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."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Into the Flinders (part 2)

After our adventure in Quorn (see "On the Road"), it was time to head for one of the most anticipated parts of our trip - Wilpena Pound. I had been wanting to see the Pound for years; as a keen enthusiast of all things geological, I couldn't wait to get to this ancient, and by all accounts spectacular, part of Australia. (Just type "Wilpena Pound" into Google Earth to get a good look at the remarkable landforms that make up this part of the Flinders - convoluted, twisted and folded sandstone plates that bend and snake their way into a tightly-packed mass of mountains, valleys and gorges. You can almost feel their age just by looking at a satellite photograph.) 

It was about another 180 kilometres to the Pound, and along the way we fueled up at a little town called Hawker, where I went into the grocery store (the only food-vending establishment) to see if we could buy some steaks to barbecue for dinner. A middle-aged guy was behind the counter dealing with four or five little black kids who were taking an eternity to decide which lollies would get them their best value for a dollar. Satisfied, the kids ran out merrily into the afternoon sunshine. They were gorgeous.

"You wouldn't have any steaks or chops in the freezer, mate?" I enquired.

He looked at me balefully. "Nah."

"Is there a butcher's in town?" I pressed on.

"Nah." Progress was going to be slow; I could sense it. I looked around the shop; the shelves appeared to contain nothing but tinned food: Campbell's Chunky Steak and Kidney; Pea and Ham Soup, etc. etc. I went down the back, to the refrigerators, and found some acceptable cheese, some bacon rashers, and a couple of small bags of frozen vegetables. Back at the counter, the proprietor bagged them all up and charged me about the national debt of Tanzania.

"Well, so long," I said, "it's not too far to Wilpena from here, is it?"


"Did you get everything we needed?" asked Leigh, who'd been across the road fueling up.


The temperature outside was approaching forty as we drove northward. Pretty soon, we came to the foothills of one of the most intriguing, wonderful and spectacular mountain ranges on the planet. We were now well and truly into the heart of the Flinders Rangers, and on our left were the great escarpments of the Pound itself. It was breathtaking; in the afternoon sun the faces of gigantic sandstone buttresses arrogantly pushed their way out of the surrounding plain in a jigsaw of slanted and folded, red, yellow, orange, brown and black layers of ancient sediment. The walls of the Pound were littered with deep caves; stumpy eucalyptus struggled gallantly to find a toe-hold in the battered, weather-beaten rock. It was like nothing I have ever seen before, and we stopped, emerged from the car, and drank in this overwhelming sight for ten minutes before one of us could say a word.



How's that for two fairly-well educated blokes: reduced to monosyllabic profanities by nature itself. To give you a sense of scale, the Pound is about 22 kilometres long by about 8 kilometres wide, and if you take a look at the photograph, you'll get an idea of the size of the mountains surrounding its basin. St Mary's Peak, the tallest, is a little over 1300 metres - not huge, compared with elsewhere in the world (after all, this is the flattest continent by a long chalk), but you try climbing the bugger, as we did a couple of days later. Wilpena Pound was formed between one billion and 800 million years ago (I think just after God created Adam and Eve). It was all under water, at the time; no doubt Noah sailed straight over the top of it on his way to dropping off the hairy-nosed wombat in Tasmania.

The Pound is a syncline, an area of sedimentary rock that has been folded by continental drift, which is why its inner slopes gently rear up from the basin floor at an angle of about thirty degrees. All around its outer perimeter, though, are the magnificent, cliffed remnants of the rock that underwent the upthrust, and these tumble down in great, sheer, blocks of sandstone and limestone. It is an absolutely outstanding bit of handiwork by 'im upstairs, as a rabidly zealous psycho-jeezoid assured me while I was poking around in the visitors' centre. That's the trouble with these places - apart from normal, inquisitive souls, they attract the grand loonies seeking the assurance of some divine majesty. The next day we encountered the same drongo, exhausted, half-way up Mt Ohlsen-Bragg, whereupon Leigh suggested to him that the Almighty might have put a few chairlifts in, as He must have foreseen the opportunities for evangelical tourism years ago.

After paying the paltry sum of forty dollars to camp, we drove into the campsite proper. It was vast, and could cater for over six-hundred camping groups. It was probably only one quarter full, so we dawdled through, until we found a pretty little spot under a grove of desert gums. The local kangaroos thought that our campsite was good value, as well; they immediately came over to welcome us, and beg for food. I couldn't help but feel sorry for these poor, bedraggled creatures; the drought was obviously starting to take its toll, and one young mother, with a starved-looking joey in her pouch, hung around indolently while Leigh and I set up. We gave them nothing. You cant - it simply prolongs the inevitable. Life is tough, as we had to point out to a group of Spanish tourists, camped across the way, who were intent on feeding them.

Leigh cooked up a terrific little meal for us , and, as we were enjoying a post-prandial beer, a guy from another campsite wandered over.

"I've got a very nice scotch over at my campfire," he said by way of introduction. He was desperate for some male company, we figured, because he was here, from Adelaide, with his wife and two young daughters. We accepted his invitation, met his wife and the girls, who were lovely, and Jim (that was his name) proceeded to regale us with stories for the next couple of hours while he very liberally kept topping up our glasses. He was from a part of North Adelaide called Elizabeth, where many "ten-pound Poms" had settled after WWII, and we could detect a vaguely Lancashirean lilt in his voice, even though he was born here. 

Later, I somehow managed to wrestle the zip of my tent fly open and collapse inside, only to be woken up after a dreamless coma by bright sunshine and squabbling crows. I was about to enjoy one of the best days of my life...

Monday, October 6, 2008


A week or so ago, on the Richard Dawkins website, I copped a fair bit of stick for being too accommodating of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, when I dared to assert that their "terrorism" was no different in kind from that of Israel or the U.S. Now, I'm not particularly perturbed that anyone would want to criticise me for not condemning outright the excrescent behaviour of such groups, but it got me thinking about reality and its perception again, and the idea of pacifism.

Graham the Barbarian and I were discussing this while we were cleaning out his grease trap on Saturday; it was a pleasant bit of plumbing work that needed to be done, and, as Graham had given me a fairly big hand in the Christmas 2001 bushfires (and I suppose saving my family's life might be called that, although Graham reckoned, at the time, that it was a bit of a doddle and he'd do the same for a blackfella), cleaning the grease trap was on the peanuts side of the scale. 

"The way I see it, Loz, you're not communicatin' your basic philosophy clearly enough."

"How so, old mate?" I asked, eager for some sage counsel. (You may recall that this is the bloke who's quite handy with a pair of electrician's pliers and a roll of gaffer tape, especially in the field of particle physics.)

"Violence is for kids. How long is it since you were in a blue?"

"What, you mean a real, fair dinkum stink, with fists and feet and blood? Ooh, gotta be thirty years, at least."

"Well, there you go, Loz; you're out of the loop, as the Yanks say. You don't remember the personal catharsis that comes when you have a real dust-up."

"Personal catharsis? Jesus, Graham, the fumes from this grease trap have got to you. What's personal catharsis got to do with giving a bloke a free dental espresso? The last time I got in a blue, it was with that clown of a football player that king-hit me. I wasn't thinking about catharsis when the surgeon was sewing my eyelid back on, I can tell you."

"You misunderstand me, mate." Graham dragged a particularly foul-looking bit of muck out of the bottom of the well and hurled it onto the pile we'd collected. "When you're a youngster, you've got this great big body that's grown out of all proportion to your brain. You're ruled by hormones, and you think you're bulletproof, right?"

"Yeah, I suppose so," I replied, wondering where all this was leading. Graham has a way of taking his time to get to the point, and it's no good pushing him along. He is, after all, a former soldier.

"Anyway," he resumed, "most of us grow out of the idea that rammin' your knee into a bloke's forehead contributes to world peace, if you get my drift. We find our cathartic substitutes elsewhere." (As soon as Graham the Barbarian - a feller who is happiest when he's stabbing a rampaging feral boar through the back of the neck with his broadsword - hitches three polysyllabic words in a row together, you stand back and prepare to run.)

"Er, go on - " I offered, tentatively.

"The point, mate, is that violence is adolescent. When you're young, your brain is made of cream cheese - you live in a cloud of half-understandin'. You get stuck in incomprehension, you can't work things out properly, you get frustrated with your lack of clear thinking, and the next available step is the one where you pick up the big stick and start cloutin' other blokes with it. Naturally, after you've finished cloutin', you feel like you've achieved something, and it makes you feel good. You haven't won the argument; you've just beaten your opponent into submission for a while. The trouble is, he'll always get back up a bit later and have another go. Unless you kill him. Most people, like I said, grow out of it. But sometimes they don't."

As this was the most that had ever come out of Graham's mouth in one go, I realised that he'd been thinking on the subject rather deeply. I probed a little more. "Tell me about the Army, mate."

"Ah, Loz, I didn't realise, until I'd been out of the Army for about ten years, just what they do to you there. They're all people who've had the ability to think  properly trained right out of them. Orders are orders, and all that? Well, the bastards at the top are just as stupid as any dickhead private. Ever wondered why they recruit blokes from about eighteen years old? The standard line is that this is when a bloke is physically fittest, and it's true you want fitness in a soldier. But the more important reason is that this is when the brain is most pliable, and you can be made to believe that violence is not only justified, but it's the way to do things. The training is as much psychological as it is physical - they want fellers to continue to accept violence as an important tool well into their twenty and thirties.

" The other thing, Loz, is that violence works for them - the authorities, that is. In 'Nam, we just took all of that trained, ingrained violence and let loose. The brass knew we were all violent, and they liked it that way. But on patrol, we were a team; a rootin' tootin' load of gangsters with powerful weapons, and it made you feel good to have all of that violence in your hands. I loved it, for a while. Most of our "engagements", as my Lieutenant used to call them, were little fights where we'd take pot-shots at each other from a hundred yards away. I saw one or two enemy go down, and it might have been me that shot 'em, might not have.

"But then, one night on patrol near Bao Loc, I cut this Vietcong guy's legs off with my M16 - he would have been about sixteen years old, and I just ran into him in the middle of the night. It was pissin' down with rain, and before I knew it, I'd shot him to bits. I was real lucky, Loz - we saw each other at the same time through some bushes, but I already had my weapon at the ready. He lay on the ground with his legs completely fucked up, blood spurtin' everywhere, and I didn't have any option but to put one straight into his head. Havin' to do that is what caused me to get the shakes - I was no good to anyone after that night, and it wasn't long before they shipped me back home.

"The trouble is, I was in for one last big shock. I was ridin' in an American armoured vehicle that was going back to Saigon; we were going through a fairly safe part of the country. I was about to be sent back home; I was lookin' forward to getting out of 'Nam for good. This Yank gunner on the rig was showing me his big 30mm gun mounted on top of the thing. We were passin' through a paddy; he said "Watch this", and trained his gun on this bloke, about 400 yards away, working his ox in the field. Before I could say anything, he'd pulled the trigger, and the next thing I saw was this poor little farmer's head come clean off his shoulders. I was freakin' out, and this bastard just patted his gun and said "How good is this, pal?" He didn't give a fuck - he looked like it was just nothin' to him; he looked like he'd done it more than once. That poor farmer had nothin' to do with the war, and this prick just wanted to show off. That's the reason I fell apart when I got home."

I didn't say anything for a while - Graham had just told me a story he'd bottled up for thirty-five years. I didn't know what to say - what can you say?

Graham the Barbarian looked up at me, and said "Loz, I grieve for that young bloke I killed, every day, and every night. I didn't have anything against him; he was just this poor kid who was as scared as I was. That's what the morons who still think war is justified don't get. They think it's just an extension of a schoolyard stoush. They think it's glorious, but it's not - it's just shit, and you can't get over it."