Sunday, June 28, 2009

Trash and treasure on the South Seas

Keeping up with the Joneses is difficult, no matter where you live. Out in the McSuburbs, there’re ever expanding flat screen TVs to be purchased; mandatory upgrading to the bigger, faster, louder, redder Holden Commodore to be managed; and children’s birthday party entertainment to be sourced which out-does Little Johnny’s surprise visit from Dorothy the Dinosaur’s illegitimate offspring last summer. It’s relentless, exhausting and mind-numbing, not to mention economically crippling.

But killing yourself slowly just to fit-in with the neighbours is not peculiar to the identical, pastel dwellings on the urban fringes. Even when you’re a funky couple of kats like Mrs Donkey and I, living in the uber trendy, fur-hat and petticoat-wearing, latte-sipping pockets of the inner north, the pressure to ‘fit in or fuck off’ is just as insipid. However, when doing so means sourcing the finest second-hand clothing the early ‘80s can offer, it’s not as simple as firing up the V8 and chugging down to the local Megamall for new pair of daks.

Far from it! Having an eye for a piece of risque, second-hand fashion that hasn’t yet been picked over by the hoards of freaks on Victoria St is an essential survival skill. Hesitate over that Shanghai silk dress with the ridiculous slit up the back, and you may just find yourself with nothing funkier in your wardrobe than a mink coat and a pair of purple, sequinned thongs/flip-flops to wear to the cafĂ© – a “so yesterday” look which’ll see you shunned to the dark tables down the back, beneath the staircase where only the work experience waitress will occasionally dare to visit on her way out to the bogs for a smoke.

It’s a slippery tightrope; that of social acceptability in the cut-and-thrust world of unwashed bohemia and having ready access to a steady supply of ridiculous, second-hand threads is commensurate to one’s need for oxygen. Fortunately for us, my being notoriously too tight to purchase new clothing unless it comes with a sweat shop-sized price-tag to match the age of its maker, and Mrs D’s expert eye for eclectic, exotic threads complements well with our local area boasting the highest ratio of second-hand clothing stores per capita in the known world. It even works for lil’ Hambones, who, much to his grandparents’ collective derision, has never worn a new item of clothing in his short life. So to date, all three of us have managed to hold our own as we cram onto a single, uncomfortable wooden box on a frigid, Sunday morning winter pavement, sipping our lattes and offering a rigamortis smile to our equally uncomfortable, yet outwardly content, fellow funkies.

It’s a pretty recent phenomenon, this rapid rise in the social acceptability of second-hand clothing stores. Wearing someone else’s used duds has certainly not always been well received. Back in the day, it was a mark of upwardly, socially mobile suburbanites to clear the cupboards every spring through a donation of last-season rags to the poor and destitute. This convenient means of getting rid of unwanted garments had the added bonus of filling the donor with a great sense of satisfaction at their civic contribution, but strangely enough, it was generally assumed that the charities which received these clothes directed them towards dressing the poor and street-living folk; an odd assumption given that no one in my neighbourhood had ever seen homeless women getting around in pink, backless evening frocks or elbow-length white gloves, nor had anyone witnessed unshaven, urine-smelling drunks lying in the putrid back-alleyways wearing full-length, paisley smoking jackets!

Such is the nature of western charity, since the days of the Victorian poor houses, that once disposed of, the moneyed classes rarely gave much thought to their donation … until recently, when the sale of second hand clothing exploded into a multi-million dollar industry!

You can imagine the talkback radio-led outrage of the masses when they came to learn that charities, rather than using out-dated tuxedos and feather boas to clothe the homeless, were actually making a buck out of other people's [unwanted] donated gear (albeit a buck which was then used to pay for food and lodgings directed at the poor and homeless). Of course, despite their impotent frustration, the moneyed classes were unable to argue with the fact that the poor were still receiving a benefit from the donations (at least, they weren’t prepared to argue about it in plain daylight, but the issue burned for weeks thanks to the anonymous lens of talkback radio), and the issue eventually faded. People became used to seeing the funkies (and subsequently, TV soapie stars) getting around in used threads, and the industry took off.

But before all this recycled commerce came the fore, what was never recognised was what the charities did with all those crap clothes in order to make the money to help the poor BEFORE we had embraced second-hand clothing stores. The answer to that, my friends, is the Pacific. Throughout Melanesia, Polynesia and I presume Micronesia, it is not uncommon for an entire village to pool their resources and purchase from some third-tiered middleman, a huge bale of used Australian women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, and, come arrival day, to almost rip each others’ jugulars out in a mad scramble to nab the best gear with which to clothe the family for the following year.

As mentioned previously, the moneyed folk of Australia’s urban sprawls tend not to give anything appropriate away, however, only what they don’t want, so as a result, one recognises some pretty strange (and hauntingly familiar) fashions on the Islands.

For instance, it’s a pretty regular sight throughout Polynesia to witness a buff, young, tattooed, cropped-haired tough-guy strutting through a village wearing a t-shirt with a fluffy pink dog painted on the front. Or an old man wearing a thread-bare, child’s nightie baring a sickly-smiling, Strawberry Shortcake! About the only island folk who ever end-up looking the part are the grotesquely masculine transvestites, their obese legs and shoulders (and machetes) crammed into pink or pale yellow, sequined, backless, full-length dresses.

And you'd be surprised at just how close to home it all gets. Late one night in 1999, I came across a security guard manning the guard house of the National University of Samoa wearing a t-shirt from an Australian student association I was a member of in 1993, of which there would have been only about 100 t-shirts printed at most!

Freaky coincidences aside, the other great thing about unwanted Australian clothing ending up in the Pacific, is a) that a considerable number of inappropriate garments get shipped abroad, and b) that what is inappropriate in Australia, is not always perceived so amongst the 'English-as-a-second-language' islanders. So it is therefore not uncommon for a man to be standing in a Samoan church on a Sunday, all dressed in pristine white and beaming a beatific smile, and across whose chest is plastered one of a number of rather suspect phrases such as "I've seen God and she's black" ... and no one seems to mind.

My personal favourite, however, was an elderly, wrinkled, hunch-backed Solomon Island woman hobbling along the streets of Honiara wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a sprightly Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, trade-mark thumbs in the air and twinkle in his eye, issuing the speech-bubble caption, "I just fucked your girlfriend!". Magical stuff!

More recently, it appears that wearing clothing which sports inappropriate English phrases in non-English speaking cultures is becoming very fashionable, so much so that it is being extended beyond dumped, second-hand clothing, to new clothing produced locally. A perfect example seems to be the preferred head gear of high school students in Lhasa at present, who in order to protect their scones from the intense, Tibetan sun, are sporting American-style baseball caps with the rather obscure, priceless phrase, "I Fuck the Fakeshit". I dunno what it means ... and most likely, neither do they (or their teachers), but it has been widely embraced, and I just wish I had have had the guts to wear one to school when I was a lad!

Caption seen on an elderly Solomon Island woman's t-shirt, circa 2005. Pic:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The power of metaphor

The Populous Security Bureau bugging devices must’ve been popping like cherries at a B&S ball the other night as I sat in one of the world’s highest restaurants discussing the history and current political situation in Burma with my high-altitude colleagues.
You can imagine the freedom I felt after a week (and in their case, a lifetime) of being careful about everything one said and did, so as not to openly express any opinions or attitudes at odds with the government, openly discussing in a public place the activities of an undemocratically appointed, unlawful military regime, imposed upon the people, and which restricts religious, political and social freedoms, whilst deliberately and systematically culling huge swathes of the population, from the urban intelligentsia to the rural peasantry.
You might also imagine what was going through the minds of these colleagues as they lapped-up information about events and government processes in this neighbouring country; happenings which, although having never heard about them before, must have seemed so very familiar. Occurrences such as the systematic and aggressive persecution of monks, violent military responses to peaceful protests, restrictions upon the populace in terms of their freedom to worship according to their religion, lengthy incarceration of citizens without charge or trial, the unspoken and unexplained disappearance of generations of loved ones.
It is no surprise that they were so interested in asking questions and listening to what I knew of the happenings in “Burma”. I wonder if they wondered why they’d never heard this before?
I also wonder about the poor drone up there in the communications control tower who was deciphering our monitored conversation, and writhing in anguish and indecision as to whether they should bring the discussion to the attention of their superiors; whether they would be praised for their diligence, or chastised for wasting the time of their betters on a conversation about another country’s irrelevant activities. Being a bureaucrat cog must suck.
We all thought it would lead to change - again this sounds oh, so familiar. Pic:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It’s a boy! … and we’re back and runnin’


Three months ago, after an arduous ordeal spanning a-day-and-half, I was again, for perhaps the third or fourth time in my life, fortunate to find myself on the receiving end of that most joyous of life’s lessons; where one’s fate can alter from seemingly utter despair to hope and good fortune in the blink of an eye.

In the harried confusion of surgical masks, scrubbing-up and calamitous crash trolleys, I was fearing the worst. Just when I began to give up hope, and thought I was about to lose the greatest gift of my life, a sudden gasp, a splutter and a wail, followed immediately by two great, big hands being flown over the top of a surgical screen towards his Mummy and Daddy’s astonished faces, my life changed forever; bestowing upon me two fabulous gifts, namely Mrs Donkey - safe, happy, healthy … and a mother to the bumper-sized new addition, a largish, but completely healthy, baby Donkey (henceforth, owing to his advanced, athletic physique, referred to as “Hambones”).

Since that day, I’ve been busting my ass in an attempt to successfully implement the only job in your life for which no academic course, on-the-job training or subcutaneous patch exists with which to prepare or assist you. I’ve been wandering around in a sleep-deprived, semi-lucid state trying to look after my new boy-o, and have had absolutely nothing extra to add to society but a vacuous gaze and a stupid, proud father’s grin. Certainly no creative juice left in the tank with which to direct towards this decrepit, forgotten by-lane on the information super-highway.

But I must say, despite a lack of parental experience or direction, I’ve discovered some kind of inherent, naturally-selective, guiding quality within; a force which leads one to love one’s own child unconditionally; a force which can turn even the most irresponsible individual (yours truly) into a diligent guardian, entirely committed to protecting his child from whatever evils may darken his horizons, no matter how threatening or cruel.

I remember a Warner Bros cartoon where the drunken stork drops the wrong babies off at the wrong homes, and when he sobers-up and realises his mistake, he heads to the top of the bean stalk, where the Daddy giant is trying to change the nappy of a tiny little baby with the aid of one of those old-fashioned jewellers’ eye pieces. I always thought it was touching how Big Daddy clearly loved his family’s tiny new addition, even though the wee babe was perhaps not quite what he’d signed up for. Fiction, as always, is built on basic truths, and I can attest that there’s definitely something there between a parent and his newborn … something magical … and despite the severe lack of sleep, it’s a wonderful feeling.

Aside from a lack of creative energy associated with multiple, nocturnal nappy changes, the other reason for the poor frequency of despatches on this blog has been my mistaken understanding that I’ve got nothing interesting to say to the masses these days, seeing as though Junior’s arrival has temporarily put paid to exotic locales and unusual work practices – after all, who wants to hear about living in the inner suburbs next door to grammatically challenged “drug deelers” (sic), across from a Polynesian truck driver with an anger management problem, who takes it out on his drug-addled trophy-wife to the sound of The Eagles’ Hotel California on a weekly basis? Or how two of the biggest nerds in the barnyard manage to fit-in with the brown-cord-wearing funksters (read: wankers) of inner-Melbourne’s fastest emerging, hippest slice of urban bohemia? Or Donkey’s foul-mouthed, daily exchanges with bicycle-ignoring taxi drivers? Or office antics with a bunch of colleagues comprising alcoholics, bogans, Antarctic explorers, drug abusers, mad scientists and psychotic feminists?

Clearly I’ve got nothing to write about! Unless, of course, people are actually interested in hearing about the neighbourhood vigilantes’ ruthless campaigns against the resident, although poorly educated drug deelers (sic), and what it’s like living across from the street from Eti the truckin’ maniac and his very own Judy Garland (circa 1947, when Jude was dallying fairly heavily in the nose candy), and how two geeks try, but fail pitifully to fit-in with the funky, ‘latte-sipping hoards in their designer, recycled brown, and Donkey’s daily, crotch-ripping defeats by the barely-discernible verbal taunts of immigrant taxi drivers, and the various conflicts and intrigues of an eclectic mix of colleagues comprising functioning and non-functioning alcoholics, heavy-metal tragics, second-rate, illegal airplane pilots/Antarctic explorers, drug users and abusers, mad (although not-quite-qualified) scientists and psychotic feminists … and y’know, I was thinking to myself today that maybe there just might be enough material there to get me started.

So I’m gonna give it a go … parental duties permitting, I’m gonna pour my creative talents back into this literary pillar; apply iron-hard self discipline and commit myself to regular, insightful commentary into the daily machinations of this inner city barnyard; stand fast in the face of suburban mediocrity … QOIJWDiqjgvriweirjgikdWQAjidwiQJNJIUJIIK … slurp!

Whoops, sorry, I just fell asleep on my keyboard and will have to turn it upside down for a while to let the saliva drain out and … hang on, what is this milky vomit in my hair? Urgh! OK, so I’m not entirely sure how this is gonna go.

Wish me luck.


The big baby has arrived Pic: