertising on the windscreen of racing cars at the famous Bathurst 1000. Back then, only the driver's name was permitted on the windscreen, so Peter temporarily changed his name by deed poll to N.G.K. Janson, greatly pleasing the NGK spark plug company, which remunerated him handsomely.
Peter then laid the foundation for the small city of luxury entertainment marquees that now springs up at the Melbourne Cup, importing a red London double-decker bus as a mobile hospitality unit, which he would park near the Flemington Birdcage sporting an adjacent annexe. In the evolving tradition of so many Jansonian projects, his Melbourne Cup hospitality centre grew annually in size and luxury, eventually incorporating fountains, waiters and entertainers, and even allowed for an outside-broadcast booth for radio. As with his parties, the guests ranged across a broad spectrum and, sometimes unexpectedly, cross-pollinated.
Such a pairing on one occasion was that of sexual disciplinarian Madam Lash and a knight of the realm, who were seen entering a mobile loo together. Michael Muschamp, an old Janson chum, observed at the time, 'There was all sorts of shaking and rattling in there, and the knight emerged wearing her Biggles helmet. Madam Lash came out wearing his top hat and a large grin.'
The London bus had its erotic moments too. The late judge Sir Richard Kirby is said to have recoiled at a report of one such carnal episode inside, exclaiming, 'Good heavens, what time was this?'
Replied the informant, 'About three-thirty, Sir Richard.'
The beak was much relieved. 'Well, at least they had the decency to wait until after the running of the Cup.'
Kerry Gillespie, a former executive at Moonee Valley Racing Club, says there was soon a second London bus, which Peter used to transport his guests to the great race. Again the doting Weekly magazine rushed in, reporting that this latest bus was the 'last thing in comfort — carpeted, curtained, set with tables and seats (which convert into beds): it also has a stereo, television, refrigerator — and telephones'. Peter eventually had eight buses which he also used to transport sons of the British aristocracy, who during their holidays were sent to Australia by their parents, to live and work at his abode in what was termed the Janson Finishing School. 'He was fantastic with them,' says Kerry, 'very strict but fair. He would sometimes drive them down to Portsea in the bus — the locals' eyes were like organ stops at the sight — and they would rock up our driveway with an Esky full of chickens and grog, have a chat, have a swim, eat the chickens, get back in the bus and drive back to town.'
By the 1970s Peter's high-rise pleasure domes had become notorious. He had been forced to move out of the Federal when it was marked for demolition, although his mate Jack Joel, now in his eighties, says the hotel had to turn off the water supply to force him out. Jack, who eventually built up the nation's largest car-leasing firm, was looking for an office, so Peter knocked down one of the hotel walls to make space.
'Poor Johnny Haddad,' says Jack. 'We gave him buggery. I wanted an en suite so we knocked down another wall, brought in a dunny then filled the roof spouting with tea, floated a couple of plastic turds in it and called the maintenance bloke. Just about killed him. We never did get the toilet connected. We'd have regular lunch in the tower, made our own champagne we called Chateau le Tour, as in "tower". If you drank enough it made you blind, but we enjoyed it. We'd compete with each other for guests. I brought Arthur Calwell as a guest. You know, the bloke behind the White Australia policy. He really loved it. I remember he stroked my hand one time and said, "Never forget the colour of your skin." There are a million stories. Peter's knowledge of the Bible is incredible. There was one night after he first arrived when a Salvation Army bloke was spruiking on the corner of Collins and Russell streets and Janson began screaming out, "It wasn't like that, my good man!" He finished up on the box and delivered the Sermon on the Mount.'
The briefly homeless Peter, who by then was using the title Captain from a two-year stint with the Indian military, soon bobbed up on the rooftop of the historic Windsor Hotel in Spring Street, where he swiftly built another exotic bachelor pad. According to the man himself, this move was almost an act of charity. 'Their occupancy rates were way down,' he says sympathetically, 'so I said I would help them out.' Again, The Australian Women's Weekly was fascinated, and in October 1975 reported on the new penthouse, which had been created out of a 'maze of rooms once used for staff quarters but uninhabited for 80 years'. Peter told the Weekly, 'We had to cart out 400 boxes of rubbish.'
The Janson rooftop bachelor pad certainly added some glitz to the establishment. Celebrity guests were a frequent sight, trotting through the foyer en route to the penthouse — Omar Sharif, Jimmy Edwards, Quentin Crisp, Edward de Bono, Spike Milligan, Stirling Moss. The Weekly's social diarist Di 'Bubbles' Fisher was invited up to a 'super champagne party' in 1980 and reported, 'Peter sent a car to collect me and in no time at all I was sitting by a roaring log fire on a velvet sofa with his alpine dingo licking my left ear and Olivia Newton- John talking in the other!'
British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's daughter, Carol, lived there for a year and, says one long-time pal, fell in love with Peter. 'Oh yes, Carol would do anything for him. At one stage she wanted to go hiking so he bought her a pair of army boots and made her march in them, knees up high, down Collins Street, to test them out while he followed in amusement, twenty paces behind and smoking a cigar.'
One visitor recalls taking his leggy first wife to the Windsor penthouse, which was bedecked with the Janson trademark stuffed animal heads, Persian carpets and bookcases, and incorporated the hotel's two towers. 'I had a suburban property with a tower which I wanted to sell and thought he may be interested,' the visitor recalls. 'It quickly became apparent that Peter was more interested in my wife and we left. I had this feeling I was being set up as a cuckold.'
These were Peter's wild days, when stunts such as the Tram Hijack were entrenched in Melbourne folklore. 'The conductor wouldn't change a £10 note,' he recalls indignantly. 'So when the driver got out for a minute to do something I grabbed the lever and took off and gave everyone a free ride. I was banned for life.'
Court appearances were not entirely unknown to the dapper Captain Janson, who was up before Melbourne's Magistrate Proposch in November 1972 on a charge that surprised even the most seasoned Janson-watcher: bringing a live monkey into Australia in the passenger compartment of an aircraft. As The Age reported earnestly at the time, the female gibbon was 'seized by customs officials at Perth airport' after Peter took it aboard in a wicker basket. 'The monkey travelled in first class,' he told the bug-eyed beak. 'She pinched someone's transistor radio and camera during the trip and I had to return them. That was rather embarrassing. She would wake me up and I'd take her to the toilet, where she would sit and go, as long as no one watched.' But as for the preposterous suggestion that he had 'smuggled' the creature aboard, this was utter tosh. 'Heavens,' Peter said to the court, 'you can't hide them. Their singing can be heard for a range of three and a half miles.' Sadly, it was not long before the singing simian was heard no more. It died of hepatitis some weeks later, which, the court was told, it caught from an animal keeper who had been caring for it at Perth Zoo. 'They are very susceptible to colds and hepatitis,' Peter told the beak, presumably referring to the monkey, not the keeper. While finding the charge proved, Proposch declared that Peter had not meant to disobey the law and gave him a $20 fine.
Excerpted from Amazing Aussie Bastards by Lawrence Money. Copyright © 2013 Lawrence Money. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAbout the author,
PETER JANSON: Sultan of the tower,
RONNIE BURNS: Lord of the flies,
PRINCE LEONARD OF HUTT: The mouse that roared,
ALAN JONES: Wirelessaurus Rex,
DAVID HELFGOTT: The man with the runaway mind,
WILLIAM COOPER'S MOB: Warriors for justice,
CARL BARRON: The kid from Wompoo Street,
BOB KATTER: Top hat,
PETER RUSSELL-CLARKE: G'ay, cobber,
TIM JARVIS: Life in a deep freeze,
ALAN HOPGOOD: Seconds in time,
SHANNON BENNETT: The world's the limit,
NEIL JENMAN: The case of the golden eggs,
COLIN LOVITT: Don't mention Crete,
JOHN HOERNER: The blind photographer,
TIM COSTELLO: The gold jacket,
BOB MCMAHON: Pulping that pulp mill,
GARRY BARKER: War and peace,
GERRY HARVEY: Brave new world,
JONATHON WELCH: You're the choir man!,
IAN KIERNAN: Under full sail,
STEPHEN MAYNE: Crikey!,
WOLF BLASS: The full bottle,
DERRYN HINCH: A pawn and a king,
A.W. BURTON: The final salute,