I am fortunate to have worked through a period in journalism when the gifts, the perks – the freebies to apply the correct journalistic parlance – were worth having. My diary is housed within a handsome Papyrus leather book jacket that has aged like a pair of vintage Levis, and my grey Rob The Traveller Millican canvas shoulder bag is seldom out of reach.
Thinking back it cannot have been so munificent during my father’s time on Fleet Street in the early 1960s. The concept of PR and companies buying their way into favour hadn’t gotten a hold. In fact the only things I can remember not being paid for, but which were pride of place in the front room of our Whitton home, were a bottle of red wine with a forearm sized golden glass monkey clinging to its outside, and a clear glass jar of kangaroo tail soup: thumb sized cross-sections of furry bits of meat revealed when it was shaken.
Both the wine and the soup were presented to my father by a spirited Australian country singer named Frank Ifield who in 1959 had moved to London from his native Sydney. It was a canny move resulting in four UK number one singles and a career that stumbles on to this day.
Arguably his biggest hit was I Remember You, a rousing country/pop classic, that held the number one spot for seven weeks in the summer of 1962. With a thick quiff of light brown hair, high cheekbones, and an easy smile, Frank’s blend of singing and yodelling – that’s right, Alpine style yodelling – proved irresistible. I Remember You was followed in October of that year with the double A side chart topper, Hank Williams’ Lovesick Blues with She Taught Me How To Yodel on the flip.
My father, himself a wicked boogie woogie piano player, was the chief sub editor of The Daily Mirror and a close friend of the paper’s pop writer, Pat Doncaster, (incidentally the man who gave me my first long playing record, The Beatles’ Hard Days Night). My father interviewed Frank for the paper who showed his appreciation with the wine and the soup, and a signed photograph of himself that I seem to recall was taken on the street close to the new Daily Mirror building at Holborn Circus.
Fast forward over 50 years to a Friday evening a month ago and a friend’s house here in Padstow’s old town, close to where I now live. On the top shelf in an alcove in a kitchen, where five or six of us are pre-loading and watching clips of 1970s soul bands on a smart phone belonging to a retired Fleet Street sub editor, my eyes land upon the exact double of the monkey bottle. I recognised it because bottles of red wine with forearm sized gold monkeys wrapped around them are not the sort of things you see every day.
It belonged to my father, explained my host nonchalantly, a winsome teacher with a predilection for wearing black. Did she have any idea where he’d obtained it? In a flash: “It was given to him by Frank Ifield.”
It’s at times like these that you find yourself looking into your glass and wondering if it was something you drank? Are there two Frank Ifields? What were the chances of their being two and both gifting bottles with monkeys on them? It was the singer, she insisted. The Australian one. “The one who yodelled,” chimed a voice to my left. In which case, how come? How did her father know the yodelling Aussie? “He lived opposite. The house directly across the road.” Of course he did.
Some weeks later I still can’t quite get my around the fact that Frank Ifield, an Australian pop sensation, who gave my father a monkey bottle and some kangaroo tail soup in the 1960s, owned a house just a few hundred yards from where I live today and gave the father of the person I drink with most Friday evenings the exact same bottle he gave my father.
Frank Ifield, who I soon discovered trawling the internet, remains lean and
in rude health. He’s still working and his affection for the UK is undiminished. He played a 14 night UK tour earlier this year. I located his management company and fired off an email that Frank himself replied to a week or so later.
“I bought a holiday house in Church Street Padstow village in Cornwall circa 1978…” wrote Frank without elucidating on how he came to land on a town about as far away from swinging London as you can get. This being a singer who was right in the thick of the pop scene. His website (http://www.frankifield.com) is packed with black and white photographs of him with Shirley Bassey, Roy Orbison, and Cliff Richard and The Shadows.
“I do remember your dad Denys…he kindly did an article on me being an Australian pop singer missing his home in Sydney and the taste of kangaroo tail soup. This of course was merely a gimmick to draw attention to the article as I had never even heard of the soup let alone tasted it. Nevertheless I was grateful for the wide spread publicity it gave me as I was constantly reminded of it over many years to come.
“Now, I just happened to come across a jar of the said kangaroo soup which, I believe was for sale in Harrods. So this means it would have been after 1962,” – after his first number one – “…otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford Harrods Knightsbridge prices
“All that makes sense and fits with my memory.”
A case of the tail wagging the kangaroo. A stroke of canny PR in which my father played his part.
“On with the mystery,” wrote Frank. Things not being so clear cut with the monkey bottle. He does recall sticking kangaroo badges on bottles of red wine for gifts but perhaps my initial description of a koala on the bottle instead of a monkey threw him a boomerang?
“The bottle…I can only guess would have been one I favoured personally and would have quaffed on many occasions. Therefore I would have a stash that would have taken as gifts to any of my friends that I visited.”
Nobody is sure how long Frank had his house in Padstow. Whenever I mention him to people most shrug and remember seeing him going back and forth. “We didn’t think much of it,” said one matter-of-factly.
I don’t know when Frank shipped out of Padstow. All I know is he contracted pneumonia in mid-80s and relocated to Sydney in 1988 where the weather is more clement than Padstow and where the stars fall…like rain out of the blue-ooh-ooh-ooh-hoo-hoo-hoo