And That’s Me Signing Off for 2007

December 21, 2007 at 6:39 am (Uncategorized)

Well, folks, I am beat. Bushed. Fagged. Exhausted. Wrung out. Tired. Ironed flat. Stuffed.

And before my energy levels decline any further, I’d like to take this opportunity to say I so much hope all of you have a wonderful, happy and safe holiday season and end to what I am calling the fastest year on record.

2007, you’ve been a big year. There’s been some terrible sadness and great joy. Death and life, separations and weddings, successes and failures, goodbyes and reunions, rain and sun. I’ve lost a couple of friends (it happens, I’ve found), but I’ve made a couple, too.

DoctorDi has had its first birthday and to date around 6,300 views, so thanks very much for checking in when you do, and for coming back.

I said in a post dated January 4 2007 that I wanted 2007 to be the year I finished a fiction manuscript and the year I joined some kind of community of writers. Well, I suppose I can regard the year as a moderate success in that case. I have a draft. It exists. It needs work, it needs “rebashing” as Miriam (my fellow Varuna casualty) coined it (we decided we were sick of the sight of the word ‘redraft’), but it is a whole piece of work and I am proud of it. And come January, I will go back to it and try to make it better. Is it finished? No, and I understand now that it will never really be finished. There will just come a day when the rebashing stops.

And whilst we’re on it, Miriam and I are hardly ‘a community of writers,’ but it was an untold relief to hear her friendly voice shout out across the dark, lonely forest in which unpublished authors dwell. We have exchanged our work and email regularly and I am looking forward to meeting her in person at the beginning of the New Year. The fact that this blog created the circumstances of our meeting really makes me glad for it, glad that I have persevered and put myself out there and hollered. Her sanity and decency also give me hope that this so far computer-based ‘community of two’ (virtual but somehow not at all strange) will grow into an abiding writerly friendship. I feel very lucky that bombing out of Varuna meant finding Miriam instead.

I hope everyone else is also taking the best from the year and leaving the rest of the flotsam behind.

Onwards, ever onwards my dears, and see you bright and early in 2008 (two, four, six, eight, bog in, don’t wait!).

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It’s Another White Christmas for Australia

December 20, 2007 at 3:49 am (Uncategorized)

Christmas paraphernalia in Australia is pretty amusing. It reflects our fractured, uncertain identity very well indeed. Ever since I was a child, I have puzzled over our Christmas card images, and people visiting from the northern hemisphere at this time of year must find these wintry displays frankly bizarre.

You see, we have an inexplicable tendency to put snow on everything. Christmas cards in Australia feature a whole range of winter activities – there are sleigh rides, snow men, snow capped cottages, white Christmas trees and of course a very rugged up Santa. And it doesn’t stop with the cards – the wrapping paper is the same. Our stamps. And the menu for Christmas Day. How many of us have sweltered in a kitchen on Christmas Day whilst the turkey and roast vegetables bake, the pudding steams and the custard thickens, even as outside it’s hot enough to fry an egg on the road?

Attempts to correct this hemispheric imbalance have proved uneven at best. The alternatives make us look like a country of cartoonish juveniles – Santa on a surfboard, for instance. From there it’s a short decline to Baby Jesus being attended at the manger by a variety of native fauna: it’s a radically revised biblical reading in which kangaroos, emus, koala bears and echidnas all jostle the wise men aside in their furry rush to Bethlehem. It’s sort of surreal when you think about it.

And I do think about it. Look, we’re a secular nation. The idea that Christmas is practiced as a religious holiday by the majority of Australians is a little inaccurate if we and most people we know are any kind of litmus test. We won’t be going to church. We are not religious. Some friends will, and others certainly practice the religious holidays within their own faith. But we won’t be celebrating the concept of immaculate conception and the subsequent birth of Christ. That won’t really be on the agenda at all. What we’ll be celebrating is being with some of our loved ones.

It’s become much more of a Thanksgiving celebration, if you ask me. At least, I think that notion is a much more accurate reflection of what Christmas means to me. It’s also a big, wild-eyed, no-holds-barred consumer spending jag, sure, but that doesn’t really capture the underlying themes of the day, except to the extent that people are generally buying all that crap for the people they love and not themselves. We do by and large, in homes right around the country of many different religious persuasions, take a moment on Christmas Day to give thanks for that togetherness. For the peace that attends our country and our homes. For the abundance of what’s on the table and under the tree.

Why do we interpret Christmas through the look of a season and a climate that is fundamentally not ours? I don’t know, it’s part of that whole post-colonial identity web Australia struggles so much to find and define (republican referendum, anyone?). Oddly enough, though, these kitschy and wildly inappropriate, distinctly northern hemisphere images have become part of our Australian Christmas psyche, the tackier and more over the top the better because we are nothing if not ironic. The unfamiliar has become the familiar. The image has become the only real we know. Strange though those snowscapes are in a country that bakes on Christmas Day, they’ve been around so long now we’d be lost without them. And everyone knows Santa doesn’t surf.

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Warning: December is a Health Hazard

December 19, 2007 at 5:10 am (Uncategorized)

I am struggling to be productive today – Llew and I did some rather excessive imbibing of the joy juice in town last night with our Singapore-based friends Barney and Carla, Llew’s brother Simon and best mate Dan. I now have the monumental hangover I thoroughly deserve. Was it really necessary to go back to the bar after dinner? Who can remember?

I do remember our rather amusing and sardonic waiter from Young Alfred’s, though. Barney, a man of rather refined tastes, was vexed to find the restaurant had sold out of pinot noir, so he proceeded to order the most expensive wine on the menu instead (go figure that logic). We’d already begun drinking said drop when we noticed the year advertised on the list was not in fact the year marked on our own costly bottle. Our wine was a year younger, which does matter more when you’re paying more for the wine than for the meal. When we brought this matter to our waiter’s attention, he gave a shrug of supreme indifference.

“I really don’t care,” he said cheerfully. “Do you want me to tell the manager? It is nothing to me, it is not my wine.”

Well, you can’t fault that kind of honesty. We were taken aback, then ultimately amused by this pronounced European insouciance – it certainly felt authentically Italian; it was like being instantly transported to Rome. And we obviously didn’t care about it too much ourselves, because when the bottle was empty we promptly waved in another just like it. Our droll little waiter had a little surprise in store for us: when he delivered the fresh bottle of wine to the table, it came with a hand-drawn new label of the advertised vintage. Oh yes, everyone’s a comedian.

And by the way, I just hate screw caps. In its perpetual race to access the plonk in the greatest numbers and with the least resistance possible, Australia has whole-heartedly embraced this charmless cork replacement. I can’t bear it. I hate the lack of ceremony, the death of the wine opening ritual, and I really cannot abide the alarmingly prevalent practice of re-screwing the damn cap onto the bottle after every top up. It sets my nerves on edge in the worst way. Perhaps I’d better have a drink to help me calm down.

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Home is More Than Where the Heart is…

December 18, 2007 at 3:15 am (Uncategorized)

Sometimes it’s just the roof over your head. And as we all lurch from store to store in search of those perfect stocking-fillers and gifts, it’s worth pausing for a second, even if it’s only on the way to the cash register, to reflect on the fact that there’s currently an estimated 100,000+ homeless Australians.

Imagine them all lined up. How much of Pitt St Shopping Mall would they fill? I wonder what it would look like if every homeless Australian stood shoulder to shoulder (well, as shoulder to shoulder as possible when you’re also dealing with little ones – 10% of that 100,000 is under the age of 12, and 36% are between the ages 12 and 24) in the busiest Sydney CBD shopping strip in the last days before Christmas. I wonder how it would impact on our zeal for buying Christmas gifts. I wonder what we’d all do, trying to edge our way past that gridlock of 100,000 human, homeless bodies to get into David Jones or Myer.

I just did a freelance article on homelessness for this week’s WHO magazine, which is why this topic is on my mind. It was good timing, because I was already thinking about the article I read a fortnight or so ago in The Weekend Australian about Kevin Rudd’s low-key visits to several crisis housing centres earlier this year, before the election had even been called and certainly before he became PM. I was interested to know that he’d just gone in minus an entourage and just acquainted himself with the facts and the facilities. There’s a lot more to know, of course, and a lot more to do.

Someone said to me last weekend that “Some people want to be homeless, you give them somewhere to live and they wreck it, they don’t appreciate it, they don’t want it, they’d rather be on the street.”

This is someone who has done volunteer work with homeless people and who is not lacking in compassion generally. It’s not the first time I’ve heard someone say something like that, and I think it goes some way to exhibiting a certain latent impatience Australians have toward homelessness, like we just don’t get it. What have you got to be so homeless about, anyway? Don’t you know we’re the Lucky Country? Don’t you know you’ve never had it so good?

What that comment says to me is that there’s a real lack of understanding about the myriad issues that lead to homelessness. There are usually other things going on, like drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness. Sometimes it’s housing affordability; people try to fix it and keep their heads above water without help because they’re proud and because they mistakenly think they can handle it, and then find it’s an alarmingly short slide to being out of their home and on the street. It’s not that all these people don’t want to be happy, and don’t want to have a warm and safe and dry roof over their heads and a home filled with people who love them, it’s that they are battling their demons the whole time instead.

And long-term homelessness begets long-term homelessness. Attempting to house and resocialise someone who has been on the streets for a long time is gruelling, thankless, and unfortunately often unsuccessful. We’re not dealing with those root causes. At present, as Lincoln Hopper from Mission Australia told me during the research for the WHO article, Australia does not have a national housing strategy. This is hopefully something that will change now that PM Rudd has made a commitment to develop a $150-million plan to address Australian homelessness.

Lincoln Hopper said in a country as prosperous as Australia, one homeless person is too many, and he’s right. But imagine that one person and then multiply them by 100,000. That’s how many Australians are out there needing more help than perhaps the rest of us do. Food and shelter. Food and shelter : these are fundamental to our survival. We are so fortunate, we are so lucky, we are so wealthy, but look at that number. It is huge. And it means that at present, we’re not doing something right. We’re not adequately funding the means to address drug and alcohol addiction (a youth epidemic), depression and suicide (same again), other mental and physical health issues, long-term unemployment, family breakdown, housing affordability for families, and on it goes. These are just a few of the things that lead people to a state of homelessness. From there it can be a spiral. A cycle that gets harder and harder to break.

Aren’t we better off trying to equip people with the means to battle those demons before it reaches that crisis point? I think we are. Some people simply like being homeless? What a load of absolute shit.

If you’re interested in donating or volunteering or learning more, check out Mission Australia or the Salvos.

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Don’s Party

December 17, 2007 at 2:56 am (Uncategorized)

Adapted by David Williamson from his stage play of the same name, Don’s Party is a classic Australian film from the ’70s. I think the film was made in 1976, and it centres on the federal election night of 1969, when (despite a wave of expectancy and optimism) Whitlam’s Labor party lost and the Liberals were returned, continuing their long, unbroken run to the great disappointment of the small ‘l’ liberal left. In other words, it had eerie parallels with our most recent election, except when it boiled down to the result (which, short-lived though it infamously proved to be, arrived for Whitlam in 1972).

Watching Don’s Party the other night on DVD, I shivered thinking about the alternative outcome all these years later. Watching the growing despondency amongst Don’s mainly Labor-voting revelers on-screen, I could feel the creeping anxiety tensing my own body – had Rudd really won? Was the Howard era truly over? Had I imagined the whole thing? Imagine if Howard’s government had been returned, I thought. How would I feel? Sick, is the short answer. And as the result of the ’69 election became clear in the film, I actually shared a measure of their despair as though it had happened to me the other weekend.

We too were at a party on election night. It was Tara’s birthday party, not Don’s election party, but in some ways not very much had changed. There was certainly the same ebullient atmosphere as results started trickling in early on. And there was the same focus on the polls. People genuinely seemed to be engaged with the issues and the outcome this time round. The main talk of the evening was political – something that isn’t usually the case with some of the party goers that night. Some of us love a good political debate, but others, like a couple of the characters in Don’s Party, really prefer to avoid such talk. A difference of political opinion, in particular, seems to present to some people a real crisis of conversation, instead of an opportunity to celebrate and practice free-speech and democratic freedom.

I don’t need you to agree with me, I’m just interested in what you think and why. But such talk makes some people profoundly uncomfortable. And others are simply bored by politics and would rather talk about something, anything else even if it’s of no consequence whatsoever. That is their prerogative, of course, but generally I found the atmosphere this past election night electrifying.

There were the subtle tensions, too, the stuff going on at a subterranean level. Williamson’s play and screenplay capture a particular social milieu with uncanny and often hilarious accuracy – as a child, I was taken to lots of Sydney parties that looked a lot like Don’s. A lot. I remember them very well, perhaps because unlike the rest of the guests I was sober. I was bug-eyed the whole time – everyone seemed very fascinating and exotic, the wine flowed, everyone smoked, ate, talked, laughed and fought at top volume and at full speed, and there was often lots of flesh on display. And I don’t doubt that certain other things went on behind the scenes that I did not see and that in any case I was too young to understand.

Things got pretty raucous at some of these parties. At one in a terrace house on Glenmore Rd in Paddington when I was very small, I nearly drowned in the pool because all the adults were otherwise engaged. The hostess ended up jumping in and saving me, thank goodness. She’s dead now, but I remember her, and her parties, every time I walk past that stretch of terraces and try to remember exactly which one was hers.

Back at Tara’s party, now I’m all grown up and a registered voter, I have to say things were much tamer on the sexual front. There were people there enjoying their sexual freedom, that’s true, but in Don’s Party there’s a blatant disregard for the concept of marital fidelity that I don’t really see in my own crowd today. It’s not that I don’t know of anyone ever being unfaithful, it’s that no one is ever quite so brazen as they are in this film. It’s very, um, loose, and I guess I’m a bit straight about these things because all these decades later I was still a bit shocked by the ease with which people allowed themselves to put their marriage to one side in the pursuit of instant sexual gratification. Were they really like that? Was there really a moment in Australian history where people were like that? I think the answer’s probably yes, but I’ve never seen it in action, and I actually tend to think that for the most part we are quite a sexually reserved and conservative nation. Yes, I know people who are separated, divorced, unfaithful, having babies out of wedlock, gay, adventurous and even – gasp! – happily married, but people are pretty private about all of these things. It’s not a free love parade, that’s for sure. And if anyone gets caught having sex in the toilet, they’re still embarrassed about it; no one flaunts it the way they do during Don’s Party. So even as I thought to myself that politically, wow, not much has changed, we seem to be right there today on the cusp of that same change, I also couldn’t help but think that sexual politics today are another matter entirely. I was much more comfortable at Tara’s party than I would have been at Don’s.

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Acquisitiveness Gone Mad

December 13, 2007 at 3:13 am (Uncategorized)

Last Friday, Llew brought some light reading with him for our train trip up to Evo’s place. One of these was a Christmas gift guide from some financial publication or other. I’m tempted to say it was the AFR magazine but I’m just not sure. In any case, its readership clearly lives on another planet from our much more humble one, if their ‘gift guide’ was anything to go by.

The thing that sticks out most in my mind is a simple handbag. Sure, it was Hermes, and no doubt made with superior leather and craftsmanship. I don’t doubt it was a quality item, hence its inclusion in a very swanky gift guide that included things like convertible cars. But this handbag – and let’s please keep in mind it was a handbag – carried a price tag of over $33,000.

Thirty-three thousand dollars. Plus. 33 grand. For a bag. What kind of imbecile would you have to be to spend that kind of money on a handbag? More money than sense is one thing, but that’s verging on obscene. What kind of person convinces themselves that $33,000+ is a reasonable purchase for a bag? I love a good handbag, they’re one of life’s great accessories and I have several, so I am not asking anyone to abandon their consumer items in one big mountain of shame. No, I too like nice things. I am as guilty as the next person of having more than I need of things like… well, shoes. And bags. And shirts. And possibly jeans. I also do a nice line in cocktail dress. So the last thing I am advocating is an ascetic existence – frankly I like my stuff too much. But I also think I have more than enough stuff. I really, really, really don’t want any more stuff. I’m absolutely, positively, completely… stuffed. And after a point, all that stuff can go and get stuffed.

As I looked, gob-smacked, through this Christmas gift guide, I pointed out the more outrageous items to Llew.
“How about a 14 grand Fendi watch?”

And the really stunning thing about that watch is that it was U-G-L-Y. Not just the runt of the litter but downright ugly. Ugly and expensive – as a combination it is the absolute pits. Yes, thanks, I’d really love to wear that ostentatious eyesore on my wrist every day…how much is it? $14,000? Oh, perfect, well in that case I’ll take two.

We have gone crazy. You know that, don’t you? I couldn’t help but wonder as I flipped through this selection with ever-growing incredulity at the material madness if there was a level of wealth at which I too would think a $33,000 handbag was okay. Relative. Not such a big deal. Perfectly all right. Normal, even. I wondered this aloud, so Llew helpfully looked at me, looked at the bag, shook his head and said “I don’t think so.”

I don’t think so either. There are things in this world that might be worth that kind of money, and a handbag is just not one of them.

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D-Day

December 12, 2007 at 7:48 am (Uncategorized)

Sorry about the absence of a post yesterday – it was my wedding anniversary and Llew expected my undivided attention even as I was busy ignoring him whilst chasing facts for a freelance deadline. Needless to say we had a lovely day – I hadn’t known he was taking the day off, so Monday night and yesterday were quite a lot more fun because of his surprise.

And it turned out to be a momentous day for more reasons than the anniversary – I received an email of my MS appraisal from Lynk Manuscript Assessment Service (hard copy to follow). Gulp.

As I emailed Miriam (my fellow Varuna casualty from a few posts back) it was fair, helpful, and encouraging. I think you have to be careful about which of these services you choose, and I feel like my research really paid off in this instance because clearly my assessor knew what was what. The feedback was extremely specific and constructive – where there are still problems in the current draft, they are clearly identified and explained. Interestingly, some of it is stuff I’ve had my own doubts about. One suggestion – tossing chapter one and starting at chapter two – reflects one I myself raised with my first reader several drafts ago. And much of this assessment is along identical lines to feedback from my second reader; the MS has come some way since then, but obviously not far enough.

Of course it’s disappointing that what I didn’t get was two thumbs up and an offer of representation. That would have been great, but I don’t really mind the idea that the MS just isn’t quite there yet. As soon as I started reading the assessment, I could see that what was being suggested was sound. There’s nothing there that seems unnecessary or even surprising. On the contrary, it just pinpoints gaps that if I’m completely honest I already thought perhaps remained to be filled. But equally, you know, it’s hard to keep revising in a total void, having to trust my judgement alone, and now I won’t be. It’s been hard to maintain my enthusiasm whilst I’ve had no sense that anyone else was ever going to have any.

What’s required right now is simply more graft. More and more and more. Rewrite upon rewrite upon rewrite. Some people might be able to just dash off the perfect manuscript in one burst of blinding genius, but I am not one of them. Nope, I’m a grafter. That much is becoming very clear.

And it doesn’t even bother me, the idea that I didn’t nail it first, second, or third go. There’s no shame in that, is there? I am now priming for my fourth really major redraft, and it may be the fourth of many more. That’s got to be okay, because that’s what’s required. It’s so like the PhD process I am really rather surprised. I hadn’t expected it to be so similar. I thought that writing this manuscript would be a creative process first and foremost, whereas I always suspected the thesis would be about process. And here I am finding this is process too. The thing that will eventually, one day, get me over the line (and by Christ I do mean to finish) is not the creative part of me that made this story up, just like my thesis wasn’t the best idea anyone had ever had and I was never the smartest person in the room when I was arguing it. It’s about the process, and about hanging in there for grim death thinking ‘Maybe this draft will be my last.’

Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. Right now it’s just back to the keyboard for this little tinkerer, and here’s where I start again.

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Here Comes the Rain Again…

December 10, 2007 at 5:16 am (Uncategorized)

It’s just after four in the afternoon. The shadows have deepened in my office. The deep rumble of foreboding sounded outside my window several minutes ago now. It’s going prematurely dark as once again the skies cloud over in woolly deepest grey and begin to fall in.

It’s been like this for days now. Each day bringing with it – no one knows exactly when the storm will strike, only that it will – a display of thunder, lightning and rain that draws us meekly to the window to watch. We gasp, jump at a sudden and violent crackle of fury, and hug ourselves as we stand in safety glad to be sheltered inside.

Outside it rages, felling trees, felling men.

These storms move across Sydney with a speed and ferocity that makes me afraid. I urge Llew away from the window. If I am on the street when the lightning starts landing around me, I run. I run to get out of it, to get away, to find a small space where I can hide.

Here it is again, the dreadful thunder sounding its intent.

In the distance, there is a wailing siren.

I’m on the edge of my seat, waiting. The rain is coming now, here it is, beginning to sheet its way to earth, only to be lost to us, this country that’s so desperate for water, as it finds its way mostly straight out to sea.

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If We Build It, They Will Come

December 5, 2007 at 11:37 pm (Uncategorized)

There are positive noises coming from the new Rudd government that promoting the cultural health and profile of Australia is part of Labor’s agenda. Phew. That would be really great. The Arts Minister Peter Garrett announced the new Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, and they’re not mucking around – very lucrative stuff for the lucky winner/s. I take author David Malouf’s point that the problem with literary awards such as this is that one writer scoops a fat wad of cash whilst the rest miss out completely, but gosh, it’s a hell of a start just getting such a prize on the Australian publishing calendar.

Personally, I really wish people would stop invoking the idea of elitism around phrases like ‘culture’ and ‘the arts.’ It’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you keep saying ‘the arts are elite,’ it actually creates an atmosphere where people believe it to be so. And yet it’s really just utter bollocks, and the sooner we drop the word ‘elite’ from the discussion, the sooner we get more people to the table prepared to admit that actually, yes, they do quite like painting or live music or reading or sculpture or dance or whatever cultural practice takes their fancy. What makes people uncomfortable is the idea that they’ll be pursued around the room by ponces and poseurs, not that they might like what they see.

And that’s the other thing about calling something ‘elite’ – it’s a deeply disappointing truth that if you call a group ‘elite’ often enough, some members of it will actually start believing their own press. I’ve met plenty of arts wankers. They’re definitely out there and they think they’re awesome. They really do. They’re very self-congratulatory about being in an ‘elite’ group of ‘talent’ trying to ‘save’ a ‘suspicious’ Australia from the ‘sports fans.’ They’re kindly ‘rescuing’ us from the ‘cultural abyss,’ but despite their ‘dedicated efforts,’ none of the ‘philistines’ in this reality-TV-loving country really give a shit.

Well, rubbish. I just don’t buy it. Aside from the power of suggestion, the only thing keeping the arts from being an accepted part of the Australian mainstream is money – some of it is prohibitively expensive. Sydney Theatre Company, the Sydney Opera House, Belvoir St Theatre, the Ensemble Theatre and many, many more venues right round the country all offer excellent, exciting programs, but often (due to an endemic lack of funding at the level of government, as well as perhaps an entrenched mentality within the arts that leads to poor institutional financial management) it’s simply too expensive for people. Llew and I are regularly among the youngest in the audience by several blue rinse decades. We don’t do nearly as much as we would like to simply because we cannot afford to. But the notion that people aren’t interested in supporting the arts is false. All sorts of cultural festivals around Australia – and I mean everything from the Tamworth Country Music Festival to the Brisbane Writers Festival, are just getting bigger and bigger every year. Look at the Sydney Festival. There are always plenty of free events, and incentive-based ticket purchase options for families, and there’s also the terrific tix-for-next-to-nix scheme, where a limited number of seats to every event are sold on the morning of the performance for a fraction of the full price. All these festivals are pulling big numbers, and I just don’t accept that it’s an ‘elite’ scene.

We also have to drop the expression ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ from our national vernacular. Using it keeps it alive. I guess I’m revealing myself to be someone who believes in the power of positive and negative reinforcement. We have to stop telling ourselves our culture is crap – it’s not. On the contrary. Australia has every right to be enormously proud of its artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers and thespians. We are a very small, insignificant little country in population terms, but boy have we turned out some world-beaters. We have to stop believing we don’t like to see ourselves succeed in these areas. I don’t think we’re actually, deep down, so quick to disown our best and brightest, but we are very quick to say we do. And over time that becomes the same thing. That message has been drummed into our national psyche, and maybe it’s hard to get it out. But can’t we just reject that attitude and start championing our best instead? I do believe that if we start making positive noises about the arts, instead of continuing to invoke worn cliches like ‘tall poppies’ and ‘elites,’ the culture will thrive.

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We Have a Winner

December 4, 2007 at 7:47 am (Uncategorized)

Whilst we’re on the subject of blood relatives, today is Nana’s 84th birthday. She’s the second and, aside from my sister’s kids, final blood relation I have anything to do with. I have taken her out for her birthday every year for a number of years, and today was no exception. We were joined by the ‘surrogate mother’ I told you about yesterday, who, whilst probably not a surrogate daughter in Nana’s mind, has stepped into that void on countless occasions just by being kind and generous enough to be there.

The three of us met up at the Labour Club on Alison Rd in Randwick. Not really my scene, I must admit (although clubs are fascinating), but Nana was keen. She’s the birthday girl, you know, so there was no argument from me. The food was exactly as you’d expect and so was the decor, but there’s something truly fabulous about that, something utterly uncanny in the Freudian sense, just like the deeply satisfying familiarity of your next motel room. These (very particular and very, very Aussie) clubs are so comforting, somehow, and I love that I know exactly what’s going to be on the menu before I even walk in the door. Besides which, they remind me of my granddad. He was a club man. A member of the Bondi Diggers, the North Bondi RSL, the Bondi SLSC, the Masons and more… his was the age of clubs, men and clubs, and I found it thrilling as a child and later to enter these hallowed sites with him. Since he’s been gone the thrill has remained unexpectedly intact, perhaps because in a funny way I always still feel like I’m with him.

Anyway, I’m getting off topic (nostalgia always tricks me into saying too much). Back at the Labour Club, I had to go to the bathroom whilst we were waiting for our friend, so I went up to Level 2 as directed from Reception and there they were just outside the lifts: pokies.

Pokies are so sad and strange. I just don’t understand the appeal. And yet at 12:30 pm, the room was full of all sorts of people sitting in front of those flickering lights waving their money goodbye. And that clanging white noise the machines make as they’re relieving you of your cash is a whole other level of torture – how can people listen to that for the afternoon? Why doesn’t it drive them screaming from the building? How can it be hypnotic when it’s so grating?

I just kept my head down and marched purposefully to the toilet. For some reason, I always feel like it’s slightly indecent to watch people at the pokies, as though I think they’d be ashamed of themselves if they looked up and realised I had ‘caught’ them, red-handed, right there plugging their credit card through or however the hell it works these days (Granddad used to have a brilliant poker machine in his bar at home. It accepted 10 cent pieces, weighed a tonne, and was beyond exciting when we were kids. Naturally we broke it). But maybe it’s not something they’re embarrassed about at all. Maybe it’s just me who thinks there’s something cringe-worthy about sitting by yourself in a room with no natural light on a little stool pouring money into a machine. There’s no conversation. There’s no laughter. In fact in terms of pokie etiquette, there doesn’t seem to be any interaction between punters at all. They’re all too busy staring at the lines of fruit and treasure chests and, um, pirates.

Another lady came in to use the toilet as I was washing my hands. She was wearing enormous dark sunglasses, and just quietly I bet they’re part of her regulation pokies kit. Maybe all those flashing lights trigger headaches or fits if you’re in there long enough? That seems perfectly plausible to me. Frankly the whole room felt like one raging health hazard. I wondered if maybe she’d just come up from Reception too, but I doubted it. She looked too… disconnected. That dazed half stagger over to the paper towel was a dead giveaway.

I almost ran back to the lifts. I honestly felt claustrophobic just crossing the room. And aren’t they bored? It just seemed so deathly dull. So anti-social. So expensive, too, judging from the dead look in their eyes. Boy, was I happy to get back to Reception. We took the elevator to level 4 and there was the menu, just as I’d imagined it. Calm was restored, and that clang clang clang soundtrack gradually receded from memory as I debated the merits of schnitzel over prawn cutlets…

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