in 1973, I lost
a red wellie
on a beach
I lost a $20 note
and I thought about
and the way my dad
sat slumped on a sand dune
like a man
who knows himself
I’ve been wanting to tell you,
my head hurts
in the morning
when you open the curtains
and pee with the door open,
that’s when I stop dreaming
about trains roaring through dusty stations
and wake up with somebody
who’s not you
I was lying
on the lawn
crossed my mind.
you had on that jacket I like
and you told me
to get in the shade
I got sunburnt
thongs of praise
on the grass
they’re blue, old
been around the world twice
ugly dead thing
when I fell over
out on the drive way
I saw a dead rat
under the car,
it was on its back
awful feet clenched
eyes slightly decomposed.
I lay there
until my friend came out
and asked me if I was ok.
‘yes’ I replied, ‘I’m ok’
‘that’s good’ he said, ‘sometimes
I worry about you’,
‘thank you’, I whispered
and got up
I’d been out of rehab for about two weeks. Everybody knew. It was one of those things. Usually only actors and football players go to rehab but I was lucky enough to be admitted into the club. James sent me lots of emails when I was there and I didn’t reply to any of them. Too busy watching DVDs and going to group therapy and smoking cigarettes in the garden. Cigarettes are all you have in those places. When I got out James called me. I didn’t know it was him so I answered the call. He was really excited and didn’t even mention the emails. I arranged to meet him at a cafe across from my office for a coffee, just a coffee but he asked if I could reserve several hours for him.
I like James or liked James but he’s one of those socially awkward introverts who latch onto you and use you to generate some fun and excitement in their lives. Being a reformed alcoholic all I could offer him was coffee, maybe some lively conversation once the caffeine kicked in. When I was drunk we used to talk for hours about every subject imaginable. I spent a lot of time with James, a lot of time drinking myself to death. During the group sessions in rehab James became a symbol of my downfall. I know this is unfair but I began projecting much of my guilt onto him because he was there and never once said anything about my behaviour and when I did finally fall he didn’t notice. When I left rehab I regarded myself as cured not only of alcohol, but of James.
From across the road I could see him sitting at one of the pavement tables, outside the cafe. Upright, stiff, like an eagle that’s afraid of heights, he had a glass of water in front of him and his old black brolly leaning against the side of the table. Upon seeing him I almost turned around and ran back to my office. He reminded me of a time when I was out of control and did that bad thing that cost me a lot of friends and eventually landed me in that place. But I owed him at least one coffee, a parting gift to Mr Hyde.
When I sat down opposite him his huge mouth opened to reveal those twisted canines, spiralling onto the underside of his top lip. I managed a nod of the head and extended my right arm for a shake. He grabbed my right hand in both his hands and then motioned for the waiter to take our orders.
– What will you have? He asked, I checked this place online last night and I already know what I want.
– It’s good to see you James.
– I’m going to have the strawberry cheesecake.
The waiter stood over our table as James’ canines slowly slipped back into his mouth, accompanied by a slight gurgle of saliva.
– I’ll have the cheesecake.
– And yourself? Asked the waiter of me.
– Strong latte please mate.
– It’s a lovely day, he replied, sure you gents don’t want a beer? Bottle of white?
– Nah, I said.
– Come on? Live a little, replied the waiter.
– I’m a recovering alcoholic and I just want a latte so I don’t get drunk and start thumping customers and sexually harassing your female staff members. Ok?
– Sure thing champ. Just askin’.
When you give up the drink the hardest thing is dealing with other people’s attitudes to drinking. By saying no to a drink on a sunny afternoon you might as well throw your hands up in the air and announce to everyone you’ve given up on life because it’s just plain wrong to settle for coffee when the sky’s blue. The waiter went off to place our order. Through the window I could see him motion to our table with his head and exchange some words with the blonde woman behind the counter. She smiled and patted him on the shoulder.
James immediately launched into a long winded theory he had about something I can’t even remember now. No, ‘how are you?’ or ‘how was it?’ or ‘how do you feel?’ Straight back to where we left off two months ago. There was one night we were in a back alley bar having one of those racy arguments about another of James’ social theories concerning Gen Y when a man from another table interjected because he believed he was an expert on the subject of binge drinking. He put forward a well-informed argument defending the youth of today, telling us that binge drinking had always been a problem and the current Government were using it as a smokescreen to distract us from their imperialist foreign policy. I had to agree. Not James though. James went to the toilet for fifteen minutes. I had to end up knocking on the cubicle door to see if he was ok. When he came out he’d obviously been crying, so we went to another bar and talked about stationery.
Now James was hammering on about some other issue. He has a permanent drip that hangs from his nose, which he wipes occasionally with a blue handkerchief he keeps in his trouser pocket. He can wipe that drip without missing a beat. Sometimes the drip gets so big you can almost see your reflection in it.
After two months the only things that were different about him were his short haircut and a lime green Hawaiian shirt that actually suited him. James is a tall man. I am not a tall man but I don’t get angry about it. Tall people are always surprised at how calm I am for a short man. I once met a tall man who was terrified of dwarves; he had what is technically referred to as Nanosophobia. James is afraid of dogs (Cynophobia) but obsessed with cats. If he passes a cat he’ll stop for at least fifteen to pat the cat, and cats love James. Generally speaking people do not love James, he’s not loveable. Normal people detest him.
I leaned forward over the table and put my hand on his shoulder.
– Are you going to ask me how I am James?
– You look like you’ve just been for a cruise on the Med.
– I haven’t.
– I know but that’s what you look like.
– I’m not embarrassed about it.
The waiter came over with the cheesecake and the latte so I sat back in my chair and stretched out my legs to release some tension. He placed each down quietly and went back inside. James grabbed his fork and plunged straight in. I watched him scoop up the first bite and hold it in front of his mouth and nose for a few seconds before delivering the package onto his tongue. He closed his eyes, sat very still and then began to chew, gently at first, then slowly increasing movement in his jaw muscles. I hunched over and pinched the bridge of my nose between thumb and index. I’d been getting sporadic headaches since I’d given up the drink and pinching the bridge of my nose helped. The waiter was back up at the counter motioning towards us again. The girl was laughing. He was young, with long dark, curly hair, wearing sprayed on skinny jeans, worn half way down his miniscule arse and a tight black t-shirt. James was oblivious.
– So what have you been up to while I’ve been away? I asked.
James brought up his hand to silence me while he enjoyed the final taste of his first bite. It was the kind of wave you’d have expected from Marie Antoinette.
– Sorry, he said at last, I’ve been thinking about this moment for at least twelve hours. Best strawberry cheesecake I’ve ever had. May the Epicurean gods be blessed. So what have I been up to?
– Reading mostly.
– Got a job yet?
– No. Don’t want one. I can live off five dollars a day if I put my mind to it.
– I remember you telling me. Do you want to talk about that thing?
– No. Not yet. Later.
– Why not? I’d really like to get it out of the way. Get the elephant out of the room so to speak.
– I want to enjoy my cheesecake.
– Ok. Up to you. But I haven’t got long.
– I thought I asked you to put aside several hours.
– I can’t. I’m really busy, got loads to catch up on.
– But I asked. I specified several hours. In fact I used those very words.
– I know you did but I really can’t. I’m snowed under. Lucky to get my job back if you ask me.
I’m not completely sure how we became friends. I was so drunk for such a long time; much of my recent history was a blur of bars and toilets. The addicted end up spending many more hours in toilets than normal people, they’re safe havens, places to dispose and consume. Ironically enough being sober for the first few weeks was like being drunk and waking up in a strange toilet and not remembering how you got there. Suddenly you’re surrounded by all these people you don’t really know. Mostly other fuck ups but some of them are the dispossessed, only capable of being with people drunk enough not to notice how odd they are. It’s that strange feeling you get when you’ve been at a club all night dancing, drinking, on pills, mixing with beautiful people, then at 6am it all begins to wear off a bit and by 7am they turn on the lights and all you can see are half finished drinks everywhere, sticky carpet and tired, drawn faces.
I genuinely don’t know what I had in common with James. He irritated me. When I watched him eat that piece of cheesecake I wanted to reach over and break his nose. Smug wanker with his green shirt and that glass eye of his that he always dropped into people’s drinks for fun. A young woman slapped him in the face one night for doing it to her and then there was the time I was in bed with this woman and he was perched on the end of the bed, half in the shadows, watching, smiling, rolling that eye in the palm of his hand, his crooked canines moving in and out of his mouth.
All I wanted was to be back in my office working. The councillor told me not to throw myself into my work but that’s all I had. All you do is swap one addiction for another. He took another bite of the strawberry cheesecake. Same routine. It was unnerving me. I got up to leave. James stopped chewing, stared directly at my untouched Latte.
– Sorry mate, I said, I’m really under the guns. Got a five o’clock deadline.
He did that thing with his hand again and continued savouring the cheesecake. The waiter came back out to clear a table, his little blonde friend trailing behind him. She stifled a giggle when she saw James with his cheesecake. I didn’t blame her, it was a hilarious image. A green-clad beanpole and his cheesecake, shaking on a fork, centimetres from his nose and mouth. Plus that drip under his nose was gaining momentum. The clouds shifted and I was hit with the full force of the sun. I squinted, protected my eyes with my hand. James whipped out his hankie and caught the drop in mid air.
– Enjoy your cheesecake, I said, laying twenty dollars on the table. And good luck.
I crossed the road and stopped on the pavement. I turned to see if James had watched me leave. He hadn’t. He was holding a fork-full of cheesecake in front of his nose and mouth again. The waiter and the blonde were nowhere in sight. James was the only patron sitting outside. People walked by him on the pavement looking quizzically at this wingless eagle as he enjoyed the moment. I turned to walk away and stopped again. When I turned around he was gone. I saw the waiter run out of the cafe looking up and down the pavement. He called out to the blonde woman. They both stood on the pavement looking up and down.
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.
Anybody who has known me for more than a day will know how much I dislike Johnny Depp’s acting. He is the most overrated actor of all time and serves only to enable straight men to feel what it’s like to be gay for 90-120 minutes at a time. Granted there are a couple of his films I quite like, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (I thought De Caprio really was a special needs kid and at the end of the film I commended the producers for ‘giving him a go’) and Donnie Brasco. However, the rest of his films are crap and this is why.
Two words, Tim Burton. The merest mention of this man’s name has me taking shelter under a pile of soiled mattresses. I remember going round to a friend’s house circa 92’ for a movie night and I was told that she’d found ‘the most amazing film ever’ and that I was in for a treat. Thirty minutes after I arrived I found myself running down the street towards the nearest pub in a state of abject agitation. I’d just sat through the first twenty minutes of Edward Scissorhands. I’ll never forget Depp’s simpering face under all that make-up and the thieving pikie, Winona Ryder swanning around enjoying the halcyon days of her short-lived career. Every frame of that film exemplified everything that’s wrong with post modernity, a concept dreamt up by the French and promptly denied in true postmodern style.
The world Burton delivers is occupied by the kind of people this world has been built to oppress. It’s a cross between The Big Bang Theory and Hansel and Gretel, basically, Saccharine Gothic, peppered with good intentions and half-baked homilies. Depp is in most of Burton’s films, pretty much reprising the same role over and over again: the hapless hero, often misunderstood by the community, who obviously wins the day because that’s the whole point of Burton’s transparent philosophical outlook; the weak endure and succeed if they try hard enough. I remember being told that in primary school and thinking, “Well, that’s that sorted. Can I go home now?”
The next reason I dislike Depp is because he has desecrated the good name of one of my heroes, Hunter S. Thompson. I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was 19 and I’m confident in saying that it completely fucked up my life in a good way. It served as a green light to a life of hedony and self-indulgent abandon, and I’ve been staggering up that tarnished road ever since. I’ve never found God but I have found something similar in books, and Fear and Loathing is up there in my top 5.
Depp crucified Thompson with one of his worst characterisations to date. Instead of portraying one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, Depp gave us a bumbling journalist devoid of Thompson’s sense of style and erudition. The book is replete with deep philosophical insights into life and it charts the death of the American dream. Depp and the director, Terry Gilliam, placed far too much focus on the magical realism of excessive drug use and not enough on Thompson’s unique stance on life. And don’t even get me started on The Rum Diary.
Exhibit three is Chocolat. 90 minutes I will never get back and I did it for sex. Years later, I was to do the same thing for The Notebook, whilst seeking medical attention for drug and alcohol problems in a facility that taught me how to effectively conceal what’s really on your mind. Chocolat is the worst film I have ever seen and the Irish nation should have sought the extradition of Depp for the worst Irish accent in a film or television series since Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own. All Depp did in that film was smolder on cue and openly denigrate one of the finest Celtic accents. He didn’t even try to make it county specific. To make matters worse, I had to put up with Juliette Binoche getting sexy with chocolate and not in a good way, like Nigella Lawson does but in a preconceived kind of way devoid of Nigella’s sensual movements of the fingers.
When I announce my dislike for Depp’s acting it upsets people, to the point where they’ve written me off or I’ve been asked to see myself out. Especially by men. I’ve noticed that men are the greatest defenders of Depp, which used to confuse me until I thought it through. As I said earlier, Depp enables straight men to experience homosexuality in short bursts. There is no denying that Depp is a handsome man and he’s always well turned out but there’s that twist of femininity to him that straight men are unconsciously drawn to. The immaculate skin, the symmetrical features, the deep brown eyes, the lithe, perfectly formed body and the underplayed masculinity of his roles – a straight man’s guilty wet dream, wrapped up in fame and fortune. He is the heterosexual man’s pin-up boy.
But let me finish with this irrefutable fact: Even if you love Depp and regard him as one of the greatest actors of our time, can you forgive him for the Futterwacken Mad Hatter Dance at the end of Alice in Wonderland? Did that moment make you doubt Depp? Perhaps, even for a nanosecond, force you to reconsider your admiration for the actor? Burton should be ashamed of that film, truly ashamed but Depp should be cast out into the wilds for that dance, and told to see himself out.
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.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been attacked by an Indian Myna Bird down Princes Park.
It all started after the festive season when I discovered that my jeans were a bit tighter, so I decided to rid myself of this excess fat by going for a run around Princes Park every morning. To be honest, the first couple of attempts were just me walking and talking on my phone like an episode of Entourage but after the third attempt I started running.
The day I did manage one continuous run is when the ornithological victimisation began in earnest. Like the Indian Myna Bird, I too am an immigrant to this country. Usually this means we stick together and develop a couple of in jokes about how fucking awful Australian TV is and ask each other why it’s impossible to top up your MYKI on a tram. No such luck with my friend the Myna, known to be the second greatest threat to native birds after land clearing.
So, me and this scraggy bird whose ancestors were introduced to Australia in the 1860s to control insect pests, are now at war. The first time it happened I thought, “It’s just defending its nest, I’d do exactly the same thing”. It’s normal for parents to defend their young, unless you’re Fred and Rose West. So, I took it on the chin and kept on running, almost glad to be part of nature’s wonderful cycle. But one thought kept nagging at me: It’s January and the nesting season is done and dusted.
The night after my first continuous run I slept better than I’ve slept in years. It was one of those youthful sleeps where your head hits the pillow and suddenly it’s eight hours later and Oliver Twist is out in the streets singing, ‘Who will buy this wonderful morning?’ In my case, it’s the number 19 tram driver shouting at people who don’t understand the concept of an illegal right turn during peak hour. That said, I was excited about my next continuous run.
I got up, turned on the TV, saw Kochie from Sunrise crapping on about the dangers of Facebook, repressed the urge to put in a bomb scare to Channel 7, and began stretching with the use of my battered couch. Once I was all limbered up, I descended the stairs and made my way over to the park.
All my running brothers and sisters were out in force with their headphones aiding the onslaught of tinnitus and various digital devices attached to their arms to measure heart rate. Running is an odd culture. From my experience it’s not a place to meet people, although my friends tell me I look a bit thuggish so maybe society in general is not a good place for me to meet people. Once, I was jogging in Werribee at night and got arrested by the police, their excuse being, “We thought you were either a burglar or a plumber but either way we thought it best to get you off the streets”. No charges were laid and, to make up for their ‘mistake’, they treated me to a free Big Mac.
Ten minutes into my run the blood started to flow and my heart rate pounded away like a teenage boy with the house to himself on a hot Saturday afternoon. Some mums were out running with prams, portly couples sweated out fizzy drinks and cheeky visits to KFC, fit young people, the gazelles of the running world, floated passed me, and my favourite running type, ‘the man who used to be fit’, trying to run like a Gazelle but ending up looking like a refugee from a disastrous night out in Bangkok.
I got to my favourite stretch of path that intersects the park and began really upping the ante; heart racing, teeth bared and belly undulating in slow motion, when out of nowhere I copped a beak in the back of the head. I spun around and there was my feathered nemesis sitting up in the branches staring down at me. I turned and started running and once again got beaked. Sucker punched by a foe that weighs at least 200 times less than me. I started running backwards so I could keep an eye on the bird. It followed me but did not attack.
When I was safely back on Royal Parade I decided to stage a stake-out, to see if the ‘flying cane toad’, as they’re now called, attacked anyone else. I watched twenty people run down the same stretch of path and not one of them was swooped. I felt angry and special all at the same time. But I couldn’t help asking myself why I was being singled out for victimisation. I was wearing the same kit as everyone else. My hair was messy but not bright red or resembling the silhouette of an eagle. I was sweating and un-showered but who showers before a morning run?
Later that day I staked out the stretch of path again and nobody else was swooped, not even the idiot in the Rangers FC strip. It was official. I was being bullied by an Indian Myna Bird and as much as I wanted to borrow Big Dave’s air rifle and blow its tiny brains out, it would be immoral for me to do so because essentially I was encroaching on its territory. It brought to mind the fuckwits who want to kill sharks in WA.
To test my hypothesis that it was just me who had earned the vitriol of this bird, I invited my Dad on a walk around Princes Park. I told him about the feathered bully but he laughed at me, telling me that attacks on humans are incredibly rare and unheard of when there was no nest to defend. However, when we got to the same stretch of path, sure enough, I got beaked, in fact, it was the most ferocious attack so far. The bird then tracked us for a good 30 metres before flying off to brag to its mates, who hang out on the brick toilet block eating flies and shootin’ the shit.
I haven’t altered my running track and the bird continues to swoop me and I’ve been wracking my brains for some kind of moral to this story and the only one I can think of is this: If you get swooped by an Indian Myna Bird don’t shoot it with your mate’s air rifle or avoid the situation. Instead, write a blog and just keep on running because being singled out doesn’t always mean you’ve done anything wrong. And anyway, as Hitchcock taught us, if it’s got wings and it hates you, you’re fucked.
I’m occasionally hit by bouts of claustrophobia and hydrophobia.
The claustrophobia is the result of accidentally locking myself in a toy chest when I was six years old. I was in there for an hour before an adult walked passed and heard my muffled screams and unlocked the chest. The closest I’ve felt to this traumatic childhood experience is boarding a crowded 19 North Coburg tram when I’m in a bad mood.
The 19 tram is a fickle beast, prone to fits of madness, rage and the inevitable delays of Melbourne public transport. For the most part I like my tram route because it goes up Royal Parade passed Princes Park and stumbles up Sydney Road spewing commuters onto the pavement and into the many bars and cafes along the way. It’s like a Mallee Ringneck feeding the road with tiny morsels of consumerism.
I can’t remember my first ride on the 19 tram but I do know that I’ve used it almost everyday for the last four years and I can even hear it clanking away at night as I eat my dinner in my wee flat in Ye Olde Lodge. If you’ve ever caught the 19 tram then you’ve probably gone passed my building many times and thought that it’s either a hotel or a halfway house for recently released inmates. I can assure you there are no ex-cons in my building but plenty of other unsavory acts occur on a daily basis, especially in the flat near the laundry.
I think it was the Bedroom Philosopher who wrote about the 86 tram a few years ago and he captured the spirit of the journey perfectly. The 19 tram has a slightly similar ambience but is also very different in many ways, the main difference being that the 19 tram has a strange sense of nobility, particularly if you watch it stop and start up Sydney Road from Brunswick Road. I love watching it slowly crawl up passed Blyth Street and disappear into little Turkey, the sun reflecting off its back windows. It reminds me of being a kid in Scotland, watching my Dad walk up David Street with the day’s takings tucked under his arm, in an old biscuit tin. Just a reassuring feeling of familiarity that makes us all feel at ease when perched on the edge of trepidation.
However, on a bad day the 19 becomes my biscuit tin of nightmares. I only catch it a few stops down to Grattan Street but when I see it approach my stop with its windows misted over and people packed in around the door I’m filled with dread. Why not walk I hear you ask? I’m constantly running late so I end up having to squeeze myself in and just take it like a man. It’s that feeling of impending doom as I mount those stairs and squeeze myself into that jigsaw puzzle of arms, legs and torsos that pisses me off the most. Being stuck next to the person with a bag that is far too big for what they really need to do that day. Music from earphones that’s too loud and never my cup of tea. Sour coffee breath, shit perfume, bullshit conversation and that fading pulse of unease from people just like me. Poor morale is infectious and a bad start to the day.
First world problems I hear you bleat? Of course they fucking are but they’re still problems and I’ve always felt that people who use that expression from the safety of their single story Victorian townhouses are just wankers with European run arounds, trying to make it all authentic with a Triple R sticker on the boot. But being squashed in with all that humanity is not my idea of a good time and finds itself right up there with any film featuring Johnny Depp – Donnie Brasco, notwithstanding.
But on the whole, I like the 19 tram. No I love the 19 tram. It’s regular, double carriaged, has un-vandalised upholstery and runs late on Friday and Saturday nights and there’s something reassuring about coming home on the tram and getting off on Sydney road and navigating your way across the road to Barkly Square. Crossing Sydney Road is an art form and is definitely an example of real life Frogger (see Seinfeld, season 9, episode 18). People unused to it are blown away by the fool hardy moves of locals, unafraid upon white lines, while trams, trucks and bikers speed passed on both sides. It’s all about keeping your nerve and developing a keen understanding of spatial relationships, speed and timing.
So, next time you’re on the 19 tram have a think about its strong links to Sydney Road. That tram dominates that strip of road, which unfolds between Brunswick Road and Bell Street; a huge metal worm muscling its way up the asphalt in all its glory. One of the few trams in Melbourne with a soulful journey, instead of a slow descent into a middle class Hades like the 75 tram’s route to Burwood.
I am unable to account for the hydrophobia. Maybe I’m just lazy.
I’ve always loved the Melbourne Cup and not because I’m into horse racing but because it’s a great excuse to get together with friends and hit the piss on a week day. Gambling has never been one of my vices and I’ve only ever placed two bets: one on the Cheltenham Races in 1998 and this year on the Melbourne Cup. However, this year was the very best of both bets.
My mate Aaron had been on his honeymoon and I was pretty sure he’d be back around Cup Day but I wasn’t 100% on this. On the morning of the cup, just as I’d finished watching an episode of The Moaning of Life (ep. 1, Marriage, 6.5/10), I received a text at 8:30am. It was Aaron informing me that he was back and trying to get out of going to a BBQ, meaning he wanted to hit the piss with a vengeance, with me. I endorsed his decision to bug off the BBQ and get some proper drinking done. It had been six weeks and I’d been in a thesis keyhole and in desperate need of cracking my skull on a good skelp o’ the bottle.
My buzzer went off at around noon and as usual I excreted a couple of teaspoons of poo because that fucking buzzer always catches me off guard, like it knows I’m concentrating on something and vulnerable to its awful sound. It was Aaron and he’d brought back a shot glass and some classic black and white French pornography as gifts for me. He knows me well. Although I was disturbed to find out that his duty free had been confiscated in Dubai, he never went into detail but judging by his gait it had been a harrowing experience for all involved.
Luckily he had a spare bottle of whisky at home, which he brought around in a posh bag he bought in New York that was slung over a fetching sports jacket he picked up in Rome and carried around to my place upon a shiny new pair of shoes purchased in Paris or London or somewhere like that. It was great to see him because Aaron is the kind of man who speaks his mind regardless of the company he’s in and not because he thinks it makes him look smart but because he really can’t help himself. This is both a gift and a burden for the lad but I admire this quality.
I had some beers in the fridge, so we got them out and started on the day.
By 1:30pm we’d caught up, drunk six beers and knocked back a bottle of whisky. It was time to venture out and get some more whisky, cigarettes, dumplings and place a bet on the cup. Everything but the bet was bought in my favourite place, Barkly Square. The bet was made in Bridie O’Reilly’s on the corner of Brunswick Road and Sydney Road. My local where I write my PhD, the rewrites of my novel and a screenplay with Brother Josh, in the middle booth looking out onto Brunswick Road and the corner where I live.
I had no idea who to bet on, so with a minute before bets closed I sought the advice of the barman. I also had no fucking idea how to work the machine and I was drunk and euphoric and needed a piss asap. It’s the kind of mix that can leave a man avoiding social engagements for a month or so. Anyway, the barman suggested Fiorente to which I said yes and Aaron handed him a fiver. We bet low because we’re novices and not afraid to say so.
Back at my place with a bottle of single malt on the table we got settled in for the race, dumplings bubbling on the stove. I flicked on my analogue TV and we kicked back and watched people wandering around Flemington Racecourse in all sorts of states. It’s a time for women to become slutted-up-weeble-wobble-dental-ads and for men to squeeze into suits from Peter Jackson and wear poorly selected sunglasses and strut around with one finger up their arse (Aaron in Dubai) and the other finger firmly ensconced in the cleavage of a slutted-up-weeble-wobble. I have nothing against this. People are entitled to behave this way if they want to but I am also entitled to laugh my arse off at them after three bottles of beer and half a bottle of whisky. It is our cultural right to engage in either practice.
The horses left the gates and they were off. The commentators started on a high and continued to work themselves up into a frenzy as the horses tore up the track in a spectacular array of colour and adrenalin. Aaron and I sat on the edges of our seats cheering on Fiorente, as our horse brought up the rear and other horses surged ahead. With five dollars on the line we were both on tenterhooks getting into the spirit of the occasion. The hooves smashed into the grass and the commentator rose from his seat and started spitting everything into the microphone. Just when we thought all was lost Fiorente came up on the side and raced to the finishing line like a drunk man with a kebab sprinting towards the last tram with garlic sauce spiraling behind him like a vapour trail. Ten seconds later Aaron and I were jumping around my flat hugging and swearing and high-fiving. It was the best feeling I’ve had so far this year. We’d won the cup, our cup and the whisky never felt so good dancing a victory jig in our veins.
After we’d exhausted every cell in our vocal chords we sat down knackered, speechless. It was the greatest home coming either of us could imagine. One of those moments you have with a mate when you’ve both placed your trust and expectations on the same situation and everything has fallen into place in a way you never could have anticipated.
When the dust finally settled, we sat in silence, every once in a while saying, ‘I can’t believe we won the fucking cup, I can’t believe we won the fucking cup’. Savoring victory, enjoying victory as dumpling skins boiled over onto my stove.
The rest of the day passed in a haze but at some point it all hit me. It’s these moments in our culture that make it all worthwhile, the moments when a race does stop a nation but it stops differently for all of us. Whether it’s drinking at home with a mate or falling over in the mud dressed to the nines, having fun has many forms but as a long as you’re having fun without fucking other people up then you are truly tapping into the better side of humanity.
I’ve lived in Brunswick for a few years now and I wouldn’t live anywhere else in Melbourne. This might make me a wanker but I don’t give a fuck. I like it here. It’s hard to find somewhere to live that you actually like but when I stepped into Barkly Square for the first time it was love at first sight. For those of you who haven’t been to my beloved Barkly Square it’s a rather cheap and nasty mall located near the city end of Sydney Road. It’s been renovated recently but I want to talk about the old Barkly Square, my Barkly Square.
I can see the roof of Barkly Square from my Brunswick apartment, that beige wave of concrete, topped by grey skies. The front of the building is dominated by large automated doors and a McDonald’s. Inside there is and was the usual array of shops. However, Barkly Square aka Barkers has had some odd shops in its time, like the shop that only sold stockings and hats or the bookshop that only sold Christian texts and audio books spoken by my ex-girlfriend’s, ex-boyfriend.
When I first moved to my Brunswick apartment, after finding myself in the liminal wasteland of shared accommodation in such places as Prahran and Preston, I spent every Saturday morning in Barkers. In particular, I used to adore walking around Kmart, nursing my hangover. There is something exhilarating about being surrounded by affordable goods that defies articulation. I’d sweep up and down the aisles, trailing my hands across the bargains like Ellen DeGeneres dancing onto her set. I kitted most of my apartment out with Kmart products but told people they were from elsewhere.
After a trip to Kmart I’d treat myself to a Vietnamese roll from the bakery out the front of Barkers, served by surly ladies who only now, after 3.5 years say hello to me and smile. I’d wash that down with a litre bottle of Bundaberg ginger beer and watch the DVD I’d also bought in Kmart. The rest of the afternoon was usually spent drinking whisky and writing at my kitchen table or meeting a friend at The Retreat for over-priced beer in the front bar.
But back to Barkers.
I’ve walked into Barkers in all sorts of states and never been asked to leave. There is an unconditional love that exists between me and this building. I have a Zen-like attachment to the walls and the floors and the toilets; when I enter through those automated doors all the troubles of the world slide down my legs and scurry into the rubbish bins, where the little fuckers belong. I have plans for Barkers though, big plans.
Barkly Square is where I’ll go when the zombie apocalypse finally arrives. I have it all worked out, so well worked out that I will not divulge my secrets on this blog, needless to say I’ll survive and you will not. Surviving the end of humanity takes a lot of planning and tinned products, also the ability to stab loved ones in the eye with a make shift spear. Sorry Mum but if you turn I’ll put you out of your misery using a selection of knifes from the kitchen section of Kmart, I know you’d appreciate the gesture.
Zombies aside, my favourite place in Barkers is the bottle shop attached to Safeway. When I first moved here it was a Liquorland but now it’s a BWS. Those of you who know me, know that I like the odd tipple before evensong. Drinking empowers me and later in the night disempowers me and sometimes leads to me being incarcerated but that’s another story. The lads in the BWS are great, except the skinny one with the goatee who’s a miserable prick and takes his job far too seriously and smells of stale cakes and probably loves Glee. The other lads are excellent value and we enjoy a good bit of banter whenever I go there, regardless of my state of mind.
But why Barkly Square when I live across the road from Princes Park? I’ll tell you why; Princes Park reminds me of that lurid scene in Midnight Express when all the brain dead prisoners walk around and around and around. The joggers at Princes Park are no different except they look healthier, are not afraid of the showers and jog rather than lurch around like smack heads on a carousel. I love Barkers because it has all the hallmarks of the unwanted ginger stepson. I revel in its rudimentary attempts at decoration. I worship at its alter of mediocrity. But more importantly Barkers sneaks under the radar and breaths its fiery smog of blandness up my jacksey and in doing so fills my soul with joy.
We are taught to admire aesthetically pleasing buildings, to regard them as the paragons of social advancement but places like Barkly Square never gain a mention even though they serve an important part of our community. I’ve watched Barkers for 3.5 years now and I can see its community, its familiar faces, and we all know each other and nod and wink and stop to chat.
Barkly Square is the unsung hero of Brunswick but when you get to know the building it takes off its glasses, undoes its hair, shakes it around, puts its hands on its hips and promises to show you a good time.
Most Mondays I meet my mate Aaron and we get shitfaced on cheap white wine. We either get drunk at my place or his, even though his flat is infinitely better than mine. We’re both in the process of writing a novel, so we mostly talk about that and the past. Two weeks ago we were sitting on Aaron’s balcony drinking wine and enjoying, yes enjoying a cigarette, when I started talking about my favourite book, A Goat’s Song by Irish author Dermot Healy. It’s a story about a tragic alcoholic’s destructive relationship with an actress from Dublin and his bleak, yet beautiful take on the world that eventually destroys everything around him.
I first read A Goat’s Song in ‘96 when I was unemployed in Ireland and spending most of my money on postcards and Guinness. It’s one of only a few books that had me hooked from the first sentence:
“The bad times were over at last. He stood on the new bridge that opened onto the Mullet and waited for Catherine to appear. In the side pocket of his jacket, folded into a notebook, he had her letter. Just when he’d given up hope it had arrived.”
And, from memory, I read the book in one sitting but I may be romanticising this because it’s 17 years since I read the book for the first time and nostalgia is the greatest storyteller of all.
Anyway, I was telling Aaron about this book and how I’d lost it a couple of years ago. Aaron stood up walked into the flat and returned with my copy of A Goat’s Song and placed it on the coffee table in front of me. I stared at the book for about ten seconds in an incomprehensible trance of euphoria and sadness before I picked it up and weighed it in my right hand. This was my original copy, the only possession I have left from that time, in fact, the only book out of some 800 I have left from that decade.
During the silent minutes after Aaron gave me back the book I felt like somebody had king-hit memories into the back of my head. Aaron had seen me like this once before and knew just to sit back and wait it out. I remembered the pub I’d read it in, the walk home, stuffing it in my backpack when I left Ireland, talking about it to hundreds of different people I met on my travels and finally arriving in Melbourne holding it in my hand as I walked through customs with about six different drugs talking shop in my bloodstream.
When a barrage of memories sweeps over you it’s hard not to pass out. It’s best to be silent and wait for it to pass. By the time it did pass I’d been crying for fifteen minutes and rubbing the cover of the book with both hands. I wasn’t even aware that I was crying but when I did, I did that thing so many men do when they cry; I apologised and cleared my throat. This is when Aaron spoke his words of wisdom, “Don’t worry mate you’ve got nothing to apologise for. It’s a fucking good book”.
While Aaron went for his midafternoon dump, I went through the book looking for the sentences she circled when we broke up. Quite a few years ago now I had a doomed relationship with a beautiful but highly strung woman from Brunswick. She read the book the day after we broke up and legend has it that she read it in one day too. However, she read it with a pen in one hand and a gallon of wine in the other. Every time she came across a sentence that reminded her of us, she circled it and wrote a comment in the margin. The book is riddled with these critiques, a graveyard of bleak and tragic words. Each sentence is perfect, even the circled sentences have artistry to them but, more importantly, the circles on the pages of the book accurately tracked our relationship.
Through my callousness and her emotional meltdown we’d effectively brought the characters to life and enabled them to step off the pages and enter the real world, our world, mirroring our own doomed relationship. And this is what great books can do to our reality; they captivate us with their mystery and we unconsciously bring them to life. And what this tells us, is that fiction is not necessarily tragic because of the author’s imagination but because of the universal truths that they convey through the narrative.
When I thought I’d lost the book I was upset for two reasons. One, it was my original copy of my favourite book and two, it had the circles drawn and words written by a broken hearted woman in an unfinished house in Brunswick. I suppose my point is that it’s not just the book, its narrative arc, protagonists or scene setting that makes a book great, it’s also about the people you care about who read the book too. Especially the ones who care enough to creatively and lovingly deface it with their own despair and trauma.
As I stumbled home from Aaron’s, feeling my feet disappear into the pavement, I thought about Jack and Elizabeth from A Goat’s Song and I thought about the woman from Brunswick and how it all feels so important at the time, all those words spoken late at night over drinks and the absolute finality of getting home to your flat and falling face first onto your bed, single. There was a black out that night and I had no candles.