Monday, 12 January 2009

Post#112 People at the Edges (Bit Players in History)

I was reading a post at The Girl Who Wished She Was Australian about former Australian Prime Minister, William McMahon, which prompted me to make a comment which I'll reproduce, in part, here:

"I remember a little bit about McMahon from my childhood. I have one enduring memory of him; a television newscast from the campaign for the election of 1972 that he lost to Gough Whitlam. In those days there were still large outdoor rallies to which anyone could turn up. These have disappeared in this country now and this is a good example of why: McMahon was about to give a speech from a platform and someone had organised a bouquet presentation. Two girls of about 6 years of age wearing white, lace-trimmed dresses, stepped forward to hand the large bouquet to McMahon as he stepped onto the platform. The crowd was, naturally, composed mostly of Labor supporters and a great groan and moan went up: "Ooaarr. Orrrr." It sounded as though they were watching someone eat something very unsavoury. As I understood it at the time they were expressing disgust with the girls for giving the bouquet to McMahon. I was pretty disgusted by that. Those kids had probably expected that it would be a pleasant event and their parents had dressed them in their best for the occasion. Only to be greeted by that. In the years since, I've realised that the crowd were probably expressing mock-revulsion at McMahon being allowed near the girls or abusing the adults who put the kids up to it. Still, I think it was probably a nasty experience for the kids and they wouldn't have taken it well at the time. "

As I was writing this I began to wonder about all those people who make peripheral appearances in history. Those two girls, for example. That was late 1972; 36 years and some months ago. They would both now be in their early forties if they are still in this world. I wonder where they are and whether they remember their big day out that took such a nasty turn.

On the subject of using children for political stunts, there's another episode which I remember with some disgust. In the 1990's there was a very vexatious public debate in Australia in response to the Mabo decision on Aboriginal land rights. The contesting factions included mining and pastoral interests which had sufficient funds to run expensive propaganda campaigns for their cause. Their purpose was, simply, to encourage anti-Aboriginal sentiment. These campaigns were cloaked in a pretence of moderation and fairness and were tuned to appeal to the baser aspects of human nature while appearing to speak in the voice of sweet reason.

On example of this was a glossy brochure which was delivered by letterbox-drop in my neighbourhood. On its front page was a photograph of four children standing in a line, each holding a cardboard square. On each square was written one letter of the word "MABO". The children had obviously been chosen as representative of racial and ethnic types. One was apparently of British ancestry, one was a dark-complexioned Caucasian and might have been any of several origins; Southern European, Indian, Arab. A third was East Asian, Chinese perhaps. And one was obviously an Australian Aboriginal. I was very surprised that any Aboriginal family would allow their child to be used as window-dressing for a campaign attacking their own ethnic group. Then I looked very closely at those cardboard squares. The letters in red on the white boards were not quite in the same tone as the other colours in the photograph. Very close but not quite. Then I spotted the explanation. The purveyors of this junk mail (And I do mean junk) were cunning but only half-clever. They had missed the fact that one of the children had a piece of red letter over the tips of his fingers. The children had been photgraphed holding blank white cards and the letters had been superimposed after the event. The parents of these kids had obviously not been told what the cards were going to spell out. They were probably booked through an agency, taken to the studio, photographed and sent on their way without explanation of the campaign's purpose. I assume a parent or authorised person accompanied them as they only appeared to be about ten years old at most. I never heard a word about anyone complaining. I had too much on my plate right then to try to stir up media interest so I let it go. I've wondered since what unknown furies and embarrassments this episode may have caused and what came of it all. Does the Aboriginal child know today how he was ill-used?

Another case of political exploitation of an individual's race was broadcast during the 1996 federal election campaign. The "minders" decided that they needed to smooth over John Howard's record on race relations. Eight years previously, Howard had expressed concern over the level of East Asian immigration to Australia. This led to a very lame stunt being performed at the election campaign launch for the Liberal party. As Howard left the hall after giving his campaign launch speech a woman rose from an aisle seat and interrupted his progress to hand him a large bouquet. She was of Mongoloid racial origins and was wearing what looked to me like a traditional Korean woman's costume. This was apparently supposed to prove that John Howard is not a racist and that Asians like John Howard. I know a little about the way these minders operate and I wouldn't be surprised if they'd lured some woman with a poor grasp of English and no idea of the history of the situation into playing this role. (I wouldn't even put it past them to have had a Caucasian woman made-up and dressed to look Asian. It wouldn't have been impossible to work such a scam; the Liberal party had complete control of the venue and could direct where any photography would be allowed and the camera was placed a fair distance from where the woman was sitting.)

It's intriguing to me that no-one interviewed the woman to expand on her views on the subject. Was she a loyal, Asian, Howard-loving Liberal who played her part by informed consent or was she a dupe? How does she feel about it now?

Another unknown bit-player is that man who anticipated Gough Whitlam's words on 11 November, 1975. ("A date which shall live in infamy", said Gough, wryly borrowing from Roosevelt.) On that day Gough spoke what he has, correctly, described as the most famous phrase in Australian political history. After the Governor General's secretary had read the proclamation dissolving Parliament and concluded with the exhortation "God save the Queen!!!", Gough stepped forward and made various comments to the crowd, including these words, written in fire in the memory of all of us who lived on that day and were old enough to take notice: "Well may we say 'God save the Queen', because NOTHING will save the Governor-General". Of course, it's obvious what he meant, but a strict reading of it shows that it's a non-sequitor as it stands. A proper expression of the sentiment would be, "Well may we say 'God save the Queen'. However, NOTHING shall save the Governor-General!"

I've seen the video-recording of this moment many times and, as with all very familiar things, your attention begins to drift to the peripheral details. A few years ago I noticed that Gough paused after saying "Queen". At that instant a man in the crowd shouted "God save Kerr!" (As in, "God help him if we catch him.") Then Gough spoke the mangled balance of the sentence. It's occurred to me that Gough was put off his grammatical stroke by the supportive interjector. Now, who was that anonymous voice? Does he live yet? Does he point out to his family or friends that his voice is to be heard on the soundtrack with Gough. Like the soldiers of Shakespeare's Henry V speech, does he strip his arms and show his scars of that Remembrance day? ("There be gentlemen in Melbourne who yet lie abed, will curse their luck that they were not here with us on this Dismissal Day.") I have stood on the very steps where Gough said those words and mimicked them to the amusement of a female friend. Only the two of us there on that Saturday in 1989 to share the joke. (Later someone set up a tour of the Old Parliament House where you could playact the roles of the protagonists and repeat their speeches.) O, wherefore art thou, interjector? If yet thou livest, come forth and claim thy mantle of glory!

Another rally with Gough, from the previous year, 1974, was the occasion for the can-throwing incident. Gough addressed a rally in my hometown, Perth, and was received with enthusiastic animosity by a large contingent of farmers who had come to town for the purpose thereof. One of them hurled a drink can (I think it was empty) which struck Gough (again, I think) on the side of his head. In those days drink cans were usually steel, not aluminium, although aluminium cans were beginning to appear. I don't think the thrower was ever caught. Perhaps he brags on "bopping Gough" to a select group of trusted persons.

In the field of rally-projectilers there is a somewhat less inglorious title to be claimed by the person who threw an egg at John Hewson in 1993. Hewson had attempted to revive the outdoor rally as an election event and encountered the same obstacles that had already killed it off once. At one of them he caught an egg which flew up from the crowd and called out, "That's the catch of the season!" At the other end of the egg's trajectory was a person who can say, "I threw the egg that Hewson caught."

And then, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, there are the "unknown unknowns". I can imagine one for you to show what that means. In the days when Alan Bond was being prosecuted for various matters, Paul Barry (then with the ABC) approached Bond as he was walking to court and said "Mr Bond, I'm Paul Barry from the ABC. Do you remember me, Mr Bond?" He handed Bond his business card as he said this. Bond calmly took the card, carefully placed it on the footpath and then ritually stamped upon it. As Bond turned and walked on, Barry followed, smiling and saying in a very pleasant and apparently delighted voice, "Ohh, so you do remember me Mr Bond." (At this time Bond was faking brain damage and memory loss for legal purposes.) Bond then turned and began shouting mock-hysterically (for the cameras) "Leave me alone! Leeeave mee alooone!!" It's a good yarn and I may return to it one day. For now, let's allow Paul and Alan to walk away from us down the path of history. Let's look back to where Bond stamped on the card. There it is, lying on the pavement with his shoeprint on it. What happens to it? That card is a Lost Treasure of Australian History. If only someone walking along behind would think to pick it up. Mounted in a nice frame it could attract a good price at a charity auction. Perhaps the National Archives or the National Library would like to have it. Or does it disappear with the rest of the debris of the footpath, disintegrating in a gutter or down a storm drain? Well, now that I've suggested it, it's a known unknown. Perhaps someone does have it tucked in their wallet and produces it at the pub as a conversation piece.

There are uncountable quantities of such curiosities and mysteries to be found, reaching all the way back to the deepest past of humanity. They spread out to touch all of us bit-players in history.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Post#111 Batman Returns (Urban myths and their origins)



Now that I've got that out of my system, I'll stipulate that this post really has nothing to do with the Batman comic books, television series or movies - but wait! - it has plenty to do with kinky sex!! (sort of...)

What prompted me to think of Batman was a story that has appeared in the media during the past two years concerning an incident of October 28th, 2006. The story, as always, was somewhat fragmented in the media reports. The gist of it is that a young woman named Nicola Jane Clunies-Ross was charged with conspiring to trap a boyfriend in her home and then assisting another boyfriend in violently and sexually abusing him. She has now been sentenced to 2 1/2 years prison (suspended, so effectively nothing). As far as I can make out from the tangled media versions, the mess originated with a combination of jealousy on the part of the other boyfriend and resentment by Clunies-Ross. This link to The Australian covers the basics of the story. More links can be found in this Google search. My view is that Gurdulic's "apology" in his suicide note for coercing Clunies-Ross is baloney and an attempt by him to give post-mortem assistance to her. I believe the jury should have stuck her on for "guilty" on all the charges and that she should have copped a minimum of ten years before parole. Quite a bit of the Internet comment on the topic is along the lines of "Lots of people pay for this kind of thing..." Of course, those who pay for it have some control over the process and its outcome.

"Sexy Police Chick" Costume

The reason I mention this yarn is that, when reading about the scenario in which Clunies-Ross, dressed in what she called a "sexy police chick outfit", bound the victim and then opened the door for Gurdulic, I had a memory-flash that caused me to think, "All that's missing is Batman coming through the door..." The story is almost identical to one I heard in 1978 which was told to me as a joke. It goes like this:

"A bloke meets an attractive woman in a night club and she persuades him to go to a hotel with her and engage in some kinky sex. When they're in the hotel room she has him strip naked and binds his wrists and ankles to the bed-frame. She then prduces a roll of heavy adhesive tape from her handbag and gags him with it. After making sure the bindings are secure she smiles sweetly at him and leaves the room. He thinks he's going to be left for the maid to find and he's mighty vexed and embarrassed. Then he discovers things are worse than he thought. The door opens again...and a bloke wearing a Batman suit enters and does him over!"

Not a bad joke, as a joke. Then, five years later, I was talking with a work colleague who had just met a mutual acquaintance of ours who had joined the Western Australian police. This recently-minted cop had been telling him some good stories over a few beers. One of them was about a guy known as "Batman". Sure enough, it was the same story, except that the boy/girl bondage/rape team were allegedly real and working the clubs and pubs of Perth. The racconteur took a while to be convinced that our cop mate was either deluded himself or having him on. When you think about it, once you remove the suspension of disbelief which is usually granted to a joke, the story can't hold up. Perth had a small selection of nightspots in those days and someone trying to work the "Batman" scam repeatedly would soon encounter a previous victim or the word would get around so that any prospective new victim would quickly recognise the come-on and where it was leading. And the detail has to be considerably supplemented. Where is "Batman" supposed to be while the sucker is being bound? Perhaps in an adjoining room - he's not likely to be hanging around in the hotel corridor in his costume. Or we can change it slightly and have him hiding in a walk-in wardrobe or closet in the room where the trap is being sprung.

This is, I believe, how a lot of urban myths begin. A joke is misremembered or misheard as a true story; someone hears something while distracted or intoxicated and it later seems to have been told to them as a true story. Then imagination does the rest, smoothing out the implausibilities. "Where was Batman?" asks the skeptical listener. "Oh, he must have hidden in the closet", responds the improvising story-teller. After a few more recountings the story is polished enough to not immediately provoke scorn. Then it begins to seriously spread. It's also possible that someone deliberately translates a joke into a "true story" as mischief-making or just to impress a listener.

Somewhere in the five years between my first hearing the joke and its return as "reality", one of these two processes took place. The story of Clunies-Ross and her boyfriends indicates another aspect of the urban myth. The jokes that give birth to the myths may have a basis in reality. A real incident can provoke a joke on the same theme which is one day purveyed as fact.

Even now, someone may be turning the story of Clunies-Ross and her "police chick" costume into a joke which will return as a legend which may inspire some twit to actually try it and thereby generate a new wave of jokes...