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Posts Tagged ‘society’

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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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.

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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.

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