‘Before them stretched the awesome, lonely void of the Indian and Southern Oceans, and beyond that lay nothing they could imagine’ Robert Hughes on Australia’s first convict fleet.
When I hear the words Australia Day, a Year 9 camp concert comes somehow to mind. Much of the behaviour on display 26 January kindles the same memory. Amidst our strenuous efforts to take it easy, our boisterous exertions, enforced jollity and all those noble words chosen to inspire us in our government’s resolute determination that we must find due cause for celebration in our chequered and often quite inglorious past, a voice calls me.
It is the voice of a 14 year old boy who finds himself suddenly propelled, unwillingly, on stage. Damo’s voice. ‘This is ridiculous’ he says from inside a brown paper bag.
Damon Colbert is a shy boy; a quiet, slightly built boy with big feet and a Jeff Kennett voice made deep in the back of his throat. Speaking causes him pain. He’s told he sounds silly. Other Dotheboy’s Year Nine lads love to show off. In fact exhibitionism seems a compulsory rite of passage. Their foolhardy bravado and raucous, risk-taking stupidity is an eagerly competed for badge of belonging and the bane of all teachers nation-wide. Damon prefers to stay mute.
Boys’ manic energy masks a fear of failure in ways that can be dangerous. The road to manhood is littered with hideous accidents. Greg has to be hospitalised when he welds the sole of his shoe to his foot because the others dare him to keep his foot on the embers of the camp fire. Somehow, despite the bullying and the macho bravado, you sense Damo the withdrawn, lone introvert will be OK. Unless the others pull his wings off for sport.
Bullies can rule Year 9. Grown men and women let them. A braying attention-seeking and a careless cruelty is accepted as a necessary stage in masculine identity formation. Boys will be boys. Especially on Australia Day. Belligerence, intolerance and the mutual feeding of hatred are bred of insecurity and ignorance.
Yet reserved, retiring, Damo is on his own path even if you can hear him talking to himself a bit and singing softly. Damo has more claim than the lot of them to be an Aussie icon. A national living treasure. For being himself.
Today some poncy private schools send the Nines to camp for a whole year just to be rid of them. Boys and girls go bush for a year of ‘hands-on learning, team-building, self-discovery and environmental science’ or so they spin the experiment in the hard sell glossy prospectus. Got up by advertising copywriters for other copywriters, it’s state of the art communication. It’s a strong pitch even if ‘Hands-on’ is a bit of a worry. The parent information night is packed.
Exhausted working Mums and the odd fun father well out of his comfort zone look dead impressed. One or two bit of a lad yet Dads even spark up. ‘No more nines running riot, then. Not like OUR day’. Laughter. Rebellious misbehaviour is an honour badge in the trials of a young man’s coming of age. Disobedience is sanctioned. Especially if it can be farmed out for others to manage.
Mums are keen to hear bullies will be off campus for a while. Their child will be locked up with their tormentors for a whole year in an existential nightmare, but nobody connects these dots. Camp uncannily replicates key elements of the full colonial experience. Isolation. Imprisonment. Deprivation. Bastardry. It’s traditional. Think of 1788. Not just character forming but nation-building. Without the floggings.
But all this is a world away from Dotheboys, where we’ve reached the end of our one week ‘resilience-building’ bush experience. The end is fraying. Boys are forgetting their roles. Boys can sense precisely when they don’t have to pretend to be nice to each other a second longer. The mask of hearty amicability is a chore. Home safe tomorrow.
God knows what Damo would make of the modern ‘immersive educational year nine experience’. He would be too reserved, too polite to say, anyway. But in his own way, Damo is an Australia Day legend. He dares call it for what it is. Ridiculous.
School camps conclude with a ‘traditional’ concert. ‘Traditional’ covers a multitude of sins, but here it’s inertia. Participation is not only compulsory but character-building. A small, scratch audience includes Fiona local rabbit-skinning legend and camp cook. Fiona is a local dairy farmer’s wife and will not be put in her place. She enjoys making Owen uncomfortable. He needs her more than she needs him. Or the school. Both outrank one hapless Year Nine teacher sent along to make up ‘the staff-student ratio’. Parents pay for the individual attention the school promises.
Mal is camp Obergruppenführer, an OCD martinet. His hyper-vigilant nurturing of children, numbering of tent pegs and obsession with lining up, puts relationships instantly on a war footing. Tradition demands no less. Mal’s discipline evokes Samuel Marsden, Bishop of Bathurst, unjustly remembered as ‘the flogging parson’. Yet even he was to be midwife to a work of sublime genius.
Colbert’s coup, (tradition demands Dotheboys be a surnames only school) is an inspiration. His pathological fear of being noticed; his very performance anxiety becomes his performance. His terror. Damo is paralysed with stage fright. Nothing will induce him to go on.
‘What are ya, Damo?’ His peers are supportively jeering, clapping, goading and otherwise hugely enjoying his distress until it goes on too long and they remember it is supper afterwards. The odd thoughtfully harvested earlier gum nut was discreetly thrown.
‘CUT THAT OUT!’ Mal made you wait or even go without your biscuits if you played up. Or even your Milo.
‘Settle down, fellas’, Mal, the voice of God, bellowed from the rear, somewhere. ‘Keeps his eye on the little bastards’, I’ll say that for him’, teachers say. Control, a widespread fetish helps sanction tyranny up and down the classrooms of the nation. Yet no-one could have foreseen Damo’s one-act minimalism, his oeuvre of blind panic and sheer genius.
Nowadays Damo would be straight to the Tate Gallery; no question. Or one of those Ozzie soaps where all the blokes make such hard work of talking that the female actors have to mimic them to make it seem normal. Fake intelligible.
All 29 other boys have long done their skits and parodies of TV comedians and wait with a barely tolerant, fidgety boredom that you see in certain Foreign Ministers even today. Big Mal pulls out a killer of an appeal.
‘Be fair. Colbert watched YOU. It’s-his-turn-give-him-your-support’. Mal shouts. He’s done this type of thing before.
Spud Murphy, forbidden to bring his ferrets, has been pestering cook for carrots and is looking out the window to see if his Arnott’s biscuit carton propped up with a stick on a string improvised rabbit trap has yielded a catch. He’s brought his ferrets anyway but they’ve been confiscated. Now only the stench outside cook’s quarters gives them away. Every twenty minutes the young ferret-whisperer requests permission to check on his feral pets.
Suddenly we realise we are caught up in an interminable, intolerable, truly awful pause. We are waiting for Damo. We wait. And wait. Sam Beckett has nothing on us. One or two Gallipoli-spirited lads suggest that they get up and do his death on stage for him. 26 have already volunteered to ‘help’ and there is a fair bit of scuffling and muffled thumping backstage. Big Mal barks the offer into silence. Prompted by Mal’s temper, Damo pipes up.
‘No, No, No! Damo is like a Santa Claus who’s landed at an Adventist picnic. Colbert is being pushed and shoved on stage. OK. Just a bit of surreptitious kicking. His head is in a Tuckerbag supermarket bag. His voice sounds strange as if filtered through thick brown wrapping paper. Which it is. We strain to make sense of his lines. Is he speaking at all? The others skitter off-stage in case they are blamed for something.
Damo just stands there dazzled by the dimming light of Mal’s lantern torch rigged up on a boy’s boot lace, a make-shift and precarious spotlight, its battery now nearly totally wasted.
Damo’s testosterone is all spent on growing his vital organ: his voice. Nothing left in the tank for the rest of him apart from his size ten feet. It is a deep voice, a meat and three veg with gravy voice. At 14, he could easily earn a fortune doing Sport on TV or the greasy voice-over for six pack abs home gym equipment on Danoz Direct. Yet tonight we strain to hear him. But when it comes, his line is magnificent. Although it does involve a fair bit of eager prompting.
What’s that? Say again. Take it off, Damo. A long brown paper bag covers the entire top third of his body. He stands there a good minute, like a mute blind creature of the sea, a giant shrimp or middling octopus, perhaps, upended on its tail as if in benediction before he excels himself with a gem of an aside.
‘This is RIDICULOUS.’
All he says. All that can be said. He shuffles off. Loud applause. Whistling is forbidden.
Now you can go cockroach racing in Brisbane, do another triathlon, or a spot of thong throwing or even get your ‘best hat’ entry in the competition. There’s a thousand and one mindless, meaningless treats on offer for Australia Day but Damo sums up the guts of it. It’s ridiculous. It’s a lot of fuss and bother from a people who aren’t that crash hot at fuss and bother. Someone decided we better have a day off to celebrate being Australian without knowing what that meant. Even today we’re still guessing. And arguing. Any excuse for a blue.
But let’s not drop the thong too quickly. Like a dog walking on its hind legs, as Doctor Johnson, observed, it’s not that Australia Day is badly done, it’s a wonder it’s done at all. Expect once again a series events organised with all the charm and spontaneity, not to mention ritual humiliation of a Year 9 end of camp concert, when you didn’t want to be on stage or even on camp anyway.
Embrace your own, deep inner mystery. Enjoy the epic absurdity of being human in contemporary Australia at the same time. Australia Day? Hats off to Damo. Find me a brown paper bag.