I once had a conversation in a pub in Darwin, in the Northern Territory of Australia, during which I was threatened with a beating and told that the indigenous people were happier and better off before they had the vote and were paid in money.
I was living in the town at the time, the pub or ‘Motel’ was my local. The man I was talking to, let’s call him “Jonesy, did odd jobs about the place and had previously worked out in the remote cattle stations.
That night, however, he was told that I was a journalist.
I hadn’t told him about what I did. Let’s also be clear that I was a journalist, and had been for decades but not in the way Jonesy thought. My work had been predominantly on consumer magazines. I wasn’t a news hack. Someone else told him about the Englishman and his work, and had got it wrong. They’d known me from before I’d moved to the Territory. The mistake was understandable given they were trying to show off.
Jonesy told me about the aborigines and their history after a tall, dark skinned man had come into the bar to place a bet. No one told him to leave. Many of the drinkers just stopped talking, cleared a path to the TAB (the government approved betting organisation) window, and then cleared a path back. The bloke kept his head down.
“He’s laying a bet for a white bloke probably. Often comes in here. He’s one of the good ones. Keeps himself to himself, doesn’t get pissed up”, Jonesy told me, taking a swig from his fifth rum and coke.
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t know mate. Thing is he’s happy. You can trust him to place the bet and give you your winnings”, he took another sip.
“They don’t understand money you see. It makes them confused and unhappy”, he said with the authority of a man drinking in a pub after knocking off early on a Friday.
I’ve never understood money but I didn’t think this is what he meant. Jonesy was a man in his fifties. Short, stocky, he had a great deal of dark hair on his head, cowboy boots on his feet, and a well worn leather waistcoat over his blue vest. He wore stonewashed blue jeans held under his impressive beer belly but a wide, studded belt. He was a physically powerful bloke, he had mates.
“My dad used to employ mobs of them, back then he paid them in tobacco, sugar and other food that was good for them and they liked. Gave them somewhere to stay during the Wet (season). Kept them off the grog. If they got on the grog, that was it, they were offed without any pay.”
I was shocked about the “pay” but not as shocked as I was going to be by the history.
“Then in the late 60s the fucking government told everybody that the black fella had to have equal pay, pay in money. Worst thing that ever happened to them. Worst thing. They don’t get it. Money, they don’t get it. Not part of their culture. Makes them angry because they had nowhere to spend any of it and they had no idea how to save it.
The late 1960s?
I was interested in how, briefly, he switched to the present tense before switching back to what he obviously thought of as the good old days.
“Did nobody teach them about money? What about the banks?” I asked.
“The government doesn’t give a fuck, just wanted to be seen doing the ‘right thing’ by the rest of the world. Banks always side with the government. The rest of the world doesn’t understand the Black Fella. And we didn’t have the time, not with work to be done”, he paused.
“And anyway, you can’t teach them that sort of thing. Nothing complicated. Manual stuff, sure. They can pick up tools and a bit of driving but nothing too…” he looked the right word, “No brainwork.”
What you have to understand is that Darwin, unlike the majority of Australia, has a very visible Indigenous population. Jonesy wasn’t talking like the majority of white Australians whose only encounters with the First Nation people were via television. He saw the people every day and still had no understanding nor empathy. He exuded a paternal sympathy that masked disgust, misapprehension and fear.
“My shout now mate, same again?” he asked amicably.
I nodded. I was on my fifth or sixth schooner of weak beer, the kind you drank when the humidity meant the alcohol penetrated deep and exacerbated the seasonal madness called “Going Tropo”. It was getting to the end of the Dry season and the humidity was like a kilotonne of cushions. The skies continued to fill with heavy grey but refused to give anything away. This part of the season was known to send people especially mad. But Jonesy wasn’t mad. Jonesy was as sane and normal as they come.
He headed off through the throng of Friday afternoon drinkers to the bar. While there he stood next to the bloke I knew from elsewhere and another time.
I stood by the pool table and watched two blokes bashing cracked balls on the faded blue baize. As they played they argued over the rules. One insisted on New South Wales rules while the other insisted on London. It often struck me that Darwin was mostly populated by people who had left other places looking for anonymity and arguments. There’s a popular phrase used about the city: “Darwin is the place for the unwanted and the Wanted”.
Someone came in from the soupy air that had engulfed and suffocated us for months and announced that there was a storm coming in from the coast. Dark clouds, lightning, he’d seen them. This was cause for celebration, disbelief and booze. The meat raffle was imminent.
Jonesy came back from the bar and pushed a beer can tucked up in its cooler glove at me.
“You’re a sneaky bastard aren’t you, mate?” he spat out the words.
“What do you mean, mate?”
“A fucking journo”, he paused, “aren’t you”, he paused again, it wasn’t a question. As with everything in Jonesy’s world it was a certainty.
“Well, sort of yes”, I admitted, my vanity aroused.
“If you ever write a word about what I said, I’ll find you and batter you. I swear to fucking Christ I will”, he wasn’t joking. He was just wrong.
Two options now. Smile, assure him that I wasn’t going to use my Woodward and Bernstein-like clout to publish a searing indictment of the racism that everybody knew was endemic to the town, or…
“Why mate, don’t you agree with yourself? Don’t you think you’ve nailed it?”.
Jonesy had a thought, then another thought.
“That’s not the point and you fucking know it. This was a private chat, in the pub. And I will fucking find you.”
“No, you won’t mate. Let’s not kid each other.”
Jonesy waggled around like a penguin on a cool spot. He put his glass down and picked it up again. Other blokes gathered round for the entertainment.
“Then I’ll break your fingers now, mate”, he hissed.
“Stop you writing won’t it?” he was pleased with that.
The bloke I knew from another time stepped in. “Jesus Christ, mate, calm down”, he said, smiling.
This was not a sentiment universally held by the crowd, none of whom had heard the conversation that had lead up to this. Everybody knew everybody else in the pub, and everybody knew Jonesy. After the event I was told that everybody knew that Jonesy was a show pony, a talker.
The Dry season was about to break with the storm now audible as it approached from the coast. The lightning was flashing through the long, low, dirty windows along the front of the single-storey pub. I’d had enough of the Dry. More importantly I’d had enough of the wafer thin camaraderie, the mateship that entailed knowing how the wind blew and staying behind it. I’d felt the same thing in England in similar situations.
Right then I didn’t care if that Jonesy was going to try and break my fingers. We both knew he wasn’t. Jonesy was a small, angry balloon of hot air, a walking humidity, a blowhard who was nearly out of wind.
“I’ll dictate it”, I said having not even thought about writing up his tired, old rant. Not in the videogames magazines I still had contacts with. Nor in the local newspaper, The NT News, because they wouldn’t print it because it wasn’t of interest.
“You’re a smart-fucking-arsed cunt aren’t you, Tim. You’re a proper Pommy cunt”, he waggled some more. The large number of other Pommy cunts who had wound up in this pub in the suburbs of Darwin and wouldn’t or couldn’t go home to the Old Dart shuffled a little and turned back to their conversations.
The Black Fella who had come in previously returned, collected his winnings, chatted with the barman and left.
“You know what, Jonesy. I probably am. But what I’m not is some jumped-up, mouth and no trousers twat who can’t get over what his dad told him when he was a boy. Take a look at yourself… mate”.
Jonesy swung for me and as he did I regretted all the times I’d not said this sort of thing back in England. He missed and fell against one of the tall tables that punctuated the bar like exclamation marks.
It must have been that I was in another country, or I was drunk. Or the storm that was coming in was not only clearing the stagnant humidity that had smothered and rotted everything for months. Whatever it was, I was glad of it.
I was also glad he’d missed because I’m rather a coward when it comes to bar fights, or any fights.
“That’s enough Jonesy mate. That’s enough. Come over here for a beer, mate”, someone said. Jonesy stood up and staunched a smatter of blood that had emerged from his nose during his fight with the table.
“Just you be careful, I’m watching you, cunt”, he said to me, the fight taken out of him by the furniture.
And then the rain hit, and it hit hard, and everybody cheered up. And the only thing that had really changed was me.