The Sociology of A Place To Call Home Part 13
I was offered a job in a prawn processing operation. The manager insisted my Japanese language qualification was why he wanted to employ me.
I was applying only for a job sorting prawns on a conveyor belt. I made it clear I could not converse in Japanese. He would have it that it mattered not a whit. I would be circulated through the operations to learn the business. They dealt a lot with Japanese
clients he said. He added I would not be standing all day, every day sorting prawns.
In the days following, I considered the effect on me of inevitable, as I saw it, failure. A competent mental health practitioner would have identified I was in no condition to decide either way. I mistrusted the manager regardless his pleasant reception of me and enthusiasm. I longed to trust him. Fear consumed me. I telephoned from a public telephone box and declined the employment. I feel in memory the horror, the immense anxiety I suffered making the call because I had failed.
With the steady accompaniment of the lull of waves breaking on the beach sand as I fell asleep, woken by a drench of sunshine blazing through the verandah lattice, I was in recovery. When rain drummed on the roof in a tropical downpour, the waves crashed
accordingly and I listened, watched lightning illuminate the lattice on stormy nights. If I wanted to access companionship I walked through the sand to the community camped along the beach to meet with groupings of itinerents and residents of every level of education and professional background, siblings, singles, de factos, marrieds, children.
The campers slowly spread along the edge of the esplanade road that was intact from where the road off the highway curved right at the beach front. Set back at the curve to allow a traffic turn-around was the local store. Where the road straightened past the curve, the first camp in the line had been set up a couple who secured a second tent for sleeping and converted their original accommodation in an army disposals tent into a day-to-day shelter by rolling up and fixing the sides of it permanently open. A wooden cable reel made a serviceable table. A few steps away, a free standing tap on the beachside provided a source of water. Directly over the road was a public toilet block.
The surround of the opened tent became a gathering place. Twists of humour were shared with cocoa at night for the regulars as an occasional treat, honed was the risque and profane in displays of impromptu theatre, ideas flowed. I relaxed in companionship that bred a sense of belonging and identity, kinship based on empathy. Life long friendships were established.
My partner was 15 years my senior. He had walked out of his business address at North Ryde in Sydney one day result of an affair of the heart and returned north. He had only recently returned to Sydney from an expedition collecting orchid samples.
His promising career as a landscaper/nurseryman and nursery owner whose abiding passion was flowers began with gardening as a small child with his mother and after a short stint as a clerical assistant when he left High School with 12 years apprenticeship in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. Among the books in his small library were two that
were fascinating and beautiful and may be rare that I cannot find either listed. One was an early type of American Home Manual, a source of knowledge of conventional European and native American Indian herbal remedies and medicines, veterinary advice, cultivation techniques, lifestyle wisdoms, exotic recipes. The other was a handbook of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Ceylon. Both were published at the turn of the nineteenth century.
When we met, he worked as a glass house attendant for the Department of Primary Industries in a position of underemployment that was not well paid. He was not always well treated in a junior position. His work environment was so torturous in the middle of a tropical summer he fainted and swooned in fitful rest periods on the concrete floor under a bench laden with plant specimens that variously included confiscated Customs items.
He was a yoga exponent. Allan Watts was his go-to. The mystics of sub-continent India and Tibet, Madame Blavatsky, the Theosophical Movement, the entertaining politics of
the vibrant local Healthy Food Society and Healthy Soil Society were his afternoon conversations with neighbours, an artist/writer who was also an emigré from the south and carried his afternoon jug of beer the few houses down for a break from his work, an emigré political activist from the field of aboriginal land rights, a one time friend of my older brother when they worked for the railways who had retired to paint. On the beachfront in the early evenings convivial time was equally and as easily spent peopled by road trip travellers and one described of the highways to the south a stream of hitch hikers on their way north, the movement of youth out of cities. The swelling population was supplemented by people from Cairns’ suburbs they drove from to join the conversation on week-ends.
One immediate neighbour was an avid reader of 50s and contemporary 60s American novels. He introduced me to science fiction and a range of counter-culture writers I knew of, but was schooled in by his passion for them. I re-read Vance Packard and took out of the frontispiece of The Morning of the Magicians by Pauwels and Bergier that the relationship between them necessary to write it was their primary outcome.
Around me was endless stimulation to think a tolerant and creative community is the key to human success and greater happiness.
I learned to sew by making my partner a pair of white sail cloth zippered, placketed, banded, Bogart-pleated, cuffed, formal/casual dress trousers I drafted the pattern of
out of an Enid Gilchrist Pattern Book. I had conceived the idea of home employment dress making. When I made next a princess style short and white cotton dress, my client said she loved the gament. I doubted she honestly was happy with my work and sought no other customised sewing.
For the kitchen window instead I made scalloped-topped calico cafe curtains I orange tie-dyed with my partner’s help and next a multi-coloured-tie-dyed calico curtain that divided the front latticed veranda into bedroom and living room.
The flooring was sea grass matting. The cottage took on a look of creativity. Not until I was told six years later by a mother of a schoolfriend of my oldest daughter that I am a creative individual did I wonder I should think that through and why she said so. She was an Art teacher. The notion I was creative per se was alien to me.
An administration that sends a teacher trainee out into the field without formal training in the principles of creativity has to be wondered at in this retrospect.
Yet on the beach surrounded by technicians from a range of professions and artists and believing I could not draw let alone master the mediums of the trades, paint or sculpture, I lent my sincerity and encouragement. The return was I began a transformation and I was delighted I was sought after to critique for them in person
what I thought of their newly produced works. I believed in art and its appreciation as expression of self and societal mores no different from spoken word. I was an ideal audience and supporter, differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, willing to view creative artistry without prejudice more especially that Queensland’s repressive regime, its manipulation of outmoded law, was stirring up vociferous protest against the closing down of art exhibitions and theatre performances to suppress dissent. I understood the politics of art.
The artist who knew me first in the context he was a one-time friend of my brother knew me as a small child. As he left the beach cottage one day after enquiring of my viewpoint on a new project, he made the quixotic comment that the only place my father went wrong was to educate his children. My father was point of fact no different in respect of his passion for art from his earliest childhood that we spent hours together trawling through travelling art exhibitions for the excitement, the turn-on of a famed or little known portrait, a landscape, brushstroke, colour palette. My thoughts went to considering he and I together gave equal regard to a draughted straight line if a work demanded either his or my attention. I had taken to entire heart the role of audience as an emotive and aesthetic discipline.
My mother was sensible and sensitive. She showed me the beauty of the Australian bush and I learned the outcomes of benefit to be found of isolation in the bush environment she grew up in. She loved the naive artists who with no formal training work out of only the creative impulse. As I now formed into an an adult in an environment of acceptance of me as I was and sufficient I carried my parents’ legacies in their individual and greater parts right into the centre of my activity as a dissident. Theirs were the qualities that gave me the place of tolerance and belonging where I was safe.
The Council stopped accepting camping fees. Developers were vying for land to build spec houses on in place of the campers in the way and heavy earth movers their anticipated contracts to raze the scrub that stretched untouched from the beach front to the highway. On week-ends we watched nervous to protect ourselves from a growing number of hoodlums on Sunday drives disturbing the peace. Screaming obscenities in regard to women was popular sport. The police showed up more frequently and drummed up charges of infinitely petty content. It became impossible to ignore gently behaved and slim younger men who were handsome in their white cheesecloth and light cotton outfits and wore their hair long seemed targets because they were attractive looking; more especially in comparison with their malicious tormentors. The men were treated with the scare tactic of mockery of their girlfriends’ fidelity. Women were propositioned. We abhorred the police. Court attendances were on the increase. The most well known ploy was the selection of harmless individuals off the streets of small towns and charging them under the Vagrancy Laws that specified the carrying of a specific amount of cash that if not found on the apprehended person would suffice to make an arrest. The Vagrancy Laws were blatant discrimination. As an ABC Producer announced to introduce an interview in 2004 referencing the Vagrants Act:
If you’ve woken up in a Queensland stable this morning wearing a pair of felt slippers, here’s the good news.
The Queensland Parliament is repealing its Vagrants Act, so that being found in a stable or wearing felt slippers outside at night will no longer be a crime.
Insight onto a period that represents one of the most significant of my life that I found a place and people I felt great trust in that my peers and mentors respected and treated me with courtesy cannot be better provided than by describing the way we were thrown together in solidarity to resist the attempts made by the Queensland police to discredit the community. One significant incident was the wrecking of the
contents of the cupboards of a young pregnant woman in a neighbouring rental home she had recently moved into out of a temporary home-made house built for her in the foreshore scrub. Coffee, custard powder, salt, spices, everything that was foodstuff and recently installed was upended and strewn the surface of her kitchen bench allegedly in the interests of the police finding drugs. She was pushed aside. No drugs were found. She was shown no search warrant. A skilled activist of senior years and neighbour instigated a successful move to support her. Question was asked of impropriety in the Legislative Assembly of the Queensland parliament recorded in Hansard under Notice, 2 September 1970, headed ‘Forcible Entry of Residence by Police’.
The senior police officer who led the invasion was a regular nuisance. The community desired he lose his job. I know only of hearsay that was the result. He reappeared in my personal experience of him in different employment some time later. I find some small gratification only that it did seem he lost his credibility as an alleged champion of what is right.
Another camper who lived in a small wooden boat pulled up on the beach was charged with having shown a painting alleged to be offensive in a public place. The community went into ‘heads together’ mode naturally. A lawyer was identified who was known to represent social justice. The argument for the defendant was established. To the entire anticipatory delight of the rest of us any argument the police put forward could only be
discredited and potential, again, was their downfall. The accused albeit was miserable. He thought optimism was unwarranted and right enough he suffered through the merest thought of having a criminal charge against his name and further on the wrong side of the law in Queensland. Another camper and I volunteered to our meetings held at the tent to traipse one mid-week day around the city of Cairns to businesses where we thought it likely the manager/retailer would be sympathetic to our promoting the upcoming trial date. The brief we went with on behalf of the accused and the community was to fill the public gallery.
We were driven to respond with passion on behalf of the arts and theatre communities of Queensland and Australia entire. In 1969 a series of moves against the arts community and its audiences had seen the banning of recordings of the musical “Hair” and the fining of an actor on a stage in Sydney for uttering an allegedly obscene word. Aubrey Beardsley posters had been seized out of an exhibition in Brisbane. A responsibility had fallen our way to contribute to the defeat of prudery and its manipulation by powerful interests waging no less than a war against the least evidence of gatherings of people suspected of conspiring against corruption believed to be rife within every level of Government the length and breadth of Australia.
Any number of persons out of the community on the beach could well have been agents however to promote the trial to the wider public. The collective political skills and sense of justice of the campers and sympathetic residents were manifest. My now fellow agent in this exercise lived on the beach esplanade roadside in a Combi van. He and I had formal business clothes primarily. We were ofttime companions on excursions he made collecting and buying scrap metal he sold on to a scap metal merchant so I knew him to be a skilful negotiator. He was held in the highest regard on the beach for his personal and professional skills that had initiated his original entry into Australia from Europe. Nevertheless as we set out I felt a moment of angst at thought of his fascination with the capacity of Australians to swear. I lightly wondered his pattern of usual beach speak as an ESL speaker might not be entire unto the needs of presentation we were looking towards did he become defiant … always comedically … whereupon might he lapse into scattered use of the one swear word that impressed him most. It occupied spaces needs be where the English word escaped him and the rapid flow of a sentence was at risk, so much so he was fondly nicknamed ‘Fuck “Fuck” [Surname: a model of motor vehicle]’.
We would have been seen in such a good light that day, earnest and sincere, in wholesome good health, dressed in formal civvies, tall and good looking, as pretty as a picture. We were similar in age. We were a team and very good friends. We could not
together have shown more skill seeking to charm the birds out of the trees to fly down at the appointed time and fill the public gallery of the Cairns Magistrates Court.
Still, unsure what the response would be of the proprietors who could not leave their business address at the time, I contented myself word of an upcoming censorship trial would spread like wildfire and the police involved would be a laughing stock, best if a raft of the business people of Cairns witnessed it.
to be continued…
Christina Binning Wilson