In 1997, Giulia de Cesare and I got married in Hobart, Tasmania. Giulia’s family had been complaining for years that we should get married and well, we just sort of ran out of excuses.

Strange Wildlife of Tasmania—My Career as an International Coffee Bean Smuggler

Entering Australia was an interesting experience. Not to give away the plot or anything, but as I was subsequently to discover, Australia is in fact on a completely different planet to the rest of us, a fact demonstrated by its unique ecosystem, mindset and approach to the English language. The fact that we were able to fly directly from Singapore to Melbourne can be easily explained by positing a system of hyperspatial fractures of the sort familiar to most of my readers. Honestly, it’s by far the simplest hypothesis. Occasionally, normality starts to break through, but then the truly surreal jumps out and thwacks it over the head with an opal-studded surfboard. But as I was saying, getting in was interesting. You see, you fly in, get to Customs and the first thing they ask you is, “do you have with you any foodstuffs or anything of animal or vegetable origin?” Well, there’s our clothes, books, watchstraps… us! We daringly declared a single bar of chocolate and were waved through, successfully smuggling two human beings into the alien ecology of Australia. Phew!

Now being in Melbourne, we needed to change planes to Hobart International. Astute readers may ask “if there’s an international airport in Hobart, why did you have to come via Melbourne and risk being deported for the heinous crime of wearing a cotton shirt?” Well, I’m glad you asked that. The answer is of course that Hobart’s only international flight is once a month from New Zealand. We could have gone that way, but quite frankly, spending four weeks in the transit lounge at Auckland, fighting off marauding sheep, is not my idea of fun. What’s more, if we hadn’t flown via Melbourne we would have missed seeing people actually paying good money for what they call “Antarctic overflights” (and a man in a very badly done promotional penguin suit). So tell me, what sort of lunatic voluntarily gets on a plane for 6 hours just to fly over a bit of ice and then come back home without even landing to harass the natives? Not that there are any natives of course, but you could always harass the penguins or buy traditional ethnic sun-block from them or something. In fact, given that Tasmania is completely covered in a solid blanket of cloud and looks just like anywhere else does from 30,000 feet, they probably fly them over Tasmania and tell them that it’s really Antarctica…. Little do the unsuspecting tourists know that what is below them is not the Ross ice shelf at all, but the exotic city of Hobart.

Ah, beautiful Hobart, famed in song and utterly familiar to anyone who has listened to London’s Capital Radio at any time in the last several years. Star DJ Chris Tarrant, having decided that the interminable Hobart Radio 7HO jingle was probably the worst he, or anyone else, had ever come across, proceeded to play it incessantly. Somehow or other, he managed to attract an audience of tone-deaf Radio 7HO groupies, including my co-editor (of PLOKTA), Alison Scott, who took great delight in singing the jingle at every opportunity and even playing tapes of the show to Giulia. I’ve heard them, and yes it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect a small town radio station to produce. That Hobart is the state capital of something about the same size as England (after the awkward daggy bits like Scotland and Wales have been surgically removed), is a mere unfortunate fact and can therefore be safely disregarded.

Alas, having arrived in mysterious, exotic Hobart, we fell victim to that terrifying scourge of foreign travellers, jetlag. It’s not just for Christmas, you know. In fact I’m not convinced I’m fully recovered. Here it is, some years later and I’m still falling asleep at inopportune moments during the day. Mostly in the middle of long meetings for some strange reason…. But I digress. Here it was, a fine sunny morning in Hobart, and two barely sentient zombies are terrorising the suburbs of West Moonah. Well, we would have been terrorising them if we could have dragged ourselves upright long enough to do so. You can’t do a good job of terrorising when you’re mostly sitting around going “urhh” at irregular intervals. You know, they say that the best way to get over jetlag is to stay awake until night-time and go to bed then, even if it means staying awake for 36 hours. They lie. Actually, to be fair, I’m the one who’s sitting around saying “urhh”, Giulia is modelling The Dress for her mother who is concerned that we have (in true fannish fashion) just opened our suitcases and left everything spread all over the floor rather than using the cupboards and drawers. Honestly, I tried to tidy up a bit, but the drawers were already full of stuffed toys, junk and photographs of Shelley (my soon to be brother-in-law Robert’s somewhat estranged wife—they’re separated but still living together… “these Australians are crazy, Obelix!”) which have been banished to the outer darkness. In the process, I discovered that my bag was full of contraband—the contents of a packet of chocolate-coated coffee beans which I forgot to declare at customs and which have in revenge spread themselves all over everything. I considered turning myself in and throwing myself on the tender mercies of the authorities, but I think it was just a momentary aberration of the jetlag.

Of course, with that famous Australian hospitality, Giulia’s mother (as a special treat) produced a packet of “traditional English muffins” for breakfast so that we’d feel at home. Is this really the time to start ranting about how the English muffin is 99% the tradition of MacDonalds (and the remaining 1% is eaten only at teatime in a small benighted area of the country, in place of the scones/crumpets/pikelets which are eaten everywhere else)? No, probably not.

This, by the way, was intended to be a low-hassle wedding. The idea was that we would travel light, bringing only Giulia’s dress, and be parachuted in to find that everything else was arranged and ready to go. Of course, there are some things which needed us to be on hand for. Firstly, we had to go into town with my soon to be father-in-law, so we could check that the hire suits were OK. They were ordered from Myers, a large department store which seems to have a staffing problem as the place was almost deserted. We eventually tracked someone down and convinced them to let us try on the suits, despite not having an appointment. One set of trousers was at least 6” too long but at least it was a standard suit. I, on the other hand, discovered that I had been provided with the full penguin, tails, cut-away jacket, fortunately no top-hat… if Hobart had an orchestra, I could audition for conductor, no worries. We got home and discovered that just to add insult to injury, the shirt collar was a wing-tip collar and likely to look really silly. Gloom all round, well, apart from Giulia’s mother who was all for charging into battle with Myers menswear, demanding a refund, an apology and the salesman’s goolies to hang from her banner. Of course, Myers being a large department store must have plenty of other suits? No. Every suit has to be individually ordered from the mainland and rowed across the Bass Strait by caravans of trained koalas. Could we delay the wedding for 6 months until the next shipment? No. I guess Tasmanians don’t generally hire suits. Of course, I don’t generally hire suits, except when I’m on the opposite side of the planet to my wardrobe. Anyway, it’s not going to be possible to change it for the more conventional jacket we’d ordered. Sigh. Ah well, it’s going to have to be the penguin. Maybe I can make some money on the side, performing for tourists at Melbourne airport on their way to Antarctica.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I like Tasmania, I’d love to live in a nice friendly place with stunning scenery and superb food like this... just not here. I mean, quite apart from continually being told that the economy is crumbling away, the State government wants to chop down all the 10,000 year old trees and turn them into chipboard for the Japanese, strip mining destroying the landscape, heavy metals poisoning the Derwent, doom and gloom… it’s just too far away from anywhere I actually want to be. More to the point, most of our friends are in the UK, which is probably just as well since Giulia’s mother would be on the hotline to the Pope, demanding nuclear strikes on the whole northern hemisphere, if she had the slightest idea of what sort of people her daughter associates with (this means you, unless you’re reading this in Australia. Of course she probably feels that a few tactical nukes on selected suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney wouldn’t go amiss either).

Right. Now we start desperately filling in all the gaps in the preparations. As soon as Giulia gets back from having her hair disparaged by the hairdresser it’s off to talk to Jill Webster who is going to conduct the ceremony. Actually, this was something of a success. Giulia’s mother’s attitude was “no daughter of mine is getting married anywhere except by a Catholic priest in a Catholic church”, Giulia’s was “OK, I won’t get married then, and by the way I’m going off to live in England with some fellow you’ve never met.” Eight years later, we compromised on a non-religious ceremony with a female celebrant in Hobart’s nearest equivalent to a stately home, Runneymede. More of a stately bungalow, really, but the garden’s nice. It’s a pick-and-mix wedding, so we go through the assortment of available ceremonies, filling our 6-ounce paper bag with possible wordings, suggesting bits of poetry, selecting sonorous phrases. Jill explains where we have to stand, when we have to enter and how to say our pieces. Giulia had wanted to get married in the garden, but given the flocks of grey clouds which seem to be pursuing us wherever we go, giggling all the time, we take the cowards’ way out and opt for the music room.

Then we needed to visit various family friends who were doing things for the wedding. For various complicated and highly embarrassing reasons, we had to go via the airport where their canine superhero, “Quarantine Service Beagle,” was out strutting his stuff. This little beast’s role in life is to trample all over the passengers’ luggage, sniffing for foodstuffs and other organic material, while wearing a “Protecting Australia” jacket in lieu of the traditional superhero cape and underpants. Fortunately, our disguise as non-organic lifeforms appears to be holding good. However, he did succeed in finding some illegal immigrant fruit in a couple bags and promptly handed the owners over to the Department of Agriculture death squads to be shot. And so Australia was saved from a fate worse than death before our very eyes! I try not to think about the guerrilla coffee-beans currently subverting society at that very moment from the safety of my suitcase. Then on to Rick and Anna Cazaly who have an absolutely incredible house in Sharks Bay, built on a steep slope (e.g. almost, but not quite, a cliff) down to the beach. It looks like a shack from the road, while inside it’s like a treehouse out of Vogue with all teak and brass and beautiful things. The kids’ bedrooms are themed and they can camp down by the beach and paddle canoes in the bay. I thought people only had childhoods like this in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. And it’s far away from anywhere—except that it’s only 35 minutes from the city, maybe we should move here after all.

Next there’s Giulia’s old friend Angela who lives even further out of town along a road which seems to be in imminent danger of washing away in the pouring rain. And the wipers have started to misbehave. Oh joy. Angela is the sort of person for whom the phrase “dippy hippy” was coined. She’s taken a course on becoming a counsellor but says she doesn’t feel ready to practise yet and wants to take more courses. Perhaps it’s just as well. She’s also into drama therapy, numerology and god-knows what else. She gave us a performance of the Shakespeare sonnet Giulia wanted her to read and which she had learned by heart. Umm. Imagine “Let us not to the marriage of true minds...” as performed by Puck, or possibly by one of Macbeth’s 3 witches. I never realised love poetry could be so sinister.

Lastly there’s supper with Henry, the other soon to be brother-in-law, and his wife. We were sent off armed with a loaf of best Dwarfish Italian Battle Bread just in case we ran into someone from Myers along the way. A pleasant evening, another lovely house with a huge perfect lounge that merges imperceptibly into a superbly planned kitchen with no clutter. How do these people do it? When I think of our kitchen with its rows of shelves, full of little bottles containing essential spices like asafoetida, elfbane, tooth of wolf, tongue of frog, tiger’s chaudron.... Not to mention racks of pans and woks and complicated electrical gadgets that looked really useful before we bought them and completely superfluous as soon as we got them home; the espresso machine, the food processor, the electric steamer, the couple of dozen different sorts of coffee machine. How do these people live with only a hob and a selection of cupboards?

Friday—It’s sunny. No, no, no. It’s SUNNY!!!! In fact it’s so sunny that the UV forecast is “Extreme” and the fire forecast is “Danger. If you even think about lighting a fire we will get Superbeagle to make you wish you’d never been born. So there.” Amazing when you consider that all they have to do is mention the word “barbecue” and the heavens will open with the downpour to end all downpours. Naturally, we decided to go on a picnic. We covered all the exposed bits in lashings of Factor 50 sun screen and headed off to Seven Mile Beach, stopping at an oyster farm to buy a box on the half shell. I was going to just get a dozen, but Giulia went “we want a dozen oysters, two dozen, no three dozen...” and she doesn’t even like them. It’s not that far to the beach, about 20 minutes or so from town, but there were probably about 10 people on the whole seven miles of beach, and they were mostly in a small clump a couple of miles away. The sun was hot, but there was a strong sea breeze and we took off our shoes and paddled. After basking in the sun a while, drinking beer and eating oysters, off we went to Bonorong Wildlife Park. Here kangaroos, wallabies and peacocks roam the grounds, being fed by the tourists (entrance includes a bag of food). It also has some slightly less amenable animals like koalas, quolls, wombats, echidnas, emus, eagles and of course the infamous Tasmanian Devils (which, contrary to the misinformation spread by Warner Bros., look something like an unpleasant cross between a rat and a dog, and smell strongly of rotting meat. I wish I had their marketing agency). Out of deference to Croydon fandom, we take care to pay our respects to the wombat (common, rather than hairy-nosed—it appears that there are only 60 hairy-nosed wombats left… or rather there were 60. The Australian government just wiped out another 3 or 4 in a misguided attempt to get the little sods to breed. It seems that if you take a red-blooded Australian wombat and line him up with a couple of hot dates, he either spends his time drunk in front of the telly or gets into a screaming argument over “who are all these other wombats you’re going out with, then?” and they claw each other to ribbons as any zoologist or soap-opera enthusiast could have told them).

And now a short warning anecdote. If you, dear reader, were going out for a picnic in the sort of weather where the ultraviolet doesn’t just burn you, it eats cosmic rays for breakfast and causes asbestos to undergo spontaneous combustion, you would wear sun-block, wouldn’t you? All over the exposed bits? And if you took your shoes and socks off to go paddling, would you remember that you hadn’t put any on your feet? Fluorescent pink toes are so fetching, don’t you think?

Saturday—“The Day”. Things are getting complicated again.

Me: “Do we have the rings? My (not-so) smart shoes? Waistcoat? White shirt? Cravat? Penguin jacket?” Worry, worry, worry… panic!

Giulia: “Steve, can I suggest something? Let’s never do this again”

So what do you do on the morning of your wedding? Well, being us, we went shopping. After all, Giulia had been complaining that she certainly wasn’t going to miss the chance to hit Salamanca Market for anything as trivial as getting married. There were fruit and veg stalls, second-hand junk, collectibles, food stalls of all sorts, tarot readers, tourist tat, arty-crafty things, expensive really nice arty things, preposterously over-priced arty things, new-age stuff, jazz, jugglers and the universal Peruvian folk band. I have a theory that all Peruvian folk bands are simply extrusions of some 4-dimensional meta-band, a folk music monstrosity currently trying to conquer the world, but not trying very hard. Either that, or else the entire population of Peru is out on tour and have just left a few cardboard replicas behind to give the impression of a real country.

Oh well, eventually the dreaded hour came round when we had to stop shopping and Giulia headed off to get changed and drag her frantic mother down off the ceiling. I put on my penguin suit and headed for Runneymede. As the first one there, I got to try and find a mirror to check my cravat in—ties are the invention of the devil and cause progressive anoxia and incipient brain-death, no way was I going to wear one, instead Giulia made me a cravat out of a piece of wedding-dress, along with a matching waistcoat, I thought it was very nice of her. Jill turned up with her ghetto-blaster and marriage register, and we rearranged the seating a bit, then waited for people to turn up in dribs and drabs. I check the music-room clock, it’s 5.27, Giulia should be here soon. A few more people turn up. 5.27. Angela turns up and I send her off to arrange with Jill what the signal is going to be for the reading. 5.27. I realise that the clock is stopped and that it’s been showing 5.27 for at least the last half hour… if not the last half century.

After several aeons, Giulia turned up in an elderly white Rolls, wearing the cream and gold dress which she’d been slaving over for months (and which I’d been carefully avoiding seeing). The dress was made from an ivory silk sari with an intricate gold pattern. Basically, everything Giulia looked at was unspeakably awful apart from a couple of little things at around the £10,000 mark. So we went shopping for silk in Southall and found some stunning formal saris at prices that were merely extortionate. Then Giulia and Teddy disappeared for a month while they steeled themselves to cut into the sari since it’s not something where you can go back and ask for another couple of metres. Finding another sari of the same pattern would be pretty close to impossible. Fortunately, it looks like they sliced in all the right places.

Everything goes swimmingly. We make all the right responses at all the right times, the words aren’t too gooey, Angela reads the poem in a responsible fashion, we get through the vows without stuttering or giggling. Amazing! Suddenly, we’re outside being attacked by relatives armed with baskets of rose petals. The next half hour is a chaos of kisses, hugs, mugging for the photographers and trying to avoid sudden showers of petals at inopportune moments. Cousin Tony the photographer does his stuff, setting up all the various family groups. Then the guests head off to the reception and Tony switches cameras to do a few atmospheric shots of us with the house. We pose on the music room steps, in the living room, on the front verandah, in front of the Rolls, in front of the fountain, hanging upside-down from the roof... Tony goes over to the camera box to get another battery pack for the flash, and suddenly realises that there isn’t any film in this camera and hasn’t been for at least the last 20 minutes. Sigh. I guess we’re just going to have to start all over again. At the beginning.