Thursday, 16 May 2013

Old mate

It was impossible to know who was listening. Our footprint was so large I could be in a shearing shed, a supermarket or warbling in the background while some kid was insisting he was too sick for school.

Everymorning, without fail, old mate would ring me. More likely after the third song, definitely before the fifth, and sometimes I’d be only one song deep into the breakfast show and he’d be on the blower. 
That song reminded me of when…
I liked that song ….
Did you know that song was written by… 
I didn’t know this bloke. I knew someone who knew someone who was related to him. The bushvine reported he was a bit of a loner, and he’d told me himself that he lived in a wooden house out of town, on the river.

Old mate would ring for a yarn, and I’d be keeping one eye on the clock. Radio is divided into seconds and I’d practiced so I could talk over the intro or the tail of a song without buggering up the singing part of the song.
I can work out exactly how long it takes to say ...
Gee, I didn’t know that ...
That’s a great story ...
Thanks for sharing ...

and ended always with my standard...

Thanks for calling, have a good one mate. Seeya!

All uttered pretty much down to the second before I was back on air.

I think because I didn’t sound rushed, he took that to mean we were cool. And we were cool. He didn’t ring me to bang on about politics or the shire council, or environmentalism or pretty much anything ranty. Songs were his entry into our brief morning yarns, and very occasionally after hanging up I’d keep the yarn going, on air.

….and old mate on the river letting me know that Creedence Clearwater Revival grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and he’s wondering if they were Born on the Bayou. Thanks for the call. The time is …

Months of this went on, until one morning he didn’t ring. Or the next day, or the next. After a week of no show I heard on the bushvine why I wouldn’t be hearing from him again.

I never shared any stories of my country with him. 

If he had been a countryman I would have asked about the river he camped beside, asked whether the fish were good for eating, and what animals did he see come down to drink. That’s normal every day conversation out that way. And for sure if someone is suffering we’d have been going through genealogies and talking about our country, about the old people and the old stories.

I wondered afterwards if I was the only person he had spoken to in a long time. Even the last. Though that could just be me with an inflated sense of myself.  Even though my instinct was to share the stories that nurture and sooth, the society we lived in didn't invite us in to talk about ourselves or share how we lived in our world. Instead old mate got the public radio me. 

He might not have been as isolated and lonely as he sounded. He had a phone. He could have been ringing distant relatives, counselors, help lines, or old girlfriends he’d looked up from high school.  

And now that we are here, these days I’m resisting being dragged into “Religion Wars” where my spiritual beliefs - my Indigenous worldview - are picked over and dissected. But these days I would share a yarn or two with old mate on the river.

We don't need to keep all our secrets anymore. We can let some go. The repercussions of asserting our Aboriginal identity are less brutal, less punitive and on those few miserable occasions we’ve needed to, we even have effective legal recourse. But who can blame us for not being keen to enter the fray.

If we hadn’t been in survival mode without the freedom to talk about ourselves for generations of misunderstanding and lies with fathomless contempt to counter, asserting our identity wouldn’t be as confronting to those individuals who don’t know us, or comprehend the diversity amongst us.

Don’t know us, don't know our stories, our lives, our feelings or our aspirations. Or are suspicious of our motives, or simply just suspicious of us. If the world we lived in didn’t want us to speak or appointed others to speak for us, it’s hardly surprising that some individuals have a problem dealing with the freedom we are encouraged to believe we now possess.


Sunday, 28 April 2013

Radio star

The days are getting shorter and the nights are growing cooler so I've moved my writing set-up indoors, and then enjoyed a late burst of perfect weather.
My winter writing set up ....

It's not really cold enough for it yet, but I couldn't resist because if there's one thing I really enjoy, it's setting fire to things:
Perfect for warming me and neighbourhood stray cats if only they'd come closer ...

A writing exercise: Radio Star

Goodmorning all – how’s your day so far – it’s cold, that’s what it is. Here’s three in a row to get you up, get you moving, get you into the day…

If he brings you happiness….

Mmmm I love the smell of disenfectant in the morning. Using the key on the chain to unlock the luxury items – liquid soap, cheap spray & wipe and of most value, perfumed, soft as a cloud, patterned, two-ply, name brand toilet paper.

No one wanted to be the radio station cleaner, but it didn’t worry me, I can breath through my mouth when need be. And I was the only one on site that time of the day so no one slowed me down.
Loading up my waistband like a gun slinger with spray & wipe and a cleaning rag, I propped all the doors open as Freddy promised to tend to my tears in English and Spanish.

Mother of god, what the hell does this woman eat? Nose wrinkled and scrubbing with arm fully extended as George Jones invited me to walk through this world with him. As long as the receptionist thought I needed taking down a peg or two, she’d be making that known in the ladies, and I’d be paying back by repositioning my Deadly Award on the front desk so it’s shiny surface hit her right in her face every day she came to work.

Another deep breath in the corridor – yes George, I’ll go where you go – into the men’s, cheeks bulging with air. They wondered why I used so much of the bright pink candy coloured liquid – you would too if you stood as far away as possible while bucketing porcelain. The paint was starting to peel above the tiles but no one could argue every surface hadn’t been swabbed down.

Running now, up and down the corridor with the carpet sweeper.

…every gambler knows the secret to survivin’…

Oh yes, true that Kenny.

Throwing everything back in the vault, locking it tight. Then stirring the last drops of milk from the tiny fridge into my coffee.

…I found an ace that I could keep

I fished out a milk coffee biscuit – woohoo - and legs moving fast while I balanced the chipped mug I made it back to the mike just in time.

...There’ll be time enough for countin', when the dealin's done.

Some good advice there from The Gambler, Kenny Rogers, then along came Jones, that’s Mr George Jones, Walk Through This World With Me, and kicking off the breakfast show this morning, Before the Next Teardrop Falls from 1975, the legend Freddy Fender.


Monday, 4 March 2013

Mr Jones

I am now the very happy owner of a radio. I treated myself to a brand new wireless. It’s true that I can bluetooth anything through it and out its small but gutsy speakers, but I am happiest because I now have a radio with crystal clear reception. No crackle, no fuzz, no random wireless shutdown.

My ears pricked up when funding issues affecting community radio got a mention during last week’s news. I didn’t get how significant community radio was to the life of a community, till I spent three years in Bourke, over a decade ago.
According to the latest McNair Ingenuity survey, 4,446,000 people listen to community radio every week (which makes up 25% of the population). When “occasional” listeners are added, the figure rises to 10,611,000. (Nov 2012)
Of course these figures are new, and counting big city audiences too, but the percentage of those from a rural area engaging with community radio would be greater than 25%.

They say that people fear public speaking more than they fear death. Death is second. I’ve never investigated it, maybe it’s a mythical survey. But public speaking feels pretty bad.
So bad that I got into community radio in an effort to reduce some of the sweat that had trickled down into my shoes when I’d been invited to speak to a state conference about Bourke Aboriginal youth in crisis. At the time they said Bourke was out of control, had the worst stats in the state. I apologise for not remembering the figures, it was over a decade ago that I moved there because they said it was one of the worst towns in Australia then. It was recently reported as the most dangerous town in the world, if you make comparisons with the UN data. It makes for a good headline, but it just wasn't my experience.

So I completed the free 6 week course – to get some public speaking tips – and it evolved into hosting a weekend radio show for nearly three years.  Evolved, after conquering some significant barriers. Like the lisp I developed – I didn’t have a lisp prior to my first show, but I was so nervous I couldn’t pronounce my own name. That's a problem in radio.
This problem was solved, after sounding out different letters till I came up with an alias I could pronounce.

I’m from the country and volunteering is part of what keeps rural towns going.  Community radio also serves a vital service for Aboriginal communities.  And it provides training and community cohesion.

Prior to the radio opportunity coming up I had considered joining the rural fire service. They were keen, but I had to pull out when I discovered the uniform weighed 25kgs (that’s the grass fire suit, the structural fire suit is heavier) and I didn’t have the strength to walk around in it, let alone attend a fire. They suggested I could man the two way at base, but I really wanted to ride in the big red fire truck, which I couldn’t climb up into, also again due to the heavy bright yellow onesie.
Community radio satisfied my need to do some volunteer work, and it meant that every Saturday afternoon I was sitting in a sound proof room listening to music that people loved through the best sound system you are likely to get.

The concept of my show was what is your favourite song – I had a solid list of what people liked – but what I was after was ‘what is your favourite song?’ And out that way, far west NSW, we’re talking country. Old country music.

I met a lot of people simply because of songs. And I learnt all about country music from The Carter Family onwards.

From a personal development point of view, it gave me effective feedback:
Listener: I taped 86 of your shows.
Me: I’ve done 127 shows.
Him: Yeah, I heard them all, but some were better than others.

It was interesting and fun, but mostly I liked it because some of the songs reminded me of the old people and the music I can remember hearing on the wireless when I was a kid.
There were some songs that came up regularly – I'm talking 60s to 90s -  but then we started to get down to tin tacks – it can take a while to narrow it down to your favourite song. Then I was getting requests for songs that I had never heard of, title or artist.  One song, I searched for nearly two years to find. The song isn’t even that old, in Bourke years, and it’s a mystery to me how the song came to be so well known, because it was a very hard song to find. To this day you can’t youtube it.
Not that we had youtube ten years ago. I had to rely on word of mouth, putting the word out high and low that I was looking for one particular song. It was requested at least once a week. I mean without fail, someone would ask for that one particular song at least once a week.

One of the best moments of my life was at about the hundred show mark, when I finally announced, “This is George Jones – Heckel & Jeckel”.

Then the song was requested every day.

It’s a pretty good song, they weren’t wrong. Public speaking is less awkward these days,  and country music is just a small part of what I listen to. But for a time I was caught up in a network that was just about sharing what made you feel good. 

Footnote: After 3 years in Bourke, I moved and had a two year show on another community radio station in Canberra. 

Opening lines to Heckel & Jeckel:

Well, you and me baby know what love's all about,

It sure wasn't easy, oh but we figured out,
No matter what happens, we'll see it through.
Baby, dont you see there aint no me without you.

We're like Heckel and Jeckel ....

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Reflections on Bourke

I spent three years in Bourke. A few people said to me when I’d announced my next career move was going to be Bourke, ‘have you heard about Bourke?’ …’It’s got problems’ … ‘It’s dangerous.’

For some people, it might be.

I had been around, but I had never seen anything like it. I said I would be there for three years. And I was, give or take a week or so.

I have nothing short of respect for the people I met in Bourke.


I ran a crisis service for kids in Bourke. I was backed up by a big quiet, unassuming and purposeful guy, and it wouldn’t have been possible to live and work there without him. My 14 to 17 year old clients were what the locals called the ‘bad kids’. The kids who were not going to school, who were in and out of the courthouse and juvenile detention, who caused trouble in the street, and who didn’t have access to safe and secure accommodation in Bourke.

It hadn’t been my first choice of a job. I’d been approached three times and asked to consider it. My reasons for demurring were I felt under qualified to deal with all their issues, and the kids, who I could hardly tell apart, kept breaking into my house.

It seemed very few were enthusiastic about working with them, and just like everyone else, I had some ideas about what ‘someone’ should do about the situation. But in the end I agreed to take it on because the only way I was going to survive the town was to get to know the kids.

I was clear about my rules – no swearing, no yelling, no standing over each over, every kid in a seatbelt or there is no room for you in my car, and do not smoke or spit anywhere near me.
I didn’t mind loud music, so long as it wasn’t somebody screeching about bitches and ho’s. That was non negotiable.

And how did that work out for me?

How many kids followed the rules? 99%

How many did I work with? Too many to count.

We were under resourced and overwhelmed.
I had a tiny set of rooms in a prime location. The service had been operating for some time. I wondered how they coped with the boredom because at first, it was empty. Then I met a few kids. They just walked in off the street. Then more came. And in a few weeks we were full. We were over full. We had to be mindful of fire hazards and get around the OH&S issues, and so many other things. But the last thing we had to worry about was getting kids to come near us.

They were children. Not adults. They weren’t evil masterminds and mercenary predators. They were just kids.  They had rough lives and were mixed up and traumatized, but they had curiosity and hope. They were clever, funny, loving, interesting and beautiful in their youth. Some of their dreams were as outlandish as any other children, from anywhere. They adhered to a tribal morality, with definite ideas about how to behave towards each other.

The children I knew now have children of their own, and some of those kids are roaming the streets of Bourke tonight.


A writing exercise.

It was late afternoon when the child scootered across the wide road and rested his foot up against the bottom rung of my wire fence.

‘Dad said if the kids steal some of your stuff he’ll give it back to you.’

I looked briefly in the direction of where you’d expect to find his drug dealing father this time of day. He’d be sitting up in his spick and span home, dealing drugs till it was full on dark. Taking cash and stolen stuff in exchange for small plastic bags. The kids traded stolen goods – the items you’d expect kids to pinch and have secreted in their voluminous track suits for a quick deal – money, phone’s, cd’s, toiletries from the supermarkets, and occasionally jewellery.

I asked about school, while he made some shadow passes with his barefoot on the dry grass. My dogs had silently moved into position between me and the fence.

He asked, ‘do your dogs bite?’

I had a range of answers, I’d been asked so many times. This time I went with, ‘Do they look like they bite?”

The three silently studied each other through the fence.


I let this hang for a long moment. ‘They’ve never had to mate. No one comes in my yard.’

Not now they didn’t. I had been broken into six times before I got two pups from a breeder on a river block, over the back of Bourke. There was never any significant damage, just robbed. Six times. In the end it was mostly food they took. The last time the police caught two of them.

Driving down the road I’d glanced down my street to see a paddy wagon outside my house. I did a u-turn on them and rolled my window down. They told me my neighbours had rung them, and they’d apprehended two kids breaking into my house.

‘Apprehended..? You mean you have the back of your’


Next I am out of my car and up against the grill, on tippy toes peering in the gap at the top of the door. There were people moving in the back of the wagon.

‘Come closer, show me your faces,’ I snapped at them.

And two small faces, about ten years old leant closer. The freckle faced one was tear strained, the other looked scared.

I was shocked when I saw how young they were. ‘What the hell are you doing?’

Then outraged, ‘I am black. Just like you.’

The two police moved away and I stared down these two little kids through a grill in the back of a paddy wagon.

Then I got two dogs. While they were growing I woke one night to see a twin standing in my bedroom. There were a few sets of twins in town, and one set was identified as Good Twin and Bad Twin. They were identical, but I’d take a guess that it was Bad Twin in my bedroom that night looking for my car keys.

He was fast out the doors he’d opened, across my yard and over my fence with me behind him. I never caught him. But later when I knew, at least half the time, who he was I would yell at him in the street, day or night. Everyone knew why I was yelling at him because I had told enough people.

I can’t recall why I was walking through the park after midnight one night, apart from being on my way home. I could see there was a group sitting on the centre thing in the middle of the park, which was right about where I wanted to go. I recognised one was the kid I had seen in the paddy wagon out the front of my house months before and the rest were more adult than teenager.

My choices were take the long way round, or walk through the group. I thought about it and decided I’d stick to my route.

As I approached I heard them say my name as they talked softly amongst themselves. By the time I was on them they had tshirts wrapped around their faces so only their eyes showed. The smallest one said my name, louder this time,
‘Give us some money.’

I snapped my head in his direction, and could see the screwdriver in his hand.
’I don’t make enough to be giving it out in the street – wake up to yourself boy.’

There was a moment as I passed when I thought I was most vulnerable to a jab from a used syringe between my shoulder blades. A bloke had told me he’d been jabbed a half a dozen times in the park one night. I never understood what he could have done that would have warranted that. He had been drunk, he’d told me but I was cold hard sober, walking fast and I didn’t break stride.

They didn’t say a word or make a move. And by the time I got to the edge of the park I could hear them mimicking me for a block or so … ‘wake up to yourself boy’.

. . . . . . . . . .

The kids walked in groups. Going on dark they were on the move looking for food, and to meet up for safety, and to maybe have some kind of fun.

Walking past my place, I could hear them talking softly,
‘She’s there, sitting on the verandah.’

Most would call hello, and I'd name them as they passed. My dogs would barely raise an eyebrow, and laid around the open doorways, snoozing. They’d be on duty all night. Not that I expected any trouble any more. 


Thursday, 24 January 2013

On writing

After weeks of blogging indecision, it’s obvious I need to start small. This post will be around one word.


Used in a sentence:  ‘go aks your sister’, or ‘I aksed her and she don’t know…’

Urban dictionary, for what it’s worth has a definition.  UB has in fact listed several of the variants, so they’ve given it some thought. I spent a while chasing the word around the UB site – reading about ebonics – along the way. UB is American, and that’s pretty clear from the site.

So when applied to an Australian context, they were a bit cockeyed. But the reference to ‘manipulation and transformation of the English language’ works for me.

You may be aware that aks is not slang. Its not rap, and its not lazy. It’s a little word that packs a big story. 

What inspires you to write – a dream, a disappointment, a word? I was once inspired by a circle of tin nailed half way up a wall. It covered a hole, and had been painted over many times, and again in antique white when I took up residency. Through the layers of paint, it clearly said PET FOOD ONLY.

There are a few words, that capture a voice I’m chasing.  They serve as triggers.   I can put aks into lines of dialogue, off the top of my head, about 5 times. And I hope that you have read this far, without thinking I don’t know how to spell ‘ask’.

Aks him to come round, I’ll cut his woolly hair.

I’m not aksing him, you aks him.

I’m sick of aksing him.

He said you never aksed him.

A word like aks can pin you to a time and place. Sometimes uncomfortably so. Of course it is still in common usage.  If not for the baggage, we’d hear it more often.
The sound is different, of course, by reversing the ‘s’ and the ‘k’ - it took away the (click sound) at the end of ‘ask’.  To my ear anyway, it sounds softer, the kind of word you could hear all day long. Less like the sound of teeth sucking –  tstst – that's reserved for disapproval.

(tstst) I aksed him last Wenesday.

Aks is one of my favourite words, right up there with elocution and enunciation. Some words just feel good to say out loud.

Words his soul danced to. 
David Malouf, Remembering Babylon


Detail of the 2012 David Unaipon Award, Queensland Literary Award.

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