No One Likes You, 2020!

The year 2020 has been the year from hell. On the Chinese calendar it is a Year of the Rat, and has certainly lived up to it’s name.

Whole communities and family structures have been flattened by black Saturday, COVID and mass unemployment. The class of 2020 – generation zoom – will miss school formals, university placement and full time employment.

National and state leadership – or lack thereof – has been brutally exposed for what it is. Leaders lacking in substance had nowhere to hide. Corruption was rife.  After getting ICAC’d over her secret corrupt ex-MP lover, Gladys stopped pretending altogether. When subsequently caught pork barrelling she was like: So what? Doesn’t everybody?

Apparently, yes.

The fault lines, caused by a decade of systemic underfunding and toxic political ideology, finally ruptured under the weight of 2020. The nation was plunged into recession, just as the government gifted billions of taxpayers money to the fossil fuel industry. This included the vast Narrabri project which was rubber stamped despite 98% community opposition.

Community pushback against the government was intense on gas, industrial relations, police brutality, refugees, Julian Assange and climate change. A survey showed 75% of respondents wanted Australia to commit to net zero by 2030. There were demonstrations in the streets in every state on every issue. All of it fell on deaf ears.

We remain held hostage, mid election cycle with a weak and ineffectual opposition. If Scott Morrison is rat cunning enough to simultaneously backstab Malcolm Turnbull and dupe Peter Dutton to steal the leadership. Anthony Albanese in his current form already looks way out of his league.

The sorry parade of state, federal and corporate failures turned into a white-water torrent. More black deaths in custody, the aged care genocide, NDIS deaths by neglect, iCare not caring, NSW overpaying dodgy developers tens of millions of dollars, Rio Tinto’s eco-terrorist bombing of priceless Indigenous heritage sites, hotel quarantine stuff ups in both NSW and Victoria, China being royally cheesed with us, Qantas sacking everyone except Alan Joyce, border exemptions for footballers whilst the bereaved are denied passes for funerals, Visy Board billionaire Anthony Pratt getting $10 million in bushfire funding while half of Cobargo are still sleeping rough – the list of outrageous, appalling, traumatising events that made up 2020 is so big, if it weren’t for the smoke from the recent Fraser Island bushfire, you could probably have seen it from the moon.

Then, just when you think it is almost over and we might be able to eat Christmas dinner without a hazmat suit, the news breaks of another COVID outbreak on Sydney’s northern beaches. States closing borders and panic buying of toilet roll has started again. The healing relief of an almost-post-COVID Christmas we all desperately wished for, evaporated.

Through it all there are those who kept on working at great personal risk, to help look after the rest of us. To the many essential workers, health professionals, firefighters, volunteers and emergency services who have remained on the frontline throughout, we all owe you a huge debt of gratitude.

To those who have rallied in their communities to help those wiped out by 2020 and rebuild, you too are owed an enormous debt.

To protesters and organisers and unions and anyone else fighting to save our increasingly fragile democracy and planet, you are the last frontier and your courage gives me hope.
To those leaders who did step up and turn up every day standing shoulder to shoulder with those trying to keep us all safe, may you have some respite from the trenches and time to rest and thank you for your service.

As for those in government who so comprehensively failed us on everything from aged care to climate change, to you a big fat thanks for nothing, the only thing in which you exceeded expectations.

There are still nearly twelve hours left of this never ending, psycho killer of a year. Now even the long awaited New Year’s Eve celebrations are looking unlikely. thanks to the new outbreak.  Caused by international travellers.  If only they had been treated like refugees, handcuffed and frogmarched into quarantine and watched night and day in case they posed a risk to the community, this outbreak might never have happened.

If a week is a long time in politics, 2020 feels like an eternity.

Good luck for 2021 everyone. I get the feeling we are going to need it

Mosquito River

The sun ricocheted off the water as we crossed the bridge, flashing through the car like a bolt of lightning. The river ebbed and flowed beneath us snaking along like it had for millennium holding its quiet, steady course all the way to the broiling coast. I wound down the window and breathed the heady, earthen scent peculiar to green river country. Mangroves, weeping willows, steaming vegetation and mud. We headed further inland to my hometown and were greeted with the acidic perfume of countless fruit bats. They fill the sky every dusk and dawn and nestle in this last remnant of rainforest on the banks of the Manning River.

It all feels so eerily familiar, no less because it had been so long. It is a very long journey to come back here, almost as long as the one I embarked on in leaving. I deluded myself I had left this place and everything it means behind.

I had moved to the cities trying outrun who I was. I lived in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and many places in between. Working learning and often drinking too much along the way. I had a good career and travelled when I could, standing on the joyously chaotic shores of Hanoi’s West Lakes in North Vietnam; feeling the salt spray of the Sonoma Coast in Southern California; hearing the primal rumble of tribal dancing on the islands of the South Pacific. Yet here I was crossing this bridge, feeling for all the world like I was right back where I started from. Why does it feel as if I had never been away?

Like dinosaur bones entombed in volcanic rock, the sensory imprints of your youth are part of you forever. There is no escaping it. Like DNA at a crime scene it sheds tiny almost imperceptible flakes along your path, inexorably linking to your past. We all bear the mark of where we come from – whether we like it or not.

All the demons were still there right where I had left them. The street where, when I was six years old, they found my Father’s body, felled by a self inflicted gun shot to the head. The back road where seven years later my sister and her fiancee were killed by a drunken driver. The cemetery where we would soon gather yet again to bury one of our own.

I had come home for my Mother’s funeral, a day I had dreaded for so long. As we drove through the Biripi Mission at Purfleet I heard her voice as if she were sitting right next to me. ‘Stay away from those blacks!’ she would say ‘They are nothing but trouble! Drunks, the lot of them’. It was the voice of my people, my childhood, the racist language of my youth.

I can still smell the smouldering carcasses of stolen cars burning beside the highway. Boys from the mission would steal them in town, joyriding them back across the bridge. I see the place where the highway patrol were surrounded by an angry mob, pummelled with bottles and stones as they rocked and smashed the vehicle. It was payback for the beating of a black man in the lockup. It makes m wonder now as Black Lives Matter burns furiously across our screens: will it ever be any different?

Racist rhetoric was every day language when I was growing up. That all blacks were lazy; that they tore up the floorboards of their housing commission homes and ripped down the fencing for firewood; that they only shopped for ‘five finger discounts’ and were such drunks they would ‘knock off the wine (sic) in your gear box’. At every turn, at school, the sports grounds, the public pool, the shopping centre, the skating rink and later the clubs, pubs and backyard barbies. Terrible, degrading language calling indigenous people savages, coons, abos, darkies, boongs, charcoals and much, much worse. Unprintable, foul, racist rants that seemed to fill the air until I thought I would surely suffocate. It frightened me then but I find it beyond repulsive now. It was all underpinned by an endless soundtrack of racist, supremacist, unfounded lies.

Stupid, baseless urban myths abounded. Like the one that ‘the blacks’ only make one car /house/TV payment and the Government pays the rest; that they had some sort of magical priority on the public housing list; that girls from ‘the Mish’ would do anything for a can of coke and a polka dot dress. The biggest lie of all: that somehow they had done all of this to themselves on purpose so they could live on social security and bludge off us hard working, tax paying white people. ‘Too lazy to hunt’ the beer gutted, lazy white men would say as they wasted their lives and pay packets down at the pub. ‘Good for noth’in!’ said another, himself a renowned wife beater who, as my Mother once said, wouldn’t work in an iron lung.

The urban folklore and crushing hypocrisy of growing up in racist white Australia. The utterly outrageous airbrushing and rewriting of reality. A whitewash, a con, a travesty. I was well into adult hood and a self funded uni student before I found out the truth. Our real national indigenous history bore no resemblance to what I was taught in our little public school on the river. No one taught us about the massacres, the genocide, the stolen generation. No one mentioned the black domestic slave girls and the unpaid workers of Wave Hill. No one told us the truth and it made me very angry.

Finally the endless road trip was over. We checked into the motel but I found I could not rest. I walked down the block to the riverfront road, cordoned off now from the rest of the last remnant of rainforest. There used to be a dirt road loop right through it and many a teenage Saturday night was spent chucking laps in friends cars and playing chicken with the river. There was much sky larking, drinking and coming of age.

Now here I stood on the water’s edge and closed my eyes against the late afternoon sun. Lukewarm water lapped at the base of the nearby boat ramp that had replaced the old wooden pier where a schoolmate once got his bike stuck fast in the mud. Trying to ride off the pier he misjudged badly, landing hard in the dark, muddy embankment. There was no getting it out and that stuff was like quicksand. Cows, boat trailers, oil drums, bikes had all fallen victim over the years. He frantically tried to dig, each hole filling with silt and water making it worse It was nearly dark by the time he realised he had to abandon his bike and walk home without it. Everyone knew what was coming. His dad was a violent drunk, but being a white man, was badged merely a ‘strict disciplinarian’ when he hit his son so hard he missed school for the rest of the week. Black parents could do no right and regularly had children removed for far less.

Jolted back to the present by the call of the river birds I opened my eyes and looked out across the water. The increasing current tugging against the trailing fronds of the weeping willows reminded me how dangerous the river could be. It was very deep and easy to underestimate the current. After rain it could be like getting caught in a rip.

Like racism itself I thought. Sometimes you are helpless against strong undercurrents you can’t see, murky forces beneath the surface pulling you in their insidious direction. Social conditioning, public discourse, stratification, biased media, racist advertising, the populist White Australia policy, rabid nationalism, small town red neckery – all of it forms a whirling, spiralling centrifugal pool that drags you under and threatens to drown you in racist, nationalistic, single-cell thinking. The harder you try to swim against the tide the more exhausted and likely to drown you become.

I have often asked myself, so what is the antidote to all of this? How can you unpick that which is woven into who you are? Can you question racism and not denounce your own race and who you are? How can you understand when you view everything through the prism of white privilege? How can someone like me be called privileged? We were not wealthy when I was growing up, not even middle class We started off working class, became underprivileged and ended up poor. My widowed Mother struggled to feed my surviving sister and I and pay the bills. We owed more than one Christmas dinner to Salvation Army hampers and things were very hard.

I learned early what discrimination meant. I can still feel the sting of the other girls taking delight in pointing out when I was wearing their hand-me-downs. I was bullied mercilessly at school and have never forgiven my Mother for her fundamentalist pacifism that punished me when I fought back. There was never enough money, never enough hot water, never enough of anything.

But for all that we were white poor, which still outranked black poor. Perhaps that is the point? I mused as I stood on the river’s edge. Karl Marx spoke of social stratification. He said poverty gives the middle class something to be afraid of so they will continue to create wealth for the rich. Perhaps racism is just another form of stratification? Maybe it gives racist white people someone else to blame for unfortunate outcomes in their own lives?

The sun was going down and I needed to get back to the motel. The sunset sky was flecked with black as the fruit bats made their way to the nearby trees. Large, carnivorous mosquitoes formed glittering clouds above the shimmering water, the swarm reflecting the suns last rays. We used to call it Mosquito River and if you didn’t Aeroogard your skin would be pinpricked with itchy fire for days. The river looked breathtaking and part of me regretted we only had a few days. But the rest of me would be glad when it was over. I turned and walked away before the ghosts of the past could form in the evening mist.

The funeral was the same as all the others. A white Christian minister ushered my Mother’s broken spirit into white christian heaven. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. She was a devout believer – a baptist no less – and I know my atheism and disrust of organised religion disappointed her. We had argued once about the role of missionaries in the slavery of Australia’s indigenous population and the decimation of their culture. She went to her grave convinced it had all been for their own good. I said my goodbyes and wished everything had been different.

As we left the chapel I knew this final goodbye changed something deep down inside of me. As we checked out of the motel and drive back out of town we crossed the bridge again, the dawn light brightening into sunshine as we went. Suddenly Mosquito River felt merely like somewhere I had just been, that I was a visitor now, an interloper. It was no longer all of who I am. I hoped I had come full circle, leaving the demons of my racist past behind in the pall of river mist.

I resolved that from now on I would find real and engaging ways to tell the truth about my country, my people To write more extensively, with honesty. I vowed to use my white privileged voice to speak truth to power, reality to myth and facts to lies. The truth is Australia is a very racist country.

Silence is violence and white voices must speak out against the ongoing blight of racism and the murderous regime that is presiding over black deaths in custody.

How this country treats First Nations people should be a warning to us all. It is how the government will treat everyone, just as soon as they can find a way to get away with it.

Playing Chicken

There are a number of things chickens teach you about life.  Our mixed flock includes show bred Silkies, Belgian Bantams, a rescue hen of questionable lineage and two Isa Browns.  Years of observing these clever jungle birds has revealed many truths that transcend species and cross all party lines.

Behold then the Top 5 Chicken Truths brought to you by chickens everywhere.

Chicken Truth #1

There is no getting away from the pecking order.  

It is the same social profile as at surviving at the office, trying to get a promotion or getting service out of a car yard.  Some hens are smarter, stronger, prettier or closer to the rooster – or head hen – than others.  The closer you are to the source of peak power, the better your result. 

Whatever the competition for resources, the pecking order exists. Live with it.  Ignoring it, pretending there is no such thing as a pecking order or pretending that you ‘don’t let other people’s pecking orders define you’ won’t make it go away.  It just means you get pushed even further down the order as you deny the nature of the beast and the realities of the universe.  

If you are not careful the other hens will start pecking you and the whole flock will turn on you.  Then HR gets involved and it’s all over.  No matter what the injustice, no matter how unfair, you are the one who will be culled.

Chicken Truth #2

If you are not willing and able to fight for your fair share you will only get the crumbs.

Chickens never doubt this truth.  They know that they can suck up to the head hen or the rooster all they want but if they can’t defend themselves against the mob at feeding time they go hungry.  I cringe when I hear parents tell their children ‘you have to share!’

In this ruthless, corrupt capitalist system?  I don’t think so.

Teach them how to defend themselves against thieves and how to get what they need without paying too much. Otherwise they and their flock will spend their whole life ‘sharing’ what they have with others who will gladly take it for themselves and never give it back. They will rip the food right out of their mouths if they can get away with it.  Like wage theft and private operator tolls on publicly funded roads, they will spend their whole life paying twice for things they never get if they are on the bottom rungs of the roost.  See Chicken Truth #1.

Chicken Truth #3

Things aren’t always what they seem.

So many times I have watched a hen gleefully scratching up what looked to me like a useless stick or a piece of string that turned out to be a fat juicy worm or coveted insect.  Over millennia chickens have developed a keen sense of what is worth digging up and what is best left alone.   Food, drink, nesting material – they find it with ruthless, time honoured efficiency and waste no time procuring it.  Develop this skill and the world is indeed your oyster.  

Chicken Truth #4

The world is full of predators.

Chickens face threats from all directions.  Raptors that can fly off with an unwary free ranging chicken in it’s talons; magpies that will swoop and steal their food; snakes that will eat their eggs and chicks whole; foxes; dogs that aren’t Oddball.  

It’s the same for people.  It is a vicious circle.  The more successful you are, the more others want your spot / your partner / your job, the more successful you have to be to beat predators at their own game.  

Chickens can simultaneously look down with their left eye so as to find food, whilst looking up with their right eye in order to see predators coming.  This is a brilliant risk management skill that can only be learned, not taught.  That’s why experience s often trumps form in a fight.  They can’t land first punch if they don’t see you coming no matter how big and strong they are.

Chicken Truth #5

Never hide all your eggs in one basket.

You find eggs laid in the most impossible places.  How can a 2.5 kilo chicken lay eggs in a gap less than 5 x 10cm?  How do they form perfectly spherical nests that hold their shape in chaotic piles of straw?  Search me.  Even chook cam hasn’t given up the secrets of how they do this.  They lay under impossibly low things, in small gaps and behind nest boxes – you know, the vintage timber ones you bought on Buy, Swap and Sell full of clean straw that they never actually nest in.

They will go to the same secret spot in the garden and lay egg upon egg and you won’t know until the dog starts farting rotten egg gas and you have to trace the source.  Hence finding a pile of half eaten mixed with freshly laid eggs in a very well hidden place you didn’t even know existed.

You will never be allowed to see them actually lay in their secret spots.  It is secret chicken business and no human has ever fully solved it’s mysteries.  That is because chickens are not only smarter than people, they know people are predators.  They avoid us knowing where their eggs are because we keep eating them.  

Then eventually we eat the hen, too.  The human race is hell bent on eating ALL the eggs and ALL the chickens ALL the time.  We won’t be satisfied until there is no eggs and no chickens left at which point it won’t matter which came first the chicken or the egg.  We will have rendered both extinct with our greed.  Again.

But here’s the thing.  You know what’s really dumb about all this?

Not just that when our last day inevitably comes the human race will go down in a blaze of war and thirst and famine of it’s own making.  Not only that so many will remain convinced to the last we are of ‘higher intelligence’ than all we have destroyed.  Even dumber than praying to fake Gods for non existent afterlives while still utterly  convinced that literally 11,000 PhD scientists are wrong and there is no such thing as climate change and that you know you can unscramble an egg because it said so in the Daily Telegraph.

What’s really dumb is that the human race will blame the chickens.  

Which is so stupid, only a human could come up with it.


Panoramic View

When Scott McLaughlin ripped over the finish line in the 2019 Bathurst 1000, I think I had been holding my breath for the entire lap.  Dick Johnson’s entire team deserved that win.  They really did.

Scott had driven like a man possessed all year.  The engineering team had those Mustangs singing like a canary in the spring sunshine.  Their pit crew are simply unbelievable.  Am I the only one who thinks the winner’s pit crew should be on the podium too?  

What a weekend they had.  McLaughlin posted the fastest lap time ever in qualifying, beat his own personal best twice in one weekend and had a flawless first and second start from pole.

He is also known as a really nice bloke – something that is startlingly rare in elite sports.

Then there is the track.  The Mount Panorama racetrack is like no other on the planet.   

It fascinates me that it’s a public road the rest of the year and you can just rock up there and drive around it anytime you like.  Then you realise how steep and winding Forest Elbow really is and how narrow the track gets in places.  Conrod Straight is so cool and the starting grid looks like a freaking airport runway when it’s empty.   Dunlop Bridge is so famous it is Bathurst’s coat hanger and you can drive straight through Pit Lane.

It defies gravity that anyone could possibly drive around the Mount Panorama track at over 250 kms per hour.  How do they not fly clean off the side of the mountain into thin air?  Yet there they were in their growling V8s, lap after lap, crash after crash, pit stop after pit stop, putting the pedal to the metal and screaming around that mountain at warp speed.  Talk about drive it like it’s stolen.  

Naturally enough things got broken.  There were rollovers, breakdowns, blowouts, crashes and even a case of carbon monoxide poisoning (carbon filter failure in the helmet).  There were so many dramas even Neil Crompton was having a meltdown.

Car racing is a dangerous, expensive, risky business, especially at Bathurst.  Even the best drivers in the world with the best pit crew and the best car still need the best of luck to win the 1000.  It only takes one kangaroo or one stray shopping bag in a radiator to throw the entire multi million dollar race into utter chaos.

Dick Johnson has won Bathurst a number of times, three of them as driver.  He has been cheated out of many more by everything from falling rocks to finish-line mechanical failures.  He has had more starts than Phar Lap and more heartbreak than just about anyone else on the grid.  Moments after Scott McLaughlin brought the Mustang home to take 2019, a sportscaster asked him what was going through his head right now?  In true laconic Aussie fashion Dick replied “25 years!”

Anyone who follows motor racing in Australia immediately knew exactly what he meant in those few iconic words.

Twenty five years of tears, triumphs and failures.   Twenty five years of being in the garage until five am with written off cars and mangled gear boxes.  Of massive financial and personal risk.  Of having his heart in his throat either behind the wheel or behind the monitor in pit lane.  Twenty five years of ploughing into the kitty litter, smashing into tyre barriers, surviving total write offs and almost going bankrupt (twice).  A lifetime of throwing absolutely everything he ever had at that mountain to try and win the thing just one more time. 

Twenty five years of holding his breath.

When you get to the top of Mount Panorama, the view is literally gobsmacking.  It is spectacular and the air is sweet, clear, breathtaking.  It feels like you are standing on top of the world, in silent command of the universe.  The thinner air makes you feel just a little bit high.

When Scott McLaughlin stood on the roof of his car after he won the 2019 Bathurst 1000, no doubt the view from there felt very much the same.

Fair Play

My partner watches Federal Parliamentary Question Time like other people watch football.

When his team is winning there are cries of “You tell’em!” and “Cop that!” from the living room. When the away team has them on the run, it is more like “Lying cheat!” and “Rigged!”  

Federal and State Parliament are a lot like football.  There are two major sides (usually those with the biggest salary cap) who are expected to make it to the Grand Final (the election).  There are many minor teams in the draw early on such as Greens and Independents.  They play valiantly but are always outgunned by the better financed clubs with TV time and major corporate sponsorship.  

The Speaker of the House is the referee.  The Speaker has  the power to penalise or sin bin players – including the Captain – sending repeat offenders off.  Current Federal Speaker Tony Smith is as formidable a referee as any and it is just as well.   Both teams try all manner of borderline tactics and shady moves to try and get any advantage they can over the other side.

The difference between football and politics is football does not have the power to severely impact the daily life of people who don’t follow it.  With footy you are free to barrack for and even financially support whatever team you like, or even not follow football at all.  It will not impact your income, your health or your children except by choice.  

Not so with politics.  

The outcomes of Government policies impact heavily on all our quality of life and basic freedoms – whether you follow a political party or not.  The food you eat, who you can marry, where you can afford to live, whether you get decent pay, the medicine you are prescribed and the water you can – or can’t – drink.   Whether or not you can access housing, affordable power, health services, child care or reliable telecommunications.   Your entire household is impacted by decisions made by often self interested politicians.

Having worked in Local, State and Federal Government, private enterprise and finance, I know there is literally nothing the people near the top won’t do to get in power and then stay there. 

When you see a politician on TV or in the paper on hear them on the radio, there is no ‘brought to you by’ announcement.  Unlike footy players, they are not required to wear who is really paying on their shirts.  There is no political donation disclosure register and no salary cap.  There are no logos behind their heads at the press conference.  Lobbyists quite literally roam our Parliamentary corridors across the country offering billions for proximity to power.  They now have far greater access than the(allegedly) free press with none of the ethical restraints.

And therein lies the rub.  You literally have more information on who funds, sponsors and lavishly gifts your football players, coaches and Executives than you can get on your own Government.      

And no one should need the video ref to tell them that in a democracy, that is never OK. 

Copyright Suzanne James The Henoi Hilton 2019

Jimmy Sanders Dog

Out in Wiljakali country on the Mundi Mundi Plains
there lived old Jimmy Sanders and his dog
On a shifting track to nowhere in a shack of tin and stone
with the feral donkeys, goats and wild hogs.

The heat was unrelenting like the dust and flies and mozzies
so everything would crowd beneath the trees
Shingle Backs a-cruising through the deep red ochre sand
a clutch of grumpy camels stood in threes.

Jimmy and Old Yeller – for that was his best friend’s name –
would sit upon the porch and watch the sky
As the blood red desert sunset spread across the drifting sand
they marvelled at the landscape washed with fire.

Old Yeller lay at Jimmy’s feet content and wanting nothing
except to be with Jimmy day and night
So long as Jimmy had Old Yeller snoring at his feet
he knew that in the world all must be right.

By day they went on hunting tours through spinifex and mulga
Old Yeller sniffed and zig-zagged like a fox
The landscape stretched before them, ancient oceans old as time
where dinosaurs still lay beneath the rocks.

The two old friends returned at night to the humble little shack
a feed of bully beef and bread was waiting
Until content they both would go to Jimmys Navy swag
to wonder how the other half were making.

Old Yeller dreamed of rabbits, bloody nuisance that they were
while Jimmy dreamed of girls in days long past
Of a life spent in the Navy as he sailed the seven seas
so young and strong atop the ship’s great mast.

Up at sunrise every day a ritual was honoured
Old Yeller woke up first and stirred his master
A big fat paw on Jimmy’s face would wake him in a jiffy
Old Yeller’s tongue would wake him even faster!

They would breakfast in the red hot dawn of vast and golden sky
and share a dish of rabbit stew and damper
As soon as Yeller finished he would go fetch Jimmy’s boots
and out they’d go to make the bunnies scamper.

Then one day disaster struck: Old Yeller couldn’t wake him
poor Jimmy lay there, silent, blue and cold
Till nephew John came calling with an unsigned lease in hand
Jim had stubbornly refused to mine for gold.

Old Yeller saw young John who only ever came to beg
’bout whether Jimmy put him in the Will
He stood right by his master, gnashing teeth with a fearsome growl
that gave John’s greedy blood the Devil’s chill.

Now Johnny saw the old man and he knew that he was gone
that he had to make the usual arrangements
But Yeller wouldn’t let him near, not an ice cube’s chance in Hell
he stood his ground and even bit the Ranger.

Three days did pass since Jimmy died, Old Yeller growing weak
no longer could they save his faithful hide
The Ranger had to shoot him, put him back where he belonged
right by his much beloved master’s side.

They buried Jimmy Sanders with Old Yeller at his feet
at Silverton with a cross of flinty stone
Beneath a single mulga where the road and desert meet
so Jimmy’s soul would never walk alone.

“You don’t know where” the Pastor said “and surely don’t know when
The Maker calls, your life now His to take
ashes to ashes, dust to dust, take Jimmy Sanders home
with an Honour Guard, Old Yeller his best mate.”

Another chill down Johnny’s spine as they lowered to the ground
his flesh and blood that owned five gold rich acres
John could have sworn on his Mother’s grave he heard Old Yeller growl
As he followed Jimmy home to meet their maker.

So young John’s riding back to town to claim the land at last
when his horse reared up and bolted off in fright
A fearsome, yellow snarling dog, his jaws the gates of Hell
broke Johnny’s neck then vanished out of sight.

Today that lonely roadway out the back of Broken Hill
runs past the pub that serves the demon grog
And many a man has sworn off drink when on the homeward ride
they were set upon by Jimmy Sanders dog.

Copyright Suzanne James 2019

Pedestrians This Way

Every now and then you come across something in  normal, everyday life that makes you realise how extraordinary the ordinary is.  Just last week I was walking down the street, my head filled with the  mundane detail of shopping lists and ATM charges, when construction zone tape suddenly blocked my path.

“Pedestrians This Way” the sign said, re-routing traffic around the clutch of hi-vis vests worn by those iconic Aussie workers known as ‘Gangas’.  ‘Ganga’ is ‘strine for Road Ganger and / or Council Roustabout and / or Person that Fills In Holes and Formwork- roads,  footpaths, anywhere.  They have been around since before Federation but thanks to rampant outsourcing of public works jobs, sightings are increasingly rare in the wild.

The conversation was hilarious.  The apprentice was getting ribbed mercilessly about  last Saturday night.  The football was dissected try by controversial try.  They worked fast, talking all the time, taking it in turns to sit on the Esky and have morning tea.  The rhythmic scrape-slap of shovels and the stinging, metallic smell of wet concrete filled the air.  The ute radio played vintage Oz Crawl.

Well look at that, I said to myself.  Growing up in this country how many times have I seen that scene and never even thought about it?  Like Bob Hawke sinking a beer when we won the Americas Cup, it was Australian as, like watching a Midnight Oil film clip or a movie with Bryan Brown in it.  It is part of who we are.  It reaches out to me and says ‘you’re one of us’.  I knew I had to write it up.

“Hey!” I called out.  “How’s it going?” 

Conversation abruptly ceased.  

“You’re doing a great job!” I said.  “Can I talk to you  for an article I’m writing?”

They all looked at each other and leaned on their shovels.

“You’re not from Work Cover are ya?” asked one.

“I’m not that kind of girl” I replied.  “No kidding guys I’m a writer – how long have you all been gangers?”

“Seven days” said the apprentice sheepishly , still looking hung over.

“Five years, two months and three days” said the one next to him “but who’s counting?”

“How about you?” I asked the one in the Supervisor’s Vest.  He shrugged nonchalantly. 

“Too bloody long!” he said and they all laughed.

“Nah serious, I dunno” he said.  “Would have to ask the Wife.”

“Concrete’s going off Boss” said the apprentice.

“Yeah righto – get back to work you lot!”

He nodded goodbye with a lopsided grin so I left them to it.  The whole encounter made me feel happy.

The world seems full of hate and division.  Trump, Brexit, the Middle East.  Business Review Weekly can have it’s billionaires with their wage theft and rampant exploitation.  Canberra can shove it’s outrageous and destructively self interested policies.  

When the fortunes of all of humanity can rise and fall on Wall Street and the world has been plunged into permanent war by a few selfish rich people, there was something timeless and reassuring about this small bunch of gangers.  

They were real.  As real as the concrete they were shovelling to the harmonica in The Boys Light Up.  As I walked away one of them sat on the Esky doing karaoke with a mouth full of sandwich, not a selfie stick in sight.

Now that’s real.  Real people.  Real life.  

Real legends.

Copyright Suzanne James 2019

There are calls I’ll never miss

This article was first published in The Australian “Soapbox – Readers’ Wisdom” on 8 September 2009

Last year I got rid of my mobile phone. I hope my call was recorded for training purposes.
“Not upgrading? You’re getting rid of it?”. Complete disbelief. “I’ll have to check with my Supervisor.”

We moved out west two years ago, joining the growing queue of the displaced from the now exclusive coast. The mobile coverage was appalling unless I stood on the filing cabinet at a 45-degree angle – right next to the real phone.

When the telco finally erased me, the sense of freedom was immense. No more scrabbling in my handbag to check for missed calls. No more unsolicited SMS marketing. No more bills.

Equally immense was the horror my new-found freedom brought out in others. It was as if purging myself of increasingly intrusive technology made me a traitor, a rabid leftist clearly not to be trusted to safely manage my own life.

“What if you have an emergency?” they fretted. I am either at work, at home or on the short route between the two – which of course is a reception black hole. If I were somehow stuck halfway, I could flag down a passing roo shooter or a farmer with a mob of sheep. He could send the Kelpie for help I joked.

I might as well have said I was joining the Ku Klux Klan. In the city I used to think I needed a phone, but they are junkie magnets, money wasters, a tool to enslave us to a 24/7 life of 24/7 productivity. What I needed was freedom. Freedom from a satellite tracking my every move, from being at the mercy of an offshore call centre.

Freedom to talk directly to another human being.

If 70 percent of communication is non-verbal, is our entire society being lost in translation? A mobile, wireless, virtual world of voice-recognition that didn’t quite get what you said.

“Did you say ‘WMDs?’. If correct, press one. To change, press two. To end the world as we know it, say ‘yes’.”

To err is human. To really stuff up? That requires technology.

Crush Hour

Countless minnows swimming upstream
never connecting for fear of reprisals
Suits and hoods and Mardi Gras stragglers
an old man next to the window
drifts away into methylated sleep.

A tattooed man with eyes of flinty stone
just paroled at Her Majesty’s leisure
as always with his back to the wall
He is shoehorned next to a nightclub Queen
in a feather boa, jewels in his beehive hair.

A knot of women in Burqa shrouds
shepherd children past
disembarking for the Western line
A school of private blazers takes their place
the arrogance of youth in a fleeting flare.

Half a dozen penguins rise together
clutching brief cases, in Italian leather shoes
edging past the great unwashed
I-Pods hidden from the thieving hordes
they rush to the gentrified northern shores.

A working girl saunters down the aisle
Darlinghurst’s a mud flat in the rain
All fishnet stockings and spray on tan
she hums Vivaldi like an understudy
while everyone pretends to divert their eyes.

Finally they reach their destination
and the metal Anaconda spews its prey
Onto the platforms the minnows spill
fanning out across the river
they somehow find their way back home.

Copyright Suzanne James 2019

Bail Out

The Airport Road went straight to Hell

the day that mighty Baghdad fell

Sand and shrapnel raining down

as the Coalition went to town

Saddam holed up in a desert cave

while soldiers drink at a compound rave

Blood money stashed, a pile of loot

if it bloody moves, then bloody shoot

Several million refugees

they bring the country to its knees

A hundred kids dead in one day

but the US swears its the only way

The mountain shepherds take up arms

try to protect their meagre farms

No Taliban were ever here

now all that grows is smack and fear

A US tank hits an IED

that’s something no one wants to see

A soldier killed by friendly fire

so the rebels sell his guns for hire

The UN tries to set up base

but the border’s closed to help the chase

Is he in a rat hole or palace den?

They’ve lived in caves since don’t know when

They find Saddam deep underground

but the Taliban are still around

Can’t leave yet Sir, we’re not done

now we’ve got Osama on the run!

Baghdad, Iraq, Afghanistan

a shame Bush had no exit plan

So many souls so far from home

don’t speak the language and die alone

The next election’s like a civil war

had never been like this before

Then a black man in the White House chair

his 2IC a maiden fair

Obama says he’ll close The Bay

and make the factories lift their pay

He says no soldier walks alone

but he never says if they’re coming home

More tracer fire in the desert sky

a thousand more civilians die

Another speech in a steely tone

but he never says he’ll bring them home

The world slides into GFC

the bailout list you had to see

While flag draped coffins are named in stone

seems the only way to bring them home.