Saint Patrick’s Day

I don’t have any young Irish friends, just ones like me, so I don’t know what young Irish people think about Saint Patrick’s Day. My older Irish friends are perplexed and bewildered by the modern-day celebration. In the Ireland of their childhood, Pat’s Day was like the most boring Sunday afternoon you could ever imagine, times a million. Everything was shut and nothing happened. For one friend’s father it was particularly traumatic because the only open bar on Pat’s Day was the Protestant club, which resulted in ethical turmoil and moral conflict. Needless to say, beer trumped his Catholicism.

Pat’s Day has become something of an institution, a day when we all become a bit Irish. It’s an excuse to drink Guinness in the morning and wear a leprechaun hat and generally behave like a good-natured goose.

The club had made quite an effort. The staff were decked out in funny hats, oversized sparkly bow ties and other things that I’m sure real Irish people never wear. Top o’ the mornin’ to you, Kaycee!

A whole load of Irish activities had been organised, including that grand Hibernian tradition “hitting each other with big foam sticks on a bouncy castle”. What would Finn McCool say?

There were warning signs. It seemed a bit unfair to me, like leaving a loaded revolver on the table and then shrugging your shoulders when some punter gets plugged. Anyway, what kind of injury could result from being donged on head by a foam ball and falling onto an inflatable mattress? While drunk? Hmm.

It might have been Pat’s Day but we still had to have the meat raffles. I’ve had a moan about the meat raffles before, which seem to go on for about 96 hours. I think it’s the endless calling out of numbers over the tannoy, the failure to claim, the redraw, the further calling out of numbers over the tannoy. I think it’d be better if we just blindfolded a child who then stumbled around the room until they bumped into someone, who was then presented with a meat tray. Or perhaps we could tie them to drones and drop them from the air on unsuspecting customers. (The meat trays, that is, not the blindfolded children.)

I doubt this will happen. Barry was very happy. He won two – yes, two – meat trays. They weighed more than he did.

Meanwhile, the bouncy Irish activities had moved outside. A cheerful leprechaun had inflated a game that involved people whacking a ball on a rope at one another. I would liked to have seen Miley Cyrus on there, she’d have been an act.

I bumped into a couple of coppers. They’d come from Goodooga, which was quite startling. Either Goodooga on Pat’s Day is so excruciatingly boring – like Dublin in the 1950s – or the Ridge’s police were terrified of bouncy castle bedlam and called for back-up. This young fella was charming.

His older colleague was less so. I think he may have chucked a sickie on the day they did “community policing” at copper college.

Back inside, people were still donging each other with the foam stick-balls. I’m guessing it was more fun to do than to watch.

To go back outside to where we were sitting you can go through the glass-walled smoking area or through the TAB Pool Room. This latter pathway always feels like some kind of airlock or sterilisation chamber.

I was trying to find the words to describe the feeling I get whenever I go through this room. The banks of unattended screens look dull and defeated without people to animate them. I thought of “poignant”, but that doesn’t quite hit the mark.

I despise the semi-industrialised extortion that promotes itself under the jolly title “punting”. Go on, have a punt! You know you want to! Surely only a sour-faced wowser with a stick up their backside would get upset at the prospect of a good punt.

The only good thing about this gambling room is that it wasn’t full of people gambling.

Back outside, a crowd had gathered around the Miley Cyrus bouncy castle, though no-one was game enough or drunk enough to actually get in there and start the donging.

We settled into our pints and wondered about Stuff In General, such as “How Irish was Patrick anyway?”

I got my sister a DNA test for Christmas. I’m guessing I’m pretty much like her, sharing the same parents and all that. We expected our heritage to be a combination of Scots and Vikings so we were both taken aback at the result: 69% Irish! Bejaysus and begorrah!

Strangely, the news did not make me feel any warmer towards Pat’s Day, which has always felt a bit forced and lame. I like that people dress up, and think we should all wear hats with leprechaun ears on more often.

Something deep inside me also likes the idea of a day when everything closes, even the pubs. But I also know that, like my friend’s dad, I’d find a way to overcome my ethics and find a place that served beer. It’d be un-Irish not to.

Sláinte!

I’ve drunk in some queer places, but this . . .

The England of my youth had more pubs than New Zealand has sheep. On a Friday night you could have a pint in any one of a dozen boozers and not even scratch the surface of what was on offer.

Times change and people change. Friday night these days means the stark “choice” of the pub or the club, but the urge to wander runs deep.

This Friday I found myself at Lightning Ridge Bowling Club. At the club’s core are the two large rooms devoted to (1) eating and watching the big telly and (2) drinking and watching the monster telly. Room 2 also doubles up as a venue for the occasional live act (think Rodney Rude).

I was sitting at the comfy lounges in Room 2 with the usual crowd but we were twitchy and restless. I took a Year 10 Science class this week and we were looking at how molecules vibrate more quickly when subjected to heat, and maybe the warm weather was causing us to turn from solids to liquids to gas. Either way, the group – already hypersensitive to noise and light – was spooked by a sudden movement near the Kino and rose as one, like a herd of startled wildebeest crossing the serenghetti, and headed towards Room 1. I was finishing a schooner and so I didn’t immediately follow which was lucky because, by the time I’d made it to the bar, the herd was on the move again, this time back through Room 2 and in the direction of the smoking area by the bowling green. Which is where we settled into a distracted stillness.

Our idyll was disturbed by an announcement that, following the meat raffles, everyone would have to leave Room 2. This was not a drill. It was prep for the Big Act of the night: Adam Harvey. (No, me neither.)

With everyone now squished into Room 1 we had to find a new venue, which is how I found myself in one of the queerest places I’ve ever had a beer: the Pub in the Club.

This enormous air hangar is part of the club. I didn’t realise it at first but I had been here before: it’s where they set up the stalls during the Opal Festival.

The feeling now was very different. The late afternoon sun slanted in through the shade cloth, lending an ethereal tint to the light. Sound disappeared into the rafters as the place is so high you could build submarines or airships in there. Although we were right next door to Room 1 we couldn’t hear a thing. The atmosphere was like one of those creepy abandoned Russian theme parks you see on BuzzFeed.

It put me in mind of the sets of Fifties sci-fi flicks about Roswell or Area 51. And yet … it was unnervingly attractive. Perhaps it was the ersatz urbex vibe, like we’d broken into a disused branch of the London underground and found a tube stop that no-one had visited in decades. We could have done anything in there; acid raves were suggested, as was an illegal cock fighting pit. It all seemed entirely possible in the plausibility-free zone of the Pub in the Club.

We ate chips and gravy, wandered around smoking rollies, marvelling at our good fortune.

The decor added to the visual dissonance. John Murray murals sat next to an olde worlde outback-themed bar, with super-low-quality tellies and a pair of speakers repurposed from a 90s hi-fi.

Piles of stuff sat around: kids’ sumo suits, crates that looked like they may contain body parts, cans of cooking oil.

And, of course, a genuine Louis Quatorze throne, of which we availed ourselves.

Even the men’s bogs were extraordinary. Is it just me or is that a big surprised face?

There was some discussion as to whether it looked like the digital animations to Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing video. That seemed possible when trying to remember it while drunk, but when you’re sober the next day and you look at the video it doesn’t. Trust me.

Could I ever go back to the Pub in the Club? I’m not sure I could. It was such a surreal experience that perhaps it’s best left in the realm of one’s past, the kind of thing that one looks back on and wonders: did it actually happen or did I dream it?

Even with pictures I think it was all a strange – a very, very strange – dream.

Food Safari 8: Hebel Seafood Extravaganza

If the semi-arid, remote, inland of Australia is famous for one thing and one thing only, then surely that one thing is the quality of its seafood. It’s a no-brainer, therefore, that each year the P&C at the Queensland town of Hebel (just up the road from the Ridge) should put on a seafood fundraiser for its tiny public school. This year, a record seven families sent their children to the school. Go Hebel!

It’s a big deal, the Hebel seafood thing, as it raises funds for the students’ annual trip away. It’s such a big deal that both buses left from the Ridge: the big one and the little one (I know). We boarded the little one and headed up the Castlereagh Highway, which in parts is the bumpiest stretch of bitumen in the whole of the southern hemisphere. We all had jogger’s nipple by the time we’d reached the Nine Mile.

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The day had been cool and overcast, threatening to rain but without really following through. When I did my laps at the pool this morning (20, since you’re asking) I was the only one there apart from the kiosk lady and the lifeguard. It was odd, after so many hot weekends crowded with students, to plough up and down the black line under a heavy sky and a thin drizzle.

The ominous clouds still hung over Hebel as we mooched over to the community hall. We’d crossed the border and so there was a one-hour time difference. Of the many things that I’m not good at, maps and time differences are two of them. The hall was locked and the people inside couldn’t find the key. They mouthed through the window, “It’s only 5 o’clock!” I thought it was 7, when maybe it was 6. I kept quiet. There was a Maths teachers and an intimidatingly over-qualified biochemist Food Tech teacher with us and I didn’t want to say anything that would show exactly how ignorant I am of how clocks work.

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Eventually someone found the key and they let us in, or themselves out. It was your typical small-town country hall, set up with tables and a small stage displaying the raffle booty. On the wall was the list of sponsors: The Linen Cupboard at Dirranbandi; Mr Cheap and Lost Sea Jewels at the Ridge; Eclect. Chic Vintage at Goodooga; and, inevitably, John Murray Art Gallery. That guy must get hit up for every single fundraiser in north-western NSW.

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A hardy team had been at it all afternoon, setting up tables inside and out for the ravenous hordes. It all looked very beautiful and very promising.

Perhaps too promising.

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We’d settled into our second stubbies of Gold when the change hit. Chairs went flying, table decorations blasted around like shrapnel from a pipe bomb, and every burly cocky within 50 kilometres was called upon to dangle from the foldable shade tents. The Ridgites stoically remained seated, hanging onto our lucky door prize tickets and our beers, not helping in any useful way. What could I have done? I’ve never in one place seen so many men capable of knotting down a tarp. I would have used neat bows and granny knots and looked like the feckless, soft-palmed teacher that I have become.

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The time difference thing may have taken the Maths teacher and the biochemist by surprise too as we sat for what seemed like a trillion years waiting for the food to appear. Or maybe time slows down in Queensland and it was only quarter of an hour.

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Eventually it came, and the ravenous hordes fell upon the glisteningly icy cold seafood. There was salad and ham and bugs and crabs and fish and calamari: the works. My God, it was bloody delicious. BTW I know that ham is not a seafood but it was there.

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Someone said it was flown in to St George this morning. Someone else said it was bought from the freezer shop at Walgett but I think that was sour grapes. I had salads and oysters and bugs and a bit of everything. I went back three times.

A CD player plugged into the PA provided a thoughtfully curated playlist: Aqua’s Barbie Girl followed by Johnny O’Keeffe’s Shout followed by Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger followed by Billy Joel’s The Piano Man. Spotify and Pandora really need to get their shit together. When I’m relaxing at a seafood dinner I find that the theme tune to Rocky II really hits the spot.

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Outside, the tarps flapped and cracked in the wind. Inside, I caught a glimpse of the tables for Visiting Celebrities and the local Rotary Club and the sponsors. Perhaps the actual Mr Cheap was in there? I’d always thought that it was just the name of a shop but maybe, maybe, there really is a Mr Cheap from Lightning Ridge. The thought gave me tingles.

Just as we finished our meal the rain, which had huffed and puffed in clouds the colour of gun metal, eventually threw itself down upon us. We scuttled inside, but weren’t game to cross the threshold into the Big Room. Instead, we hung around the bar, shuffling from foot to foot and feeling slightly self-conscious.

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We had all eaten way too much. And then dessert came. I didn’t have any but I did use the suddenly cool weather to my advantage: I bought a red wine. The stubbies of Gold were 5 bucks but a brimful glass of wine was only 3. You beauty. The only downside was that I had stand at the bar and ask for it. The first time I said, “Could I have a red wine please” I’m sure the PA stuttered into silence and tumbleweed blew down the middle of the hall. A man with an unfeasibly large belt buckle and a hat with a brim as wide as a small planet looked at me askance. I blushed, but held my nerve. My reward was to be the envy of everybody.

 

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At last the raffles came on. It’s a golden rule of events like this that the prizes should range from the highly desirable blockbuster first prize to the strange assortment-of-things-in-a-basket-wrapped-in-cellophane 15th prize. The blockbuster was a car fridge and I didn’t win it. Second prize was something to do with gardening (a hose? some seeds?) and a John Murray print, which I didn’t win either. By the time we were at 7th prize the goods were grouped into increasingly random combinations: a set of screwdrivers, a flashlight, a bottle of Jim Beam and a John Murray print. A gigantic box of washing powder, a John Murray print, a pair of nail scissors. Didn’t win anything.

We were all quite relieved when it was time to go. We’d had a good time but we were stuffed with food and drink and getting sleepy. Everyone stumbled out of the hall. As we headed over to the buses in the park across the highway the air became filled with the sound of Toyota diesels firing into life as the locals headed back to their properties.

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It was a cracking night. Numbers were down due to the weather but hopefully the P&C raised enough to send the kids somewhere lovely.

Forever now, when I think of seafood I will think of Hebel.

The Great Inland C

Strong Language Warning

When I lived in Alice Springs it was a known Fact that the government had no interest whatsoever in anything that happened outside of Darwin’s southern suburbs. The “Berrimah Line” signalled the end to government funding, representation and development in the southern 90% of the Territory.

I’ve heard a similar metaphor used in New South Wales: the “Sandstone Curtain” is a neat geological cut-off point that divides the Sydney-centric NSW Government from its western constituents in a more powerful way than the Great Dividing Range. South Australia has its rainfall division in Goyder’s Line, Western Australia its Rabbit-proof Fence, and Tasmania its infamous Black Line.

Now I’m going to stick my neck out and say that arid Australia has another important dividing line, which I call the “Cunt Line”.

[After some agonising and much debate with people wiser than me, I’m going to spell it c––– from now on.]

East of the C––– Line, this word retains its shock value. The only other word that comes close for shock is the one that people like Tupac and Chris Rock re-imagined, though usually spelt ending –igga rather than –igger. (You know the one I’m talking about.)

But c––– is different out out west. It’s as though its shock value goes up the higher the rainfall; the lower the rainfall, it’s just a word.

In his book The Bush, Don Watson transcribed a conversation with a pastoralist. He and Watson are discussing buffel grass, a species that was introduced specifically for the pastoral industry. It’s now out of control across much of inland Australia and has become a major deal because it grows quickly, dries out quickly and when it burns it burns with a heat and intensity unknown to native grasses. This has created something of a love–hate relationship between buffel grass and the pastoralists but, as the cocky stated bluntly to Watson, “We plant it for the cows. C–––s love it.”

Can you have or be a good c–––? A teacher friend once did something a little outside the box and one of his Year 10 students shook his head admiringly and muttered, “You’re a hectic c–––, sir.”

I hear women use c––– quite readily out west. There’s no sly nod, no “Hey, check us out, using bad words ironically”. It’s more like, “You’re gonna have to push that door hard; it’s a c––– of a thing”.

The Northern Territory is classic c––– country. In fact, in Alice Springs at the moment there’s a one-woman show running at the Totem Theatre called Welcome to My Cuntry, and then of course there’s the guerrilla tourism project around CU in the NT.

I’m not sure of the exact position of the C––– Line. I do know that it in NSW it runs north–south, pretty much along the Newell Highway through Moree, Narrabri and Dubbo. This does mean that towns like Tamworth, Wagga Wagga and Bathurst fall on the eastern “shock” side, so there may be variations.

That’s the thing with the C––– Line: it’s evasive and hard to pin down. A real c––– of a thing.

 

Food Safari 7: Hon Doo, Walgett

The first Federation meeting of the year took us down the Castlereagh Highway in the bouncy bus, with the redoubtable Bill at the wheel, to the RSL at Walgett.

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(I just had to look up “redoubtable”. When it came into my head it seemed like the right word to describe Bill. You know how when you think a word seems just right, but then someone asks you to define it and you don’t actually know what it means? That.)

We were sharing a room in the RSL with the Thursday night poker crew. I like playing cards but poker has always baffled me. It belongs in American films, the ones where the men wear those little clip things on their arms to hold their sleeves up, and green shades, and fat havanas hanging out of their gobs. It’s all a bit lairy and flashily intimidating. If I ever did play a single game I’d lose every penny in about ten minutes. This poker crowd seemed quite cheerfully Australian though and there wasn’t a fat havana amongst them, but I couldn’t be persuaded to have a crack. I’ll stick to old maid and gin rummy.

We had the meeting bit, the bit where people reluctantly get voted into positions on committees, then we had a bit more meeting where we got inflamed about the ethically-neutral buttknuckles in government who are busily tearing down every institution that several generations of Australians spent creating. Building a sandcastle on the beach is slow, hard work, and it’s huge fun to kick someone else’s to pieces. This is what if feels like now: the world is ruled by the gloating idiots, kicking down other people’s achievements and laughing as they do so.

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The soothing click of poker chips. The low drone of raffle announcements (“this week’s Hot Cash winner is member 2391 in Narrabri”). The murmur of teachers avoiding being elected as secretary or women’s contact officer. And then we’re interrupted by The Ode for the Fallen; we stand and say, “Lest we forget”. A reminder of other kinds of sacrifice from the past.

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With the meeting over it was time to hit Walgett’s world famous Hon Doo Restaurant, the venue for Food Safari #7. By this time I was absolutely starving.

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It must be a tough gig, running the Chinese restaurant in a small regional town. No matter how good you are there will always be people who make snarky comments about dogs and cats, but I couldn’t resist snapping this picture on the menu. Is it really a Mongolian lamb? It looks more like a cross between a goat and a dachshund!

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But here’s the good news: the food was great! A few people made that “Oh my gosh, the servings are so huge! I’ll never eat all that!” And then they did. (And luckily I’m thinking this in my head but not writing it down: it’s always women who say that. Oops. Did I really think that out loud?)

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I had the chicken with sliced mushrooms, which is probably not even a Chinese meal. I don’t think anyone had the Mongolian lamb but everyone seemed very satisfied.

I had a conversation with a male colleague who, upon monstering his pork balls, uttered the exclamation “Yummo!” I cannot say this word. If I think of any word I think, firstly, “Can I imagine my father saying that?” It seems impossible for my dour Northern dad to ever have said that, and so I can’t either. My meal was … nice and tasty.

With the meal over we boarded the bouncy bus and the implacable Bill drove us out of Walgett, past the soldier standing guard atop the monument on the roundabout, past the servo, and back up the Castlereagh.

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I don’t know if it was all these reminders of the past – the RSL, the Ode, the discussion around rights won and lost – but I had a memory of my dad. He was at his happiest when he had his grandchildren around him and they were scoffing their dinner, and would beam at them and say, “Yummo!”. I can’t believe that I’d forgotten that, or had chosen to.

Walgett gets slagged off for lots of things, and I don’t know how much of it’s true and how much rubbish. But I can give Hon Doo the Learning About Lightning tick of approval.

Hon Doo food is indeed (deep breath) yummo.

Hot

It was around March last year when I first came up to the Ridge to check out the school. I stopped at the Crocodile Caravan Park (which did, apparently, once have a little croc in its pool) and rented a caravan with a weedy aircon jammed into the window. It was the end of summer and climbing on the mattress in that caravan was like lying on a soft, hot brick.

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The winter that followed was long, cold and wet, but here and now – on the first of February – that seems like a distant memory.

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As I type this (at 3.26pm, with the swampy churning away in the background) there is a maintenance guy working on the roof above me, fixing the neighbour’s aircon. Respect.

I took the bike for a run down the Colly road, past the few hardy souls dipping themselves in the bore baths (obviously they’re not hot enough and need a boost). The wide, flat fields on the southern side of the road have been sown following last year’s big harvests. Surface dust spins across the chocolate-brown soil. Road kill desiccates by the bitumen.

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I dawdled back into town and stopped at Morillas for a coffee. Some blokes prepping us for the NBN were there, whinging (in a good natured way) about the heat. One thing that the heat does is to give us something to talk about as a community, something other than Donald Trump or Beyonce’s twins. Everyone joined in with either “Oh my God, I know, this is hell!” but, mostly, “Pfft. This is nothing.”

I’m with the latter group. It’s easy to think that this is as hot as it’ll get, but the northern hemisphere label “summer” fails to understand the Australian inland. It can, and probably will, still be in the 40s at the end of March. The bitumen clings to the soles of my thongs when I walk down the road and my car’s tyres make a peculiar singing sound from the heat. The water that comes out of the cold tap is almost too hot to bathe in and so people turn the water heater off and get the cold water from the hot tap.

I was thinking about the early opal miners in Ion Idriess’s book. Christ, it must have been murderous back in the day. But it’s February, “summer”. It’ll be here for a while more yet.

Uncle Wal’s Album

Late last year my mother-in-law passed away, and The Wife was burdened with the task of emptying the family home in preparation for its sale. The house was the end-point for several generations of people’s stuff: porcelain ornaments, glassware, books, bric-a-brac. There were many gems among the potch, including a collection of photo albums kept by great-uncle Wal.

Of particular interest was the Pioneer Tour that Wal and a few friends undertook to the north-west in June 1946.

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There’s a great view of the Imperial Hotel, which I guess was the forerunner of the Diggers Rest (or one of its many incarnations). I showed the photos to a few folk and Ron identified the Tree of Knowledge (bottom photo).

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I wonder who these three old gentlemen are. Are their descendants still living and working around the Ridge? The bottom photo shows what I’m guessing to be the junction of the Castlereagh Highway and the road into the Ridge, in flood.

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If anyone has any information on any of these pictures, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.