A good kicking on the way home from the pub, by the hobo chic quartet (excerpt from a novel – The exit line)
I’m being repeatedly kicked in the ribs by four pairs of feet. I can feel blood pouring out of my mouth. It’s pissing down with rain. I remember people telling me you stop feeling anything after a while when you’re being beaten up, and I thought they were talking shite. They’re right.
For some inexplicable reason, I have the song My Old Man’s a Dustman going through my head. I wonder when they’re going to stop. It feels like they’ve been kicking me for such a long time. I’m going to be a right mess in the end. Cindy’s being held back by two women. She’s screaming her head off. A good lass that one, probably the best woman I’ve ever met.
I really hope I live through this because I want to spend more time with her. Come on fuckheads, finish up and let me bleed on the pavement while Cindy holds my head up and tells me she loves me. That’s my cue to be all debonair and smile, then tell her that everything’s going to be alright. Deep down I’ve always been a gentleman.
Stuart’s final words to me as they finally stand back are, ‘That’s what you get when you mess with us’. What an idiot, he’s stolen lyrics from the chorus of Karma Police by Radiohead. The irony is mind-blowing. They walk down the street and I roll over onto my side and moan very loudly.
I’m really fucked up. Cindy’s immediately by my side holding my head up and kissing me on the cheek. The rain’s stopped. I don’t want the rain to stop; it feels more cinematic that way. Somebody’s shouting, ‘Fuck you, you Pommy cunt!’ I think every one of my ribs is broken. I haven’t lost any teeth, which is a total result because dentistry is expensive in Australia.
Cindy’s crying really loudly and swearing. I tell her everything’s going to be alright. My heart rate’s quickening, I can’t fucking breathe. Cindy’s stroking my head. I’m going to pass out.
Our Creative Director, Jesse Kingsley, used to be a pool attendant in the 90s. He talks fondly of the position; halcyon days, simpler times, all sprayed with chlorinated water and discount confectionary from the pool kiosk.
The other day, I was having lunch at my desk, when Jesse came up to me and said: “Gary Sweet was my swimming teacher”. I lifted my head up from an exquisitely baked chicken pie and told him that I once had a parking altercation with the lead singer of Dexys Midnight Runners. A weird stalemate developed where neither of us knew which story was better. That’s when our Head of Business Development chimed in with a story about dating Sting’s cousin’s daughter.
Later that day, Jesse wondered if Gary would remember him if they ever met on the street. I asked Jesse if he’d done anything out of the ordinary during the swimming lessons, and he said no, he hadn’t. But then he smiled and said: “Yes he would remember me! Because back then, my last name was Beaver!”
I don’t hate Christmas because I’m a miserable bastard, I hate it because it’s surplus to requirement. It’s an opportunity to max out your credit card, fight with family, eat unhealthy food, guzzle alcohol and pretend to like the crap presents people give you because they have no fucking idea who you are.
Some people even embrace Christmas as the perfect time to commit suicide. However, I’d like to reflect on all the disastrous Christmases I’ve had over the years. And there have been many. Let me tell you about some of the times I’ve been accused of ruining Christmas.
My first Christmas memory is of being around five years old and standing about two metres away from the Christmas tree scratching my balls. My old man came into the room, saw that my hands were down the front of my Magic Roundabout jim jams and said, “Don’t ruin Christmas Callum”. I have no idea what I got/learned that Christmas but I still enjoy scratching my balls.
With the introduction of alcohol to Christmas, the prospect of ruining the day increased exponentially. One year my old man and my wee brother helped me to ruin Christmas. We all got so drunk before Christmas lunch that all three of us passed out at the dining table. The next year alcohol was banned and we had a merry, yet boring Christmas.
I spent Christmas 1999 in Marrakech, where I got so drunk on the roof of the hotel that I had to be assisted to my room by strangers. I spent most of the day passed out on the bed farting, while my girlfriend sat on a rickety chair crying and gagging on the methane. The next morning over a lamb tagine, she announced that I had ruined Christmas.
Moving swiftly beyond the Millennium, ruining Christmas became a certainty. However, Christmas 2001 was spent in Brighton with the same methane suffering GF of Marrakesh fame. That year we hosted an orphans’ Christmas and we had a ball. My wee brother was staying with us and I invited loads of mates from around the traps. We all took hash cookies. It was a truly great Christmas. My wee brother passed out on the couch and the rest of us crumbled Jaffa Cakes into his bum crack. He was rather embarrassed by this but conceded that I had not ruined Christmas.
Jumping five years and a continent, I ended up spending Christmas with another girlfriend at her parents’ house. On this occasion, I really did ruin Christmas and to this day I feel guilty about my behaviour. Life wasn’t going well for me down under and I was a couple of hot dinners away from flying home to the mess I’d left there.
Christmas morning started with champagne and moved swiftly onto red wine (my Achilles heel). By around 8pm I was wild eyed and scary drunk. For those of you who know me, this is an unpleasant experience. A good friend of mine once described it as like being trapped in a broom cupboard with a high functioning zombie. Needless to say, when I stripped off my shirt and threw an antique stool against the wall, I had officially ruined Christmas and any chance of being invited back. That was not only a low point in my life but a low point in ruining Christmas.
After that I got on the straight and narrow and decided that I should devote my life to making Christmas better. It was a failed experiment but at least I stopped ruining Christmas. A few Christmases passed by uneventfully and I thought I was moving away from my Christmas shenanigans. However, I hit the festive wall by getting drunk by the coast one Christmas and I guzzled all of Christmas dinner, leaving nothing for my girlfriend. She loves scallops. I ate all 75 in one sitting and then passed out on the couch. When I rose from my slumber she accused me of ruining Christmas but revoked the accusation after we found naked photos of her Dad’s girlfriend doing unsavoury things to herself.
There have been a few more bumps along the yuletide highway, like last year when I started drinking whisky at 6am and cooked a dry shepherd’s pie for my guests, followed by a tearful monologue about how successful my year had been. But to be perfectly honest, I could do without it.
Christmas, like New Year’s Eve, is an example of forced fun. It’s not a time of reflection, it’s a consumerist hell hole that makes absolutely no sense to me at all. Why max out the credit card for one day? Why pour so much into one day, when the other 364 should be equally as important?
I’ve ruined my fair share of Christmases, so I’m officially retiring from non-secular holidays. They’re obviously not for me and vice versa. I should have done this years ago but people love to guilt trip you about not liking Christmas, like you’re some kind of negative vibe merchant.
So, this year I’m locking the door of the Treehouse and turning off my phone.
If you need me, wait ‘til Boxing Day. It’s better this way.
I am not gluten free. Far from it. I’m watching a show about a cross-dressing family man, eating white fish, and breathing in Saturday air. I make no plans for the weekends because plans get in the way of doing nothing.
When I was a kid, I had very red cheeks. There’s a photograph on the lounge window sill of me sitting on my mother’s knee with an exceptionally red face.
Some people think I was born old and intolerant, a five year old with the disposition of a jaded London taxi driver. I wasn’t like that when I was a kid, I was an adventurer, the buccaneer of the River Ericht, crashing through rain covered cobwebs on my way to the gorge.
What happened to that spirit? When did I get bogged down in having a career and doing nothing at the weekend? Sometimes I’d like to resurrect that little fucker and get him to take me on an adventure somewhere, anywhere. We’d spend the weekend diving for pearls, create complicated games out of Lego, and finish up tired on Sunday, tunneling through the biggest Shepherd’s Pie ever baked.
“We can only eat fish fingers on dull days”, is what I said to my Grandfather, standing in a Swedish kitchen in 1977. Elvis died that day.
But now it’s windy in Brunswick and the Bloody Marys are cascading down the walls. My feet smell like funky corn chips and I wish I’d at least tried pearl diving as a career. However, regret is one of life’s greatest fallacies and I’m not a kid anymore but I’ve never wanted to be anyone else, and oblivion is sewn into the fabric of morality.
Exit, pursued by a bear.
In 2014 I fell in love with plants. It all started when I moved into the ‘Treehouse’, my new and now beloved flat on Brunswick Road. Prior to the Treehouse, I lived in Ye Olde Lodge and I didn’t have an outdoor area. Now I have a roof terrace where, after raising myself from sweat soaked dreams, I begin each day watching the sun rise over the Republic of Moreland.
One afternoon, me and Lil’G, went to Bunnings and bought a load of plants for my terrace because it looked sparse, and was begging for some greenery. A man’s home is a window into his mind. I bought a dwarf lime tree, scallions, basil, chili, coriander, and a respectful tray of parsley.
In the absence of pets, plants fill a certain gap in my domestic life. They need me and that makes me feel good. Quickly, my plant count began to rise and, before I knew it, my life was awash with photosynthesis and better air quality in my 3rd floor life of tranquillity.
It was about this time when Lazarus came into my life; a plant with white flowers that now sits on the window sill of my kitchen. Lil’G saved him from a trade show, and if she hadn’t picked him up and carted him back to the Treehouse, he’d have been dumped, just like Super Ted.
I’m in love with Lazarus. He’s brought abundant joy into my life. He makes me feel like a better man. And like me, he’s been through the blood spattered wringer of life. When I look into the pollen soaked mire of his white petals, I go weak at the knees and pray to the God of Botany, who’s a mixture between David Attenborough and David Bellamy. I guess you could say my love for Lazarus, is all about the David’s.
About a month ago I was recovering from a particularly intense drinking session with Jay Donovan and was enforcing an Alcohol Free Day (AFD). On these days, I always get a bit jittery and superstitious. I’m not a religious man but I’m superstitious, and I regard this trait as being the repository of my creativity. Being irrational is exhilarating. If I wasn’t irrational, I’d get incredibly bored and probably rob a bank or something like that. Irrationality has saved me from long term incarceration.
Anyway, I’d had the kitchen window open all day because it was hot in Melbourne and the moths were rising from the cracks, and destroying my knitwear. I was having frequent cold showers to alleviate my acute withdrawals from good times and, after one excellent shower, my Dad called me to discuss a financial matter. So, I took myself out onto the terrace to talk to the man who made the Vauxhall Viva HC estate look cool.
When I walked back into the flat, I noticed that Lazarus was gone but the window was closed. I hunted around the flat looking for him, thinking that maybe in my sober funk that I’d decided to move him somewhere else. I looked and looked but still I couldn’t find him. That’s when I remembered my ghost.
My ghost is a phantasm from the past that follows me around the planet. Ghosts don’t need passports or luggage; they just need a reason to be. My ghost is a nice person because at this stage he/she has not turned into a poltergeist.
Anyway, I thought my ghost had pilfered Lazarus and hid him because I’d been neglectful. Sometimes I get drunk and talk to my ghost. It’s a one way conversation, but Lazarus was gone. However, in my moment of need I got practical and considered the possibility that Lazarus had fallen out of the window. Sometimes we do things unconsciously and I thought that I’d maybe closed the windows like Hal, from 2001 A Space Odyssey, in a fit of jealous rage, and I’d not noticed Lazarus’ absence. Life’s fraught with moments of inattention.
But it was dark and I didn’t want to go all the way downstairs only to discover that Lazarus wasn’t there, and that my ghost had gone rogue. So, I decided to pretend he was down there and that my ghost still loved me. Finding out that love is not reciprocated is like finding a misshapen lump on one of your testicles.
I did not sleep well. My dreams were wracked with anxiety about having to go back to school. School taught me nothing but I did learn that institutions breed contempt.
I rose at dawn, walked out onto the terrace and watched the light make that spectacular transition from darkness to Brunswick. I find light as intriguing as the flow of emotion I feel when an underdog wins the day.
Walking down the stairs, I felt my blood addle, until a voice in my head said, ‘fear not Big C, an exorcist will soothe your weathered soul’.
When I got to the land that exists below my unreliable window, I saw Lazarus lying in a bed of broken glass that had been discarded as part of the recent renovations in my building. His flowers had wilted and he wasn’t looking too perky but he was alive and I could feel my ghost laughing in the silent wings, pursued by a bear. I picked Lazarus up, dusted off the glass and took him upstairs like Richard Gere did to Debra Winger in An Officer and a Gentleman, cue the late Joe Cocker.
It was a beautiful moment. One man and his plant. The fall would kill a person but not him. Not Lazarus, he’s not subject to the fall of man.
After some TLC, Lazarus was reborn; broken, tarnished, beautiful, soulful and green, just like the underdogs that we all love so much. And now, as I write this post, he’s photosynthesizing, and I can tell he loves life because my ghost is at peace, and the light on the terrace is brazen and alive.
Illustration by Angry Goat
I’m moving out of Ye Olde Lodge in two weeks and the prospect of leaving is making me miserable. I’ve been there for four and a half years now, and it’s the longest I’ve ever stayed in a house since I was 17 years old. So, I’m now going to tell you why Ye Olde Lodge (YOL) is the most important building in Brunswick.
The first reason is that it’s located at No. 1 Sydney Road making it the first house you see driving into Brunswick if you arrive via Royal Parade. Yes, it’s that place on the corner with the clocks that don’t work and yes, it looks a little bit like a half-way house for more discerning vagrants. But no, it used to be a hotel in its heyday and when you open the huge front door you can smell about five different dinners cooking at once. That’s not a reference to it being a hotel but at any time of the day you can actually smell five meals being cooked at once. The government calls it high density living. I call it living up somebody’s arsehole.
However, arseholes aside, the walls are thick, so once you’re inside your flat, the smells dissipate and all you can hear are the trams clanking down Sydney Road or the urgent throttle of a local Bandido racing towards another MENSA meeting. Is it a mere coincidence that the rise of bikie crime in Australia has occurred concurrently with the popularity of Sons of Anarchy? Anyway, I digress.
At YOL, I live across the hall from the weirdo of the building; let’s call him Dan because that’s his name. On Sundays, Dan climbs into the roof and can sometimes be heard raking around above my flat doing something. I don’t know what he does up there but I hope he’s been having fun. Dan once gave me a six-pack of Asahi because I complained about the noise of his renovations. He genuinely thinks he’s bought me after that act of benevolence, and every time I see him on the tram he nods at me like those six beers changed my life.
Then there’s the lad downstairs, who always calls me ‘neighbour’. Last summer we argued about him using my parking space. I was drunk at the time and told him that if he parked in it again I’d smash in his car’s windows with a baseball bat. He took this seriously and called the police. When the police called me, I told them that my ‘neighbour’ had urinated in one of the plant pots out the front of the building. By Monday morning the plant pots were gone.
The woman who lives right next door to me is Janice, and she’s in love with Blake Carrington from Dynasty. We’re friends and are now the longest standing residents of YOL and she’ll be sad to see me go because she hates Dan and has never received a six-pack of Asahi from him. Instead, Dan has spent a long time in her roof being single. There was talk of Dan having a girlfriend but I suspect the closest thing he has to a girlfriend is a pork chop, in a tumbler.
Dirti Cunti is the building’s body corporate. My top tip to anyone reading this is to never, ever employ these people to look after anything. Getting these so called property managers to take any form of responsibility is like asking Jack the Ripper to work as a temp in a remotely located brothel and asking him to promise not to brutally murder any of the employees.
But dysfunction aside and the odd call from the cops, I love this old building. It’s been a good home to me, Callum Scott, and many of my boisterous guests. It was in this building that I had a remarkable alcoholic delusion. Two friends came round and found me leaning against the toilet door having an argument with my girlfriend, who they assumed had locked herself in the toilet because I was being a nightmare. They coaxed me away from the door with more beer and I sat drinking with them at my kitchen table, occasionally going back to the toilet door to shout something, until I eventually passed out in an ashtray. As they walked down the stairs they passed my girlfriend returning from the supermarket with much needed supplies, and to their credit said ‘hello’ like nothing had happened.
Anyway, there is something incredibly spiritual about a home you love. The very walls seem to imbue a sense of harmony that’s impossible to articulate. In a real home, everything is perfect, even the things that don’t work and, really, that’s the whole point of building a home in the first place. I’ve lived in places that didn’t feel like a home and the knock on effect to the rest of my life was palpable to everyone, especially me. When I don’t have a home, part of my brain ceases to function properly.
When I have a home everything makes sense because I have somewhere to go when everything doesn’t make sense. I think of all the long days I’ve had over the last four and a half years and how getting home at the end of one of those days was better than anything else I could imagine. Opening the door, smelling my home and placing my keys in the little plate by the door. Simple pleasures, the kind of routines that work on me like functional therapy. I hope everybody experiences this at least once in their life because after that you won’t settle for anything less, and nor should you.
So, goodbye Ye Olde Lodge. Sometimes life was stormy and tempestuous but you were always there for me, and most of the time life was perfect because I knew you were there, on the corner of Sydney Road and Park Street. A loveable collection of bricks with a generous soul…
…and the broken clocks who only told the right time twice a day, which was good enough for me.
I’m tunneling into the city without a hangover or a badger and Chekhov’s gun is locked and loaded, ready for ACT III and that gossipy fucking chorus. I need shirts, lots of them because I’m a worker now and workers need to look like they’re working hard, and white shirts are symbolic of modern labour.
But first I need to take a deep breath and try to explain myself the best I can.
I have been sober for exactly five weeks and I have so much excess energy that I go to sleep looking forward to getting up the next day. I also do yoga now. Ashtanga yoga, at 6am. I rise at 5:30am and walk through the dark backstreets of Brunswick to the yoga studio next to Jewel Station. Yoga relaxes me but I don’t like closing my eyes in a room full of strangers. It’s not that I feel vulnerable, it’s just that I’m worried people will read my mind and see what I really think of them.
Being sober means being more aware and, unfortunately, that heightened awareness can feel like paranoia. Alcohol is a wonderful buffer that keeps reality at bay and shields you from other people’s opinions of you. When I was in a constant state of drunkenness I was blissfully unaware of the thoughts of others. I’ve probably pissed off more people in one night than most people do in a lifetime, and I didn’t feel their penetrating gaze on my tarnished conscience. People had to tell me and, when they did, I’d politely ask them to, ‘Shut the fuck up’.
No drunk wants some loose-tongued lizard regaling them with their nocturnal sins, while they’re nursing the mother of all hangovers. Our motto is, ‘If you can’t remember, it didn’t happen’, and anyway, the friend who wants to interrupt your self-loathing with the embarrassing details of the previous night doesn’t really want to help you. All they’re doing is scrambling up to the moral high ground out of some misguided sense of entitlement.
Well, at least that’s what you think when you’re knee deep in a whisky Jacuzzi, with the devil dancing on your tonsils and a cactus crawling up your liver.
The drunk is a poor man’s Prometheus tied to the front bar, awaiting his fate every evening while the other drinkers stomp their feet on the carpet to the beat of the eagle’s giant wings.
Yes, people tried to help me but that help fell on deaf ears because I thought I had all the answers, even when I could see the dot of the eagle appear on the horizon, hungry for its nightly feast. I suppose Prometheus is the patron saint of alcoholics, and he knew all about regret.
Now there’s a word. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced regret and when you do experience it, you wish you could go back in time and sort the shit out. But even if you did go back in time and sort the shit out, you’d still be afflicted by regret. Just like a Jehovah’s Witness, once you invite regret into your life, you’re fucked…
… and the moment you sober up the regret rolls in. It starts with the dreams. Anxiety dreams and nightmares that have been queuing for months, waiting for a chance to tread the boards. I kept having dreams about friends being eaten by sharks but the worst one was about turning up to work wearing a sweater vest. Yes, the shame of wearing a sweater vest was worse than a shark attack. Plus, the sweater vest was covered in red wine stains. When I woke up from that dream I went for a 3am run around Princes Park just to warm up my cold sweat.
But the heightened energy of sobriety is the hardest part to control. The drive to do things, to take that image of the warm, dark pub out of my mind and toss it into that landfill of regret. That’s what fuels the paranoia. The mountain of regret that I’d swept under the carpet because another Bloody Mary beckoned. Sitting in a pub, bar, kitchen or bedroom, as long as I had a drink in one hand and a Peter Stuyvesant in the other. When I was in that state, regret backed off and the day started off right.
Now, the doors have opened and last orders have been called there’s no escaping the demons. The fuckers are out there, circling my wagon train but I’ve broken the chains and climbed off my craggy peak.
I’m tunneling into the city, a subterranean white collar worker looking for white shirts because white shirts mean hard work and hard work purifies the soul and chokes regret or that’s what I’m telling myself. I suspect this might be bullshit but what else can I do?
There are six bullets in this gun and I plan to be very selective in how I use them. The chorus is first and then…
“I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, and that’s how I feel about my years of drinking. Yes, I had some monumentally great nights but equally, I had some nights that I’ll regret for the rest of my life.
I was fourteen the first time I got drunk on Merrydown cider in my home town of Blairgowrie, Scotland. The carnival, or ‘the shows’ as we called them, were in town for Braemar Night; an eclectic festival of Scottish culture but for teenagers…
… a night to get very, very drunk and puke up on your brand new trainers.
We bought our cider from a dodgy florist on the high street and went down the river to get pissed and smoke Embassy Blue cigarettes.
The riverbank was teaming with Thatcher’s disaffected youth and the cider flowed as free and deep as the River Ericht. A lad, who will remain nameless, shocked us all by pulling out a tub of Bostik adhesive, depositing a large dollop in a plastic bag and pumping said bag until he passed out in a ditch. He went on to become a successful welfare cheat and moved to Spain.
Four hours later, I was puking my guts up all over my bed while my mate, Sqweak (this is not a typo, it was the 8Os) drunkenly explained to my mum and dad that I’d eaten a dodgy hot dog bought from a ‘mink’ (derogatory term for a gypsy). Of course, my parents didn’t buy Sqweak’s bullshit and imposed various embargoes on my life.
But that first night of drunkenness made its mark. Since the age of fourteen I have always drunk alcohol like this. Never in moderation but until I keel over, blackout or end up on somebody’s couch, disgraced, guilty and dehydrated.
I can go without a drink indefinitely but one sniff of the barmaid’s apron and I need to drink myself into a stupor. Alcoholism has no single definition. The Hollywood version is all about drinkers getting up and pouring a sneaky dram of whisky into their coffee or downing a beer before breakfast. The reality is far from this.
Alcoholism has a sliding scale and there are many forms of alcohol abuse, down to the person who only drinks on Friday’s after work but really craves that drink from noon to 5 pm, and knocks back that first pint like the elixir of life. Habitual drinking is, by definition, a problem with alcohol but a more socially acceptable form of alcoholism.
So why have I decided to give it all up and jump on the wagon of righteousness that’ll take me to the land of milk and honey where I’m likely to become diabetic?
Well, apart from a recent health scare at a gym, you just know when it’s over.
Think about that time you woke up, rolled over, saw your partner sleeping like a baby and thought, ‘fuck me, I don’t love you anymore’. I’ve done the same thing. Rolled over, saw the drool cascade out of the bottle’s mouth, smelt its acrid morning breath and thought, ‘fuck me, I don’t love you anymore’.
I used to think that death, destruction and tragedy were sexy and, don’t get me wrong, they are, but they come at a price. I think about all the times I was drunk and threw caution to the wind, walking blindly into oblivion and potential incarceration and they were real moments of cinematic invigoration. But imbibed delusion began to get in the way of actual progress and, instead of writing my books, plays and poems; I was simply living the undocumented version of them.
Yes, living life to the fullest is, or should be, incredibly important to a writer but as long has he/she writes it down. Just living a writer’s life does not make you a writer. Adoring Charles Bukowski does not make you a writer. Writing inspired sentences on a page makes you a writer. Hard work and perseverance makes you a writer. I stopped being a writer and became a drinker living like a writer, and that is not enough.
I’m miserable when I’m not writing and drink to medicate this disappointment. I drink in my flat and watch shows like Bored to Death. I meet people down the pub and, in the words of Beirut, ‘we drink to die’ in that romantic but delusional way. But, as I said, this is no longer enough.
I had this epiphany on the Sandringham train on the fourth of July and, irony aside, it’s time to act upon it or I’ll hit fifty and find myself living in a room above a pub with a broken laptop, burst capillaries and a head full of mixed memories, garnished with disappointment and a loose bowel. This frightens me. Scares me half to death. And…
… I think about Braemar Night, 1984 and the river and the drunk teenagers and walking through the streets of Blairgowrie like the idiot prince, wearing a new pair of Puma trainers I bought with my paper round money. And I feel nostalgic, I really do. But what’s important about nostalgia is that it belongs in the past and now it’s time to move onto the next stage of my life, the stage where I don’t wake up and fear the consequences of my actions. So…
On this day, the 16th of July 2014, I get up and just get on with making it better.
It all started when I was 21 and moved into a share house with three vegetarian women who were so holistic they felt bad about having to kill the insects that were destroying their herb garden. In fact, they had a funeral for the insects in the backyard and burned incense by a little shrine they fashioned from ChupaChup sticks and Blu-Tack. I was desperate for a place to live, so I lied to them about being a committed vegetarian and told them I had access to cheap grass. At least the part about the grass was true.
We all ate together every night and took turns in making dinner. This was in the days before mass public access to the internet, so every few days I had to hit the library and find a new recipe to maintain my charade. I maintained it for a while until I came home drunk one night and dumped a Big Mac wrapper in the kitchen bin without covering it with other bits of rubbish. The next morning I woke up feeling a little worse for wear and decided a coffee and joint would sort me out. When I went into the kitchen, the three of them were sitting around the table with the Big Mac wrapper placed in the centre of the table covered in cling film, next to a pair of rubber gloves. They told me I had corrupted the sanctity of their home and threw me out. On the way out, I stole the insect shrine and for two years I would have my photo taken with it in different locations around the globe and then mail the photos back to the house.
Being a shallow young man in my early twenties, I maintained the vegetarian illusion because I worked out that it was the early 90s and women in Melbourne seemed to like that sort of thing. I met Sarah at a Hari Krishna canteen style restaurant not long after I was thrown out of the House of Cling Film and we hit it off immediately over dahl and an illustrated edition of the Bhagavad Gita. Three weeks later she moved into my place with her cat, Starship. These were halcyon days of pot smoking, regular sex, vegetarian curries and unemployment benefits, until Sarah got a job in a secondhand bookshop down the road from the flat. Back then this was righteous employment and I was proud of her.
While Sarah was at work, I was going to uni and writing essays at home. I was also eating ham sandwiches for lunch and having a bacon roll whenever the fancy took me. One afternoon I received a phone call from a mutual friend informing me that Sarah had been spotted eating a chicken Zinger burger in KFC. I asked him if it was definitely her and he said, “Fuck man. I’m so sorry dude”. I was ecstatic thinking I’d met my perfect match, so I went out and bought in a couple of porterhouse steaks for dinner. When she arrived home I had them sitting, uncooked, on the chopping board, awaiting seasoning and adoration. What I didn’t expect was her face when she saw them. It was like she’d arrived home to find a dead kitten stuffed down the toilet. Turns out that she’d suspected I was eating meat on the side and got our mutual friend to flush me out of my Ralphie Wigam style House of Lies. The upside was that I didn’t have to move out. Sarah and the mutual friend got married three years later.
For a few more years, I limped through life with my gastronomic mendacity slung over my shoulder and avoided being rumbled by my vegetarian brothers and sisters. However, we were coming to the end of an era and the age of holistic enlightenment was drawing to a close except for the people who were genuinely actually into it and very glad that people like me were about to jump ship and hopefully drown.
At this particular point in history, people were turning their backs on crystals and vegetarianism and entering the cathedral of vinyl in droves to experience a more experiential form of spirituality through the healing qualities of MDMA. I was not one of those people, although I did partake in large quantities of MDMA. When I saw friends of mine give up their vegetarianism I became a committed vegetarian and began fighting the good fight for Quorn and Linda McCartney ready meals. Why? Because somehow being a vegetarian became something worth fighting for, it was like I’d finally found my cause in life. When the rats begin leaving the sinking ship I tend to take the helm and sail the ship into martyrdom.
I became a zealot, a spoilsport at BBQs, a boring, preaching, predictable shite-hawk with a bicycle I made from scrap and prayer flags hanging out of my arse. After years of being a pretend vegetarian I had finally seen the quinoa on the wall. I even felt really guilty about the insect shrine and sent a long apologetic letter to the women from the shared house I’d desecrated all those years before. I’m pretty certain they’d probably moved out long ago, so a complete stranger/s probably received a very confusing letter about an insect shrine and a Big Mac wrapper that they slapped on the fridge for the amusement of guests.
However, like every close relationship I’ve ever had in my life, disaster was always lurking around the corner, next to the shamed gynecologist and the retrenched bloke who still pretends to go to work every day. Once again, I was skint, living back in the UK and on the verge of yet another eviction. The job market was bleak and, based on experience with these situations, I’ve learnt to take the quickest option to resolve my problems. In this particular instance, a ‘friend of a friend’ from my local pub needed an assistant manager to work in Grubbs Burgers; a trendy burger joint for people who have ethical problems with MacDonald’s or reprobates who are so drunk they’ve forgotten where MacDonald’s is located. I checked my bank balance and said yes. After three shifts, meat and I were back on track, in the form of a blue cheese burger with shoe-string fries, washed down with a can of coke and a Camberwell Carrot sitting on the chest freezer in the storeroom. And that was the end of the line.
I have never gone back to my lying vegetarian ways and, to be honest, it’s all rather embarrassing now, but like all fuck ups, I did learn some valuable lessons and these are:
- When you’re young ‘being true to yourself’ isn’t much fun and lacks imagination; you need to play around with your personality before you even know what the ‘truth is’.
- Generally speaking, lies will result in homelessness.
- Learn to spot a cunning ruse when it’s dangled in front of your nose.
- Bacon is the best food in the universe and I’ve watched many a vegetarian be swayed by its spellbinding aroma.
- Building a shrine to insects that were destroying your herbs is weird, especially when you’re serious about it.
- Stealing weird shrines is also a bit weird but taking photos of them on a Thai beach, sitting next to a bottle of Chang beer, is brilliant.
- Always know when the battle is lost and, instead of crying about it, learn the valuable lessons of defeat.
Having had a checkered dalliance with vegetarianism, I have infinite respect for vegetarians who demonstrate conviction and restraint. It takes a particular kind of person to put faith in their beliefs, and in turn live their life based upon those beliefs. However, people who claim they’re vegetarians but still eat chicken and fish are fucking idiots.
Some call it The Espy of the North but it’s unfair to position The Retreat below the mighty Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda, or even compare the two. The Retreat has its own sense of greatness and a long history of watering punters since Miss Amelia Shaw first opened the doors in 1842*. I’ve been going to The Retreat off and on for about nine years now and, even so, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with this Brunswick institution.
Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a hardcore regular at The Retreat and I’m not on a first name basis with the staff but I do consider it to be one of my locals. One of many locals I frequent in Brunswick, including The Sporting Club and Bridie O’Reilly’s for the $10 lunch specials (the beef and Guinness stew is excellent). When I do go to The Retreat, I always sit in the front bar, tucked up on a high stool opposite the beer taps and I’m not comfortable sitting anywhere else in the building.
The front bar of any pub is the heart soul of the building, the no bullshit first point of contact that rejects pretentious menus; settling for the good old fashioned pub fare of beer and urine soaked peanuts. I am not a fan of beer gardens because I go to the pub to soak up the ambience of real, old school pub culture and the front bar fulfills this quasi-religious need. There is something wonderful about being in a front bar at 3pm with a good mate, three pints down, euphoric and unaware of all the bad shit transpiring in the disappointment of reality.
The front bar at The Retreat is a thing of wonder. Of all the pubs I’ve dragged my drink-soaked body through, this front bar has the most hectic décor I’ve ever seen. It incorporates a mélange of themes from Rock-a-Billy to that particularly Melbourne sense of ironic retro kitsch. Anybody who’s lived in the inner suburbs of Melbourne knows what I mean by this; doilies on the wall, op shop paintings of horses, sagging brown couches and one of those nodding Chinese cats near the cash register.
The Retreat’s front bar is a shrine to eclecticism, a museum of stubbie holders and slogans, band posters and other random paraphernalia. The carpet is drenched with the footprints of a million punters in a thousand different states of mind. It’s like somebody has collected all their experiences of life and thrown them into one room and then fired a few rounds of hedonistic wear and tear into the rapidly fading wallpaper. Sometimes we find comfort in chaos. The moment I walked in there, years ago, my heart told me I was home. If you haven’t been, drop everything and go now.
So, while I’m at home with the physical ambience of The Retreat I do have problems with some of the attitudes it embraces. In a nut shell, The Retreat reminds me of a mate of mine from school who only listened to obscure bands because they were obscure bands and he thought that made him cool. Some of you may remember a subculture in the early nineties that was obsessed with rejecting anything that they called ‘mainstream’. To those people, being mainstream was all about liking blockbuster films, listening to top 40 music, wearing high street fashions and loving the sitcom Friends. Instead, they embraced more indie music, converse trainers, acid, pills, smack and the films of Hal Hartley. The Retreat seems to embody much of this counter culture ethos yet still charges $18.40 for a jug of Carlton Draught.
I can’t be too judgmental about this ethos because I was a bit like that myself. I was at a subcultures book launch a couple of years ago and the keynote speaker was John Safran and he talked about subcultures and how those involved in a subculture are obsessed with authenticity. Safran then went onto say that as you get older this desire for subcultural authenticity diminishes as you become more confident in your own identity and you begin to reject much of the subcultural accoutrements you once held so dear. The Retreat has never grown up even though its prices have, and when I’m in the front bar I feel like I’ve been transported back in time to an era of more hair, rancid leather jackets and the smell of mid-morning bongs in a share-house in Collingwood.
As you can see, I’m rather torn when it comes to my relationship with The Retreat because while the pretentious factor bothers me I still like going there but never after 7pm. And that’s the next thing, The Retreat undergoes a massive transformation after 7pm. Up until that point, it’s local people just enjoying their beverage of choice but after 7pm the building is invaded by suburbia, particularly from Thursday to Saturday. By around 10pm, you have to queue to get in and after the bands finish the dining room turns into a sordid denizen of mainstream music and classic songs that everyone can dance to. I was once subjected to a medley of ABBA songs. Basically, The Retreat’s counter cultural soul is sucked out of the building not to return until it re-opens at noon the next day.
Some people may argue with the above and say, “Callum, you’re just a pretentious old fucker who hates the kids”. This is not true and if you don’t believe me spend an afternoon and evening there and see for yourself. The Retreat has two distinct personalities that are completely at odds with each other. It’s an anti-mainstream pub that only welcomes the mainstream after dark. Again, this reminds me of my mate who loved obscure music because years later I found out that he secretly listened to Boyz II Men under the covers of his bed on an old tape recorder. His sister told me this in confidence.
So, behind every subcultural aficionado there beats the heart of a minor mainstream devotee. I don’t care what people like unless they’re trying to foist it upon me and then I will react with extreme prejudice. But what I do care about is an extended happy hour, which The Retreat doesn’t seem to have. I was walking past the Brunswick Hotel the other day and they were doing jugs of Boags for $10 all day but it’s the Brunswick Hotel and all the value in the world won’t drag me in there. I suppose this is the trade-off (to be explained in next month’s blog).
As long as I live in Melbourne, I’ll always go to The Retreat because I genuinely like it and Sydney Road, Brunswick wouldn’t be the same without it. However, I will always regard it as my pretentious friend who swears by indie music but furtively listens to Boyz II Men under the covers and, for some reason, this makes everything okay because it balances things out.
* When the pub first opened in 1842 it was called The Retreat Inn but was rebuilt in 1892 and then became The Retreat Hotel.