Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Snapshots of miss-utterance

Ten years old. With the family in the hills. We visit Uncle Alan. He’s forty now and the home brew’s showing. We all stop as he turns to see us in his kitchen. A big silence. Which I break with, “Boy you’re fat”.

Later I’m admonished quietly.

Seven. At school. My first divinity class. Never heard of God. I’m there with my sister who’s there because of a boy. The chaplain is young and eager. It’s our first class and maybe his. He builds it up, let’s the story sound big: Christ, Adam, Moses, the whole thing up to now. Wants us all to gawk and gape. I try to help him, thinking mistakenly that the best way to show you’re impressed is to whistle – Whooo Whooo!

He asks me to leave. No more God.

Italian class 1997. Many women studying with me and one other bloke. Teacher is warm and motherly. We discuss Andrea Boccelli. The blind singer. Apparently he’s not just handsome but angelic and many other things. La Professoressa’s way of exploring adjectives. Focus comes to me. “Ecco Don, le piace Andrea Boccelli?” (Do I like him?) I pause before asking in English what the Italian word for saccharine is. Groans of despair and disappointment.

I’m no longer the amusing guy. (Saccarina by the way).

Hospital. Early forties. Just had cardiothoracic surgery. My aortic valve has been replaced with a tungsten one. A big moment. The nurses - terrific, warm, loving - laugh and giggle at the morphine antics. Early morning on the ward. In and out of the opium daze, happy it’s all done. The TV a bleary box in the air. I wake to see the doctors doing their morning round. All at the foot of my bed: Indian surgeon, Pakistani registrar, pretty Vietnamese med student. Very pretty. All standing where the TV was. The nurse shakes me awake. I look. They smile. I say, “Who switched over to SBS?” (the ethnic TV channel).

They don’t laugh. The nurse, imploding, has to leave.

Six days later, after the doctors have found me to be just a wag and not so nasty. I’m keen to go. Feel ready! Please docs. Want to go! It’s been a week. But they say I can’t go until my heart rate is below 90 beats per minute - resting. Been practising. Meditating and long breathing. Got the rate down. Down. Calm. The doctors arrive at 8. “Mr Smith” says the Indian as his head does that dance. They all smile. I sit up ready for the pulse test. The Pakistani doc says “No” as the nurse tries to take my pulse. He nods to the beautiful Vietnamese girl. She slowly moves to me, takes my arm in hers, takes my pulse. Pulse of 95! Libido’s back! Damn!

Again his lovely sub-continental head wobble. This time with a big smile. “Sorry Mr Smith. Maybe tomorrow.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Racism at the bank

What does it take to convince people that their objection to refugees arriving in Australia by boat has no rational basis?

There’s a deep and irrevocable fear in the minds of many Australians, a fear of alien arrivals, a fear of invasion. While this fear is expressed as anger about people not ‘joining the queue’ or not ‘coming here in the normal manner’ it really is just that – fear; there’s no evidence that refugees who arrive by boat could be a danger to us, or even disadvantage any other person in our community. So, when that fear has no historical basis (a generation ago in Australia a fear of Japanese people was understandable) it really is a kind of social pathology.

Where does it come from? 

Last night I listened to a Buddhist monk talk about conflict. His simple approach is that we should attempt to ‘be’ the person we despise.  So I suppose I should attempt to see from the perspective of a person who is frightened of refugees.

How do I do that? I’m not sure. It’ll have to be a future project. But in the mean time let me tell you about something that happened at the bank a few months ago.

I was attempting to cash a cheque at my local Commonwealth bank. This particular branch is often full of people from all over the world: Vietnam, Cambodia, Africa, Iraq, Korea, Sri Lanka and Europe (including Britain). Some of them are refugees, others simply immigrants, but on any given day it’s guaranteed that over three quarters of the people in the bank will be of Asian, African or Middle Eastern origin.

It was a Thursday afternoon, a time when many banks in poor neighbourhoods are full. And yes, the word ‘poor’ is appropriate; it’s a suburb once full of poor English immigrants and aboriginal people living in Government housing. Nowadays the newly renovated low-cost housing is inhabited by refugees or young people who can’t afford to buy closer to the city. White anglo saxons like me are now a minority.

So, there we were, about fifty customers in a small Commonwealth Bank branch; and, having just arrived, I was at the end of the queue. After about a minute of waiting I heard an angry customer ticking off a bank teller. Many people get angry at bank staff, I’ve done it myself years ago, but it’s something I consider futile as it’s not the tellers who make the rules. But this person was ramping it up, letting everyone know he was upset. He was a drunk white man, early thirties, well over six foot and well built, looked like a labourer.

It soon became clear that he was upset about not being able to withdraw money immediately, and the teller, a young Asian woman, was trying to inform him that he’d have to wait. His voice became louder, he looked around to see who was watching and listening, and the largely ethnic crowd simply looked out the window or at the floor. Staff behind the counter were tense and scared. Then he said, “I put fifteen thousand dollars into this fucken bank and I can’t take out a lousy one hundred.” The woman mumbled an apology and the white bloke then said, “It’s OK for you. Ya fucken boat people, coming here and taking all the jobs.”

That’s when I piped up. I can’t help myself. Always have done, always will. I called out with my broadest Ozzie accent, “Hey mate, pull your head in...” (a colloquialism meaning ‘be quiet’ or ‘hush up’) “…you don’t need to be abusive.”

The big fellow turned towards me, took one look at the minuscule frame of a short fifty year old middle class entertainer and said, “What’s it got to do with you?” Then he walked towards me. I just stood there thinking ‘what the fuck have I done now?’ as he stopped and looked down at me. I said, “You won’t get any where by abusing people fella”. He began a sentence along the lines of “I don’t give a flying fuck what you think…” when another voice behind me called out, “Shut up you bloody racist.”

I turned to see a small African guy, early twenties, wiry and cocky. The big guy then walked towards him and asked what he wanted as the African guy called him a big fat redneck. And I thought, ‘Oh shit, what have I started!’ as the Ozzie bloke started poking the African fellow with his finger. Things looked like they were really hotting up when a middle aged Asian woman, the manager as turned out, stepped in and told us to go outside. The Ozzie bloke then looked at her, and I could see he wanted to hurl abuse at her as well, but instead he just turned to me, held up his palms and said, “I just want some money for the weekend.”

In that moment I could see the guy was tired, upset and helpless, and I could identify with that; we’ve all been there. So I told the bloke to come outside, and he did but not before once again threatening the African fellow.

Outside, he told me he was down from the mines and I told him I’d toured to many of the mine sites. We chatted about where he worked – a site I’d perormed at – and it turned out the mulitbillionaire company he worked for had bungled his payment so it was in late. He wanted the bank to understand, well at least someone to listen anyway; so I did my best. Then the little African guy came out of the bank and glared at him. Once again it was on, swear words from both of them, before the African guy scooted off towards the car park. Then the Ozzie bloke went off in the same direction, and I just thought ‘stuff it, I’ve done my bit’, so I went back into the bank.

By this stage the queue was even bigger and once again I was at the end when the manager came out and insisted I go to the front. So, amidst many smiles of thanks from the staff and customers, I did my banking, withdrew some money and left.

And after I bought a paper and some groceries, I was heading towards my car when I noticed two security guards chatting to a white woman. They were saying something about an African guy. I wandered over and told them what I’d seen at the bank. They allowed me in on their conversation, and the security guards questioned the woman: “Are you sure it was a gun?”. The woman responded with, “Yes, I’m…well, it looked like a gun…it was…well, he was pointing it at the other fellow.”

I looked down at the pavement, felt kind of sad and left them to sort it out.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I’ve been asked to work at a boxing night. Not as a boxer, I’d last about ten seconds less then a Danny Green opponent. The promoter wants me to MC and gee up the crowds between bouts.

Yep, it’s one of those ‘in two minds’ things. Not really a dilemma because I’m doing the gig. It’s just that I know there’ll be people there acting tough, acting like they’re king of the crowd: robbers, wife-bashers, road-ragers, bigots. They’ll be yelling stuff that’s nasty and hurtful.

Umm, it’s a boxing match Don. What do you expect, Mary-friggin-McKillop?

I have to admit that I like boxing. And it’s not because I like Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, because I’m not that enamoured with those writers who loved to parade their macho side amongst their softer bohemian mates. No, it’s simply because I like to see skill, tactics, strength and strategy all working together, and boxing is one of those sports where that happens absolutely. There’s no contest. For watching, the martial arts beat all other leisure activities.

Australian football is spectacular and beautiful, but there’s no strategy. Lots of skill and strength but you can’t put 36 blokes on a field with an egg shaped ball that can be passed and kicked forwards and backwards and tell me tactics and strategy will come to the fore. Same for rugby but at least they’re generally moving in one direction. Basket ball is way too fast, tennis is ok but full of posers, and don’t get me started on golf! Cricket comes closest in regard to skill and strategy, particularly when you play it, but when you watch, it’s sometimes hard to know where to look (hence the reliance on replays).

With boxing there’s no mistaking the rules, no missing a moment because you were looking at someone in the outfield, no one in the road of your vision. It’s just so simple and pure in form but exceptionally complex. It’s chess with muscle and blood. It’s as close as you can get to live tragedy without the death (hopefully). Someone has to lose and lose hard; and there's no turning to fellow players to share the burden of loss; just one guy standing (or lying) and taking it while the other guy jumps and yelps like a puppy on a beach.

So, would I go to a pro boxing match? No, not my scene and too expensive. But I love to watch Olympic boxing: 3 rounds with head protection. I’ve argued with mates who reckon, generally in a drunken stupor, that the head padding makes no difference. I don’t believe that for a second.

I have boxed though. In 1976 I worked, like so many young blokes, on the wheat bins of West Australia. It was a tiny siding not far from Lake Grace, a town best forgotten in the middle of wheat fields and salt plains. Can’t help thinking that the guy who wrote Wake In Fright spent a bit of time on a wheat bin.

There was a young bloke called Roo, tall and gangly, not many teeth, a local who fancied himself as a boxer. I’d heard from a few locals that Roo had lost a few fights at the pub but that he never gave up. He’d take on anyone.

At the time I was very fit. I was 19, and I’d just returned from England where I’d spent four months throwing bales on to trucks. I was only five foot five but, like a lot of short guys, I talked a lot. I call it the Jack Russell complex: they might all be bigger than you but if you make a bit of noise and look into their eyes they’ll back off.

Not Roo though.

He liked me and I him, even though we came from opposing sides of the class divide. It was fun to play practical jokes on each other, take the piss out each other’s accents, and joke with the farmers, many of whom looked down on Roo like he had rabies. He’d clearly made a name for himself.

And every day Roo would say, “C’mon Smitty, box me. Box me mate”. I’d find ways of discouraging him: comparing the length of our arms, our differing heights, my complete lack of experience, the likelihood of us being sacked, or our lack of boxing gloves (given my desire to continue playing guitar).  

But one afternoon the boss was away and a farmer dropped off a case of beer. Roo and I got drunk, he badgered me for a fist fight and I said “Why not?” So we simply walked over to a patch of gravel and went at each other. The tension was fabulous. And the focus! Two guys, one tall and the other short, ducking and weaving, jabbing, dancing in the heat. The other workers, both city guys like me, were watching and yelling, “Hey, you guys are crazy. Stop it!” But secretly they were mesmerised.

And it wasn’t that difficult. Roo had huge hands that I could see coming from way back, so it was simple to deflect every punch. Then it all got serious when I landed a punch on Roos gut. He paused, took in a breath, then came at me with a series of fast jabs. One of them hit my chin and that was it. It was like someone had thrown a lump of wood at me. Thump. I wasn’t dazed but I was very shocked. Roo could see I’d had enough and that was it. We laughed and went back to the shed.

The thing I remember most about that moment was how incredibly exhausted we were. It’s really hard work! But it was strangely satisfying. It was like Roo had given me a little taste of his life, his bliss.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Aropax (written in 2005)

Just came off Aropax – the famous antidepressant everyone’s talking and writing about, and a few commercial current affairs shows are warning us all against. Yep, the same one that’s supposedly causing so many suicides and murders. I say “supposedly” because there may have been a few variables other than the drug itself, misdiagnosis and misuse being just two of them.

I remember when my psychiatrist first recommended it, the name Aropax had a kind of symmetry and rhythm to it. AROPAX.  I’ve always liked the suffix ‘pax’ or peace. Serapax, the sleeping pill, means ‘night peace’. Hmmmm…cute. The ‘aro’ bit actually means ‘to plough’, so Aropax means to work in peace.

The active constituent of Aropax is Paroxetine, and when I checked it in the MIMS drug compendium – after my second day on the drug – I found a list of possible side affects so large I was gob-smacked! Then I noticed almost every drug has a similar list; it’s a basic scientific obligation to say how some people reacted during clinical trials. But I was gob-smacked all the same.

While Aropax is fast developing a reputation similar to Thalidomide, I have to say I’m ambivalent about it. It served its purpose. For three years on Aropax I managed my life better, suffered less from anxiety, slept okay, and no longer felt a need to kill myself. From my normally stoic perspective the side affects weren’t that bad: just a bit of edginess, weird dreams and difficulty reaching orgasm. And hey, I’m a heterosexual man, what better pick up line than, “I’m on these drugs, and…well… it takes me ages to come.”

So why go off it?

The weird dreams were more than just weird, they were cold, insidious and heartless. I used to call them my ‘Tarentino’ dreams because that’s what they were like: fast, vivid, violent, often very funny but generally lacking in compassion. i.e. A Quentin Tarentino movie. I once dreamt that in the middle of a shoot out scene, when the handsome antihero is about to be shot by the ugly psycho, the antihero casually stares into the psycho’s eyes and says, in that cool Clint Eastwood fashion, “I thought you guys were supposed to kill innocent people. I’m not innocent, I’m an evil prick. Why don’t you shoot someone who’s innocent?” The psycho guy then turns and shoots a woman walking past, giving the antihero just enough time to escape. But that wasn’t the end; these dreams went on and on from one clever but dispassionate scene to the next. They almost had end credits!

As for the orgasms…nahhhh…we’re talking hours, literally. At first it was great, I got to see it from the ‘turner-onner’ perspective, and it was kind of fun to say, “ Hey, I just love watching you enjoy yourself.” And I agree with the adage that getting there is most of the fun, but there’s no fun in ‘getting there’ if you don’t actually get there! Tantric Schmantric, I want the big pay off, and with Aropax that was rare. When it did come, or should I say when I did, the feeling was more relief than ecstasy.

My big reason for ditching Aropax was to do with feelings. Strong feelings. Not deep ones, strong ones. Deep feelings imply complexity, and with Aropax things are complex alright - sophistication abounds. One of the selling points of the drug is that it improves concentration. But strong feelings are about having something well up inside you and allowing it move around your body. I suppose that’s why we call it ‘being over-taken by emotion’. We lose ourselves in it for a while, and it doesn’t matter if it’s crying, laughing or orgasming, it’s glorious to be lost in that. Just for a while.

On Aropax it never happened. I could perceive feeling, understand it, analyse it, even feel it coming on; and sometimes I’d laugh along with friends who were bursting with laughter, or cry with others who were keening and wailing, but I knew I was never really there - a bit like trying to get drunk with your mates while knowing someone’s switched your liquor for water.

I realised this when I was playing guitar alone one night. I’d found the music to a song that was sung at my brother’s funeral - in the days before I took Aropax. It was beautiful Irish ballad about some guy who wishes he had it in him to visit his true love across the sea, but he just can’t bring himself to climb out of the shit hole of his life. And it was a wonderful feeling to pick up the guitar and belt out this wild, irreverent Irish love song – to remember that massive feeling of loss … and to re-live it … almost! After one rendition of the song I stopped and realised I wasn’t crying, and I was so damn close! I wanted to cry so much but I couldn’t, and for that I felt even sadder, but I still didn’t cry. It was like my body was just aching to go through all that shuddering and shaking and blubbering. But it got to a point where it stopped, as if my emotions were being governed. And in a way I suppose they were.
Sure, there were tears and a quiver in my voice but I never really let myself go.

It was then I realised the drug was holding me back. So I figured it was time to be rid of it.

But you can’t just go off these drugs, particularly Aropax (as my doctor told me later). Weird things happen. After the first few nights of cold turkey I started getting nightmares. But these weren’t your traditional “scary” dreams; they were a cross between frustration dreams (where you’ve lost something or can’t find your way through something), humiliation dreams (where you feel like an idiot) and dreams of sheer horror. A horror that’s hard to pin down though – insidious and creepy, not quite there yet. A horror that’s about to arrive but holds itself back so you can never really see it, just feel it. “Ephemeral and plastic” was the paradoxical term I once used to describe it; but it was other things too, sometimes visceral, emanating from within. 

With most nightmares, particularly recurring ones, the dreamer develops an ability to wake up and recover knowing it was just that rotten dream again. Consciousness becomes a kind of escape hatch. And sure, going back to sleep can be onerous but at least you have a choice. With the Aropax withdrawal dreams however, the escape hatch simply disappears. You can spend hours in a situation of stupendous horror and crippling embarrassment. You’re back at school again but in your forties, still failing exams. The teacher’s calling you dumb again. The exam has just started but you’ve dropped your pen and broken your pencil. You reach down to find the pen when suddenly there’s a feeling of dread beneath you. Some ‘thing’ is coming from the earth, rumbling it’s way up from the bowels of hell, but you’re not sure what it is, all you know is it’s coming to get you. And above your head the howls of derision continue.

When I did finally wake from these nightmares, it was more than just a sweat I found myself in; I was absolutely buggered. I’d been through an emotional marathon! 
This made life and work hard to endure. So I went back on the Aropax.

But recently, after some very big changes in life style – cognitive behavioural therapy, no alcohol and lots of exercise (and some very good professional advice) - I kicked the Aropax. I found a lovely place in the country where I also happened to be doing lots of work. I was surrounded by people I love and trust, and I had Valium for back up. But really it was sheer determination and fitness that got me through.

I’ll never forget the drive back to the city. After two nights of drug-free, dream-free sleep I cruised on up that highway, and when the radio got boring I turned it off and rummaged through an old box of tapes I’d brought along because my car doesn’t have a CD player. Anyone over forty has a collection of these tapes – a kind of aural version of a photo album – full of memories, old feelings and scratchy bits of life. And wow did I let loose! To the eighties ballads I howled like a baby. To the Blues songs I screamed with fury. And during one of the old comedy tapes I laughed so hard I had to stop the car and get out.

It was a wonderful thing – to be standing there laughing to a bunch of black and white cows in a green field surrounded by hills. A few of the cows casually looked up as if to say, “What are you laughing at and why should we give a shit?” And I just kept laughing, and then crying – really crying, where you go into spasms and fall to the ground. But then I was laughing again. This went on for a while, and fortunately I’d turned off a side road so I was away from the highway – I hate to think what could happen to someone found in this state by the wrong person – really! After a while I just stepped back, took a few deep breaths and leant against the car. And for a minute or two I just closed my eyes and thought of nothing. Nothing!

Then I got back in the car, and as I drove back to the city I thought about Aropax and Zoloft and Cypromil and all those drugs that work by increasing serotonin; and I figured it’s foolish to demonise them. What really matters is how the drug companies sell them, how the doctors hand them out, and how we consume them. In my case Aropax was helping me continue a lifestyle I’d become used to over twenty odd years: working hard when I had work; feeling rotten when I didn’t; hitting the grog and dope every night; eating badly and exercising occasionally (on a dance floor) then pushing myself to function the next day. So, when I suddenly shifted all that – dropped the dope, booze and hard work/hard play behaviour – life was unbearable! It was harsh, bright and had a buzz to it. Reality had very sharp edges. I then realised that all that time I’d been using Aropax to make up for the hard-at-it life style; but the booze and dope were taking an edge off the harsh reality caused by the Aropax. And I realised so many of my friends were caught in the same whirlpool of emotional dysfunction and chemical dependency.

But now reality is wonderful and multiform – soft, harsh, loud, peaceful, boring, glorious, stupid and occasionally drunk. It took a lot of work to realise that I don’t always have to control my feelings. Sometimes I can just sit back and let myself drift.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thinking of doing nothing...

Recently my car radio broke and I couldn’t fix it. It happened when my car battery was replaced. The radio just stopped.

Now, I drive a lot, and when I do I listen to the radio. News mainly, and talk-back. For years I’ve been an avid listener, and when I’m near a TV or not driving, an avid watcher and reader of current affairs.

It’s all part of being a comedian and MC; there’s material ready to be plucked from the jaws of day to day life. Good material. For years I’ve been proud of my right to claim my newspapers, radio and TV as tax deductions.

And every time I’ve had a chance to see and listen to news, I’ve done it with the zeal of an addict.

So, when my car radio stopped working a few months ago, it was a spooky moment. What on earth would I do with my time? I drive a lot, about 30, 000 k every year. To gigs in the country, and to visit friends and colleagues in the city (now that I live in the outer suburbs as it’s all I could afford to buy on my performer wage). And when I drive long distance, the radio’s like a buddy, chattering away and filling my time amidst the same green and brown monotony of the West Australian bush.

And every hour there’s always a little chance the news will offer something new: a footy scandal, a political gaff, a bureaucratic bungle, some commercial DJ humiliating a vulnerable listener. And all these titbits are easy to turn into a routine; just take what we’ve all heard and extrapolate it into some what if scenario, or simply repeat what’s been done or said and celebrate the inanity or stupidity of another gem of parochial culture or right wing belligerence. Usually gets a laugh, particularly if it’s just happened that day. And if you can throw in a pun, all the better. For example, when I heard recently that the government were going to impose pot restrictions on WA crayfishermen, my response was simple and immediate: What! Pot restrictions! That’s a bit unfair. I know quite a few crayfisherman and they can’t get out of bed without at least five bucket bongs!

Ok, so it’s not Lenny Bruce or even Lenny Henry, but it works. Does the job. And as an MC that’s all you need sometimes.

So I tried to fix the radio, even took it to the manufacturer – Ford – who gave me a pin number and said, “Wait til it says ‘code’ on the display and put in this pin number.’ I duly wrote the pin number on my dash board, and when ‘code’ came up rather than ‘error’ I pulled over with excited expectation, entered the code and…..nothing. Back to ‘error’. And that’s how it’s been for the last three months.

And you know what? I’m Ok about it. In fact I’m happy. Like all drugs, news and current affairs have downsides, big ones. There’s a whole lot of stories that are not just unfunny, they’re horrible. I won’t list them, you know what I’m talking about.

Now, it’s generally believed that we have the ability to filter the gruesome stuff out, like we can traffic noise or cicadas. Part of or our brain says, “Switch that off and turn this up.” But I’m not so sure it all goes away, and on the radio it’s there, it’s said and it’s heard. With the TV you can walk out of the room, switch off, make a cuppa. With the newspaper you can go to another column or another page. With the car radio I used to just sit through it and wait for a better story. I must have heard thousands of reports about slaughter, abuse, torture and abhorrence happening who knows where. But it’s Ok, I zoned out. Or did I?

I don’t know. What I do know is that I was sitting in traffic one day, after a few weeks of no car radio, and I thought to myself, 'This is alright, just sitting here looking around, doing nothing.’

It then occurred to me that there are probably many moments when doing nothing is a whole lot better than doing something…or having something, talking to someone, taking something, making things, setting something up for later on, being someone, wanting something.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tasers schmasers

Tasers are the latest focal point for the doings of WA coppers. Once again we hear of their exploits with aboriginal people. And once again  the WA aboriginal community, including Denis Eggington of the WA Aboriginal Legal Service, raise their hands, palms out, and remind us this is simply a common part of their lives.

The story shouldn't be about the weapon. Nor should it be about whether tasers are better than guns; they probably are, given that they kill fewer people. No, this story should be focused on attitude; specifcally the attitude of WA police officers towards aboriginal people.

It's hard to live in this community as a white person without feeling complicit in a shocking, on-going programme of racial oppression.

However, instead of filling your head (and mine) with facts that obviously aren't enough to motivate change, here's a true story that just might do that.

About ten years ago a couple called Ushi and Kylie were on a Perth train heading towards the Showground station. They were about to meet their children who had been at the Royal Show, one of those yearly WA events that most parents hate, therefore many children don't go unless they have either a responsible older relative or, like Ushi and Kylie's kids, parents who trust them to act sensibly.

The train was about half full, mainly with people heading towards the show. In Ushi and Kyly's train were two aboriginal people, both women, one a teenager, the other slightly older. As the train pulled away from a station - and two police guards entered the train - the two aboriginal women noticed that someone had just alighted from the train and left their wallet on a seat. Ushi and Kylie also noticed this.

As the aboriginal women were sitting nearest the wallet, they picked it up first and began searching through it in an attempt to see who it belonged to. Ushi specifically remembers them saying, "Have a look at the cards and see who it belongs to" or words to that effect.

As luck would have it, just as the women were looking through the wallet, the guards walked towards that end of the carriage and noticed what the women were doing. Instead of simply enquiring what had happened, the two guards immediately went into accusation mode. They grabbed the wallet off the women, accused them of theft, and made them sit down. The women became angry and started to tell the police their side of the story, albeit in a heated manner, and no doubt with language containing swear words.

At this point Ushi decided to assist the police by telling them what he'd seen. Normally, one would expect this intevention to be helpful; Ushi and Kylie were witnesses, as were a few others on the train. The police didn't see it that way. Instead they yelled at Ushi to "keep out of this, it's got nothing to do with you", before wrestling the two aboriginal women towards the exit.

At the next station they made the train stop and dragged the women outside and proceeded to knee them in the back as they struggled to put cuffs on them.

All this time, the public (other than Ushi) simply looked on passively.

Ushi became incensed. He'd spent a lot of his life travelling around the world, being originally from Switzerland,  and he'd seen things - in countries like Turkey and West Africa - that he found shocking to his personal sense of justice. And here it was happening in his home town.

So he followed the guards out to the platform and began to plead with them. They responded by threatening him with arrest for hindering the police. Ushi then turned to members of the public who had gathered at the station, and began to tell them what had happened. When the guards saw this they threatened him again, but Ushi persisted. Finally, with the aboriginal women all trussed up, one of the guards went towards Ushi.

This is where Ushi made his first serious mistake. He ran. But being much older, and having suffered a few soccer injuries over the years, he'd forgotten that he was no longer that fast. So the guards arrested Ushi for hindering a public officer in his duty.

Eventually, after many court appearances, Ushi and the two women were found not guilty. But Ushi, normally a very polite and quiet man, says to this day that when he heard that neither of the guards were sacked, charged or castigated for their actions, he very nearly packed up and left Australia.

Fortunately the railway police didn't carry tasers.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sports heroes and women. Why?

It's no surprise that sexist and seemingly cruel behaviour has occurred after a grand final. You tell a large squad of young men they can't drink, take drugs or party all year. Then, when they've reached the highest point of possible achievement in that sport in that given year, you say, "OK boys, you can let go now. Go off, get drunk and celebrate." It's highly likely something's going to happen where someone either gets hurt or severely mistreated.

All the same, I still find it hard to fathom how a man can be turned on by forcing his way in. By rape, or by forced oral sex (as appears to have happened).

"It's a power thing", say many of those who study this. "It has little do with sex and everything about overpowering another person for personal pleasure."

I witnessed this many years ago, after a surfing carnival in Western Australia in the early seventies. The night of the surfing final saw a huge storm hit the coast - masses of rain that sent everyone to the pub to celebrate. I was only fifteen at the time, a funny little guy who became a kind of mascot to the surf champions. This meant I had the opportunity to actually entertain my surfing heroes in person!

On that last night however, I felt tired of being patronised by these surf champions and their mates - don't know why but I didn't fell like hitting the pub. Instead I went to the place we all slept - a shop called Surfside, one of those fibro buildings on stilts. Us grommets (young surfies) all slept under the building.

As I sat there in the dark and wondered what I'd do with the sleeping bag I'd accidentally left in the rain, a young woman called Jenny wandered by. In the hope of bumming a smoke off her, I got up and followed her to the Surfside verandah. Jenny and her sister Pat were what my mates called 'bikes', in that they were 'ridden' by lots of surfers. In fact I'd heard that these young women williingly gave themselves to large groups of surfers who all lined up for a 'root'.  This is what's called a 'gang bang''.

Jenny had got herself a job at Surfside, so she had a room there. When I finally met her on the verandah and asked for a smoke, she asked me where I was staying. I told her, and she then suggested I sleep in the spare bed in her room. I was delighted, not in dirty sensse, just happy to be out of the cold. So I said “yes” and she led me around the back to the annexe, an old weather board section of Surfside - probably the original building. Her room was messy but warm. Both beds were army beds made of iron and cyclone wire with kapok mattresses that curved into the middle like hammocks. She was tired but we talked about the surf, her job in the shop and the weather. Then she turned the light off and got into bed.

I sat on the other bed in the darkness, wet but happy to have a bed and a blanket. Then it suddenly occurred to me where I was and who I was with! I was a virgin and by all accounts she was very experienced. This was what my mates would have called the ‘big moment’. But the idea of making an advance in the dark seemed absurd, and I wasn’t about to ask. I didn’t know how.

I sat for a while, then took off my thongs and wet clothes. She stirred, then sat up and asked me if I was cold. I said “yes” and  she said, “sorry” and suggested  we sleep together. I didn’t say anything. Then she said it was Okay, she wouldn’t bite. (which of course sent my imagination into hyperspace). Eventually I stood up and mumbled an “Okay” and started to walk towards her bed. My mind was a jumble of  bizarre sexual imagery: kisses on the neck, fingers running through hair, tongues slithering across shoulders. These were some of the strategic choices in what was inevitably heading for blind chaos but seemed vaguely plausible at the time.

When I got to her bed she rolled over to make room. I stood beside her bed, shivering - more from fear than cold - and I was just about to climb in with her when there was a sharp rapping at the door. Then a slightly familiar male voice called out, “Jenny, Jenny,  it’s me ... Wombat”.  Jenny called out “Hang On” and jumped out of bed, turned the light on, put on some clothes and opened the door. And without realising it, I was left standing in the middle of the room - a naked, hairless midget exposed to the gaze of  Wombat Carmichael, Australia’s leading surf champion! He was flanked by ‘shooter’ Stevens and Harry Hucker, the 1969 Hawiian champion.

Jenny gave a perfunctory introduction, like she was referring to a family pet, and than asked them to sit down. Then Wombat, who’d just won the Australian titles and obviously had a skinful, came straight over to me and sat down, real casual. I finally grabbed my trousers and shirt and dressed while Wombat asked me questions about my surfboard and what it was like down south. The Australian Champion was asking me questions about surfing!!! I fumbled with buttons and zippers, stuttered a few replies and eventually sat down.

Then there was silence.

Across the room, on the other bed, in the full view of Wombat and myself, jenny was being clawed, slobbered on and undressed by the other two. I couldn’t believe it! Then I noticed that Wombat was staring at me with a warm, avuncular grin, as if to say, “Haven’t you seen this before kid.” I looked at Wombat. He smiled, and when I looked at the others they all turned to me and smiled. By now Jenny was completely naked and casually unbuttoning Harry’s shirt while Shooter was groping around between her legs. Again everyone stared at me. Then it dawned on me that they wanted me to leave. So I got up and went over to the door. Wombat told me to switch off the light. I did as I was told. Then I went out the door and shut it behind me.

Suddenly I found myself in a crowd.

On the rickety old verandah outside Jenny’s room were about fifteen young men. Some of them I recognised from the surf heats and others from the pub. They all laughed and someone made a joke about not wanting to go in there if that’s what happens when you come out.

Near the door of her bedroom a queue was forming, a line of men waiting like they do at the half time break in the footy. Some of them were swaggering, others just standing there smiling, while another, who was closest to the door, was playing with his genitals as though he was having trouble pissing. He then turned to someone near him and mumbled something about ‘working up a fat’. Then a young bloke I’d met at the shops, a tall lanky guy with dark hair, came over to me and said hello. He was grinning like a school boy and carrying a half empty bottle of beer.

“What’s she like?”

I had no idea what he was referring to.

“What do you mean?"

“You know, Jenny. What’s she like?”

I told him I was just in there because she’d invited me to come in out of the cold. This produced a series of guffaws and “Oh yehs” from the others and some muffled comment about starting young. I felt an enormous pressure to be jovial with them so I smiled. They kept laughing and joking. Then something happened in my stomach; I felt a sick feeling like I’d swallowed something rotten. And then I felt like saying something about not really being part of it - I just happened to be there. But all I could do was sit down, accept a beer that was offered, and stare out at the rain fully realising that I was part of it. I was there. I was young but so were they, and what’s that got to do with it anyway.

After a while Wombat and shooter came out, amidst a cheer similar to the one Wombat got after the final heat that day. Both were grinning and doing up their jeans. Then the two men nearest the door went inside.

After about thirty seconds I could hear Jenny’s voice, tense and desperate. She was speaking in high tones, saying “NO NO NO NO”. Then she started screaming, “Fuck off ya cunts. Fuck off, fuck off.” over and over. Then a male voice yelled, “Don’t you swear at me ya filthy bitch.” People outside giggled and the line broke up. Suddenly people were going everywhere. Then a loud smash came from jenny’s bedroom and the male voices stopped. Jenny’s voice continued, “Ya fuckin cunt. Ya fuckin cuuunt” almost like a wail.

The door opened and Harry Hucker came out, angry and quivering, his whole body tense. And out of the crowd came Wombat to quieten things down. After a quick meeting Wombat was sent inside to negotiate.

Five minutes went by while a group of men went up to her window. A half empty can was tossed against the window. It didn’t break. Then Wombat came out and said, “Forget it boys.” Then there was this weird wave of anger in the air. About a dozen young men, who were all standing around the building, began to shake the building on it’s stilts. I really thought they were going to push the it over.

Then they just wandered off into the night, jumping and pretend boxing, and I just sat on the verandah. I didn’t feel the cold straight away. I was wrestling with my guts, not my stomach, but my guts, my pit! It was a kind of pain that makes you grimace but you don’t cry.

But soon I was cold. Too cold to worry about what I might have seen if I went inside. So I did. I went inside and lay on the spare bed. I tried to sleep amongst the drafts and Jenny’s sobbing. And no matter how badly I wanted to comfort her, to hold her, or just to say that it was Okay, I couldn’t. The words came to the front of my mouth and disintegrated. And I knew how absurd they would have sounded. Sometimes it’s just too hard to forget what you’ve thought and who you’ve laughed along with.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

emotional contradictions

Emotional contradictions

I read in the paper that a man has been killed in a jet ski accident.
That’s sad for his friends, for his wife and kids… if he has them.
But then, in another part of my brain, I think “That’s ONE for the environment.”

In the same paper I read about Gordon Ramsey.
I don’t like Gordon, he’s spiteful and aggressive.
But then, in that very same article, it says his restaurants are going down the drain.
And I just can’t help thinking, “Up yours Gordon Ya Tosser!”

It’s 1971. My mate James and I go along to protest against the Springboks when they play in Australia. We’re young and swept up in a tide of anger against apartheid. But we love our rugby, having played lots. In one breath we yell, “Racists out!” and in another “Tackle him!”. “Go home Yarpies” then “Bullshit Ref, that was forward!”

In another protest against war I end up organising street theatre. This is what happens when you admit you’re an actor. One of our troupe is a Scot. I am too in a way, but he’s a serious one – bagpipes and all. Red hair. Colin. He suggests that he can play his bagpipes as part of the street theatre. I agree. On the day, he roles up in the full gear: kilt, sporran, pipes and cap. His tartan is the Black Watch, the colours of the Campbells. I remember what I’d been told and what I’d read: that the Campbells fought on the side of the English at Calloden. They were traitors to the cause while us McDonalds went to our deaths with Bonney Prince Charlie. I remind Colin what his tartan is, and he says, “Well yes, I’m a Campbell.” Then, when I tell him I’m a McDonald, there’s a moment where we lock eyes, bright blue eyes. There’s a very brief sense between us that we could have a crack – knock heads and wrestle – then we remember we’re at a peace march in 1989.  We laugh.