The Happiest Refugee

I decided to bring forward all the material that would prove to them I was just an Aussie kid.  So I did a number of jokes about bull terriers and Datsuns and housing commission estates, and slowly I was getting a few chuckles.  Then I moved on to footy jokes, farming jokes and kiwi jokes.

Anh Do, The Happiest Refugee

For about a year I worked at the Sakai-Higashi branch of NOVA teaching English in Japan.  There were twelve teachers.  11 Australians and me.  The Australians were curiously relentless with their jokes about New Zealanders having sex with sheep.  To be polite I joked along for a while initially assuming that they would stop eventually.  They didn’t.  I tried being cross, then totally ignoring them, and then finally settled on treating a joke about my birthplace and bestiality as a sort of joke on Australians.  They said something about kiwis and sheep, and I would nod cheerily and wonder what was the matter with them.  I concluded that there was some deep-seated need in the Aussie male to talk about having sex with sheep; impossible to fathom and difficult to sympathise with.

You can see Anh Do’s train of thought in the order of jokes above.  First: establish that he is a real working class Aussie (this gets us to footy jokes), then move seamlessly from making fun of farmers, to sheep, to Kiwis.


That’s all I’ve got though.  Anh Do is a cool guy and highly likeable.  His Mum and Dad are cool, and his brother and sister are cool.  The story he tells is interesting.  He’s done some fairly impressive things: made a few films, came second on Dancing With the Stars, won the $200,000 on Deal or no Deal, been a successful stand-up comic.  His brother was named Australian of the Year.  You can see from this list that there are some good things, and some publicity generating who-really-cares things.  He can now add writing the 2011 Australian Book of the Year to his list.  I think he’s about 34.

I don’t read feel-good biographies so reading this was a stretch for me.  There is a lot of hardship in this story but like a Hollywood movie of a certain type you know that everything will work out ok.  I am in no way diminishing the hardship.  Escaping Vietnam in the late 70s and very nearly dying as boat people a few times is not something you can make light of.  The problem is that I always want to know a bit more.  Seems like Anh’s family were Roman Catholics.  I imagine this made life pretty interesting during the later stages of the Vietnam War.

But that would be why he has written a successful book and (one of the reasons) I haven’t.  He tells a good story, and I get bogged down in details very (very) few people are actually interested in.

The good news we can take from this book  is that Australia isn’t really racist, and that pitbulls, footy and kiwi jokes are the ties that bind.

Still, I really know next to nothing about Australia, and most of what I do know came from working with Australians in Japan.  When I went to Japan I assumed that Australian Europeans and New Zealand Pakehas were the same.  When I came back from Japan I knew that they weren’t.  Related sure, but different.  New Zealanders tend to be quieter, gloomier, deadpan, and generally less inclined to sneer at the indigenous culture of their country.  Of course any generalisation leads to trouble, but that seems about right if you’re painting with big strokes and not worrying about individuals.

Unusually for a New Zealander I have only been to Australia once (twice if you count Sydney Airport).  On the way home from Japan for a holiday Cathy and I stopped off at Brisbane Airport for about eight hours.  We landed, rented a car, drove to Burleigh Heads, had lunch with Cathy’s grandparents, drove back to the airport and flew to New Zealand.

Even in eight hours I could tell that the Australian landscape was nothing like New Zealand’s and that this would probably create peoples with different outlooks on life.  Brisbane Airport seemed to be surrounded by endless stretches of dense, green bush that looked tropical, and the road to Burleigh Heads was a stretch of blacktop surrounded by red earth and lush green.  The road sings listed destinations with impossible distances of over 1000 kilometres.  It absolutely poured for about half an hour; sheets of water falling in torrents as our windscreen wipers beat feeble moments of clarity for me to glimpse the road ahead.  And then it cleared, and the road took us out to the coast where hotel skyscrapers rose up next to long white beaches, and a clear, blue sea.

In 1998, when Cathy and I left New Zealand to start our adventure in Japan, our first stop was at Sydney Airport which seemed impossibly big, with rows and rows of planes waiting on tarmac that apparently stretched to the horizon.  It made me feel like a small town boy, and rather tiny.  A country cousin in fact.  Which explains that train of thought in the Australian comedian’s mind: from footy, to farms and Kiwis.  We must seem like the outback country cousin at times as we make our way in droves across the Tasman and onto the streets of Sydney.  Perhaps that’s why we’re lost in an endless sheep joke.

Last year I discovered The Magic Pudding, and Seven Little Australians, which are wonderful books for kids, and My Brother Jack, which is just a wonderful book.  The Happiest Refugee didn’t do a lot for me, but I hope to get back to Australia’s books and its red earth one day soon.

Prone to lament defeat

IMG_2217I’m going to the hospital today.  Every few years I get called up as part of a screening programme.  Preparations for the test and the actual test itself are discomforting but nothing to really complain about.  The idea behind these checks is to stop me going the way of my father, or two of his sisters (although one of those sisters survived her brush with the dreaded C word).  All of these things aside, waiting around for the test gives me a little free time, and as usual when I have some free time I think I will pick up my guitar and play it again.  Increasingly I find that this never happens anymore.

A few weeks ago I read this.  It coincided with me reading a book about Dorothy Wordsworth, and re-reading for the first time since university some of Wordsworth’s poems.  Although I think Wordsworth is very unfashionable I don’t mind his poems from the time he was at the peak of his powers (1797-1807ish).  It is a well known saw among people who care about the romantic poets that after a certain point both William and his close friend Coleridge became no good.  Both of them noticed that their response to the things that had previously inspired them had diminished.  They took different approaches to this problem.  William carried on writing poetry for the rest of his life and became the poet laureate.  Much of this poetry is considered second rate although his reputation was at its highest at this time.  Coleridge went the other way, and more or less stopped writing poetry, although he did write prose and give lectures.  Which would be fine for Coleridge if he hadn’t felt so depressed about the loss of what he saw as the most important part of his existence.

Both men wrote about the problem of diminishing response.  Coleridge’s poem was Dejection, Wordsworth’s was Intimations of Immortality.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore; –

Turn wheresoe’r I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

… But yet I know, where’er I go,

That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

So says Wordsworth, and so says Coleridge looking out his window at the stars and moon on a stormy night:

I see them all so excellently fair,

I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

My genial spirits fail;

And what can there avail

To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?

It were a vain endeavour,

Though I should gaze forever

On that green light that lingers in the west:

I may not hope from outward forms to win

The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

IMG_2216I vividly remember going to see a band called Short at the old Bar Bodega on Willis Street.  They were a three piece band that did originals and one killing cover of David Bowie’s Ziggy.  They were very tight and on the night I saw them, jammed into one of the pokey spaces of the undersized bar, they seemed to possess an angry intensity.  They had that great trick of knowing how to use silence.  Suddenly the bass, guitar and drum would stop, the drummer’s stick and the guitarist’s pick suspended, tense, about to strike, and then they would hit together at their next round of short, clipped chords.  It was heady stuff.  The music seemed to be in me somehow, not just the vibrating bass, and the cymbal crash, but coursing through me, making me free of myself, and the watch on my wrist, and my nervousness at being out late, and all that.

Not to mention the hours and hours I spent cranking up the stereo in the living room after my mother had gone out and pretending to be a rock star.  In my own head at least I had quite a stage act although honestly it was probably more or less a fourteen year old boy standing in a room wiggling his fingers around on an invisible guitar, and lip-synching to the words.  Moving on from this to learning how to play an actual guitar and forming a band was definitely a good move, but I think I also began moving away from an intensity of feeling for pop music too.  Pop music at that time was an addiction.  I didn’t just wait for my mother to leave in the morning for work so I could do my shows, I was itching for it, for the moment when I could drop the needle on the vinyl and imagine myself to be Prince, or Frankie, or A-ha, or later on, Guns’n’Roses, Nirvana or Pearl Jam.

There have been times in the past when I have had a break from my guitar.  I didn’t play for the first three years in Japan, but I came back to it and Cathy bought me an acoustic guitar and I started playing again.  That must have been in 2001.  I stopped again at the start of this year.  The thing is, I expect a lot from my guitar.  It has helped me through some tough times.  I have used it to speak to myself about myself.  For a woefully inarticulate person, the guitar has been a real release.  But what can be done?  Sometimes, without even noticing, what was once a life force will die in your hands.  Wordsworth and Coleridge had their responses – forge some new path, or withdraw – which I suppose are representatives of more general responses.  There are those musicians who move away from music, and those you wish had.  Perhaps Joni Mitchell and the Rolling Stones are good examples of both.  Reading Maurice Bowra’s description of Wordsworth and Coleridge below I know which type I belong to.

There was in Wordsworth something tough and bellicose which Coleridge lacked.  Coleridge’s sensitiveness was part of a gentle, in some ways passive, nature.When things went wrong with him, he did not know what to do and was prone to lament defeat.  Wordsworth was made of sterner stuff and sought for a new scheme of life to replace the old.

Maurice Bowra, The Romantic Imagination