Monday, December 22, 2008

What's important?

The biggest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere is about fifteen kilometres down the road from my place. It is an emporium on a vast, Mephistophelian scale. It has a sign at its entrance (which, symbolically, is directly across the road from the biggest crematorium in the southern hemisphere), that proclaims "You haven't lived until you've shopped here".

It is impossible to overestimate the level of pride I have in my countrymen's perspicacity when I see, as I'm driving past, thousands of cars turning into the place and making a beeline for the gargantuan underground car-parks, from which their occupants will emerge to stroll along the leafy boulevardes of the centre, which is hermetically-sealed, of course, and capable of withstanding any of nature's challenges ... er, like rain.

So dauntingly impressive is the sheer physical scale of this place that it has its own postcode - it is a suburb all to itself. I forget the figures I read about it in the local rag, an organ of biblically slavish regard for the god of mammon, but there are something like five billion acres  under one roof, two or three billion separate shops, etc. etc. You get the picture. It seems we have inherited the Texan philosophy of "bigger equals better".

Now, I must disclaim that I have not, myself, personally, under my volition, actually entered this sumptuous pleasure-dome, but just the sight of it on the horizon, as I drive past on my way to a gig, fills me with a Coleridgean longing. 

Through twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers girdled 'round...

Apart from the hugely satisfying architectural splendours of this behemoth, apparently one can, if one is so inclined, purchase every single appurtenance necessary to the maintenance of the modern lifestyle at this one place. That's so gratifying a concept that I am at a loss as to why I have not, myself, personally, set foot inside the joint. I will never know the pleasure of using the labour-saving "travellators" that effortlessly shunt the shopper through the emporium without the need to use any muscles in the body except those that are required to shove ice-creams made from pig-fat into the mouth as one gawks and marvels at the cornucopia of earthly delights on offer.

Leigh and I were pondering this place as we drove out of the crematorium after attending the funeral of Leigh's sister-in-law, and my friend, Rosalie, last Thursday. Rosie was a woman that everyone would have been proud to call a friend. Strong, but gracious; intelligent and funny, she had come across this world and become a child of it. She and her husband, John, had not so much built a place at Misty Mountain, out in the Colo wilderness, as grown it. Their little house was lovingly assembled, mainly from the natural features of the landscape. Rosie had made gardens, sandstone walls that would make a mason weep with joy, paths and tracks through the bush, places of solitude and contemplation.

Rosie existed on tea and happiness. She was the exact opposite of the shopping dullard - fit, energetic and completely satisfied with simplicity. "Things" meant nothing to her. Her greatest extravagance was to go to the Bluesfest every year with us, where she and John would spend five days revelling in wonderful music. Like the damsel with a dulcimer, she was the true Coleridgean. Nature, with its beauties and fascinations, was the world; a butterfly landing on her shoulder in the glow of early morning, up there at Misty Mountain, was a day's worth of pleasure.

As we drove from the crematorium and passed the shopping centre, I wondered what Rosie would have made of the sign over its entrance. I think I know.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A cautionary tale

Years ago, as a young feller, I'd have the occasional puff of a joint. Marijuana, in those days, was stuff you'd go and pick from shrubs on the banks of the Hunter River near Newcastle, where I lived. It was there because, in the nineteenth century, hemp was an important part of any economy. It was a versatile fibre used for making rope, fabric and even paper. When the hemp industry fell into disrepute thanks to the propaganda of the emergent plastics industry in the 1930s, all that survived were wild stands of the stuff skirting the river systems. By the time I came along, of course, it was an illegal "drug", and was considered by the establishment to be the cause of a myriad of evils, including mental retardation and abandoned licentiousness. I don't know about the first, but it always produced an effect that made me think of sex as a decidedly bizarre affair.

Thus disabused of the idea that my parents' generation had the faintest notion of what they were talking about, my friends and I happily puffed away on our pickings for a number of years. Eventually, though, my interest in it waned to the point where a joint or two per year was about as big a drug habit as I had (discounting the copious amounts of Tooheys Old that I'd begun to consume. But alcohol is a good drug that had the establishment's seal of approval, of course.)

I hadn't even had a puff for several years. It was about 1990, and I was playing in a fairly large ensemble whose raison d'etre was to make as much money as possible for all concerned. It was a very well-organised band whose methodology was described to me by Phil, the band leader, as "play the thirty most famous and popular rock songs ever released." Which is what we did. It was a cornucopia, an alphabet of pop: we did everything from Abba to ZZ Top, cranking out note-perfect renditions of all of the greats. My job was to learn, and play, exact replicas of all the famous guitar solos, perfectly, night after night.

Now, the interesting thing about this band is that it was all about the vocals. We had three very good female singers, a great male lead vocalist, and the other four blokes in the band able to hold a tune. And, without being immodest, we were pretty fucking good at it. As well, we had a synthesiser system triggered by a computer, so on top of the guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, we had all sorts of other sounds - more keyboards, horn sections, strings, percussion, and the like - belting through a gigantic, and very beautifully mixed, sound system. The computerisation of the band meant that we all had to wear little "in-ear" monitoring systems which would give us the click track from the computer so we could start the songs at the right moment and remain in time with the synthesised sounds. This is an almost universal phenomenon with professional bands these days, but in 1990 it was a technology still in its infancy.

We were doing one show at a very big club in Sydney. Just our regular set, which we'd played hundreds of times before, and which had got to be so robotic as to be like any other production line work. We really had to be conscious of making a performance out of it - once you've played the solo to "Stairway to Heaven" exactly the same way a hundred times, you're over it.

On this night, we had a new sound engineer. He was a very competent operator, and our sound-check had gone smoothly. We'd played our first set of two to an audience of about five hundred people. We had a twenty minute break, and the sound guy came over to me in the dressing room and said "Hey Laurie - you look like a bloke that might enjoy a smoke."

Without thinking - probably bored senseless - I replied "Sure, let's go." We went out to his car, where he proceeded to get out a bag of pot, and load it into an evil-looking bong. I'd never had much of an association with these devices, and had always considered them slightly anti-social, but what the heck - I was just getting stoned.

"This is really good stuff," he informed me. "Durban Poison - I grew it myself; it'll get you nicely stoned, mate."

He offered me the thing, and I sucked as hard as I could on it while he lit it up. It nearly killed me going down, I can tell you. "Thanks," I said at the end of it, spluttering and gasping for air. "Your turn, mate."

"Oh no," he said, "if I have one of these I'll be ratshit. I just thought you might enjoy playing after one."  Oh fuck, I thought to myself, what have I done?

We walked back into the club. It was time to go on stage again, so I walked on, strapped my guitar on, checked my tuning, turned around to face the audience, and thought I was going to die. I had, suddenly and completely, entered a world of trouble with a capital T, short for tetra-hydro-cannabinol. I was fucked. I had walked into paranoia city, and had the instantaneous fear that I wasn't walking out of it in a hurry.

I looked down at the set-list gaffer-taped to the floor, and saw that we were about to launch into the Doobie Brothers' Long Train Runnin'. I'd played this song hundreds of times; I could play it in my sleep, but I had an almost overpowering urge to throw my guitar away and run like buggery.

I didn't, though, because I heard the count-in in my earpiece, and it was me who had to start the song: da-da-da, da-da-da-do, da-da-da, and so-on. I was playing it, and it seemed OK. The bass was next to come in, and, as he did, I realised that he was a semi-tone away from the key I was playing in. The drums rolled, the keyboards played a riff, and I very quickly changed to the key that the song was now in (F sharp minor, to be precise). I kept playing as the intro unfolded, but then I started thinking "Hang on, this is in G minor - it has to be; we've always played it in G. The computer doesn't change; the synthesiser should be in G, but it's not - it's in F sharp! But that's impossible. Oh, no - maybe it has always been in F sharp. No - couldn't be; I've always played it in G. Aaaaaaaaahhhh - I'm going mad; what the fuck is happening???"

I kept playing; I had no choice. We got to the solo section, where I had to play a harmonica solo. I whipped the harp out of its pouch on my guitar strap, and there on the top of the harp was the key for the instrument engraved on it : "B flat". I was right! It was in G minor! But - I couldn't play my solo, because the song was now in a different key. I had the very morbid feeling that the establishment had actually got it right - marijuana does, indeed, cause brain damage. I looked around at the other band members, who seemed to be happily and unconcernedly playing away. The harmonica was useless, so I played the solo on guitar in the new key - becoming increasingly aware that the guitar strings had taken on an appearance like furry spider legs, and the sound coming from my amp had ceased to resemble a Stratocaster and had taken on the characteristics of Chip n Dale having an orgy.

I played through the rest of the set, trying to overcome a bizarre feeling of sinking into the stage. I had to keep lifting my feet, one after the other, to keep on top of the quicksand the stage had become. And as for singing - forget it; I was afraid that any sound that issued from my mouth would just be a throttled scream.

The last song of the night was the abominable Hotel California, wherein it was my duty to play the solo that everyone knows by heart. I started with the right notes, but it quickly devolved into Chip n Dale having a Sorcerer's Apprentice battle. I felt like Harding in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - "I'm talking about form, I'm talking about content, God, the Devil, Heaven, Hell.." Folks, I was seriously off the planet.

Mercifully, the gig ended. I let my guitar slide off me and crash into its stand, and bolted for the dressing-room, where I sat in a cold sweat wondering if I might eventually come down, say before I was eighty. 

Phil and the rest of the band all marched into the dressing-room, giggling and pointing at me. The paranoia meter went completely off the scale. Phil came over and said

"Man, you played some seriously weird shit out there." And then he winked at me and said "It was good, though, it was damn good. I'll keep you in mind as the guitarist in any experimental music bands I want to put together." 

"Oh, and sorry about Long Train. I took it down a semi-tone - I forgot to tell ya."

Drugs are bad, 'kay?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Here comes Santa's claws

Graham the Barbarian and his lovely wife Maria are our closest neighbours. They live in a rather large house which I helped to build. It wasn't so large when they first moved in; "shoe-box" comes to mind. They'd invited us for Christmas lunch; the turkey would be at their place, then we'd all (two couples and five kids) repair to our place, about a mile down the road and into the bush, for dessert and an afternoon by the pool. A peaceful and comfortable way to spend Christmas Day.

Maria and Graham had laid on a feast fit for a king: in Australia, more and more, Christmas dinner is a salad affair. Prawns, cold meats and lots of good things from our combined vegetable gardens went down superbly with a couple of beers each for Graham and I, and some bubbly for the girls. A warm westerly breeze was blowing.

We were all preparing to come back to my place, and as Graham and I were loading his kids' brand-new bikes in the back of his ute, he asked "Do you smell that, Loz?"

The breeze had become a fairly stiff wind, and on it I could detect the unmistakeable, and quite pleasant, aroma of eucalyptus burning. We wandered around to his gate, and, looking westward, saw a haze of blue-grey smoke drifting over the escarpment, the series of hills that identify the most easterly throes of the Great Divide, about ten kilometres away.

"Not good, Graham. I think we'd better go for a drive."

Heading out along the ridge, into a clearer vantage point, we could see that a fire was burning way off on the top of the escarpment. We decided to go to the fire shed, and, when we arrived, a flurry of activity was happening. I could see a neighbour, Eric, who was captain of the volunteer service, barking orders at groups of guys busy with their fire-trucks, reels of hose and a few water-tankers that had just driven in. I jumped out of the ute.

"What do you reckon, Eric?", I asked.

"Could be crook, Laurie - we've got a real bad weather report comin' in - forty degrees and 100k westerlies. We're going out along Cedar Ridge, cause it looks like if that fire comes over the hill, it'll blow straight through here. I'd get home and start gettin' ready, if I were you."

"OK mate - what about your place?" He just looked at me with the glum determination of a bloke who knows that, while he's out saving other people's homes, his own might just be burning down.

"If you get a chance, you know what to do, Loz."

"Sure thing." But we both knew that, if it did get bad, it could get very bad for all of us.

We got back to Graham's and decided to get his place as ready as possible, then head down to mine. Graham was in the reasonably fortunate position that there was plenty of cleared area around his house - especially towards the west from where the fire would inevitably come. The idea would be that we would get my place secure, wait for the fire and deal with it, then get back up to his to do the same. (As things turned out, our plans were totally demolished by the speed and severity of the fire when it did come.)

The lot of us drove to my place. Chris got on the phone to another mate, Greg, to get him to bring his pump and hoses over. (Out here, everyone has this sort of gear - you're mad if you don't.) Greg's place was in a relatively safe suburban area, and he was under no threat, really, so he got some things together and was on his way.

Now, my place is in a lovely little valley surrounded by ridges on three sides and about two hundred acres of virgin bushland. Tall eucalypts are abundant, and our house is in the middle of this green oasis of forest. Idyllic, except on a forty degree day with huge, hot winds. And they were really starting to blow.

From the house we could now see, beyond the western ridge, a massive and growing pall of smoke, extending about two thousand metres into the sky. It was action time.

The kids got every bucket and container they could find and filled them, placing them around the outside of the house. The bath was filled; I plugged the gutters and ran the sprinkler on top of the roof to fill them. Graham and Miles, my son, ran firehoses to various points, and made sure that they were all working from the five thousand gallon tank on top of the hill. Greg and his eighteen year old son Matt arrived, and immediately got his pump on the swimming pool, trailing hoses along the front side of the house. Izzy, my daughter, insisted that her horse be led up from the paddock to the shelter of the house.

The plan was to meet the fire at the interface of the clearing with the bush, about forty metres from the house, and divert it around the house and yard. In a previous fire, we'd done just that pretty successfully. But we had no idea that what we were about to face was going to make that blaze look like a sparkler at a kid's birthday party.

It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and by this stage the wind was beginning to blow ferociously. Graham took off back up the ridge to get some bearings, and arrived back, breathlessly, a few minutes later.

"It's comin', mate - and it's real fast. We ought to get things wetted down."

We began throwing great quantities of water all over everything we could. The house was drenched, as were the gardens and the shed that holds our generators and solar-electricity set-up. But the wind was so hot and strong that the water was evaporating nearly as quickly as it was delivered.

I heard a noise, and looked up. The fire was coming over the ridge-line, directly towards us, and it was in the crowns of the trees. I shuddered.

Crown-fire: the worst kind of bushfire. The last fire had, more or less, gently come down over the hill at scrub level, and, even though there was some fairly energetic activity for an hour or so, it had been reasonably easy to draw it away from the house, and pretty safe, as well.

This was different. I had to make a split-second decision. I ran into the house, and screamed at Chris and Maria to get the three little kids and take off out the back way and get back to the ridge and relative safety. They scrambled, and within a minute were gone, with hugs and some frightened tears all round. They knew we were putting ourselves in some real danger by staying, but Graham, Greg and I were buggered if we were going to lay down without a fight. I'm not saying this out of bravado; I and my mates were just too obstinate to see twenty years' work (Greg and Graham had had a big hand in building my place) go up in flames.

I told Izzy to get her horse "inside the house - now!". For months afterwards the story of her putting a horse in the downstairs lounge-room was told, with great hilarity, all over the neighbourhood.

We all lined up on the perimeter with our hoses going full-pelt. The huge gums along the hillside glowed white, and then, one by one, exploded into flame. Limbs of trees as thick as an arm came hurling through the air like incendiary bombs, often crashing onto the roof of the house. I hoped like hell the sprinkler up there was still working, but we had no time to go back as the fire came storming back up the rise towards the house with the most unforgettable sound I've ever heard: a roar like a hundred express-trains.

Miles and I were standing beside each other when the sound of an enormous explosion came from the top of the hill. The concrete water tank had simply exploded from the heat of the fire. Suddenly, the pressure in our hoses dropped to nothing. Graham and Greg were still pumping from the swimming pool, but we were left with no defence at all.

"Run," I screamed at Miles. We got around to the eastern, lee-side of the house and lay on the ground as the fireball exploded over and around us. Sheets of blue flame whistled past us where the vapor-laden air was igniting. We jumped inside through Miles' bed-room window, and raced up the stairs, where we were greeted with the sight of huge flames belting down both verandahs, melting the fly screens, frames and all, on the windows. The heat was intense and suffocating, but the adrenalin was coursing through us so voluminously that we were both shaking with energy. It was time to do some bucket work.

For the next half an hour we ran around with buckets, re-filling from the pool and throwing them on the parts of the house that had caught alight. Greg and Graham continued to blast away at the northern side of the house, standing in the middle of the yard with flames singeing their overalls. I've never seen anything as brave. 

At one stage I was running down the stairs into the lounge room. There was Izzy, holding the bridle of her horse, which was unconcernedly chomping away at its nose-bag. Tears were streaming down her face.

"Are we going to be all right, Dad?" she cried, with a look of abject terror.

At that point I should have stopped, given her a cuddle, and reassured her.

Instead, I yelled (you had to; the noise of the fire was still deafening) "We might be if you let that fucking horse go and grab a bucket!"

She and Matt took the upstairs south verandah; by this time the firefront was past, and it was a little safer to venture out. I don't know who, if anyone, could have been given the most credit for saving the house. One thing I'm fairly sure of is that if we'd been only five, instead of six, we might have lost the house, and possibly our lives, as well.

After about an hour's more work, I was assured that the house was in no danger. (Well, technically, it was, because the air was still full of burning embers.) But Greg and the kids could look after that, so Graham and I jumped in his ute (it and Greg's car were the only vehicles that hadn't been burnt to the ground) and left for his place.

We couldn't get out the top road, as several trees had come down over it, so we doubled back and fought our way through the bottom track with the aid of a chain-saw onto the ridge road. Even so, it took a good half an hour to navigate our way to his place. 

We drove in, under some power lines that were swinging precariously on burnt-out poles, looked at the house, and both cracked up. It was absolutely untouched. It must have been the adrenalin come-down, but we sat their for a few minutes just giggling. Then reality hit. Graham looked over at his tool-shed - a forty foot shipping container that held all the tools of his trade - tools that were not only valuable in money terms, but that had acquired a significance in the life of this professional tradesman; any tradesperson will understand what I'm saying. There was smoke coming from it. By the time we ran over to it, we could tell that the inside was not going to be pretty.

Graham got the door open; a huge cloud of black, toxic smoke billowed from the container. It was obvious that everything inside was gone. We hung our heads.

Then Graham said something that I'm not likely to forget in a hurry. He smiled at me and said "Loz - it's just stuff. Just things. Our homes are here; we're here. That's all I need."

The fire claimed twenty homes in our area, countless sheds, out-buildings, fences, tractors and other vehicles. Everyone in the community pitched in and fought it for a week. Eric's house was safe. I got a wonderful Christmas present: one of the best friends a bloke could ever have.

Monday, November 17, 2008

In the beginning, and in the ending

18 million or so tears ago, a dirty great shield volcano aggressively splattered a large area of northern New South Wales, in the days when the eastern coast of Australia was going through a spasm and trying to swallow New Zealand. Some have argued that it's a pity it didn't, but that's not for me to say.

This is around the time (give or take a bit) Adam was discovering Eve, who you'll remember went around starkers in those days, and Adam was getting accustomed to the enormous burden of being permanently priapic, so we can understand why he wasn't interested in arcane matters such as geology. Any decent biblical education leaves one well aware of the acres of difference in the relative values of intelligence, power, majesty and moral rectitude between God and his creation. At least God was into geology; I mean, he invented the stuff.

As I was saying, since then the effect of erosion on this mixture of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rock includes fabulous and immense outcrops - and other features that simply stick up, on a grand scale, from the floors of valleys magnificent in their dense and voluptuous eucalypt forests. Blue gums, enormous in girth, build a cushion of cumulus-like foliage; the tops of the trees, viewed from above, look like nothing so much as a dense, bubbling cloud of green.

"Hey man," mumbled Leigh as we trudged along an uphill trail that threatened to, at any moment, collapse into the deep green gorges below us, "this acid is really good shit."

OK, OK, I just made that up. In fact, we were having a particularly pleasant time. Over the past twenty-five days, we had walked probably a hundred and fifty or more kilometres, and we had become pretty fit. We weren't going all the way to the Breadknife, but were climbing up to a good vantage-point to give the thing a good, close-up scrute. A mere fifteen-or-so kilometre round-trip. Tall ferns of various species gave way to ridge scrub as we climbed higher, until we were scrabbling over scree and fairly tumble-down rock platforms. 

This sort of thing convinces me further that God, if he really is around, is a bit of a shoddy tradesman. Lord, if you really care for us, you'll put in, at the very least, gentle slopes with nicely delineated pathways incorporating escalators up the more challenging stretches. When Adam was having a yarn with a couple of cherubim at the gates, Eve was being chatted up by a creature that was to become the ancestor of used-car salesmen and Republicans, unaware that her nascent concupiscence would result in thorns, childbirth and great fucking boulders that like to take your head off when you're half way up a mountain.

As always, the effort was worth it.  The Breadknife, and a couple of other ineffable gargantuans, peered across at us, rusty old fellers having their last say about the place, before wind, water and sun eventually took them down to be replaced by adolescents, emerging from their mother earth's aprons. The Breadknife could just as easily have been called "Old Silverback".

I thought of the serpent as we walked back towards camp, and, of course, we came upon a pretty little red-bellied black sunning itself by the path. Nicely coiled, with its head resting on its body like a little dog on your lounge pillow, it appeared for all the world to be blissing out.

We squatted near it and had a good look for a while, until we heard two walkers coming up the track. We said our goodays, and it was obvious they were English.

"Nice little feller we found here," said Leigh amicably, pointing to our friend by the track. The woman took one look at Blacky and hid her face in her hands, whimpering with a kind of rapid asthmatic pulmonary spasm. We looked at each other with some consternation.

"It's OK, he's just having a snooze. He's not interested in you at all." Leigh was being more than reasonable, I thought; little blackies, although poisonous, are very timid. Chris and I once had
a big feller who would park himself on the concrete doorstep on a Spring morning. We used to have to step over him to go to work.

She was disconsolate. When her husband tried to calm her by suggesting that it wouldn't hurt if she actually opened her eyes and had a look at it, she backed down the track, then turned as if to run.

"For Christ's sake, don't turn your back on it!"  I yelled.

Have you ever seen one of those ninja movies where the guys run up vertical walls? Think it's impossible? Think again. The woman got about forty yards up the track-side cliff inside three seconds. Perched on a tiny ledge, she collapsed sobbing.

Leigh realised she needed his help. "There's more of 'em up there in those caves next to you," he kindly encouraged.

We realised we could have fun like this all day, but food - and a really big telescope - called, so we bid fond adieus and left our new friend contemplating the unabashed generosity and good-will of the average Aussie bloke, and the ubiquity of Pseudechus porphyriacus in the Wide Brown Land.

Apropos of nothing at all: According to perhaps apocryphal tales, a particular species of parasitic worm, Dracunculiasis (formerly referred to as Dracontiasis), was once a fearsome killer, and the only remedy was to extract it from its host by means of a stick, previously steeped in water. The stick would be inserted into the abscess on the patient's leg where the worm made its window on the world. (Fuck, I bet that little procedure brought tears to the eyes.) Shortly, the worm would detect the moisture in the stick, gradually emerging from the body and wrapping its way around it, right to the top. This ancient treatment became embodied in the universal symbol for medicine. (The parallels with our verbillaceous mate in the Garden of Eden are unmistakeable.)

Next stop was the Siding Springs Observatory, perched atop a mountain some few miles to our east. Now, the bloke in charge of this place is a feller by the name of Fred Watson, and a heartier, more rambunctious person you'd not likely meet. As well as knowing things your granny forgot about astronomy, he plays a mean guitar. We were hoping to meet him at the Anglo-Australian Telescope for a jam; although, as he keeps musician's hours, and it was only two in the afternoon, we thought the chances might be slim.

We alighted at the car-park, and with a fierce and cold breeze blowing straight at us, climbed up to the telescope on foot. A lift took us up three flights until we emerged at the viewing platform.

I suppose there are plenty of people who would look on that thing and simply dismiss it as a vast combobulation of steel, glass, and wire. But of course, it is actually a sports apparatus - a tool for the exercise of the imagination. It is the Age of Reason wed to Romanticism.

... I always wanted to say that.

Whatever it was, it was special. Even the kids on the viewing platform sensed the imaginative power of its part in the great project. One little bloke said to his mum "But what's it for?" His mother leaned over and said "It's for learning, mate, learning about the universe."

And with that, we drove back to our camp, to spend the last night of our trip across this often inscrutable, ever bewildering but stunning country, underneath a star-studded sky, thinking about all of those things that contribute to what is our world.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Here is the link to a recording I made of the Sydney Guitar Quartet playing Philip Houghton's Opals suite: Black, Water, White. It was recorded at my studio last year, and I am thoroughly proud to say that my son, Miles, is one of the quartet's members. Enjoy.

Mind you, it's only an MP3. Sounds way better in glorious 24-bit 96Khz. For those with a technical bent, it was recorded using a pair of Rode NT2-A large diaphragm condensor microphones positioned directly in front of the quartet, and a pair of AKG C451 B condensors as overhead ambients, direct to Tascam 16 track tape (well, why not?) It was then mixed (no EQ), gently reverberated with an old Lexicon a mate lent me, and sent to Wavelab for a touch-up.
Just like baking a cake!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A brief musical interlude

A shining example of the wisdom of Frank Zappa, for all those who thought religion might have something really going for it. Televangelists need not press play.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


We limped into Gulargambone, in the early evening, looking for a place to rest our weary heads. It had been an eventful day; it's not every day that a bloke's navigator nearly has his head taken off by a kangaroo at high speed. Gulargambone was a sleepy little village lying on the plains just west of the Great Dividing Range, that long spine of mountains that separates the coast of eastern Australia from the unliveable part. We were in the unliveable part. The Volvo creaked its way into the parking lot of the town's only hotel/motel; we thankfully emerged, and without looking too carefully at the horrendous damage to our trusty steed, wandered into the bar.

We were in Gulargambone for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we intended to visit the Warrumbungle National Park, the site of some mighty fine pieces of geology. Secondly, a visit to the Siding Springs Observatory, home of the Anglo-Australian Telescope, had been a mission of mine for some years. But for now, we needed anaesthetic.

It turned out that the Gulargambone hotel/motel was the social centre for the town's inhabitants, and the hosts, Rob and Sue, a couple in their thirties, did an excellent job in food, beverage and company. I was talking to Sue, a vivacious blond, and one of the best multi-taskers I've ever seen - she was simultaneously cooking food for about twenty people, serving drinks, showing us around, and looking after two young kids and a baby - and mentioned that I was originally from Newcastle.

"Oh, me too," she replied. "Whereabouts?"

"Kotara. Grinsell Street, to be precise."

"Bugger me!" she exclaimed, "I lived in Grinsell Street until I was eighteen!"

Of course, that sealed the deal. We were immediately fast friends, and chatted away merrily with each other, while Leigh sat at another table, regaling the locals with outrageous stories (creatively embellished, of course) of our travels around the country. Every ten seconds or so, a great roar of laughter would erupt from the table. Leigh has this effect on everyone.

Apparently it was movie night at the pub. There being no cinema for a couple of hundred kilometres in any direction, mine hosts had taken it upon themselves to be the local culture vendors, and had set up a pretty nifty mini-theater in the back room. Rob and Sue were screening There Will be Blood on this occasion, so, after a great meal of swordfish cutlets, and with Sue sitting beside me, constantly replenishing my glass of red, we watched Daniel Day Lewis cover himself in oil and glory.

By about the eleventy-millionth glass, the screen was no longer in focus, so I bid all goodnight, and with a chorus of Good nights and Nice-meeting-yous ringing in my ears, I stumbled off to my room. What a great crew of people these dirt-poor, struggling farmers were. And the pub had become a lifeline (in some cases, I suspect, quite emphatically so) for a whole community ravaged by drought.

We left early the following morning, before anyone was up. We passed through a place that had nothing to distinguish itself whatsoever except for the sign that told you its name: Gummin Gummin'.  Note the apostrophe? We stopped, and spent several useless minutes pondering the virtue of putting an apostrophe on the end of a double-barrelled place name, out in the middle of nowhere. It must have been a mistake, we thought, but when we checked our map, there was that cute little thing sticking out of Gummin Gummin''s name. More bizarre than crop circles, if you ask me.

We pulled into the National Parks Centre at the Warrumbungles, and went into the main office to register. A large group of tourists from Europe accompanied us. We got to the front door, and found that someone had creatively placed there a dirty big, perfectly taxidermified western grey kangaroo as some kind of ossified doorman. I took one look, and pounced on it.

I had the thing by the throat, and was giving it a good kicking to its nether regions, all the while yelling, in syncopation with the lethal blows to its protruding scrotum, "You - dir - ty - fuck - ing - cunt - of - a - thing!" This went on for some ten seconds or so, with the stuffed object rocking back and forth in time with my blows, before Leigh quite intelligently intervened.

"Ah, Loz," he said trepidatiously, putting a soothing hand on my arm, "it's already dead, mate."

I stopped, turned around, and found about twenty foreigners standing there, rather shell-shocked, and giving me the kind of look that I imagine those derelicts in the city who urinate in public litter receptacles get from passers-by.

I straightened up, threw my shoulders back and attempted to rescue my dignity. "Well, they are cunts of things. You might think they're all cute and adorable, but just wait until one of them decides to destroy your Volvo!"

I spun on my heels and marched up to the reception desk, and, I must say, was somewhat taken aback when I was unceremoniously thrown straight back out the door by a bloke who was probably three sizes too large for his shirt. What is it with people who wear epaulets? 

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Don't talk to me about kangaroos

Leigh was driving. I'd done all the driving up until now, twenty-five days in a row. Not that I minded - driving, to me, is about as taxing as reading a book. Leigh was a superb navigator - the only time we'd been lost was in the Strezlecki desert, which is probably not a good place in which to get yourself lost, come to think of it.

We were on our way from Wilcannia to the Warrumbungle mountains in the mid-west of the state. We'd already covered two hundred kilometres, and had another five hundred or so to go, so I thought a little respite, on this day, would be in order.

The Barrier Highway was unremitting; we just drove forever into that endless horizon, with some stretches that were gun-barrel straight for thirty or forty klicks at a time. But we began to notice, by about half-way through this stretch, something we hadn't seen for two weeks: green grass. It was an epiphany; we even stopped to photograph a little patch of green on the side of the road, as if it had assumed some majestic importance to be back in a place where water had finally fallen from the sky.

We stopped at Cobar, a prosperous little town built on mining; a place that was so unlike Wilcannia, 260 k behind us, as to be unimaginable. But it was just a quick stop for food, and we were on our way.

I was driving again; the next town would be Nyngan, a further 130 k up the road. The Volvo was eating up the miles; Leigh was studying the map to determine the best route through to the lyrically-named Gulargambone. I was doing 110 k.p.h. on cruise control; we came over a railway bridge that curved gently up and back down again.

I caught a glimpse of something out of my left eye, close to the car. I had the sudden realisation that it was the head of a kangaroo. And then I hit it.

Now, hitting a 'roo at 110 can be a chancy business. Depending on a number of factors, including various vectors of velocity, direction, and mass, you can either live or die. Many people have been killed by collisions with kangaroos in Australia, either through losing control of the vehicle, or having the thing come straight through the windscreen and taking every one of the occupants' heads off. Roos are flighty buggers; they can, for no other reason than sheer caprice, take off at great speed and decide that leaping across a major highway at full gallop is a pretty cool thing to do. Which is exactly what our bastard decided.

There was an almighty bang, as the car took the body of the thing on the left front corner. Leigh, who'd been looking at his map, yelled "Fuck, Loz!"; he told me a little later he thought I'd come off the road and hit a post or a tree. The car pitched and swerved as the mudguard collapsed onto the front wheel; I wrestled the steering wheel, got back on course, and gently applied a little brake - not too hard, because I was unsure of the extent of the damage. But the screeching and scraping of tyre on metal told me plenty.

We came to a stop about two hundred metres down the road. I sat there, cursing our bad luck. For six thousand kilometres we'd been careful to avoid driving at dusk, or at night, when 'roos are around; to hit one in broad daylight two days before home seemed a vicious irony.

Leigh got out of the car. It was difficult - his door didn't want to open, as the 'roo had, in its dying throes, evidently decided to give the side of the car a good kicking as it scraped along it. Leigh came around to my window and said "That must have been a really big kangaroo, Loz - the car's fucked."

There was nothing to do but inspect the damage and see if we could get the thing driveable. The bonnet, headlights, front mudguard and both left hand doors were destroyed; the mudguard was just a tangled mass of steel with bits of 'roo flesh and fur adhered to it, all crumpled on top of the left front wheel.

But first, of course, we had to see whether the 'roo itself was still alive. We walked back to the site of the collision, and there was the poor thing, dead as a doornail, about twenty metres off the road. At least we were spared the prospect of clubbing it to death, as I'd had to do on two or three occasions in the past. Leigh estimated it at between fifty and sixty kilograms - a big one, indeed. It was horribly damaged. Irrepressibly, Leigh turned to me with a bit of a grin and said "Well, at least we should cut its legs off - waste not, want not, Loz."

At that point I wished it would just get up so I'd have the pleasure of killing it again. I had had to plead with my ever-lovin' to borrow her car for the trip, against her better judgement, which included admonishments like "But what if you have an accident, or hit a kangaroo?" I had assured her that none of these things would happen. It was going to be an uncomfortable phone call.

We found an old star-picket post by the side of the road, and did some serious panel-beating with it. We got the mudguard off the tyre, and gave the car a test-drive. Like all serious Swedish technology, the Volvo shook off this slight inconvenience, and trundled on as if nothing had happened. It was only a couple of weeks later that the damage assessment came in at twelve thousand dollars.

We were lucky; had I been a fraction of a second later, the thing might have come straight through the windscreen, and who knows what the cleaner's bill would have been for that.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

The opposite of plenty

We were trundling across the South Australian mid-East, from Quorn through to Broken Hill in New South Wales. Names like "Oodla Wirra", "Nackara", "Paratoo", and "Winnininnie" slid past; dusty, featureless "towns" with a couple of houses and a combined petrol station/general store if you were lucky. The landscape, although not as dry as it had been in the far north, was still groaning under the horrible drought that had been wrecking the entire Australian hinterland for ten long years. It was depression, everywhere you looked. The few sheep that still grazed on the stubble, poking sporadically through vast gibber plains that had once been fat paddocks of lucerne, looked tired, thin and despondent. Desolated farmhouses, from which people had simply closed the front door, got into their loaded-up utes, and left the land for good, looked out at us from the roadside. For four hundred kilometres, Leigh and I had nothing much to say to each other. Cocooned inside the Volvo, we were like aliens passing through a deserted reach of interplanetary space.

Gradually, however, the sheer unflinching aridity of it all started to get to us. Like the Ancient Mariner, Leigh intoned: With thirsts unslaked, with black lips baked, we didn't have no grub; I bit my arm, I sucked the blood and cried "A pub! A pub!"

Now, my immediate apologies to those aficionados of the British Romantic tradition for that travesty. One must realise, however, the deranged quality of thought as one shunts along a dead-flat landscape with nothing but a shimmering, eternal horizon through the windscreen. The "pub" was a run-down shack of a place hovering valiantly in the middle of absolutely nothing, the nothing being a place once called "Olary". It must have once been a township, but all that remained were a few sheds leaning away from the prevailing wind and the foundations of some scattered houses. We pulled up right outside. A sign on the door said "Closed Sunday."

We drove off, forlorn, wondering what kind of wild hootenanny we must have missed on Saturday night.

On the South Australia/ New South Wales border, at a place called Cockburn, we stopped to fuel up and get a bite to eat. Four or five road-trains - prime movers with three long trailers hitched together - were parked there; a sure sign of good food for the traveller. I kept wondering what they could have been carrying; it sure as eggs wasn't produce. (It turned out, of course, that they were all carrying minerals - just about the only commodity Australia has left.) And so we said good-bye to South Australia - a place of great wonder, amazement, and the most miserable policemen in the world.

We got into Broken Hill in the mid-afternoon; we were going to stay at my niece Erin's place. She's a physiotherapist with the Royal Flying Doctor Service - about which more later. Broken Hill, itself, is a place that constantly beggars belief. Here is a city, of some 30,000 people, which depends for its existence on a mine. In 1883 a boundary rider discovered silver on the surface of the ground. A frenzied mining boom began soon after, and the Broken Hill Propriety, now the world's biggest mining corporation, started tearing silver, zinc and lead out of the ground at an alarming rate. The BHP was so good at this that there is now virtually no ore left, and a huge hill of mine tailings dominates the city's skyline, eclipsing the original "Broken Hill", which was unceremoniously dug up and plundered early in the 20th century. Funny for a town to be named for a geographical feature that no longer exists, but there you have it.

One of the more interesting features of Broken Hill is that most of its houses are made of corrugated iron. We drove through street after street of these odd-looking dwellings. "Corro" roofs and walls were dominant in the landscape. This is surprising, really, considering that summer temperatures regularly hit 45 degrees (that's about 115 in the old scale), and winters, conversely, get down to freezing for three months at a time. Hardy souls, these Broken Hillians - or, as Leigh put it, "fucking lunatics."

We drove into the centre of the city; wide streets in the Australian country town-style greeted us, and absolutely enormous, ancient hotels, ringed with balconies, plate-glass, stained glass and wrought-iron, beckoned us with their foaming surprises. Not out of character, we decided to have a beer. (After all, it had been a very long drive.) The "Royal Exchange Hotel" seemed to offer much for the thirsty traveller; its bar boasted three different varieties of beer, and not much else. We ordered a Coopers each, and retired to a couple of well-upholstered lounge chairs parked in the corner of the saloon bar. The barmaid, a woman who had seen much, noted much, and analysed much in her fifty or sixty years, came over to talk. She sat on one of the arms of the green leather ottoman facing us, and sized us up.

"So, where are you blokes from?"

We told her a little about our trip: enough to keep it interesting, not enough to bore. We asked her, instead, what was the Broken Hill story. Her considered reply is worth reporting.

"This place is fucked," she began. "The mine's just about finished, only 400 miners have got jobs, and it's gonna be a case of whoever leaves last, please turn out the lights. This pub's for sale, if you're interested."

It seemed, frankly, inconceivable that the original site of Australia's mining boom could just shut its doors, and I suggested to the barmaid that, surely, tourism must be a big money-spinner these days.

"Oh, sure," she replied "but who wants to spend their entire lives bein' a servant for wealthy tourists and grey nomads?" She had a point.

We drove back to Erin's place. As I said, she's a physiotherapist with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and spends a large part of her working week in a Piper turboprop flying to remote communities in the region, sorting out people with various muscle and joint ailments, and, I am sorry to report, quite a few women and children, victims of domestic violence, from the aboriginal communities. She told a story of desperation, poverty and substance abuse that left both Leigh and I in a cold rage. Of course, every Australian has an idea of the misery that has befallen Aboriginal Australia, but to hear the stories first-hand clarifies and concentrates what is, largely, an abstract and diffuse consciousness for most of us.

We saw, first-hand, what she was talking about the next day. Two hundred kilometres east of Broken Hill is Wilcannia, a place Leigh was looking forward to seeing, having been there once many years before. He described to me a prosperous little town on the banks of the Darling, the second-largest river in the country.

We drove into Wilcannia, and at the main intersection, a blackfeller of indeterminate age staggered out onto the road in front of us, filthy, and holding a Coke bottle half full of what was, presumably, petrol. A woman on the other side of the street shambled along, a plastic shopping bag in each hand, both containing two five-litre casks of cheap wine. A group of young black kids stood, or sat, along the walls of a decrepit building, doing nothing. There were three retail establishments trading in Wilcannia: a pub, a service station and a take-away food store. All were heavily barred with steel mesh across the windows, and impenetrable security doors. We drove around the streets, looking at dilapidated houses; there was not a library, school, community centre, doctor's surgery or, indeed, any sign that anyone was making an effort to make life more user-friendly. I've been in some pretty shabby towns around the world; this was one of the worst places I'd ever seen.

And smack bang in the middle of one of the most prosperous countries in the world. We felt ashamed - of ourselves and our countrymen. We stopped at the service-station to fill up, and I made my way past a burly security guard at the door, preposterously armed with a big, holstered handgun. He and the attendant were the only two visible whites in the entire town; when I asked him did he live in town, he answered "Shit no, mate - I drive back to Broken Hill every afternoon."

We drove across the bridge on our way out of town, and I looked down. In the second-biggest river of Australia, not a drop of water flowed. Poor feller, my country.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Iguana's Economics Primer

I've recently come across a blog by a writer who we'll call Ms Pants. As an Australian, of course, she has a naturally superior intellect, carved from the cruelty and dust of our harsh summers, and honed on the strop of a Menzian, Dickensian body politic (whose corpse you can still find floating off Portsea Beach). In her latest piece, which you can find here, she quite readily and appositely puts a six-inch nail through the forehead of Wall St. (And if you enjoy my writing, dear regular readers, check out Ms Pants - man, can she find her way around a typewriter!)

I recall Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, as he groaned towards an election defeat in 1983, bewailing the alleged incompetence of the forthcoming Labor government in matters fiscal. "You'd be better off putting all your money under the bed," he famously quipped. (And don't think for a moment, Malcolm, in your newly-minted, revisionist Statesman for the Oppressed personage, that I am ever going to forget the calumny of November 11, 1975.)

Well, those chickens really came home to roost, didn't they? Here we are, folks, at the end of one of the great cycles of human endeavour: the Age of Friedman. Who would have guessed that flat-out economic rationalism, liberating markets from the fusty chains of regulation, and ensconcing the notion that doubled, tripled and quadrupled debt farming was a damn fine idea in the scones of the rapacious, would eventually lead to a world-wide financial system that resembled nothing so much as the Pyramid of Cheops resting on its pointy end, waiting for a puff of wind?

Er...well, I, for one.

The puff of wind - that hitherto invisible fact of sub-prime lunacy - has blown a cold breeze through the world. And, as a gentle nor-easter will clear away a Sydney haze on a Saturday afternoon, the zephyr of realisation has finally clarified an idea whose time has come: Friedman was a cunt.

Now, I don't want to be too hard, myself, on the Masters of the Universe. After all, you can't really blame someone with the mind (and greed) of a reptile for not understanding the nuances of economics. I know they all crawled up the walls of the Twin Towers clutching their MBAs in their claws, but a degree is only worthwhile if you can read what it says.

And the MOTUs were nothing if not inventive, if only in the fashion of an iguana. Like other members of their species, they were adept at burying their nest-eggs under layers and layers of doublespeak. Their grand-dad, Milton Friedman, had devised an intricate philosophy which did nothing but inter a very simple message beneath mounds of economic mumbo-jumbo: Tell everyone they're doin' good while you relieve them of their wealth. In other words, Friedman's great insight was that the "Wealth of Nations", that fat of the land, was best utilised by being stealthily reducted into the claws of the corporate goannas. Privatisation, the taxation myth, user pays, the credit generation; these sleights of hand fattened the brokers, traders and merchant bankers, while schools, hospitals, transport systems, public housing and universities crumbled and died in a twenty year orgy that made the Thirty Years' War look like an ice-cream melting on the pavement.

And now, in a bout of revelatory epiphany that would make Uncle Karl himself take up prayer, these self-same slugs realise what the rest of us had an inkling of all along: socialism is a wonderful thing when you begin to die of starvation. Not that the fiscal slum-lords will ever go without the Beluga and Bolly; but it must hurt, terribly, to shelve the plans for the new yacht.

Meanwhile, "trickle-down" has proven to be nothing more than the tears of merchant bankers, falling, like rain, on the homeless.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hospitality, Jerusalem-style

Man means nothin' - he means less to me
Than the lowest cactus flower on the 'umblest yucca tree
He chases round the desert, 'cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind.
- Randy Newman, The God Song

The Bible is replete with stories that confirm what anyone with half a brain from the planet Zargon will tell you: we humans are a miserable lot of savages. Sorry to get off to such a morbid start, but just yesterday, while I was at our local Bible study group (heh heh), I came across the following beaut story in the book of Judges (a bloodthirsty little read if ever there was one), to which I'll apply the vernacular:

There was this bloke, a "Levite",  who had a concubine, and this girl was fairly free with her affections, as they say. Eventually she pissed off back to her old man's place, and the Levite got wind of this, so went to drag her home. He took a manservant with him, and a couple of asses, so he was obviously middle-class, or what passed for it in the Paleolithic era.

When he got to the father-in-law's, the old man was all over him like a rash, and persuaded him to stay for a few days. Eventually, however, the Levite decided it was time to go, so he grabbed his girl, shoved her on top of a donkey, and off they went.

It was getting late, and the servant suggested they go into the city of the Jebusites, a place called Jerusalem. The only trouble was that they didn't have anywhere to stay, so they all sat down in the street not knowing what to do. By and by, a farmer came in from his fields and found the three of them sitting there. Being a kindly sort of bloke, he offered them lodgings for the night. So they all went to his place, where he washed their feet (as you do, I suppose), and set out food and drink. They were just getting into the swing of things, when there was a knock on the door.

The old farmer opened the door to find a bunch of blokes on his doorstep. Apparently, these fellers had been hanging around the town square, and had taken a shine to the Levite's young manservant, and had come over to offer the young bloke a game of hide the sausage. And they were pretty up front about it, too, 'cause they said to the farmer "Bring forth the man that came into thine house, that we may know him." (And we all understand what the biblical "know" means, don't we?)

Now, what would you do in this situation, boys and girls? Had it been me, I probably would have said something like "Fuck off, shirtlifters - go away and fuck each other; these people are my guests."

But no - this ratbag, in attempting to defend the young bloke's backside, says, instead "Behold, here is my daughter, a maiden, and the Levite's concubine; take them and do what you want with them."

Fuck me dead - what a hero!

Anyway, the blokes settle for the concubine, and take her away. (Now, get this: the Levite has just spent days tracking this girl down, and now he's content to give her up to a bunch of blokes who swing both ways for a little bit of fun which we shall call gang rape.)

So, the rest of them go to bed, leaving the concubine, screaming blue murder, no doubt, in the hands of the "sons of Belial", which might give one pause to wonder about old Mister Belial's parenting skills, no?

In the morning, the Levite goes out to find the concubine lying on the doorstep, blood everywhere. What does he say? Not "Shit, are you OK? Sorry about last night - what was I thinking?" No, here are his words as recorded in the Good Book: "Up, and let us be going."

What a prick. Anyway, the concubine has the last laugh, in a way, because she doesn't respond at all. Why? Because she's been fucked to death!

Here's my advice, dear reader: the next time a Jehovah's Witness, or a Mormon, or any other brand of God-botherer comes to your door, just haul off and lay a big one straight between his eyes. As he's lying befuddled on the ground, just say to him: "Judges chapter 19 - think about it, idiot!"

Singin' the Blues Fest

Why on Earth wouldn’t you pack a trailer full of camping gear and drive 800 kilometres overnight to have a five-day holiday? Every Easter a troupe of us goes to Byron Bay to attend the East Coast Blues and Roots Music Festival, a huge Woodstock-like affair that brings performers from all over the world to Australia. The festival is in its eighteenth year, and will see some 150,000 people from across the country flood through the turnstiles over a five-day period. It is an event of monumental organisation, preparation and execution. And the music is always superb.

But the Bluesfest itself is only part of the reason my family and friends have been going there for so long now. Every year we camp at Lennox Head, a picturesque and peaceful little hamlet on the coast some fifteen kilometres south of Byron. The very first time I went to Byron for the festival was with my son, Miles, when he was fifteen. A bloke to whom I’d taught music in gaol rang me, out of the blue, suggesting I come up to the festival. He offered me a place to stay – “Do you own a tent?” – and so Miles and I piled into the car one night and I drove the whole way in one hit, arriving at his place at seven in the morning. The two of us camped in an old two-man tent that threatened to blow down with every gust of wind, and leaked like a sieve whenever a shower hit it, which, at Byron, is often. Our camping organisation was primitive, to say the least – we took only the tent and a couple of sleeping bags. But the experience of a world of brilliant music meant that we were permanently and thoroughly addicted. And the number of attendees from our neck of the woods has grown geometrically with each year, as everyone who goes comes back to the mundanity of ordinary life exhorting all and sundry to make the voyage.

So now, this year, there are thirty-two of us, all travelling north. Firstly, let me give you some idea of the demography of our little company. It divides, roughly, into two factions: the “oldies” – people like I, my wife Chris and ten or so of our friends (and a few “littlies”) – and a group of Miles’ friends, most of whom, like Miles, are current or former students at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. Of course, it is the oldies, particularly my mate Greg and me, who do the majority of the organisation. Tonight, I’ve arranged for Miles and another couple of carloads of his friends to meet us on Sydney’s northern outskirts. The oldies’ cars and trailers are already in formation, travelling out from the Hawkesbury. We meet at the beginning of the Pacific Highway at nine p.m., with about eleven hours of driving in front of us. We’ll keep in touch by CB radio or mobiles. It’s no small measure, driving along this stretch of road. The busiest highway in Australia, the Pacific winds its way along the NSW coast, with its myriad of small towns. These days, for a large part of its course, the highway is four-lane expressway. But there are many stretches of the old two-lane road that have all the hazards of an era when automobile travel was, generally, a more sedate affair. Rough roads, heart-stopping bends and crests, and the greatest hazard of all: oncoming traffic. You have to keep your wits about you, the lack of which is part of the reason that thirteen people have died on a particular ten-kilometre section near Coffs Harbour in the past three years.

We navigate the 120 kilometre F3 freeway without incident, and have our first meet-up at a servo in Raymond Terrace, just north of Newcastle. It’s ten-thirty. As always, there is a clamour of excitement amongst the assembly; some have not seen others for the past year, and introductions are made around the “newbies” from both groups. Among the company are people from all walks of life – carpenters, landscapers, a psychologist, quite a few teachers, an electrician, a stone-mason, and, of course, some of the country’s best young orchestral musicians. Most importantly, though, is the collection of characters in the group: my mate Leigh, who you've already met, is a natural comedian, capable of keeping the entire company in fits of laughter for hours; Craig, the world’s most eccentric psychologist; Steve, an artist and jack of all trades; Ezmi, cellist and sick joke expert – all have become firm friends over the years. Full tanks, a quick coffee, and we are off on the next leg, a big one of about 300 k through to Macksville, where we’ll have a more extended break.

I’m driving at the head of the convoy for a while. I’m hoping to pick up a likely-looking semi heading our way, and stick on his heels. Just short of Karuah I come slowly up behind a big Kenworth pulling a standard-looking pantech trailer. I hail him on the CB.

“G'day in the Kenworth?”
“Got ya, you behind me?”
“ Yes mate – I’ve got about a dozen in convoy with me going up to Byron. Don’t mind if we tag along behind you for a bit?”
“No problems, mate. Might be a bit slow at times – I’m pretty heavy tonight. And I’m gonna stop for a bite at Macksville, anyway.”
“Perfect, mate – we’re doing the same.”
“Roger, have a good one – keep about a hundred yards behind me.”
“OK. Thanks”

Chris texts the rest of the crew that we’re following the semi. I’m relaxed – it’s almost effortless driving, just keeping an eye on the temperature gauge when we climb the bigger hills. Bulahdelah, Taree and Port Macquarie disappear in our wake. Just out of Kempsey it starts to pour, vision comes down to about fifty yards, and great swooping gusts of wind throw the Hi-lux and trailer around the road. I get Steve, who’s at the back of the convoy, on CB – he thinks everyone’s coping OK. We press on – the semi’s unfazed by the atrocious weather, and I’m glad we got onto his tail. At two in the morning, in these conditions, the landscape is surreal: a big full moon scuds in and out of the clouds while belts of rain come bursting across the road in intermittent blasts; even some lightning adds to the mood, for an instant illuminating trees and distant hills. It’s travel: unpredictable, sometimes eerie and ever exciting.

About four hours after leaving Raymond Terrace, I see the semi pulling into the all-night diner in Macksville. It’s three-thirty, just the right time for breakfast! I walk over on fairly stiff legs to the semi; its driver is climbing down from the cab and we shake hands. His name is Kevin, and he’s taking foodstuffs to Brisbane, where he’ll pick up some beer for the return trip. He’s lucky – he has a good contract with a company that looks after him. I hear all of this over breakfast. Kevin (“Kev will do”) has been doing this run for ten years, and has been able to afford his own prime mover. He’s one of the lucky ones – many drivers are forced to work like navvies to pay for the enormous overheads involved in running a rig like this. He’s doing two trips a week, plus some local Sydney runs. He “only” works about seventy hours a week. Enough said.

Out of courtesy, I insist on paying for Kev’s breakfast. He grumbles a bit, but I suggest that the favour he’s doing us is worth at least a bite to eat. Mollified, he goes out to check his rig.

Under Kev’s guidance, the rest of the trip is pleasant and (almost) uneventful. Nambucca, Coffs Harbour and Woolgoolga glide by in the beautiful light of the pre-dawn. The sun is rising as we meander along the Clarence River between Grafton and Ballina. This is the danger time, for we have been driving all night, and it has all been a little too easy. Craig is driving my car, and I’m beside him, with my youngest son Blake, and Dylan, our friends’ thirteen year old in the back. Chris is with Tina and Greg, Dylan’s parents. Craig and I have been pointing out to the kids the proliferation of “big” objects along the coast road: the Big Banana, the Big Prawn we’ll see at Ballina, and so on. Craig suggests that what this highway needs is a “Big Arsehole” – a great big bare bum sticking out at you from the roadside. The kids are in hysterics, adding improvements to the concept, when an oncoming car veers into our lane. It’s tight – Craig can’t make a rapid correction because of the heavy trailer behind us, but is able to ease us onto the shoulder just in time. “Fucking idiot,” he growls. Still, it’s the only problem we’ve encountered, and we breeze into Ballina at seven.

Kevin hails me to say goodbye. I thank him for his guidance, and wish him a safe journey. We turn onto the coast road between Ballina and Lennox, only seven k to the north. This is my favourite part of the trip, swooping down into the town from the headland, with the stunning vista of Seven Mile Beach in the morning sunlight signalling the end of the first phase.

It’s too early to book into the camping ground, so we stop at the surf club and prepare for a swim. As usual, the water is beautiful, the surf is gentle, and the troupe is, in turn, exhausted and refreshed. The surf club cafĂ© is opening for business, and thirty-odd people swoop on it for another huge breakfast. My god, travel makes a soul hungry.

We book in at Lake Ainsworth – the managers have known us for years, now, and are gracious in their welcome. Tents are pitched, in a fairly formal arrangement with the oldies having first pick of the sites. We call the youngster’s big site “Surry Hills”, partly because that is where many of them live, but also because their area tends to look like a dump by the end of the festival. Greg, Leigh, Steve and I erect the giant communal living area, which is nothing more than a ten by six metre tarpaulin with tables, chairs and assorted paraphernalia lying underneath. Steve is the kitchen whiz – the back of his Range Rover is fitted out like a chef’s paradise. He is the most organised guy I’ve met – after setting up camp, Chris is lounging in Steve’s blow-up sofa (I kid you not), and says “You know what I feel like? A chicken roll.” No sooner has she uttered the words when Steve appears with that exact item. He’s prepared several of them the day before, and kept them in his electric fridge. (Of course you take an electric fridge with you on a camping holiday!) He always brings a “homely” touch to our camping experience – last year it was one of those old-fashioned tall lamps, complete with 40’s style lampshade. Very art-deco.

Even though nearly everyone is knackered, we brush our tiredness away with a beer. It’s time to hit the festival!

We have to queue to get our tickets processed, and an armband fitted which will gain us entry over the next five days. The oldies can pack into Leigh’s van, and the youngsters will find their own way. This is one of the beauties of the trip – the two groups tend to look after themselves, and often meet up only at the end of a night back in camp to discuss the day’s events.
I’m excited as we enter the festival grounds for the first time this year. I’m looking forward to hearing some artists that have become favourites over the years, and there is always the certainty that you will see a performer, or band, that you have never heard before, who will blow your mind. This afternoon we’ll set our chairs up in the “Crossroads” tent, and listen to three or four acts.

I should explain the layout of the festival site. It’s held at the Byron Bay “Red Devils” rugby league ground, and is dominated by three enormous marquees, the biggest being about eighty by sixty metres, and holding about twelve thousand people. A gigantic stage is situated at one end of the marquee, with all of the paraphernalia associated with a big concert venue: huge sound system, lighting gantries, curtains, video screens etc.

We get our position, and some of us wander off to get a beer and have a look around. The first act - Marva Wainright and her band - won’t be on for a little while, so Leigh, Craig, Greg and I go for a stroll around the festival. Byron’s a funny place – a mixture of new-age hippy, and a cranking entrepreneurial flair. Everyone has something to sell, and the festival is almost as much a marketplace as it is a music venue. We ignore the fashion stalls, the jewellery outlets, and the arts-and-craft markets, and look for the beer tent.

We head back to the Crossroads. There are, by now, thousands of people inside. After coming to the festival for many years you get to know how to navigate your way into the best position, and we have done that successfully, setting up a row of chairs right in front of the mixing station in the centre of the tent, about twenty metres from the stage. It gets awfully crowded in these tents, especially after about six o’clock each night, and you need to stake your claim on a piece of real estate ASAP.

Marva’s band comes on and starts a big, bluesy intro for her. These guys play hundreds of shows each year in the States, and are a very cool, professional blues and soul band. As a muso myself, I’m always intrigued, not by the way the musicians play, so much, as by the interplay, the dynamics of the performance. For some reason, the Yanks seem to be awesome at this. But they’re not the only ones. Later on tonight we’ll head over to the Mojo, the biggest tent at the festival, to hear Angelique Kidjou, the great singer from Benin. I’ve heard her twice before at the festival, and have become a big fan. Can’t wait.

But before Angelique, we get an astonishing performance from Robben Ford, the American guitarist/singer. He and his band come out and play a set that has the entire 8,000 or so in the Crossroads screaming for more. What can you say? Exquisite, sublime blues guitar. This guy has got to be about the best there is in his genre.

Hyped up after Robben Ford, we head to the Mojo. It’s tough finding a good spot, as already there are about ten thousand people crammed into the marquee. The air is electric; at her last performance, two years ago, Kidjou brought the house down with her mix of Afro/Latin/Euro (God, how do you describe music like this?) rhythms and melodies. Her band comes on – big, powerful drums and bass kicking along a song that has everyone in the tent jumping, as the diva herself waltzes onto the stage. We are not disappointed – she is the best contemporary singer in the world today. We listen in rapture as she performs “Hallelujah”, which I’ve not heard before. And then, straight into “Africa”, a rejoicing, rollicking singalong – at one point, the band stops, and you can hear 10,000 people all singing their lungs out on the chorus. It’s got to be the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

She’s finished, and we turn to each other with looks of indescribable emotion. This is what we’ve come for – the experience of hearing music so uplifting, so imaginative, and so soulful. The campsite will be buzzing tonight.

But it’s not over yet. The last act for the night comes on – it’s the Nigerian singer Femi Kuti with his band, Positive Force. It’s their first appearance at the festival, and there has been plenty of buzz about him. He’s the son of Fela Kuti, the activist/musician who died a few years ago. Knowing a little of Nigerian politics, I’m interested to see how his songs reflect his peoples’ struggle against the Nigerian regime which has, more or less, sold its peoples’ birthright to Shell Oil.

Onto the stage comes a huge band: six-piece brass section, drums, two percussionists, bass, guitar and keyboards. They set up a blistering intro, and are joined by three female dancers who – now let’s put this in politically correct terminology – are supremely confident of their own sexuality. Dressed in traditional (i.e. next to nothing) style, they start to dance. Femi himself appears, and suddenly, he is singing about struggle. I begin to realise that this is the African way: the message is hard; it is confronting and challenging, but it is delivered within an idiom that rejoices in rhythm, movement, colour and harmony. Sublime, and at the same time kick-arse!

We’re back at camp, and full to the brim with the greatest music in the world. My son and his friends appear; he walks over to me and says, in his dry, laconic way: “Africa wins.”

It’s two a.m., and we’ve all been more or less awake for the past thirty-six hours, but it’s difficult to go to sleep while the experience of that time is still fresh in our minds. People begin to drift off to their tents, and I am left, finally, with Leigh, Greg and Craig sipping a nice red and winding down. I just know I’ll find myself waking to the lorikeets in this same chair in about four hours from now.

And I do.

Monday, October 13, 2008

For the Bible tells me so...

At that time the Lord said unto Joshua, Make thee sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time.

And Joshua made him sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel at the hill of the foreskins.   -  Joshua Ch 5: 2-3

Now, you've gotta love that, haven't you? The Lord, not content that the Israelite blokes (who, to put the story in context, had been wandering around in the desert, stone motherless lost, for forty years) had already had the chop once, decided that another application of a very sharp knife to the genitals was in order, just to be sure that they'd be "pure" before they stepped into the promised land. Now, a tiny thought springs to mind - I know it's a fairly petty quibble, but here goes - what kind of fucking drugs was the Lord on, anyway? I mean, it's a pretty crook go when a bloke gets circumcised anyway, especially when, in the biblical times, they'd do it at the age when a young feller was starting to get a sense of his (excuse me, ladies) "manhood". But no - the stark raving mad elders of the tribe decided that what had been good for them must, ipso facto, be good for every young lad. But twice? I mean, what was going to be left?

And what, may I ask, is the motivation behind a "hill of foreskins"? How big was this hill? How many foreskins were there? Did the ladies sew a few of them together to make a purse? Not a bad idea - rub it a few times, and it instantly becomes an overnight bag.

All right, I'll settle down now. I think I've already derailed the original intention of this little homily, but I'll press on regardless.

I think my point, in this, is to critically analyse a few selected verses from the Bad Book, and marvel at how little it does take, if you're human, to become a full-blown, irredeemable, obsessive-compulsive, blood and guts Psycho-Jeezoid. So buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, and let's find out just what a terrific bloke the Lord was (when he wasn't tripping).

And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.

And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein: only the silver, and the gold, and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord.

Those Israelites didn't fuck around, did they? This, of course, was Joshua (again! - a bloke who makes Milosevic look like a latte-sipping, pigeon-chested Mardis-Gras float driver) quietly (or rather loudly, in this case, what with the trumpets and all) doing God's business. This ethnic cleanser par excellence went on a binge of killing, raping, destroying and smiting that saw city after city sacked and burnt: Sihon, Og, Jericho, Ai, Gibeon, Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Hebron, Debir, Zidon, Hazor, and most of Lebanon; all because the Lord's treasuries were slightly depleted. The Lord, meanwhile, must have been fairly busy himself; he was tied up with processing the hundreds of thousands of newly-arrived Amorite, Jezubite, Hittite, etc. souls queuing up, headless, at the Pearly Gates. (I don't know why he bothered; he could have just handed them over, as a job-lot, to the bloke with the horns and pointy tail.)

No wonder the Palestinians are fucking edgy!

Now, dipping randomly into the Book again, we find this little nugget of Israelite purity:

If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife...

But if a man finds a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die: But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing... For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.

This little gem is from Deuteronomy chapter 22, and is one of my all-time favourite examples of Logic 101, goat-herder style: virgins only protest at being raped when it happens in a bucolic setting. Pheeeeeewwwww! You've got to hand it to them, haven't you? These barbarians had the brains of termites and the morals of a Wall St. futures trader (and, come to think of it, those two appellations are probably interchangeable, with my apologies to the termites). 

Now, get this - stoning is the punishment du jour for a myriad of crimes, including talking back to your parents (I'm not kidding; check out Deuteronomy 21:18), and pretending to be a virgin on the wedding night (ladies only, of course). It really does underline the meaning of the word Paleolithic, doesn't it?

Let's now dip into the theme of luurve, and with it, some poetry, Solomon-style:

Behold, thou art fair, my love; thou hast doves' eyes; thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from Mt Gilead. Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep, that are even shorn; thy temples are like a piece of pomegranate; thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury; thy navel is like a rounded goblet; thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies; thy breasts are like two young roes that are twins, thine eyes like the fish-pools in Heshbon.

Now, fellers, try this little exercise. Close your eyes and build yourself an imaginary woman made out of sheep, pomegranates, goats, sacks of wheat, rabbits, doves, and fish. Got a stiffy, yet?

Just try and tell me that old Solomon wasn't munching an L.S.D. sandwich as he etched this one into a tablet. Whatever the hallucinogen, I want some!

I spent the early years of my life subjected to this kind of revelatory moral guidance, Sunday after Sunday. No wonder I think it's time for a more rational Biblical concordance to be written. As soon as I've stopped quivering with desire I'll have another go...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Into the Flinders (part 3)

We sat at our little camping table - me with coffee, Leigh drinking water (I can't for the life of me get him to enjoy the splendour of a good coffee) - and pondered our maps. We were on the eastern side of the Pound, and would need to walk about five ks through the only pass between the mountain chain in order to get into the basin proper.

"We could do that, Loz, or we could just climb this bloody mountain here," he stabbed his finger on the map, "and then we'd get a real sense of the lay of the land."

I looked at where he was pointing - "Mt Ohlsen-Bragg", the map said. It was about two and a half thousand feet of climbing. I smiled at Leigh.

"Are you up for it, mate?"

"Too right, Loz, let's go."

We set out along the first part of the track. Leigh was carrying the day pack with water and some dried fruit and nuts; I had all the camera gear.  We meandered through the Wilpena Gorge, where the runoff from the Pound flows through Wilpena Creek (the original settlers were notoriously unimaginative with place-names), and marvelled at the magnificent stands of river red gums along the way. The walls of the gorge began to close in and become steeper as we progressed, with vast scree-slopes tumbling their way into the pass. A sign ushered us to the left, along a narrow track that snaked its way up a fairly steep slope of scree and larger boulders. The sign said "Mt Ohlsen-Bragg: 10k. Warning: Walkers should be physically fit. Take water."

"Well, at least we've got water," said Leigh. "I wonder how 'physically fit' they expect us to be?"

"We'll find out when we come across the bodies, mate."

We plunged up the track. Now, here's an interesting and handy tip when you go walking, especially when it involves some reasonably serious uphill work: take little steps. In his younger days, Leigh trekked nearly all the way to Everest base camp. The Sherpa guides showed him a technique that allows you to walk all day in any terrain. You just put one foot in front of the other, often taking little more than dolly-steps; that way, you conserve energy expenditure and prevent your muscles breaking down and producing so many waste products that they turn into an amorphous, jelly-like substance that would look good on an ebola patient.

And so, for the next hour or more, we dolly-stepped our way up and along a track that was only a foot or so wide, often clambering over larger boulders that had recently come crashing down from above. It really was a "tumbledown hill"; everywhere were the signs of this ancient escarpment gradually disintegrating under the force of sun, wind and temperature. Amazing that, according to our loony mate from the day before, it was only 4000 years old!

As we climbed, the vegetation became sparser, not because of the altitude, but because the escarpment started to thrust its way up more or less vertically above us. The loose stands of black boys, stringy eucalypts and tufted grasses hung on gamely to whatever crevices they could find. Looking out to the east and north, we began to get a grand view of the upper Flinders; they were a magnificent sight - I clicked away furiously at several points, but no photograph can do justice to what we were seeing. We were only about a third of the way to the top, and everywhere above us were enormous blocks of sandstone, precariously perched one upon the other, just waiting for the signal to come hurtling down the mountainside. It was inspiring, and somewhat threatening at the same time.

We came around a buttress to find a woman sitting on a rock. She was dressed in khaki shorts and shirt - the only thing missing was a pith helmet. Sweat was pouring from her body, and her face was the colour of the rocks around us. She was pooped, and the high-thirties temperature was obviously not to her liking.

"Gooday, there," said Leigh, "fairly warm day, isn't it."

"Oh, it is absolutely like a furnace," she replied in an unmistakable German accent. "My husband has climbed up this very steep rock, but I am afraid to go any further." She indicated a large, sheer plate of sandstone stretching about forty feet above us. It had a few little cracks and rills running through it, but although steep, it didn't seem like that much of an effort would get one to its top.

Leigh sized up the situation. "Don't worry - we'll give you a hand up. I'll go first, and you follow me. Put your hands and feet where I tell you. Laurie will come up behind and make sure all your footholds are good."

Both Leigh and I have plenty of rock-climbing experience, and the slope didn't appear to be more than a casual stroll, in my book. The woman was not looking anywhere near as sanguine about it, though. I took her day pack and slung it over my shoulder. Leigh started up, and the poor woman, before she knew it, was ten feet up the slab uttering little whimpers of fear. I couldn't blame her; here she was with two galahs she'd met about ten seconds ago, and was now attempting to conquer the Matterhorn.

In the end we arrived safely, and I could see that she was quietly pleased with herself. Her husband, while the mountaineering team had been hard at work, was sitting on a great big boulder with his legs dangling into space, admiring the view. Unfortunately, this boulder, which was about the size of half a house, was resting, with nothing else to support it, on a rock as big as a basketball. Sometime soon, in the next thirty days or three hundred years, that little rock was going to give up the ghost, with a spectacular result for anyone standing below it.

Leigh and I glanced at each other, and Leigh said "You know, madam, I'd encourage your husband to get off that rock and sit over here with us."

"What do you mean?" she asked with a re-elevated sense of imminent doom.

Leigh began a brief physics lesson, and as soon as Madam got the point she yelled "Dieter, oh Dieter! Get back here now," and continued frantically in German. Her husband, looking unconcerned, got up and jumped across to where we were. We shook hands all round, and sat down for some water and nibbles. It seemed like a good spot for a break.

Frida, the woman, told us that she and Dieter were here from Hamburg on a two-month holiday. They'd been to a few of our country's best places, including the Great Barrier Reef (traveller's tip: come and see it before it dies), and were about to go to Uluru.

"We saw a snake yesterday, Laurie, when we were up on the mountain on the other side of the valley, there," said Frida, "we don't have them in Germany, you know. Here, I have a photograph of it on my camera." She fiddled with the camera for a few seconds, then handed it to me. On the screen was a beautiful close-up of a king brown, its head raised above its coils, ready to assume the strike position.

"Er, how far away from it were you when you took this, Frida?" I asked.

"Oh, about," she stretched her arms out, "a metre, a metre and one half, maybe."

I passed the camera to Leigh. He emitted a low whistle. "Look, Frida, that is a king brown snake, probably the deadliest snake in the world. If that thing had bitten you - and they can strike faster than you can blink - you'd be dead. No question - nobody could save you. Jesus. If you see a snake, any snake, out here, stay at least twenty metres from it. OK?"

I looked back at Frida. From sandstone red, she had gone a ghastly shade of white, tinged with green. "Oh Dieter, Dieter," she shrieked, "we must go back to Adelaide and get on a plane back to Germany. This country!"

After we'd taken leave of our friends and continued up the track for a few minutes, Leigh stopped. He turned around to me, following behind, and said "And to think they nearly won the war."

After climbing for two and a half hours, we reached the summit of Mt Ohlsen-Bragg, and peered into the majestic panorama of Wilpena Pound for the first time. The floor of the Pound was covered in a forest of stately eucalypts, that here and there gave way to expanses of grassland. Circling the basin were the tilted plates of sediment, so uniformly rising away from the base that the whole edifice looked remarkably like the world's biggest football stadium. It was not hard to see how someone, ignorant of tectonics, could simply throw up his hands and say "God must have done it." It had the feel of a majestically designed landscape. But it wasn't, of course; it was simply the result of blind energies working on a timescale so vast as to be imponderable.

We stood, transfixed, for an hour. If I never see an object in the natural world as stately, grand and alien again, I'll remain happy. (Although, if anything, my hunger for such experiences has grown immeasurably after Wilpena.)

The descent was agony. Unfortunately, there's no getting away from the fact that, once you've hit the mid-fifties, your knees are not what they used to be. Every steep step down thrust the entire weight of our bodies onto these ancient, creaking joints. By the time we got to the bottom, both of us were deliberately avoiding saying anything at all, in case the only thing that might issue from our mouths would be shrieks of pain.

At dusk, we hobbled back into our campsite, groaning. We both, immediately, collapsed on our chairs, and it was a scramble to see who could rip the top off the esky quick enough. Anaesthetic was called for, and plenty of it. The first six beers went straight down without touching the sides, and it was only then that our gasps of pain began to give way to murmurs of pleasure.

"That," opined Leigh as soon as he had recovered sufficiently, "was fucking brilliant, Loz!"

"Absolutely one of the best days I've ever had, Leigh," I replied, ignoring the dull throbbing occurring in every part of my body. "What do you reckon about tomorrow?"

"Well, mate," he replied ruminantly, "there's a couple of other of these big bastards we should knock over yet."