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When I die I don’t want no coffin
I thought about it all too often
Just strap me in behind the wheel
And bury me with my automobile
– James Taylor, 1977

The old Volvo got Berra numberplates today. Suppose that means I’m really here now.

numberplateI took the Tasnarnian ones in to Territory & Municipal Services and sighed a little as I handed them over. I’ll miss the slogan, Tasmania – Your Natural State; it’s suspect on so many levels. The bloke at TAMS then requested a sum that would have been funny if it wasn’t true, and after I stopped choking and handed over a credit card, he handed over new plates with a slogan pointing to the ACT Centenary in 2013. At least other drivers will no longer curse me for a “bloody Tasmanian Volvo driver”.

The Berra is a city of cars and driving. Almost nowhere is walking distance, and that includes from one end of Garema Place (the main mall in the CBD) to the other. True, there’s not a lot of traffic most of the time so nowhere is very far away – if you have a car. Before re-registering the Ovlov, we had decided to become a one-car household, which would have been manageable if at times inconvenient. As it turned out the car market isn’t quite depressed enough for our wallets just yet, so that project is on hold.

But all the research did make me think about how many people in the Berra feel about cars. They loooooove them.

In the Berra, you can pick where the party is by the dozens of vehicles parked outside, littering the naturestrip. Colleagues with teenage children routinely moan about how many cars they have to maintain, just so their kids can drive themselves to their a part-time job. One of the most bitter arguments fought by Berran couples is over whose turn it is to be the designated driver, because unless you’ve saved for a month for the taxi fare, you need a designated driver. The house across the road from us has three adults, but seven vehicles (okay, two are up on blocks. But still.) Large tracts of open land in the busiest suburbs that would have developers elsewhere tearing each other’s limbs off to acquire are in the Berra tarred and used for carparks. There is almost no incentive to give up one’s car, apart from the punishing registration fees. Public transport buses are universally inconvenient and you can’t walk anywhere.

For someone who didn’t feel the need to get a driver’s license until I was 24, this motor-centric way of life seems dreadfully indulgent. I hear many people say they’d rather not drive all the time, but there’s a deep apathy towards transport reform in the Berra too; everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to do something. And no-one wants to refuse their employment-packaged car.

While we’re talking about what the Berra is (and isn’t), as someone said to me recently the Berra is a city of clubs. (It’s certainly not a city of pubs, to my lasting disappointment.) It’s been fascinating to watch the slow disintegration of the Cronulla Sharks Club in Sin City in recent weeks, as it crumbles under the weight of its amassed, generational block-headedness. I’m unaccustomed to this club culture that pervades NSW and the ACT as it doesn’t exist in the Australian suburbs where I grew up, yet barely 12 months in the Berra and I am a member of no less than three clubs. I think my memberships are mostly about food (yum cha and seafood feasts) but for most locals they’re about sports, or gambling and inexpensive drinks.

Anyway, just days before that 4 Corners story aired, I found myself at the Berra’s night-of-nights for clubs, their annual Awards for Excellence. Wow, a chance to glimpse the inner workings of this juggernaut that involves so many Berrans. It was no small matter. There were more than 700 people glammed up and crammed in to the Southern Cross Club, one of two giant club edifices perched on the edge of the Woden shopping centre precinct. As you might expect, it was cheesy but pleasant. The night was 60s-themed, with waitstaff dressed in retro gear and a Beatles cover band on the stage. The people on my table, a mix of local pollies, sportspeople and club people, were really lovely. The food was good, you didn’t want for a drink, the assembled crowd of men and women of all ages were having a good time. It was clear that for many the club can be a lifetime commitment; from the time you pull on your boots aged five, through your job, your family’s social life, a career path in multi-million dollar hospitality management for your daughter, to your post-retirement hub of activity, the club is there. These were all elements of stories told through the awards.

dancerBut there were two things that bothered me about the night. The first was the pair of cages at the sides of the stage, in which danced two girls; weird, but perhaps it was something to do with the theme, I thought. Then, at a point later in the presentation, the MC jock paused to chat with a sponsor about the women in low-cut dresses who were handing awards to the recipients.

“I understand you provided the girls for this evening,” said the jock to the sponsor. “Very nice. Very tasty.” The sponsor laughed.

He used just the tone two blokes might use to discuss meat, or similar bought object or commodity. This was all on the main stage, through microphones, before an assembled crowd of 700 which included smart, switched-on women and their husbands, brothers and fathers.

I nearly fell off my chair. “Did I really hear that?” I said, very loudly, to my colleague. No-one else on that table of 10, men and women alike, paid me any mind.

Which strikes me, now, as exactly the kind of attitudinal rope by which the Cronulla Sharks are now hanging themselves.

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I’ll be a big noise
with all the big boys
– Peter Gabriel, 1986

autumn leaves 1It must be autumn in the Berra. Pedestrians wade through drifts of leaves, or skid down footpaths carpeted with acorns, and the Australian War Memorial has had its warehouse open day.

Big Things In Store is the clever name for the annual opportunity to go and have a look at some of the stuff the AWM has collected but can’t put on permanent display at the main complex where the actual memorial is at the top of ANZAC Parade.

On Sunday we went out to the warehouse at Mitchell. It really is a warehouse, and packed full of big things from concrete floor to soaring ceiling. The open day is popular; even some ten minutes before opening time a hundred or so people were already parked and streaming in for a squiz. If you’re not a former serviceperson or military buff, it can be an odd experience. I had to engage in some rigorous doublethink in order to admire the machinery on display for its design and historical interest and ignore the reality that it’s all built for the singular purpose of large-scale killing and/or causing havoc.

AWM plane 1Once I got my doublethinking cap on, I was very impressed by some of the items they’ve preserved. An actual German V2 rocket. Woah. I had no idea a V2 was so BIG. Its direct inspiration for the space race was evident. The V2 was displayed next to a prototype of another experimental rocket that the Third Reich never got to deploy across the Channel – one of only two such prototypes in the world, apparantly.
AWM plane 12A fully restored Centurion tank, repainted to original specs – who knew that inside all that steel, the bench seats and sections of the floor were still made of wood? All manner of aircraft – a Dakota, a Beaufort, a Canberra Bomber and a M*A*S*H-type helicopter all in a row. Anti-aircraft guns – the engineering differences between the German and Japanese weapons were so great, it was difficult to see that they served the same function. Transports, cannon, radial engines, field kitchens, shells, torpedoes, sea mines, a Salvation Army tea-and-cordial truck, modified farm vehicles turned to combat, ancient portable barbecues, a Singer sewing machine. AWM plane 2My doublethinking cap slipped momentarily when I turned a corner and saw tucked up on a shelf some little tin boats used to land troops on beaches; thoughts of Gallipoli mixed badly with images from the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan (an otherwise terrible movie, those opening scenes still give me the horrors). To fight back is sometimes necessary, but war is a dirty business, and it’s good to remember that at both ends of all these machines – the pointing ends and the pointy ends – there are real human beings.

hand-made noticeSome of the items showed the social history of combat and service, and they spoke of a culture in which teamwork and getting on with the job were paramount. No doubt the ability to pull together meant the difference between life and death in combat. There’s both harshness and humour evident in those unofficial communications.

It was a family day for Berrans, and folk of all ages were out. A fellow helped his elderly dad out of a car and into the warehouse. A bloke talked to his friend about using ‘one of those’ in Vietnam. A father explained all the machines to his two little girls and took photos of them posing seriously before impressive items; on one hand it seemed inappropriate, but on the other hand the man evidently had only daughters, and he treated them just as he would have his sons. Food for thought.

a very disconcerting notice

a very disconcerting notice


Out the back there was the inevitable sausage sizzle, but the line there was even larger than that for the Centurion, so we passed.

Give me a home among the gum trees, with lots of plum trees,
a sheep or two and a kangaroo
– John Williamson, 1975

Bugger me. It’s about 10 past 10 at night, I was just on the verandah out the front doing a little night carpentry (don’t ask), and three kangaroos hopped down my street.

I shit you not. Right there on the bitumen, heading towards town.

The Berra is known as the Bush Capital, but really, this is ridiculous. I live in an inner area, less than 5 minutes’ drive from the CBD. My well-established older suburb has traffic, apartment complexes, rowdy share houses, joggers, pet dogs, and even stolen car action (that was last weekend). There are no gum trees on the nature strip, just the introduced deciduous species that look pretty in autumn. It’s not a bloody wildlife sanctuary.

Never in six years in Tamworse did this happen, and Tamworse really is the country.

Alas, I didn’t have the camera handy. And now the Bald Man thinks I’m on drugs.

I wish.

A sorrowful tale I’ll tell,
Concerning of a hero who through misfortune fell
His name, it was Ben Hall
– (trad), Weddings Parties Anything, 1989

Does anyone else find the Logies excruciating? It seems to get more puerile every year. Funny people aren’t funny, and smart people look insipid and/or embarassed. Only Johanna Griggs looks excited. As Dave From Albury twitted tweed observed mere moments ago, “When even Rove doesn’t respect the Logies anymore, does that mean that they have officially jumped the shark?” It’s enough to turn you back to the computer on a Sunday evening.

Okay, what happened with the rest of that long weekend? A little while after the Dawn Service, The Bald Man hopped on his bike, joined two friends and rode to Collector. Collector is not a cafe, not a shop, and not in this case a common noun, but one of the weirdly named places* within cooee of The Berra. This Collector is a smidgen of a town about 60km to the north-east not far from Lake George**, known for its annual pumpkin festival and not much else. It was a stupid brave thing to ride out there, given the filthy weather (the drizzle had cleared a little, mostly blown away by the gale-force winds). I am not so stupid brave and therefore opted to drive out there to meet them. The plan was to stay overnight at the famed Bushranger Hotel.

The Bushranger Hotel, Collector. Ominous.

The Bushranger Hotel, Collector. Ominous.

The Bushranger Hotel was founded in 1860 as the Kimberley’s Commercial. A heritage study of the Hotel I found at the bar notes that the name Collector is probably a corruption of a local Aboriginal word ‘collegdar’, thought to mean either ‘pelican’ or ‘hill’ (of course, they’re so similar). The Hotel’s name was changed after an incident in which Ben Hall and his mates Gilbert and Dunn shot a Constable Nelson right outside the pub.

With that sort of heritage, I suppose I should have expected a rowdy night. Certainly the plasma TVs, one over the otherwise-empty bar and one in the main lounge blaring the Country Music Channel at full volume mid-afternoon, should have been a hint. But no. I was captivated by the many rustic touches, including the sign labelled “dunnies” confusing some non-English speaking tourists who were also visiting, the strangely attired and unravelling stuffed kangaroo, and the collection of dead snakes in jam jars on the shelf behind the pool table.

The counter meals certainly lived up to the hype; I thoroughly recommend the pork roast. The beer on tap is fine. Together, they make a nice day trip. But that’s all I’d recommend.

To cut a long story short, all other business at the Collector Hotel was conducted at an excruciating volume. As patrons started to flow in, the volume of conversation went up, the music went up to compensate, and the conversation rose to shouting level. Tribes of feral children ran screaming through the premises accompanied by dogs and chasing cats. At one point The Bald Man turned the music down a little, but it was promptly turned back up to ear-splitting. At about 9.30pm, tired from the ride and tired of shouting, our group retired to our respective rooms. At about this time, the plasma was retuned to a contemporary music channel and the party began in earnest. Our bedroom was directly over the lounge, and the floor vibrated with the noise. This continued until 2.45am. At this time someone turned off the music halfway through an appalling song, which was all the better to hear another half hour of whooping and shouting as the remaining patrons wound down. I can honestly say I have never paid for a more hideous hotel experience, and believe me I have plenty to choose from. The morning wasn’t much better, as the bathrooms turned out not to have been washed for some weeks and were too vile for use. We fled into an oncoming storm.

Bruce Stadium, or rather, Canberra Stadium. Those are cheerleaders on the turf, freezing their rumps off at half time. I don't get this cheerleaders thing. Personally, I'd rather have the Little League.

Bruce Stadium, or rather, Canberra Stadium. Those are cheerleaders on the turf, freezing their rumps off at half time. I don't get cheerleaders. Personally, I'd rather have the Little League.

Sunday had one good experience in store, however; my first ever a-grade Rugby League match. In fact, it was a Raiders game at Bruce Stadium, making it a truly Berran experience. The weather was a disturbing mix of sunshine and sleet, and the crowd a piffling 10,000 (the AFL girl in me sniffed) but I have to confess watching good footy in the flesh is always a joy. It was a good match too, although the Raiders lost. I think I am finally on my way to understanding and perhaps even appreciating the northern codes, a little. Go you Raiders.

* There’s also a place nearby called Tarago. Not related to Toyota in any way, I understand.
** Another strangely named place, seeing as there’s never any actual ‘lake’ at Lake George. Well, I saw water in it once, but that was decades ago.

Well the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak
I ran for the trench but I had no time to speak
My heart said yes but my head said no
When the English colonel said, “It’s time to go.”
He said, “What’s a few men?”
– Mark Seymour, 1987

Here I am, sitting at home at the end of a long weekend. Today, Monday, is a public holiday in lieu of ANZAC Day falling on a Saturday this year and observed only in the ACT and WA. I’m okay about the public holiday falling on the 25th not being observed on another day; in my view, a holiday is not required to remember. Perhaps the karma for this thought is that I’ve ended up doing some work on all three days this weekend.

It’s also been a weekend on which I enjoyed some particularly Berran experiences.

Most importantly, all local wisdom says that after ANZAC Day it’s time to turn on your heater and get out the flannelette sheets.

ANZAC Day dawned grey and soggy-sleety, officially 11.6 degrees but feeling more like 6.5 degrees at 6am according to the Bureau of Meteorology. In fact by 6am I was heading home. The Bald Man and I got up to attend the Dawn Service; it was our first ANZAC Day in the Berra, and this national service at the Australian War Memorial is one of the local landmark events. We have a work presence there each year that I was keen to see. And although the vile weather meant the assembled crowd was down by a third on last year, the Dawn Service still attracted some 20,000 people.

I have to confess a whole host of reservations and anxieties around events like ANZAC Day, mostly to do with ethnic background (mine) and ignorant bigots (others), and so I’ve stayed away from dawn services until now. This Dawn Service laid some of those fears to rest. The service itself was brief at half an hour, simple and humble. There was no glorification of war, though I found it moving and important to be reminded that at this time of day 94 years ago men were preparing to get on the boats and make that run at that beach, hence the significance of gathering at dawn. The part that made the biggest impression on me were the prayers. The priest acknowledged not everyone was Christian or indeed religious before he offered four prayers: one for all service men and women past and present, one for those who don’t fight but whose efforts are at home, one for those left behind to wait and grieve, and one for all the people who work for peace. That covers just about all of us, doesn’t it? Inclusive, not exclusive.

The whole tone was humble, thoughtful; there was no arrogance and no misplaced, boorish displays of so-called nationalism. It was an arresting sight, 20,000 people gathered on the parade ground before the War Memorial, holding candles and remembering, in the dark before the dawn. A fitting remembrance for those who fight and die. (I also have to admit to being weirded out by the Lord’s Prayer said in the modern parlance; I was incapable of saying “who is in heaven” and “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, and no doubt looked to my neighbours like a time-warped lapsed Catholic, which isn’t true but isn’t miles away either.)

I was glad to have attended the National Dawn Service, and will probably go again.

I’ll write about the rest of the weekend when I can summon the strength.

She usually just reads between the lines
– Effigy, 1998

I got back from Albury this afternoon and there at work was a care package from my old housemate Damian, who now lives in London. We’ve been collecting and sending random mementos across the world for some time now, about once a year (or whenever we remember).

Along with the ceramic bull from Tijuana and the signed Weddos t-shirt (Australian band plays in London, t-shirt flies back to Australia, how’s that for carbon kms?) there were three books of poetry by three London poets (I did say ‘random’). Not being familiar with any of them, I took the book by Linda Cash and did the open-page test: you open a book at a random page, and read the poem, see what it tells you. I suppose it’s a bit like a poetry version of the Tarot, or the I-Ching.

How about this, I got a poem called Woman with Exploding Head. It reads, in part,

Meanwhile fighter planes with improbable names
rev up in her temporal lobes

Hmmm. I’ve had quite a few days like that lately. There may be something to random poetry.

The Dog on the Tuckerbox, five miles from Gundagai

The Dog on the Tuckerbox, five miles from Gundagai

On the way back from Albury, my colleague and I stopped at Gundagai, or more correctly the roadside stop five miles from town, to refuel and stretch. It’s always a pleasure to see the dog sitting on his tuckerbox. It makes me think of the real story of the dog on the tuckerbox, which I first heard from Jim Haynes when we talked about one of his published collections of Australian rhyming verse. I recall it mostly because it was one of the few times I found myself helpless with laughter whilst on air. And if you wonder what’s so funny about Australian folk verse, it’s not the version of Five Miles From Gundagai that you probably know, but the doggerel that you don’t.

A tract I bought from the little shop at the truckstop ($1, 20c of the cover price donated to the Gundagai District Hospital) also tells the story.

Back in the day, more than a century ago, Gundagai was the halfway point on the inland route between Sydney and Melbourne, and bullocky teams camped at nearby Five Mile Creek on the highway. That’s where the dog’s story was said to have occurred. The tract says,

A faithful friend, the guardian of the teamster’s possessions, a dog accompanied every waggon that pushed inland. It was the action of one such dog in spoiling food stuffs whilst he sat on a tuckerbox that so amused the [unknown] poet that he wrote:

Good morning mate, you are too late,
The shearing is all over,
Tie up your dog behind the log
Come in and have some dover.

For Nobby Jack has broke the yoke,
Poked out the leader’s eye
And the dog shat in the tuckerbox
Five miles from Gundagai.

The original doggerel was crude and vulgar and verse after verse ran on depicting incidents along the track that leads to Gundagai.

I suppose that says it all. Poetry in (bowel) motion.

If you sing me a song, you know that I’ll come running
Whistle me that tune that brings a tear to my eye
– The Go Set, 2004

dust21There’s a pall hanging over The Berra this afternoon. A furious windstorm has dragged in a massive dust cloud from somewhere way out west; driving around earlier, everything was quite indistinct, even the Tamil protesters camped en masse outside The Lodge, and their police minders. So much for the washing, of which there’s quite a bit, after a weekend at a shack up in the Barrington Tops.

It was nice to get away, after working on Good Friday. The OB was a success, great news for both our first foray into live broadcast of a new medium, and for a new community partnership. And what, you ask, would I be working at on Good Friday, doing all those things? It was the National Folk Festival.

When we first started getting our crap together for this year’s activity some months ago, I immediately began to wonder how much it might be like the Country Music Festival at Tamworth. I’ve covered six of those, replete with large hats, chaps (the leather kind), linedancing, and buskers of wildly varying quality. Back in the old days, I even covered the first six Big Day Outs (or should the plural be, Big Days Out?) I was looking forward to covering a whole new festival. Indeed, I was looking forward to adding to my collection of stubbie holders from unusual festivals, amongst which my CMF ones are dearly loved.

I was also a bit worried about having to learn a whole new set of eccentricities in order not to draw undue attention to myself, or commit some fatal faux pas. It took some time, but I learned that country music is a serious business. For example: at the CMF, it’s important to know you can laugh with those in country music costume, but not at them; not at the elderly lady in the leather fringed vest without a shirt under it, not at the feral ute driven by that large fellow in the even larger black hat, and certainly not at the bloke playing guitar with the chicken on his head (I’m not making these up). Folk music lovers are preceded by their own special stereotypes: freaky folkies, feral folkies, beardy weirdies, flutes ‘n’ fiddles, twangy-twangy, fiddle-de-fiddle-de-fiddle-o. You know. (It also brought to mind words uttered by Mick Thomas at a particularly feral Tasnarnian gig, “I’m your worst fucking nightmare, mate. I’m gunna play folk music all night.”)

And it’s no small deal, this National Folk Festival. Five days, 22 venues at the Berra’s EPIC showgrounds (it’s a ticketed event), hundreds of performers, thousands of campers on site, and some 50,000 patrons through the gates overall.

So, what was it like?

Well, overall it was a very civilised affair. A family festival. Calm, well mannered, pleasant; some stereotypes were borne out, and some were exploded.

instrument1There were a surprising number of teenagers there without parents, well behaved (if a little prone to wearing long velvet capes) and having a good time. There was no conspicuous drinking or drunkenness (unlike the CMF, in which drinking to excess is an integral part of the festival for many); and so, sadly, there were no NFF stubbie holders; I only twice caught a whiff of wacky tobaccy. The music was quite good, a little broader-appeal than what you might expect, and yes it was taken seriously. Trad-folk, folk from non-Anglo traditions, local and overseas performers, protest music, contemporary and loud music, comedy, and even a spooky men’s choir, it was all there. There were men with beards (who had the good grace to laugh at themselves at our OB) and some really crusty old Deadhead-types. There were certainly weird (if beautifully crafted) instruments; over in the instrument-makers’ tent there were arrays of expensive wood-whistles, handmade harps, medieval dulcimers, mountain mandolins (I am not making these up) and a number of contraptions that didn’t seem to be related to normal instruments but evidently made music, somehow.

mulledwineThere were pantomimes and poets, most of which seemed to have strong left leaning, anti-establishment themes (I spotted a brace of children gathered around a man with a guitar conversing in parable-style with another man dressed as a tree about the importance of trade unions in democracies) (I’m not making that up, either). There was a yurt. Amongst the many venues there was actually one called Flute & Fiddle. And for a festival with definite alternative-left socio-political tendancies, there was a lot of commerce. Many stall names sported bad puns, and most touted some sort of perceived virtue (organic, eco, fair trade, hemp, hand-crafted, recycled, vegetarian, etc.) but it was still dirty, profit-making commerce. This kind of tension makes for interesting business and goods for sale. Two eye-catchers were an organic-halal gelato (I don’t know why, it was a very anglo crowd) and a fast-food stall called Voodoo Hamburgers (the logo was a smiling skull). There were vendors of goods you might not expect to see at a folk festival, including a broom maker. I heard one borderline feral mum saying to her 8-year old, “I’ve already bought you a firestick, I’m not going to buy you a puppet head too. I don’t care if it’s hand-made hemp.” Of course I was pleased to see mulled wine, though being at work I opted for the mulled and spiced orange juice.

mugsThe thing I liked best was only a little thing, but it summed up so much about the NFF: what it is, what drives it, and what it strives to be. Almost all the drinks on site were sold in sturdy plastic mugs. When you finished your drink, you dropped your mug in one of the many wire-cage mug collection points. Volunteers (the ‘mug jugglers’) regularly emptied out the cages, took the mugs away, washed them, delivered them back to the stalls, and the cycle began anew.