Sunday, September 28, 2008

Into the Flinders

Both Leigh and I were at the end of our tether. We'd just driven from Cape Jarvis, on the Fleurieu peninsula, up north towards the Flinders Ranges. Along the way, we had to negotiate Adelaide. I've got nothing against cities, except for the fact that I really, really hate them. They are always identical; you get a bundle of suburbs that range between urban and industrial development, and then you get into the "Central Business District", a place where, supposedly, all of the "action" takes place. Except for the museums and galleries, and the occasional bit of fine architecture, cities leave me cold, and Adelaide was no exception.

We hit Adelaide on a Sunday afternoon, and, as a Sydneysider, I was expecting the "city of churches" to be something beautiful and quaint that would take my breath away. Instead, we spent nearly an hour meandering our way along a long road full of car yards, junk yards and knock shops. Somehow, we'd found our way into the seamiest side of Adelaide, and our despair was only relieved by seeing a pub that boasted "cold beer" on an illuminated sign hanging from its dilapidated facade. "Stop right here," commanded Leigh, who was really feeling the strain. We'd been away from city life for over two weeks, exploring a vast, unimaginably old, and beautiful landscape; to return to the human termites' nest was frankly excruciating.

Leigh was perfectly correct, as usual; a little pub, situated within a rabbit's warren of lunacy, provided, somehow, a respite from the idiocy that surrounded us. Coopers Ale, freezingly cold and delicious, bubbled up into big schooner glasses. A bunch of friendly, relaxed people enquired as to our health, and took great interest in our stories of exotica, mysterious places and the somewhat random variations in pub pool rules around the continent.

Partly appeased, we continued our mission to get the fuck out of Adelaide as quickly as possible. Eventually, we got onto the A1, the highway that heads north along the St Vincents Gulf coast. It was flat and humourless; a road that is, at the same time, too near a big city to be comfortable, and happily leading the traveller away from said city.

It was getting late; about a hundred or so kilometres north of Adelaide we pulled into Port Wakefield, a little hamlet that boasted a ridiculously charming array of limestone buildings from the time when the town was a major railhead for the wheat belt (defunct). We pulled into its only camping ground. As it was my turn to pay, I got out of the Volvo, walked into the office, and was promptly told by the proprietor that the camp-ground was fully occupied.

"But we've just driven around it," I objected. "There're plenty of vacant tent sites."

"Look mate," replied the owner, "when I say it's full, it's full, OK? There's a motel up the road." He went back to appearing busy with some papers on the desk. Jesus, I thought, I've finally met Basil Fawlty - he's moved to South Australia. I walked back out to the car, and considered just driving over to one of the numerous vacant tent sites and setting up. But then, with some disquiet, I remembered the "Bodies in the Barrels" murders of a year previously, a particularly gruesome series of murders in South Australia where the perpetrator had suffocated his victims (six or seven of them, from memory) and shoved their bodies into vats of hydrochloric acid. The murderer had not yet been caught, and I was starting to think that Basil a) might have a pretty good supply of pillows, scarves, etc., and b) could easily, as a camping-ground proprietor, get his hands on some fairly serious corrosive substances. We decided on the motel.

It was an excellent choice, because the motelier (is that a word?), Bill, was a charming, generous, funny and completely insane individual. No sooner had we walked into the office of the little courtyard motel, complete with water feature, than he began a series of one-liners as if he was warming up for a gig at Comedy Central. To make matters weirder, he was a grotesquely obese albino who looked as though he had just prised himself out of a coffin as the sun went down.

"You'll probably need these," he said, chucking a couple of packets of ear-plugs at us across the desk. "Honeymoon couple in the next room. They've been here two days, and I've already replaced two mattresses."

Leigh and I cast a quick glance at each other, and Bill continued. "Nah, I jest - but we do get a lot of semis screamin' through here at all hours of the night. Besides, by the look of you blokes, I'd say that at least one of you is a pretty loud snorer. Hey - you're not gay, are you?"

Flabbergasted, we confirmed that we weren't. "Only askin', cause there's a double bed in the room if you are." He seemed genuinely concerned for our comfort, and we walked out of the office feeling flattered and abused at the same time.

We cleaned up and decided on which of the pubs (all two of them) we'd patronise for dinner. We chose a tiny little limestone building that boasted a bar made of a single slab of some kind of petrified wood. It was a ridiculous thing - so pitted and wonky that it was virtually impossible to settle a glass of any description on it without the possibility of it falling over. No, I decided, the bar was simply a device to separate the patrons from the staff. Apart from that, the pub was a fascinating place, with old photographs of the town's pioneering days plastered all over the walls. The building itself was a marvel of rustic engineering - it was essentially a conglomeration of limestone rubble slapped into the shape of a pub, and quaint and delicate, for all that.

And the food was from heaven. We both decided on the "Roast of the Day", which turned out to be at least two or three pigs each, cooked and carved, and loaded onto plates the size and shape of the Hubble telescope's main mirror. One thing I can absolutely recommend to travellers in my beautiful country: eat at the pubs, because, most often, you will get good, wholesome and tasty food, plenty of it, and it won't cost the earth. Of course, if you're a cashed-up dickhead, feel free to patronise one of those uppity joints that put a leg of quail, drizzled with gold powder-infused cranberry sauce (tastefully arranged in the middle of an enormous plate) on your table, and call it "dinner". That'll be me quietly laughing in the corner as you empty your life savings into the till on the way out.

By the time we'd finished the meal, the bottle of Margaret River red, and a couple of Coopers, the horrors of having to drive through the city of Adelaide were far behind us. Life was good, and the pub even had a decent pool room, where we played a few games with some locals, and, as ever, found out lots about the vicissitudes of life in this amiable little corner of the world.

The next morning dawned hot and red. I say "dawned" quite literally, because we were up at the crack of it, a most uncommon occurrence for a bloke who has spent a good deal of his adult life actually retiring, vampire-like, before dawn. The reason for this out of character behaviour was that we had a very big day in front of us. We were going to try to get to Wilpena Pound by mid-afternoon, and along the way visit the Mount Remarkable National Park - in particular, a place curiously called Alligator Gorge. In all, there were about four hundred kilometres of driving, plus a two-hour walk in the middle of the day in front of us.

The first leg was a relatively quick 130k run to Port Pirie, at the top of the Spencer Gulf. Port Pirie is, basically, a lead smelter. Thousands of tonnes of the stuff are produced every year, giving Port Pirie residents the dubious distinction of having just about the highest levels of lead in their bodies in the entire world. We expected, as we rolled quietly through the early-morning streets, to see people with extra fingers, heads, etc. To our chagrin, the place was surprisingly normal, if unendurably odorous.

I was hanging for a really good double-shot, and to our surprise the only cafe open at 7.30 a.m. served up a ripper, perfectly doled out by an Italian guy who knew his business. I had to back up for seconds, then thirds.

By the time we got back in the car, I was totally wired. I felt like a speed freak, and wondered how that fencer at the Atlanta Olympics could have functioned with forty-something cups of coffee inside him. No wonder he was excluded from the competition; had he been allowed to compete his epee would have resembled a shish kebab skewer.

"Loz, for fuck's sake, slow down, will ya?" demanded Leigh as I valve-bounced the Volvo through the Woolworths carpark. "We're only trying to find the supermarket, not win Monaco!" He jumped out as soon as I skidded into a parking spot, and ran off into the bowels of Woolworths, no doubt desperate to void his own.

Well-stocked up on groceries and beer (and with Leigh looking three or four pounds lighter), we continued on towards Mount Remarkable N.P. This is the beginning of that most intriguing chain of mountains, the Flinders Ranges, a vastly old mountain range that stretches almost due north for hundreds of kilometres, neatly bifurcating the state of South Australia. On its eastern slopes and plains wheat and sheep are farmed; to the west there is nothing but desert, salt-lakes and uranium. (I exaggerate, of course; there's also the detritus of several nuclear weapons explosions in the 1950s which have left thousands of square miles of the desert not only naturally dry and inhospitable to humans and any other unfortunate animals that happen to wander across the rocky plains, but fatally radioactive. Thanks, England!)

We arrived at the park's visitor centre, and, being the only people the staff had seen for about thirty-five years, were treated as if we were gods who had just stepped out of an aeroplane in New Guinea in 1930 loaded with mirrors and beads. I half expected the bloke behind the desk to accuse me of some cultural blasphemy, or spirit-stealing, when I snapped a photo of him and his female co-worker. He was pretty good about it, though, and we only had to spend the next three hours tied upside down to a tree while he painted us in goat's blood and danced around rattling a very big spear.

(For American readers, I just made that last bit up.)

The rangers plied us with every sort of useful information, including several and repeated admonishments to "take plenty of water with you", a refrain we were to hear iterated endlessly as we made our way north. And you know, I think the locals were onto something. In this part of the world, water is indeed a scarce commodity, so much so that when you do come across a stream that is actually flowing (and this happened only once in the following two weeks), you feel like singing a hymn to the glory of Quetzacoatl. (I knew I'd eventually get Jonathon into this story.)

We still had a fair drive, through Nectar Brook (no water), Mambray Creek (ditto), Chinaman Creek (you guessed it), before we came to Alligator Gorge. We alighted from the Volvo, strapped forty gallons of water each to our backs, and walked into a world before time. Alligator Gorge is a reminder that there was once water, and plenty of it, flowing through this part of the world. Great buttresses of blocked sandstone, hundreds of feet high, and often only thirty feet between their walls, testify to a violent geological childhood. We wandered, amazed, between these soaring walls of rock, acutely aware of their age, which was in the hundreds of millions of years - an unfathomable time-span. The National Parks service had conveniently placed descriptions and explanations of what we were seeing along the route. At one such, we were told of the evolution of the many floral species indigenous to the area. Some intellectual, obviously better endowed than the entire scientific community, had chiselled into the metal plaque "Evoluton is bulshit. God made the wordl." It was heartening information, and thus armed, we climbed back out of that place of magic, mystery and illiteracy.

After all of that exertion, we needed a waterhole, preferably with a dining room attached. It wasn't long before we pulled into the dusty, deserted town of Quorn, and met the goddess of the Austral Hotel.

( be continued.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The twilight zone...

(Prologue: My wife was reading this, just before, and said to me "Laurie, no-one reading this is going to believe a word of it!" I swear on my father's grave that the following is 100% true.)

I was in first year at uni, studying philosophy. One day, in a packed lecture theatre, some young blokes were mucking around up the back, not far from where I was sitting. Eventually, the lecturer stopped, looked up at them, and said "If you fellows aren't interested in this, then I advise you to clear out and let others who are concentrate."

Another young bloke, a good student who'd I'd met briefly in tutorial sessions, turned towards these guys and said "You heard him - fuck off, why don't you?"

About five of these guys got up from their seats, muttering threats and curses, and trundled off into the sunshine outside.

After the lecture, I was sitting outside with a group of students, when the ringleader of the dopey brigade came up and grabbed the young feller who'd echoed the lecturer's words. He started to go on about how he was going to take him apart, etc, etc, all the while dragging this poor guy, who was half his size, around the courtyard by the scruff of the neck.

I was thirty, then, and a lifetime of surfing, and a few years of hard manual labour, had turned me into a fairly solid bloke. I was 6'1", and about two pick-handles across the shoulders. Not that I was any sort of fighter; I'd always agreed with my dear old mother that "He who turns and runs away, lives to run another day." But I simply couldn't stand by and see this kid (who was as weedy as they come) get terrorised by an idiot.

I stood up, went over to the two of them, and grabbed the aggressor by the shoulder. He turned to see a bloke about five inches taller than himself holding a fist, cocked and ready to let go.

"You've got three seconds to decide whether you're gonna fuck off now, or stay and get smashed all over this courtyard. Two, one..."

He wrenched himself away from me and bolted. The young guy, who was shaking like a leaf, thanked me profusely. I said "No problem, mate; you said the right thing in the lecture theatre."

And that was that. I think the kid must have dropped out of uni, because I didn't see him again.

A couple of years later, I was doing a gig in Bathurst, a big town in the central west of NSW, about 250 kilometres from Sydney. We were playing at the Park Hotel, and it was a special night, because it was the last night this current line-up of the band would be playing together. We'd had a very good run, and attracted a large following in the west, but various members of the band were moving on to new things, so we'd decided to finish our time together at the place it had all begun, the Park.

The Park was a room that could handle about two hundred people; not a huge place, but sufficient for our hard-core fans. Consequently, we didn't need a huge P.A. rig, so we just brought the bare minimum plus our sound engineer. This meant, of course, that the band members had to lug the gear into the joint. It was mid-afternoon when we got there, and there was a big table full of bikies - I can't remember whether they were Bandidos or Comancheros - all sitting exactly in the spot where we had to locate the P.A. system. There must have been twenty of them, and it looked like they'd been there most of the day, because there was plenty of noise issuing from the table. I spotted the bloke who appeared to be head honcho; I could tell, because he had the biggest beard, the longest hair, the loudest voice, and was sitting smack dab in the middle of the group.

I walked up to him and said "G'day, mate - we've got to set up for the band tonight. Can I ask you fellers to move over to another table?"

He grunted at me, and waved his hand as if to say "OK". We went back to the truck and continued to load in, dumping all the gear on the dance floor in front of the stage. Eventually, I went back over to the bikies and said, "Well, we're ready to set all this up; would you guys mind moving now?"

"No worries, mate," replied the captain.

We fiddled around with things we could do for another ten minutes, but it didn't look as though our Harley-lovin' mates were going to move anytime soon, so eventually I went back over and said (very sternly), "Now, I've asked you blokes very nicely a couple of times to move away so we can do our work; now, how about you all pick up your drinks, get on your feet and FUCK OFF to that table over there?"

At this, the captain rose to his feet, pulled a double set of false-teeth out of his mouth, slammed them on the table, assumed the position, eyeballed me and said "RIGHT!"

I don't know what came over me at that point. Maybe mother's philosophy was echoing in the back of my mind. In any event, there was no way I was escaping from this situation. The false teeth were staring at me from the table. I unzipped my fly, pulled my penis out, and with a great big grin said to the captain "Oh, thanks very much!"

There are moments in one's life when time seems to dilate; when reactions slow down, and the world stops revolving, just for a little while. 

The captain looked at me, and suddenly a smile, then a grin, began to spread across his toothless face. He started to wheeze, with a breathy, uncertain, phlegmy sound. "Hee...hee...ha, ha, hawwwwwwwh!" He cracked up, fully, completely, dissolutely. As did his brothers. Before long, the entire table full of bikies was a train-wreck of hilarity. I, on the other hand, was standing on the floor with my heart in my mouth and my dick in my hand.

The captain, still in hysterics, came around the table, scooping up his teeth and shoving them back in his mouth. He put a great big arm, encased in leathers, around my shoulders, and said to his assembled cadres in a voice of complete authority , "This guy is has got balls!"

The assembled crew were pissing themselves; the captain finally said, sotto voce, "You can put your dick away now, sunshine." 

Of course, we were now all best mates. When they realised we were the west's biggest R&B/Boogie band, our status grew even more. Chalker, the captain, insisted on coming into the band room and rolling several joints of the most evil dope I've ever tasted; his mates made sure that the bar staff kept the drinks up to us.

It was a great gig. Far from the two hundred or so that we'd expected, about a thousand people had jammed themselves into the room. The place was rockin' hard. When that many are congregated together, and expecting so much, it is almost impossible, as a muso, to put a foot wrong. All night we rocked and rolled. It was one of the great gigs, and I'll remember it forever.

One tiny incident marred the night. While we were having a break, I was walking across the room to talk to some of the fans. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a disturbance. In one corner of the dance floor, two guys were getting into an altercation. The one was big, aggressive and drunk. The other was short, thin, and obviously in trouble.

"Oh, no," I thought to myself. I just couldn't let this continue. The big guy was really looking for an excuse to do some damage; that much was obvious. He had hold of the little bloke's throat, and was about to unleash a big one on him. I took three big strides, reached out, turned the big galah around and threw a knee straight into his groin. He dropped like a rock, and began to groan, waving his hands around the afflicted region as if one of these days he might be able to magic away the horrific pain in his pants. He was not getting up in a hurry, and I refrained from putting the boot in. I turned around to tell the little bloke that escape was the better part of valour in this situation, and, lo and behold, it was exactly the same guy I'd rescued at the Uni two years before!

We looked at each other for a second, then both of us did a double take, a triple take, and finally a quadruple with pike. He managed to mutter "Oooh, fuck!", then turned around and bolted out the door.

I have never seen him since, but you never know...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Disability is a state of mind

In 1975 I was working in a band out of Newcastle. The keyboard player was a guy whose nickname was "Wheels", largely due to the fact that he hung around in a wheelchair, as a result of being run over by a car when he was fifteen. He'd been a promising athlete, playing football and other sports, and one day was simply crossing the road (on a pedestrian crossing) when a lunatic cleaned him up. He was a paraplegic with no feeling below the waist, except that his excretory and sexual functions still worked fine. (Sorry to belabour you with the plumbing details, but Wheels was not shy about talking about it, so neither should I be.)

He was fit and immensely strong, when I knew him. I once asked him, half jokingly, to bring my guitar amp over to me. He just reached down, picked the thing up with one hand, held it above his head, wheeled over to me using his other hand, and plonked it on the floor next to me. "You lazy prick," he said.

His only concession to his disability was when he needed to go up a flight of stairs. In that case, one of us would get behind, the other in front, and we'd carry him up or down. In just about everything else, he was completely able. (We did play a few tricks on him, from time to time; once, at Forster, while he was in the pool, we stole his wheelchair and went to the pub. He was furious; he'd had to drag himself around the pool perimeter and back to the hotel reception, where an aghast receptionist had to phone the bar to retrieve the wheelchair. Fuck, it was funny.)

Wheels was notoriously hard on his means of conveyance. He was always breaking the wheels and frame of his chair; he'd often complain that wheelchairs were "built for namby-pamby poofters. They should just wheel the bastards around in a pram." He would cross the road, take a flying run at the opposite gutter, and smash the chair up onto the footpath. Consequently, his chair was held together by bits of welding rod and wire. It was an ugly sight. He generally did all the repairs on it himself.

His stubborn independence made him immensely likeable, and he was always surrounded by a bevy of young women. Christ, he could pull the girls, and would offer them rides around the place - of course, they'd have to sit on his lap. When we were on tour, the girls looked after his (ahem) every need.

His one major downfall was that he was a notoriously horrible driver. He owned a big muscle car - a 351 Ford coupe, that he'd had modified. The steering-wheel had a big knob which he'd hold onto with his left hand, while his right would operate a lever which controlled the brakes and throttle. Nobody wanted to be his passenger, but sometimes it was unavoidable.

"Jesus, Wheels," I cried one day as we were tearing through the suburbs at high speed, "one cripple in this car's enough - don't make two of us, for Chrissake!"

"Oh, then just shut your eyes, ya coward," was his only reply.

The band got a job on the S.S. Oriana, a cruise ship that did two- and four- week cruises around the south sea islands. It was a good gig; we played every night for about three hours in the auditorium or one of the main bars on board, except when we were in port, in which case we were free to disembark and see the sights.

The Oriana was an ageing, stately old ship that only had a few more seasons in her when we were working on it. Apart from two elevators, it had no concessions to "wheelchair access", as it's said, so the only way up or down between decks were these narrow stairwells, otherwise Wheels had to trundle a fairly long way to the elevator, then a fairly long way back to where he wanted to be. He always opted for the short-cut, and got pretty good at holding onto the bannisters and thumping his way down the stairs. Consequently, we were only a few days into the cruise before his wheelchair gave up the ghost and fell completely to bits.

Now, by this time, Wheels had become a firm favourite with many of the passengers and crew. He was continually pissed as a newt, because everyone wanted to buy him a beer. So, when his wheelchair carked it, a few of the crew-members took it upon themselves to see if the ship's engineers could fix it. They took it away, and gave him a replacement, for the time being, of an old wheelchair that was to a modern one like a penny-farthing is to a sleek racing-bike. Wheels was fairly embarrassed by this old clunker, and was mighty relieved when his own machine was returned to him.

And not just relieved - amazed and overjoyed. The engineers had taken to their task with alacrity. In fact, with the exception of the wheels themselves, which had been reinforced around the rim (they'd even manufactured new spokes for the wheels), the entire contraption was brand new! They had made an industrial-strength wheelchair, with cambered axles, a new design for the front trailing wheels, a hugely complex and robust frame, and an ingenious suspension system. Wheels was in heaven. Years later, that same basic design became standard for wheelchair athletes; my friend's was the prototype.

Wheels spent hours testing the machine out; he'd career around the outside deck at high speed, pulling incredibly sharp turns, and occasionally coming a gutser. I was afraid that, in his perpetually inebriated state, he'd hit the guardrail and catapult himself into the sea below. 

One afternoon, he and I were having a quiet drink in the main auditorium. There was tiered seating around the perimeter of a huge dance floor, and we'd decided to go right up to the top level to get the view. There were three or four dozen other passengers in the place, all with the same idea. We were somewhere between Fiji and Tonga. I'd helped Wheels up the series of low steps to the top, and we were chatting away with a couple of G&Ts in front of us.

Suddenly the ship took a bit of a lurch to the side, probably hit by a bigger than normal wave. The wheelchair rolled back just far enough for its back wheels to go over the first step, and Wheels and his conveyance tumbled all the way down to the dance floor, where the chair skidded away, out to the middle of the room, while Wheels was left in a heap at the foot of the stairs.

At this sight, of course, I just completely cracked up. I dissolved into gales of unbridled laughter. Tears were streaming down my face as Wheels gave me a sour look and began to drag himself across to the middle of the dance floor. It was a painful sight, but hilarious. He grabbed the wheelchair, turned it back onto its wheels, and crawled up into the seat. He wheeled back over to the bottom step, stopped, and called up to me "Well, are you gonna sit there laughing all day or are you gonna give me a hand up?"

I went down and helped him back up. We took up our drinks and continued as before. My only concession to the event was to say "You OK, mate?"

"Didn't feel a thing," he replied sarcastically.

Just then, I noticed an eerie silence in the room. I looked up and around, and noticed that everyone in the place was looking at me as though I was the worst, most evil animal to grace the earth since Goebbels. They just didn't get it. The mood was definitely dark; I was hoping that some goon wasn't going to come over and punish me for my bad manners. I decided to lighten things up.

"Hey, guys," I said to all and sundry, "it's rude to stare. Haven't any of you seen an idiot in a wheelchair before?"

Where angels fear to tread

I've always been suspicious of creationism. Well, not exactly the belief itself, which is easy to understand: a being which we shall call "God" created the Earth and its inhabitants before he bothered about the rest of the universe, and then had the first woman chatted up by a talking snake, the result of which being that if you don't prostrate yourself before this God's son, who was a zombie who hung around in a distinctly abnormal relationship with twelve other blokes, many of whom were fishos (and that tells you a lot), this God who loves you to bits will cast you into a lake of fire for eternity where the gentleman with the horns and pointy tail does his business.

No, what worries me is the mental calibre of the people who subscribe to this particular belief system, and want to enforce it on the general population (good and wholesome as it undoubtedly is).

When I was a young feller, a few mates and I would irregularly attend the gospel services of the Assemblies of God church in Hamilton, Newcastle. We did this for one of the following reasons:

1. We were interested in discovering the answers to the "big" questions of life, as all inquisitive young men of that age are.

2. We were intrigued by the goings-on there, including the propensity of various and sundry parishioners to participate in the mesmeric, ullulate practice of "speaking in tongues".

3. We were impressed by the lucid explanations afforded us as to the origins of life on earth, and the simultaneous logical rejection of the evil called "evolution".

4. There were young chicks who went to this church who we considered to be eminently fuckable.

I'm fairly sure you can guess which one of these criteria took the biscuit.

Well, by this stage of my life, I was pretty confident that I knew absolutely everything there was to know; after all, I was sixteen, right? So, with the confidence that only extremely large doses of testosterone can give you, I became good at making my opinions known in an absolutely unmistakeable way. One of the things I knew for sure was that religion was bullshit. The Billy Graham crusade in 1967 had been an epiphany for me; apart from getting hold of a couple of mammalian protuberances for the first time (see below), it had taught me that snake-oil merchants had not gone extinct just after the garden of Eden episode. Billy was one of them - a guy who later went on to say that his best friends were Ronald Reagan and George Bush Snr; so while Reagan was murdering Niceraguans, Billy was in the kitchen of the White House making iced tea and praying that his mate would get over the line in the 1984 elections.

Fueled up on testosterone and skepticism, my mates and I invaded the Assemblies of God. One Sunday night was a "special" night - the minister of the church had advertised that he was going to "refute the atheistic doctrine of evolution and reveal God's truth". I knew this because my spy in the church, a girl who I'd gone out with once or twice, and whose parents were raving pentecostal nut-jobs, showed me the newsletter this minister would put out once a week advertising churchy-type goings-on. This was 1969; the Moon landing had just occurred, and my mates and I were filled with a kind of righteous, evangelical pride in science and everything scientific. This latest buffoonery needed to be opposed, was going to be opposed, so help me Werner von Braun! We laid our plans.

The evening in question came about, and three mates and I, dressed in paisley shirts, coats, very thin black ties, black denim jeans and Beatle boots (fashion being intelligent in those days), disposed ourselves quietly about the church hall. The only problem that might discombobulate our plans was that one of the mates, Chris, had spent the afternoon at a friend's place invading the absent parents' liquor cabinet. He'd polished off half a bottle of creme de menthe, and, apart from smelling like a cross between a doctor's surgery and a lolly-shop, was having trouble co-ordinating the vestibular system and the perambulatory cortex. For the layman, this means he was fucking legless. We managed to get him into a seat, and whispered sternly to him to keep his trap shut. An old lady, one of the grande dames of the congregation, came in shortly after and sat down beside him. The rest of us were freaking - if Chris did anything stupid, then all our plans were laid waste.

Now, it was a practice of this church to indulge in the pastime of "speaking in tongues", or glossolalia, to use the medical term. This was an event I'd witnessed a couple of times, and one that had filled me with a morbid curiosity. In this church, being "filled with the spirit" meant that a parishioner would rise to his (or more usually her - go figure, atheist girls) feet, and begin to vocalise in a quasi - speech pattern way. they'd hold their hands up in the air and start to intone things like this: Ahmakalinda davra karmakarmakarmachameleon, and so-on, for a couple of minutes, with a look of ecstatic concentration on their faces, and their eyes shut tight. It was very amusing, but also intriguing, because another member of the congregation would always get up and profess to be able to interpret the message from the said afflicted glossolalialist. Are you thinking what I'm thinking, dear reader?

This lunacy was too good to resist.

After the initial prayers, and a hymn from Sankey's Sacred Songbook, where we all got up to sing a ragged version of "Nearer My God to Thee", it was time for the pastor to let loose on the evils of evolution. He was a little guy about five-feet four, thirty-five or so years old, who had a mouth that was as dynamic as the words that came out of it were cretinous. He was a vapid moron with intense glassy eyes who frolicked around the stage yelling one inanity after another. I'd seen him in action a few times before, and already hated him with a passion.

"Friends," the drongo began, "today I want to tell you a story. It's one of the most beautiful stories in all of history, and one of the most terrible. It tells us of the Eden we all may have had if we had just followed the command of God. But one fine day, the mother of all mankind disobeyed our Lord, and since then we have been in the bond of SIN! AND EVIL! AND WICKEDNESS!"

The staccato volley of high-volume terrors was obviously designed to wake up any member of the congregation who might have thought that a late-afternoon doze could have been the order of the day. He continued in this vein for a while, reminding us of the power of sin over our lives, and the incredible burden of Christ's sacrifice. It was making me feel queazy, and I looked over at Chris, whose face was beginning to take on the hue of the liqueur he'd been unwisely quaffing all afternoon.

"And so, friends, we come to the greatest evil ever devised by a man. The evils of Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin and Kruschev have nothing on the evil this man perpetrated on the world. CHARLES DARWIN WAS THE SON OF SATAN HIMSELF!"

It was time to act. As planned, I rose from my seat, put my hands above my head, closed my eyes, raised my head towards the ceiling and began to call out in a very loud voice "Delam arkel oprodin balesque i todanti felkurn condrit a chenba lal entwokan!"

I started to rock backwards and forwards while I continued uttering completely ridiculous noises. I opened my eyes, and saw the entire congregation staring at me, transfixed. The pastor, too, had been stopped dead in his tracks, and was eyeballing me with a look of utter consternation.

The trouble for them was that they were in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, I had disrupted the pastor's sermon, but, on the other, I was having a moment of rapture which was regarded by this church as being a gift from god. They could hardly shut me up, now, could they?

At this moment mate number one, Colin, jumped out of his seat and began to jitterbug across the front of the church, bellowing unintelligibly in a succession of wild howls. To make things worse, mate number two, John, came over to me, put his hands on my head (I was still doing the cosmic rumba), and began to yell at the top of his voice "MY BROTHERS, MY FRIEND HAS A MESSAGE FROM THE LORD JESUS HIMSELF - PASTOR WHITTICOMB IS THE DEVIL'S AGENT ON EARTH. BE NOT BEHOLDEN TO THIS MAN - HE IS LEADING HIS FLOCK DOWN THE PATHWAY TO ETERNAL TORMENT. CHRIST SAYS IT IS SO: EVOLUTION IS TRUE, IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON, AND THE HOLY SPIRIT!"

He didn't get a chance to say anything more, because, at this moment, mate number three, Chris, got staggeringly to his feet, but instead of carrying out his part of the choreography, turned to his right and, loudly and copiously, vomited all over the matron sitting next to him. She was covered in green slime (with carrots!), and let out a scream of outrage and anguish.

"Oooh, fuck!", I thought to myself. Sure enough, five or six fairly big blokes, who had sussed that things were not quite kosher, grabbed hold of the lot of us and gave us the biggest bum's rush, straight down the aisle and out the front doors, then proceeded to give us a good old-fashioned evangelical hiding on the street in front of the church.

We finally managed to tear ourselves away. Even Chris seemed to have been a bit sobered up by several blows to the head, because he was running faster than anybody. The thugs gave up the chase, and we ran, trailing blood from several open wounds, into a nearby park, where we all collapsed under a tree. We checked our wounds, which were really only superficial, except that I had a great big shiner that made my girlfriend avoid me for the next week or so. Sitting under that tree, one of us began to chuckle. Before long, the four of us were rolling on the ground hooting and braying with undisguised joy. Good had been done, and plenty of it!

The following Friday evening, the Assemblies of God church in Hamilton was burned to the ground. Police reports confirmed that the cause was arson.

I prefer to believe that it was an Act of God.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Vote for me, and I'll punch your lights out

It's dark. I'm getting out of bed. I look at the clock. It's 5.30 A.M! What the fuck is going on? What am I doing putting my clothes on at this unconscionable hour? That's right, it's election day. I'm going to spend all day driving around to various polling booths, handing out how-to-vote cards, chatting with the crew from the Labor Party, and punching the lights out of the morons in the Liberals. (I wish.)

This election, I'm a candidate. A minor one, to be sure; some in the party wanted me to run at number two on the ticket, but I declined in favour of one of our bright young blokes who really wants to be elected. So I'm number four, which means there's no chance whatsoever of being elected, unless the voters of this region have a collective epiphany and decide that the Greens should rule the world. Fat fucking chance - this is one of the most conservative electorates in the State. It's so conservative that the local council is almost always made up of about three-quarters comatose god-botherers, real-estate agents and dodos from the Liberal Party, and one or two "progressives", including a good mate of mine, also a Green. And, anyway, I'm not really interested in being elected. I prefer to be one of those scheming, back-room party hacks (practises fiendish snigger and sideways glance).

I've got all my election paraphernalia - leaflets, badges, corflutes (which are just corrugated and plasticised posters), sunscreen, t- shirts, hat, condoms (well, you never know) - already packed in the Volvo, and I head out for the fray.

I get to the first booth at about six; I'm going to set up a few of these so the workers can just rock up at eight, when polling begins, and start handing out. Most of the polling-booths are at local schools, so you tie your corflutes to a handy spot near the front gate, get the card table out, put the box of gear on top and all's ready.

I pull up, and, as usual, the Liberals are already here. Now, I've got to tell you that six o'clock in the morning is really, really early for an old muso to get out of bed, let alone be that organised to actually do anything other than shuffle around the kitchen making triple-shots and smoking cigarettes. So I always feel despondent at election-time, after seriously disrupting my natural diurnal rhythms (and feeling mighty chuffed that I've actually managed the early rising thing again), to find these ratbags already there, with about a hundred corflutes monopolising all the real-estate, looking so fucking chipper, as if a six-o'clock rise is a bit of a sleep-in.

I carry the gear over and size up the situation. The two Liberals, old retirees in ridiculous yellow t-shirts, are involved in earnest conversation about superannuation and investment portfolios, using a vocabulary which to me resembles a sorcerer's incantation. I mean, what the fuck is a "levered fiscal brokerage", or whatever it is that the idiot's talking about? And besides, how can anyone be polysyllabic at this time of the morning?

They've already put a line of eight corflutes on each side of the fence adjacent to the gate. 

"Er, fellers," I interrupt them, "are you gentlemen interested in the concept of equity?"

They look at me as though I've invited the Devil to a funeral. "What're you talkin' about, son?" says one.

"Well, there's about five political parties going to be handing out today; don't you think it would be equitable for each of us to have just a pair of corflutes surrounding the gate?"

"Well if you Greenies got out of bed a bit earlier, you'd probably get a space." He gives his mate a wink as though he's Billy Connolly, and they both crack up.

"Do you want me to take your posters down, or will I just staple mine over the top of yours?" I enquire.

"You won't touch anything, pal," the larger of the two says in his best "Fuck you" voice.

"Well, I will, mate, or we'll all go in and have a word with the returning officer." They're a bit unsettled at this, because they know that the returning officer at the booth can make whatever rules she likes about behaviour at the polling-place, and most returning officers like equanimity at their booths. They look at each other, and one of them goes to remove the signs furthest from the gate.

"No, I'll have the second spot," I say. They acquiesce; round one to me. I put the corflutes on the fence, set up the table and stick the box of leaflets on top. "Now, be good chaps and keep your eye on that gear for me. I've got to go and set up some more booths."

They're in a bind, and they know it. If they disturb any of my gear, it amounts to tampering with election material, a criminal offence, and they've been around long enough to know that any stupidity won't do them any favours. I'm pretty confident it'll remain safe, and I jump in the car, give them a cheery wave, and head off. You crafty bugger, I say to myself.

I set up the other booths without incident, and it's eight o'clock. Voting time. In Australia, it is compulsory to vote if you're over eighteen and a citizen. This is a very good thing, in my opinion, although not without its problems, for instance ensuring that a sizeable proportion of the voters come to the booth with no fucking idea what they're doing. Oh well, at least they get a kind of a picture about just what the word "democracy" means. And, maybe one day, they'll take enough interest to do enough research to make an intelligent choice. On second thoughts - nah.

I'ts the early rush, and I'm handing out and chatting to the woman from the Labor Party. An old geezer in a cardigan, shiny pants and sensible shoes walks past me and I offer him a leaflet and say something like "Greens for a healthy planet, mate." He stops, squints into my face with rheumy eyes, and says "Fuck off." 

A middle-aged matron is complaining loudly to one and all that this "voting business" is an imposition on her Saturday. She does the rounds of the table with all of the party workers, then fixes me with a stare and says "And youse greenies are the worst."

I size her up and reply "Well, if I give you a hundred bucks, you can use it as a down-payment on a one-way ticket to North Korea, madam. Then you won't have to worry about voting ever again." Lame, I know - but these ignoramuses don't realise just what they've got. My Labor friend chips in: "Your vote's not a right; it's a privilege, sweetheart. But for all of our sakes, just write 'I'm an idiot' on your ballot paper and pop it in the box."

"Nice work, Sheila," I say to her after the idiot has gone. "Chalk up another vote for Labor?"

Towards the middle of the day I get relieved, and now my job for the next few hours is to run around the booths making sure that the workers have got enough leaflets, give them some cold water, relieve them for ten minutes, etc. I'm one of the organisers for the party, so I give myself this job most election days. It involves about 150 k of driving, but that's OK - I get to see all the workers, and resolve any conflicts. We're all on mobile phones, and occasionally our workers get some flak from other booth workers (almost invariably Liberals - which is part of the reason I hate their guts), so sometimes I have to sort out a problem. 

I get to one of the booths, and one of our workers, who owns a crane truck, has parked his vehicle right outside the gates to the school with the crane up, completely festooned with Greens signs and streamers. It's a work of art, completely dominating the landscape. There he is, handing out, and I go up to him and say "You're a fucking genius, Shamus!"

"Gotta be worth a few votes, just for the lunacy of it, Laurie," he replies, with a great big grin.

The rest of the day proceeds without any major difficulties, and at six o'clock I start packing up a couple of booths. I've got a feeling that we might have done well. It's time for the after-party.

Most of the workers roll up, in dribs and drabs, to the Greens councillor's  place, who just so happens to be Leigh, my mate from the road adventure. (I thought I'd leave that little bit of information until now, just for the sake of theatric surprise. Aren't I good to you, dear reader?)

Apart from being a great travelling companion, Leigh is a committed Councillor. An excellent public speaker, who can deliver superb, articulate and passionate speeches off the cuff, he is also a voracious political animal. Oh, and he lives in one of the most beautiful homes I've ever seen; mud-brick and huge, old hardwood beams, based on an octagon - all designed and built by himself.

And you thought he was just a drunk. Shame! (Oh, all right - it was my fault. But I do enjoy creating his character in the tales of our road trip, and I only have to embellish it a little.)

Leigh has easily got back into council, and we gather around the computer to see if our second candidate will get up. The night goes on and our fortunes wax and wane. By the end of the night's counting, we are on a knife-edge. We won't know for days if the second candidate gets in, so we sit around drinking beer and doing plenty of speech-making that becomes more and more disordered and ridiculous as the night wears on.

If nothing else, the Greens know the true meaning of political "party".

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Back in gaol

For some strange reason, I was teaching maths. I'm not a maths teacher, but when the bloke doing the job up and left one day, Allan, my boss, said to me "Laurie, you'd know a bit of maths, wouldn't you?"

I actually found teaching maths to be extraordinarily rewarding. As I had no idea how to do it, it was a case of "make it up as you go along."

The gaol's governor was looking for some projects for some of the inmates, who were not working, to occupy their time. I told him that it would be a good idea to build a sundial out in the middle of the yard, so my maths students and I got to work to try and figure out how to do it.

Wayne was a guy of about 24 who had been in and out of gaol most of his life, right back to juvenile justice times. He was a chancer; a young gun who just ran with the crowd and picked up whatever bits of (completely illegal) work he could get his hands on - running messages between fat big-timers and politicians, working the streets for brothel-owners, and a couple of stints as a tough-boy. He'd also picked up a pretty serious heroin addiction along the way, but was having a fairly good go of staying clean. He wasn't a bad feller, considering, but he'd had absolutely no education to speak of. He attached himself to me; he thought I was a pretty good bloke, for a square-head.

Well, Wayne, the rest of the boys and I came up with a solution to our sundial project, begged and borrowed bits of gear from the workshop, and got down to it. Wayne was good at things like digging holes in the ground; he went at that spade-work like a man on a mission, which gave me pause to wonder exactly what type of holes he'd had occasion to dig in his past. 

So we built a fairly nifty little sundial, with a flower bed around it. It looked great, and, to top it off, you could set your watch by it. We were all standing around it, admiring our handiwork, when Wayne said "You know, Laurie, it's a pity I'm getting released in a couple of weeks - I'd like to be around when the equinox comes."

"Bloody hell, Wayne," I replied with some astonishment, "the next thing we're gonna hear about you is you've become head astronomer at the Sydney observatory."

About two years later I was walking through the yard on the way to the education unit, when a voice called out "Hey, Laurie!"

It was Wayne, back again. "Wayne, what are you doing back here? I thought you were on the straight and narrow."

"Well, it's a bit of a said story, Laurie," he said, somewhat sheepishly. We sat down in the sun, and I listened.

I was doin' alright (said Wayne) - livin' with me dad up at Lake Macquarie. But then an old mate came around one day and I had a hit. Well, from there it just went downhill - I was back on the gear like I'd never been off it.

Well, one night I was hangin' out. I had no gear, no money, and I couldn't stand the idea of goin' through a night with the turkey. So I put me balaclava on, got the old man's shotgun out of the wardrobe, and went up to the bottle-o just up the street.

I walked into the joint and stuck the shottie in the face of the owner, and said "This is a stick-up. Hand over all the money."

The bloke just looked at me, and said "Wayne, what the fuck do you think you're doing?"

I ripped off the balaclava and said "How did you know it was me, Terry?"

He said "Wayne, I gave your father that shotgun."


I've only ever been passionate about one sport: surfing. I've played cricket, of course, and thoroughly enjoyed it (in fact, I only retired from comp cricket two seasons ago.) But, as a participator sport, nothing beats screaming down the face of an eight-foot wave, carving a big bottom turn and locking into the tube.

I started riding a board when my cousin John gave me his big, nine-foot balsa (true!) plank in 1963. He had upgraded to a "poly", a board made of foam and fibreglass. Surfing was a comparatively new sport; it had only really been popular for about ten years, and so, at the age of ten, I became one of the early enthusiasts of the sport in Australia.

The board John had given me, although made of balsa wood, was heavy. But this turned out to be somewhat of an advantage, because it floated on the water with the stability of an aircraft carrier. The first time I took it out was in a moderate surf with glassy, three-foot waves gently rolling in. I turned the board, laboriously, as a wave came towards me, paddled as hard as I could, and voila - the thing was skimming across the water as if under its own volition. I jumped to my feet, and because the thing was so stable, and I was so small, I could have probably done a couple of cartwheels on it. As it was, without much elegance, I rode all the way into the beach, triumphant to the last. I was hooked.

My dad rigged up a little trolley that we attached to the back of my bike, and I would pedal into the beach every Saturday and Sunday and spend hour after hour in surfing heaven. The other, older surfers, would always laugh at the skinny kid with the "antique", but I didn't care. I would paddle out to the bombora at Nobbys Beach with them, a distance of about five hundred metres, and take my chances with these huge, booming mountains of water that would, at least half of the time, remind me of how puny I was, as I copped one horrific wipeout after another. I was lucky, really; I only ever got hit by the board a couple of times - I learnt pretty quickly that if I was about to get wiped out, the best policy was to dive for the bottom and not come up until the coast was clear. Of course, I was then faced with a swim of a couple of hundred yards to retrieve the board - boy, did I get fit.

So, by about twelve, I was a pretty confident surfer, and bloody good swimmer to boot. I used to win all of the distance swimming events at school carnivals, even though I had a "surf" swimming style that lacked the grace and efficiency of the pool-trained swimmers.

When the surf was too big and rough to ride boards, we used to swim out with a pair of flippers (they're called "fins" these days), and body-surf the gnarliest, horribilest monsters around - ten-foot close-outs that would give you about two seconds of flying down the face before the whole shebang would close in on you and send you screaming through the washing-machine, arms and legs flailing, striving to keep some air in the lungs. It was fantastic. The older guys, whom I idolised, would keep a look-out for me in these adventures; they turned out to be really fine young blokes, and had long-forgotten their early disdain of the geeky kid on the plank.

In 1966 my parents bought me a new board. It was a six-foot three Hutchinson - sleek and beautifully shaped. It cost them $120 - a fortune back in those days. It changed my life.

I was now able to do lots of the things the plank had never allowed me: huge cut-backs and re-entries; it allowed me to really command how the wave would be ridden. If the conditions were right, I could power back and let the tube engulf me until I was right on the point of being picked up and wiped, but I could then easily shift my weight and come screaming out of the tube, thrust by the air-pressure in the barrel onto the lip, where a back-hand re-entry would finish the ride in sheer ecstasy.

Fast forward to 1969 - three mates and I are on our way to the central coast of NSW. The surf has been big for about five days, with a nor-east swell pouring through, whipped up by a tropical cyclone off Queensland. We've been told by one of the pro surfers in Newcastle that a few spots around The Entrance and Avoca are going to be pumping, so we pack some tents, sleeping bags, wetsuits, boards and plenty of wax and head south. It's Friday afternoon, so we won't get much of a surf in tonight, if at all. We eventually get to Avoca as the sun is about to set.

We get out of the car; a light off-shore breeze is blowing. We can hear, but not really see, a giant surf off the point of Avoca grinding its way towards the beach. The sky is full of spray being blasted back over the backs of these enormous waves that we begin to discern in the dimness. Will we get out in it? Too fucking right, we will.

The best way to get to the break, which is about two hundred yards directly off the point, is to walk along the rocks at the end of the beach, then jump into an incredibly strong rip that is carrying anything in its path out the back and off towards New Zealand. (Of course it won't be that bad; every surfer knows that rips peter out once they're out beyond the break.)

So in we go, and, incredibly, we're out the back in seconds. We paddle off the rip towards the break, where a few other hardy souls can be seen perched on their boards, waiting. The ocean is glass. We get to the take-off point. The sun casts a bronze sheen across the water.

"How is it?", I say to one of the local boys.

"You'll find out in a minute, mate," he grins back.

Sure enough, we see a disturbance on the horizon. A gigantic swell is rumbling towards us; the setting sun lights up its face with flecks of gold, red and bronze. It's big, really, really big. It's twenty foot if it's an inch. I see where the break will start, and eight board-riders turn and paddle in unison towards it. One of my mates gets right in position, turns, and paddles on. I keep paddling, up, up the face and over the top. Enormous scads of spray blow off the back of the wave; I turn and hear my mate screaming as he goes flying down the now-concealed face. Has he made it? No-one can tell, for the next wave is coming towards us in a hurry. It's even bigger than the first.

I'm in the spot; it's my wave. I turn, take three or four big strokes, and I'm on my feet. It's a cliff; far below is flat water, and I aim straight for the bottom. I can feel the surge and power accelerating me as I go down; I hit the bottom and pull a frantic, high-speed backhand turn, and begin the climb back up the face as twenty feet of tube starts to encase me. The tube is so big I can stand upright with my hands above my head; the last rays of the sun illuminate the breaking part of the wave like a bronze waterfall, and I am far, far inside the tube.

I stay there for ages, playing with the wave, swooping up and down its face, all the while locked in the tube. It is the best wave of my life. Finally, I am near the beach, and the wave starts to buck and kick as it feels shallower water. With a last great heave, it shoots me at light-speed out of its maw and over the back of the lip. 

I just sit back down on the board, twenty yards from the shore, and drink it all in. Suddenly, I'm brought back to earth by the sound of cheering. I look up, and my mate is standing in front of me on the beach laughing and screaming with pure, delirious pleasure. I paddle in, walk up to him and we start to slap each other like hallucinogenic boxers.

"You know, Loz - I think we've got just enough time for one more, what d'yer think?"

We're back at the take-off point; all the rest have called it a day. We see a set start to roll towards us, and, if anything, it's bigger than the last. My mate gets the first; he's gone with great whoops of joy fading into the distance. I leave the next, then the third comes towards me. Massive - twenty-five feet at least. It comes to me - I'm in exactly the right spot to catch it. Around I go; one, two, three and I'm up. Down the face, pull a big turn, as before, and the whole thing comes down on my head. It plasters me across the face, then lifts me and spears me to the bottom. I have a vague recollection of my legs being bent up to kick me in the back of the head; this is the washing-machine from hell. I'm dragged and spun and booted along the sea-floor; down is up and so is sideways. I have no air, I've got to get to the surface. Finally, I come up, and gulp in great lungfuls of air and water. I get my bearings, turn around to face the ocean, and see three more monsters bearing down on me. None of this is good, I recall thinking, and for the next two or three minutes I am rag-dolled by the sea. I am drowning.

I find myself floating on my back in clear water. I've been pushed back into the rip and am fast running out to sea again. With my last strength, I swim towards the rocks, and finally grab hold of something solid. Two of my mates scramble down and help me get up onto the shore proper. They're laughing fit to burst. I lie on the grass heaving salt water, knowing now, finally, what it's like to be a drowning man. My board is in two pieces, about a quarter of a mile down the beach. 

I don't know how I'll afford another board, but there's got to be a way.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The wife and the bank-robber

I've had plenty of different jobs in my time. Kitchen-hand in a psychiatric hospital; building labourer; wool-storeman; record company export manager; interstate truck-driver; gardener; general assistant; musician; musical director; record producer/engineer; teacher of music, English, history, politics, media - the list goes on.

About eighteen years ago I got a phone call one evening from a chap called Allan, who had just been appointed the senior education officer to a brand-new maximum-security prison being built on the outskirts of Sydney. He'd gotten my name from my brother, whom he'd been working with in another gaol in the Hunter Valley. Allan asked me if I wanted a job as a music teacher there. I thought about this proposition for a couple of nanoseconds and said "Count me in!"

Allan then enquired whether I knew any other teachers in the area who might be interested. He wanted, he said, to put together a team that would be comfortable with some innovative methods in prison education. He had a fairly sizeable budget, and carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. As someone who has never been content with the mundane, I thought this could be a very interesting project, so I mentioned a few people I thought might rise to the challenge (including my ever-lovin' wife), and we agreed to get everyone together at the gaol in a few days to talk it over.

I'd never been inside a gaol before. A few police cells, here and there, but never a full-on, state of the art, maximum-security penal establishment. That first day was a mind-blower. The gaol was a massive complex built in bushland; we drove up to it and parked in the car-park outside. It was just a concrete wall about thirty feet high, with coils of razor-wire perched on top, stretching for hundreds of metres on each side of a big, fortified gate-house built into the walls.

About eight of us walked towards the gate-house. A big steel door opened, and out walked a roly-poly young guy with a huge smile on his face. He spotted me and bounded over with his hand outstretched.

"Gooday, Laurie, I'm Allan." We all traded handshakes as I introduced him to everybody, and then walked inside.

The gatehouse itself was a complex of rooms, cells and administrative facilities. We all signed in on the day-book, and then worked our way through reams of forms, answering questions about our criminal records, associations, and sexual peccadilloes. (Nah, just made that up.) It was then time to move into the gaol proper. Allan had a little blue plastic "key" that he could insert into a slot beside the multitude of huge steel gates we had to pass through in order to get to the Education unit, a long, low brick building with bars on every window. Once you were in, you weren't getting out, that's for sure. As we walked along inside the perimeter, Allan told us that the gaol had an internal perimeter fence separated by about forty feet of "no man's land" to the higher outer walls. This space was loaded with laser beams, microphones in the ground, and any other paraphernalia that was going to prevent the desperadoes from escaping. It was all very impressive - anybody who could escape from this place would automatically qualify as a genuine Houdini. (And the fact is, no-one to date has ever done so, although a few have tried.)

There were no inmates in the gaol at this stage; five hundred of them would be arriving in a couple of weeks time, so each section of the gaol had time to get its act together.

We settled into the Education unit and had our first staff meeting. When Allan learnt that I had a degree in philosophy, he immediately suggested that I run a philosophy class with the inmates. Likewise, as he talked to each of the teachers and discovered different attitudes and abilities amongst them, he suggested various "non-standard" activities that they might like to pursue with the students. I started to realise that here was a bloke (and he was only about thirty-one or two) that I was going to like immensely.

Over the next couple of weeks, the team gradually built the resources and programs we were going to use. Maureen, the librarian, Allan and I spent time buying loads of books for the library. A pottery workshop was set up; an artist's studio took shape, and the basic ed. teachers commandeered rooms and started to adorn them like adult versions of primary-school classrooms. When Allan learnt that I was also a recording engineer and producer, he got another wild notion to build a recording studio and set it up with what was then a nascent computer-based recording technology. That project was to occupy most of my time there for the next twelve years, with some amazing results.

The inmates were eventually moved into the gaol over a weekend, and on the Monday, when I arrived for work, the place had become a serious prison. We were given a talking-to by a senior prison officer about security issues; you must always be within sight and sound of another worker; on no account must you form personal relationships with any inmates; you must never bring or take anything into or out of the gaol on behalf of inmates; you must wear your distress alarm (a little electronic device with a big red button) at all times; and so-on and so-on. As a maximum security prison, we would be working with some of the toughest criminals in the State, so it was reasonable to have some protocols. But it became apparent that, for the prison officers, there was a real "them and us" mentality in the place; "they" were always to be regarded as unscrupulous chancers who would do anything to get a benefit. "We" were always to be circumspect in our dealings with "them", otherwise really bad things could happen. 

The reality, as it turned out, was markedly different.

Our first job was to interview and assess the inmates' educational status and need. As this was a working gaol, with a large metal-fabrication industry, inmates generally worked for part of the day, then came to education, and vice-versa. My first interview was with a giant of a bloke called, naturally, "Tiny."

"Let's get a couple of things straight, mate," he said as soon as he'd sat down. "I can't read and write, and I'm not interested in learnin'."

"Fair enough," I replied, "so what about doing something that you might find you like, such as pottery?"

"Pottery's for poofs."

"OK, what about learning to play the guitar?"

He laughed, and held up two gigantic paws with a couple of fingers missing from each hand. I couldn't do anything but laugh along with him. "Hmm, maybe I'll just get you a set of bongoes, mate. At least you look like you're good at belting things."

Well, Tiny reacted as if this was the funniest joke he'd ever heard. He came over to me, put a huge arm around my shoulders and said "You know what, Laurie - you're OK. Listen, if anyone here gives you any shit, just let me know, OK?"

I'd made my first friend. I knew, and rather liked, Tiny for a couple of years until he was released. It saddened me later to hear that he'd been murdered in a gang war on the streets of Sydney.

Mike, the art teacher, had made up a poster announcing the philosophy class. We'd decided to hold it in the library, as we'd gotten a whole lot of books on the subject, and the idea was that the guys could do some reading for a while and then we'd have an open seminar (or debate, as the classes usually turned out.)

On the first day I was astonished to see twenty-five blokes sitting in the library waiting for the class to start. Gangsters, murderers, diamond-thieves, bank-robbers and con-men formed the bulk of them. I looked over to Maureen, who was sitting behind her librarian's desk. She had a grin from ear to ear, and said "This is gonna be interesting."

(Maureen was an attractive young woman of about thirty-five, with a bubbly personality to boot. All of the inmates thought she was great, but a few of them decided that she needed a bit of care. So you would always see one of the toughest blokes in the gaol - quite often it was Tiny, who you'll remember couldn't read to save himself - sitting a few feet away from Maureen in a comfy-chair reading the paper, or a book. After a couple of hours an equally tough bloke would come and tap him on the shoulder, and they'd exchange places. Anyone who said anything out of line to Maureen, or, heaven forbid, tried to touch her, was asking for a miserable time in the showers.)

The philosophy group became an outstanding success. Here were a bunch of characters whose lives had, generally, been nothing but crime since they were youngsters. Although they were, in the main, poorly educated in a formal sense, many of them were very intelligent and had plenty of robust ideas. They started to learn a great deal about the construction of society, and I used Hume, Mill, Marx and other philosophers to provoke them to think about the nature of crime, liberty, and social responsibility.

A new guy came into the gaol one Monday. Len was a career criminal, doing ten years for robbing banks, extortion, kidnap and other crimes. Highly intelligent, Len latched onto the philosophy class and became one of its most outspoken debaters. He was also something of an epicure in the world of the big-time criminal. He enjoyed the good things in life: money (obviously), good clothes, cars, properties. Not long after he arrived, we were discussing something or other when my wife walked into the library for some hot water out of the urn.

"Hey," said Len, in a hushed tone, "see that one?" He pointed to my wife (who, I have to say, is a slim woman with a classically beautiful face) and said "I reckon if you spent about three thousand bucks on her she'd come up trumps!"

All of the other blokes knew that Chris was my wife, and they all immediately started to inspect the floor, as if the carpet was the most interesting thing in the world.

"What's up with you guys?" asked Len. One of the other crims cleared his throat loudly, and said "Len, that's Laurie's missus you're talkin' about."

Len turned around to me, unfazed, stared straight into my eyes, and with the slightest hint of a grin said

"So, do you want to borrow a few grand, Laurie?"