Archive for January, 2010

I don’t understand but I won’t make a scene.
Boomtown Rats, 1982

Fresh eyes and ears see (and hear) what flies under local radar.

One of the quiet joys of a mobile life is observing little local eccentricities, especially in vernacular. Australia as we know it is but a young country and culturally pretty homogenous. But even though we don’t have those charming little local dialects celebrated in other countries, we’re not all the same.

The Berra has its own special expressions, and my visiting friend and colleague James gleefully pointed out his two favourites this week.

The Shops
Usually teamed with a locality, we can’t think of another place in Australia that uses this phrase in quite the same way. Sentences like “I’ll meet you at the Ainslie Shops”, or “There’s a great new restaurant at the Griffith Shops” are standard in the Berra, but make out-of-towners giggle. They’d never say, “Meet you at the Redfern Shops”, and not just because they don’t have adequate body armour to undertake the excursion.

The Flats
Much like ‘The Shops’, ‘The Flats’ need a locality. They’re often housing commission, but can be govvie (see below) or even private. “I live across from the Lyneham Flats” sounds quite fine to a Berran ear, in a way that a Slurry Hills resident would think comic if he were to say, “I live at the Nickson St Flats”. (Though you might get away with it in Melbourne where one can refer to [housing] ‘commission flats’ this way.)

Those are James’s observations. I reckon there are some other very local Berran phrases, the use of which can render you almost instantly local(ish).

Northside and Southside.
Everyone in the Berra lives in one of these two locations, determined by your relation to Lake Burley Griffin. Not ‘north’, nor ‘south’; these are words for general directions, or incomplete descriptions used by stupid out-of-towners.

Govvie [GUV-ee]
Short for ‘government’, and used especially to describe the origins of one’s housing. When the Berra was under construction, the government apparently built a lot of little cottages to house the newly arriving public servants, and these form a lot of the housing stock in the Berra’s older suburbs today. You’ll hear young, newly-propertied couples at cafes discussing their shiny new mortgages by saying, “Yes, we’ve just bought in Bruce; it’s a little ex-govvie”.

This is a single word, used to describe the universal holiday destination for Berrans. It refers to any coastal locale south of Wollongong (mostly south of Nowra) and north of the Victorian border. Preferably your version of Downthecoast includes a shack purchased by your parents in the 70s and to which you take your spouse and children, usually arranged by argument with other siblings and inlaws. “I’ll be spending Christmas Downthecoast, because thankfully my sister and her idiot husband don’t get back from Adelaide until after New Year.”

At just over 18 months on the ground, I’m still far from local. Any suggestions for further Berran phrases I could learn will be gratefully received.

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We’re the last to leave the party
The first to ask for more
– The Choirboys, 1987

It was at Woolies in Dickson that I first realised Summernats 23 was here.

Wednesday afternoon and more than the usual quota of feral children were being dragged through the vegetable section by hatchet-faced women. The deli was three-deep with blokes in thongs, shorts, tats and stubble. At the checkouts, Woolies staff were actually working as traffic control, waving customers towards the least lengthy lines. In the carpark there were a lot of 80s-model Commodores with mags.

Summernats has undergone a makeover in the last 12 months according to organisers. Founder and roughnut raconteur Chic Henry sold the festival to Australia Day Concert producer Andy Lopez, who this week pledged to make the festival more “family friendly” (though he stopped short of making it an actual family event, saying “It’s not meant to be like a day out with Humphrey B Bear”). In addition to the usual burnout competitions and street machine parades, the program offered highlights including fireworks and the Choirboys. The ACT Government offered free chlamydia tests.

Thursday evening and green lights on Northbourne Avenue were met with squeals as clutches dropped. Arms dangled out windows, holding stubbies. The Bald Man and I were driving across town when a bunch of blue lights caught our attention. A group several hundred strong were converged on a servo in Braddon, along with several dozen police. It was unclear what was going on, but there didn’t seem to be much action so we rolled on. What was clear was that for those who didn’t fancy heading out to EPIC showgrounds and paying a fat fee to get through the gates, a kind of mini-Summernats parade was happening downtown.

So Friday evening we made a special trip back to see it for ourselves. Although it was still light when we arrived at Braddon, hundreds of spectators were already lined up on the footpaths to watch the passing parade of cars. Many had folding chairs and eskies to ensure comfort. And surprisingly, it was a family event. Along with the many (bearded and bellied) blokes, there were a lot of children (with extraordinary mullets), women (with hard, hard faces) and teenagers (with tattoos and muffintops). We stationed ourselves diagonally opposite the Debacle and breathed deeply of the petrol fumes.

Bald Man is an unreconstructed petrolhead, so he had quite a good time looking at the cars and crowds. Frankly the informal parade was pretty motley, but there were a few gems amongst both cars and drivers. The highlight was Roger, a genial local bloke with a genuine GTHO which he bought from the original owner right here in The Berra a decade ago for a tenth of what it’s worth now.

I soaked up the atmosphere, of which there was plenty. For a start, the landmark Mandalay was actually open for business, the first time I’ve ever seen it so since moving here. It was so remarkable I felt we had to buy and eat something from it, which turned out to be a Canberra Dog for Bald Man and a Dagwood dog for me, and no, I am not ashamed. It was all part of the experience. Walking down Lonsdale St one admired cars parked in little family groups: XYs, Celicas, Toranas, Monaros, Mustangs and so on.

At some point in the evening a roar went up from the servo across from us. A meathead decked out in white trackpants and bling had pulled up in a hotted up Mazda RX3 and was revving the engine when some rozzers snuck up behind him and ordered him and his mates out of the vehicle. The police then wheeled out an RTA inspector, who started to go over the car, and then it began to escalate. A crowd gathered, first dozens and then hundreds. More police arrived, and then more – no less than eight cars and more than 30 uniformed bods.

It was a very long half hour while the car owner argued aggressively, various cops stared back at him impassively and the crowd hooted and jeered. Finally they let him go without a canary, but looking at the width of those tyres it was probably a close thing. Had they been the fashion police though, this bloke and his mates would have got life.

Perhaps what’s so fascinating about the Summernats is the side of Canberra it brings out. Most of the cars doing laps of Braddon were local. A friend commented over dinner on Saturday night that a bogan car show wasn’t the kind of thing you’d expect to see in the Berra, which did take me aback. Summernats shouldn’t be a surprise at all, for like every other Australian city the Berra has plenty of outer suburbs where bogan culture thrives, and the layout of this town actively supports a strong car focus. But there is definitely a so-called-cultured and affluent middle class here that has no idea or interest in what goes on beyond the Parliamentary triangle and inner suburbs, and that’s not healthy. Boganism may not be in good taste, but willful ignorance is inexcusable.

Finally after a few hours we had had enough. We attracted only a few jibes as we hopped on our bicycles and rode away.

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