Confessions – On mateship

| December 3, 2020

In my time the tradition of Australian mateship was a living thing – was.

There was my mate Paul.

We became friends at five, firm buddies thereafter. We were innovators, mainly of wild romantic schemes and reckless larrikin behaviour. We were to run away as mates, at 15, to become trainee managers for the Onkaparinga wool company. But that turned out another euphoric dream.

We both grew up misfits, but I had more advantages, got a lot of unearned breaks. Paul drunk himself to death, at 46, ostensibly having achieved little in life. Yet he is still my biggest hero. And, I wish, that we were still mates.

I think it derives from a stiff upper lip culture, from learning to do it together tough in a harsh foreign land, from laughing in the face of danger and propriety – this Aussie mateship thing.

Dreadful dry, that is the humour. Paul and I at 14, camped in the Lynton quarry at night round a campfire. Paul crouched on haunches, mighty close to a 12 foot drop, a devilish grin emphasized by the firelight, slyly drawing on a cigarette. I turn away for a sec. I hearing a grazing thump, turn around – he’s gone.

“You ok?”

Larrikinism? I had an excellent mentor. Not Paul. Just bucking against expectations. My dad? Top of the State in Physics, Chem, but always messing with explosives. Trained to be a wireless operator in the Lancasters during WWII. A death sentence. Not for Max. Blew the flesh off his hands messing with powder. Never saw active duty. (Thus spared to release his best incendiary – me.)

Used to court mum at a TB hospice, Kalyra, (they both had it), by letting off a bit of powder outside to announce his arrival. The days of ‘Gelignite Jack’, that colourful rally driver who threw explosives out the window as he drove – to spice up a pedestrian sport. Max’s best offering was laying some gely on the Glenelg tram track. Had to tow the tram away – cracked wheel.

Antisocial? I reckon that Paul and I, trying to change the Lynton train signals, aged about 8, stretched a tad beyond that. And therein lays the rub. The devoted larrikin is not only detached from any sensible care for his own welfare. But, what the heck.

Paul’s mother, (and yes, she insisted upon being called ‘mother’), set high, English derived standards for social etiquette, professional achievement, class pedigree. Bit of a farce really, but siblings John and Sue did go on to hold high positions, did very well thank you. Had to slug against innate mediocrity to get there.

Paul? He could work real hard as a youth, as a young man. But always did a great send up of his parents’ snobbish pretensions, always riled them with his waywardness.

Every year, in our version of primary schooling, we would set ourselves a project. One year it was digging a tunnel and cave beneath his driveway, right underneath the prized new Holden. I think we made a token effort. Another year we schemed to build a fort atop the forty foot aerial in the back yard. We talked quite a lot about that, which no doubt wearied our actual efforts.

Paul’s driveway was about 200 feet long, steep and winding. At the bottom was a large open shed always littered with beer and spirit bottles. It made for a very interesting go-kart ride if you didn’t pull up in time. Paul’s bother, John, made the go-kart, and would later go on to own a city-center pub. He’s a heavy drinker too, so there you go.

Yet John was always – very responsible.

When the ever dolorous Phyllis left the vacillating hilarity and temper of my father Max, in 1967, Paul and I were separated. We caught up sporadically. But both of our lives might have been better, perhaps better, if the kindred spirits had stayed kindred?

I reckon we were about 20, when I talked Paul and his wife to be, a very straight laced simple girl, to accompany some friends and I to a drive-in. I had a quiet, conservative vehicle befitting a 1st year classical music student, a red and white 58 Studebaker President with huge fins, goggle headlights, a great chrome grill like shark’s teeth.

My driving habits, coming via the tutelage of Mad Max who used to drive my bother and I regularly at 145 mph, were also appropriately conservative. My friends? Mainly rock musos, and not altogether adverse to intoxicant beverages and weeds.

Moderation in all things is my saying. Driving, I was already half blotto after the 10 mile trip to pick up Paul and prospective ‘er indoors’. They both looked less than amused with the calibre of the ride, company, and the barely concealed anarchy.

I think, at that stage in his life, Paul thought he ‘could do the stretch’ – live a straight life, marry a straight girl, be a serious, productive, responsible citizen. My life? A mono-thematic dream, only interrupted by the ongoing car crash of reality – occasionally hilarious and inevitably tragic.

As to that evening? A good night was had by all, at least by all of us committed to the total evasion of serious, productive, responsible behaviour. The two ‘disco dollies’ I had arranged as dates for Kenny and I also struggled with his fraternity.

And Kenny’s fraternity it was, two packed carloads of musos and acquaintances not at all interested in the movie, only smoking up one car all night long as a hive of raucous behaviour. I demanded some propriety in our car, for the sake of Paul and wotwosername, which meant a constant change of personnel between the vehicles all night long.

Despite everything, the one disco girl still seemed interested in an extended dalliance with depravity later that week. Somehow, I decided, I just couldn’t do that stretch.

Kenny was straight up the most amazing person I have ever met. His parent’s very humble abode was always packed with friends, because, like Tom Sawyer, Kenny was the very epicentre of boyish enthusiasm.

He and his cousin Peter taped a regular mock radio show, Spas and Dildo, (a play on Bazz and Pilko), a bizarre entertainment for all. It featured a list of characters, keenly caricatured in nature, and that for reasons of political correctness cannot be named here. Strange, because Kenny is now a highly committed music teacher in the ‘Pitlands’, the Pitjinjinjara lands of northern SA.

Only Kenny. Could be 5, 8, even 10 of us in his small bedroom. One minute he’s playing a tape of Bruce Springstein, then Stravinsky, then Al Jolson. Only Kenny. Goes to Europe to arrange gigs for his punk band, ‘The Screaming Believers’, who sold quite a few copies of “Teenage Mutant Ninjas from Outer Space” in Germany.

What eventuates? No gigs, but Kenny’s been delivering messages for the intifada in Israel. O he calls me a fascist – but he IS a downright socialist. Still, we laughed at each other for 40 minutes straight one night, without saying a single word.

Mateship? It killed the potential of Kenny’s very innovative music. He always had mates in his band – not good musicians.

I suppose, to be honest, I’ve had or near had quite a list of mates in my life. And it’s quite an achievement to apparently lose more than you’ve made. But, hey, that’s in the whole nature of being a true and proper misfit.

Paul and I? Our best prank seemed but an innocent affair. Paul: “Can you do something for me mate?” “Sure.” “Bomb my high school?” “Sure.”

Let’s get it straight – it was only a 4-penny-bomb, or a couple tied together, not any extravagant Semtex arrangement. No. Paul and I? He was perhaps not the brightest, and I was straight As at the school of studious truancy – no masters of chemistry.

But the thousand pupils packing the school quadrangle seemed to nonetheless appreciate that unique moment when one interloping scoundrel threw this incendiary device at their headmaster during assembly. Some nonplussed teacher simply put his foot on the wicks, and yours truly lost one name and address-engraved watch in the scarper to escape.

Two police later arrived at my dad’s house, the bombs bound with the watchstrap. What got me off? “Why did he throw the bomb with the watch strapped on it?”

Their shared look at father and son said it all. Idiots.

This essay on real Australian mateship, and the linked musical composition Ulysses is dedicated to all Australian defence personnel. Like Ulysses, and my dear friend Paul, may they all come home.