Sum, sum, Summernatstime

It’s summer, it’s the beginning of the year, half of Canberra’s gone to the coast and there’s a lot of big, shiny, noisy cars on the roads. This can only mean one thing…it’s Summernats time.

Canberra seems to have a love-hate relationship with Summernats.  Short for Summer Nationals, the annual car festival attracts tens of thousands of people and their street machines to the capital at the beginning of every year. It’s either “oh God, those petrol head bogans are here again wasting fuel and making a noise” or “oh those Summernats, they’re only here for a few days, they’re good for the economy” ($15 million bucks this year, I hear).  People who live in the north, and who haven’t gone to the coast, complain about the noise, and the smoke from the burnout comps and not being able to get a park at Dickson shops because the ‘nats are all there buying beer, and eskies and snags and bread rolls and ice.

I saw my first Summernats “street cruise”, which was definitely unofficial, about 20-odd years ago, just after the birth of my daughter.  The “cruise” involved a whole lot of hotted up cars driving from Watson, where the event is held, into the city and back again.  We sauntered out in the late afternoon, up to Northbourne Avenue, and were most surprised to see quite a throng of people lining the road, some with deck chairs and picnics and drinks, waiting for the cars to arrive. This is quite the big deal, I thought. What’s the attraction?  I heard the cars before I saw them, and covered the sleeping baby’s ears, for fear her very new eardrums would burst.

What I saw next was a stream of cars, some very shiny, and some that looked like an old boyfriend’s 2-door Torana and I wondered what was so special about a car in which I had sped around Melbourne in my youth.  With no exception, every car was driven by a man, a young man at that, with three or four other young men in the back, arms hanging out the window waving their VBs and their cans of rum and cokes. Seems chicks didn’t feature at Summernats, except on the roadside watching the parade. Perhaps this was the petrol head equivalent of surf culture at the time? The boys did all the fun stuff and the girls sat on the beach, looking pretty and waiting.

The cars of young men zoomed by. And with rare exception, every backseat rallying cry was “Show us ya tits! Show us ya tits!” One of them even had a Chucky-esque doll which he waved out the back of a purple panel van.  The doll’s t-shirt was controlled by a string and when the doll’s handler pulled the said string: voila! the t-shirt rolled up and Chucky yelled , yep you guessed it: “Show us ya tits!”

I was not impressed, especially as a young, exhausted breast-feeding mother with a six week old baby in her arms. “You can tell who the bottle-fed boys are”, I said to her.  I didn’t pay all that much attention to Summernats after that year, except when I was living in the north and hadn’t gone to the coast and sat somewhere between “God that incessant revving is annoying”, and “they’re buying up big at the IGA, that’s gotta be good for the local shops”

Fast forward to 2015, and the “City Cruise” is now very official. Police sanctioned, intersections are closed off, and there are barriers in the city for onlookers to stand behind. The Cruise is executed with precision and a police escort, front and rear. There’ll be no funny business – no speeding, no burnouts, no undue noise, no offending the locals. It’s done and dusted within half an hour. It’s a far cry from the one I first saw which seemed to last several, higgledy piggledy hours, and if I remember rightly culminated in a bit of a riot and someone swinging from the traffic lights at Antill Street. This year 200 cars drove sedately, though at quite a clip, along Northbourne Ave; people complained it was too fast to take pictures.

I stood on the corner of my street (yep, living in the north again and not at the coast) for a nostalgic view at the Cruise. It was hot, and people wore hats, and huddled under the gums on both sides of the road. There were a couple of deck chairs but no eskies and cold drinks that I could see. I still heard them before I saw them, and when the cars came they were all gleaming and they were mostly pretty damn loud. There were some differences from my first Cruise though – mostly men drove, but they weren’t so young. A lot of them had wives and girlfriends in the car with them. And a great deal of them had kids in the back who waved at the crowds –  with their hands, and their iPhones –  but no one waved with beer cans.

And do you know what? Not one of them yelled out, not once did I hear: “Show us ya tits! Show us ya tits!”

When my grandmother died

When my grandmother died not long ago, at the ripe old age of 97, I was very sad. Here was a woman who had loved me all my years, a woman who I remember with every cell in my body, who was the linchpin of my large flawed family and had the sweetest Geordie/Irish accent you’ve ever heard.  I posted a picture of her on Facebook, with her twinkling, smiling eyes.  “At least you had her for so long”, commented one friend.

“At least you had her for so long”!!  Just because she was a great age when she died?  Does it mean I should love her less? My 1 year old cousin only had her for a year. Would you say at least you had her longer than he did, that somehow one year of love is worth less than fifty? Does it mean I won’t miss her as much? Are you envious because your grandmother died sooner than mine?

When my best friend died, an acquaintance said, “Oh at least you got to see her a lot before she died”.  And if I hadn’t, what then?  “At least you got to have dinner with her six months ago, before she got sick, before she died” (Oh yeah, great. Lovely). “At least you didn’t lose more than one best friend” (Oh but I did). “At least she died with her family around her” (um, no, we weren’t all there). “At least you have shared memories with others (no, she held the memories). “Well, at least…” Jesus Pollyanna, shut the hell up with your platitudes and ridiculous “at leasts”.

You hear it a lot in the face of tragedy and sadness. “At least he was unconscious”. “At least you got home in time to see your father, (ravaged with disease and delirious with pain)…before he died”. “At least her daughters were in their twenties when she died. At least they had a mother to grow up with”. “At least they had wills…imagine if they didn’t”. “At least the baby was born and you got to hold him…before he died.”

“At least”…. It’s a term used to add a positive comment to a negative situation. People like my acquaintance, Pollyanna Perfect, say it all the time to make people feel better. It’s part of her stock standard patter.   But you know, it also means “at the minimum”. You should clean your house at least once a week. You should service your car at least twice a year. At least I saw her once before she died. At least I saw her when she died. At least I went to her funeral. At least I remembered her birthday.

“At the minimum, you saw her (once) before she died”. “At the minimum, you got to hold the baby (once)”. “At the minimum, you got to the funeral (once)”.

“At least” diminishes. Repeated and repeated, statements lose all meaning.  At least you saw her before she died. Why is that comforting?  Why do you assume that comforts?  It doesn’t.  I want to see her now, alive, talking, laughing. I want her to remember me. I want to make new memories with her.

At least you have old ones.

Julia meets Julia

On December 23rd I joined about 750 other people who queued for several hours on a warm and sunny Canberra morning,  to have a few words and get a book signed by our former Prime Minister. I wasn’t surprised there were so many people; we are living  in the Republic of the ACT after all. We are a fairly staunch Labor town and most of us are educated and aware enough to know that Julia Gillard was treated appallingly during her three years and three days as Australia’s first woman Prime Minister.

All that bleating about “pulling the gender card” was absolute bullshit, wasn’t it? That speech. That speech about misogyny and sexism that went viral and has been viewed about three million times on YouTube was absolutely riveting, unforgettable and inspired.  And Mr Rabbit and his blue-tie cronies bleated on about the gender card. What a load of crap. They were the ones pulling the gender card with their sly, sleazy statements about Julia’s dad “dying of shame”, and calling her a “witch”, and commenting on the size of her bum, her hips, her nose, her clothes, the redness of her hair, the Australian-ness of her accent. Oh and snide remarks about her childlessness, her atheism, and after all she was an unmarried woman living in a shock horror, long-term defacto relationship. And all those commentators telling us that the criticism wasn’t about her appearance or her dress, that it was about her policies and her behaviour. Well, tell me Andrew Bolt and all your other ridiculous “shock jock” buddies how many times did you comment on the Shadow Ministry’s creased nondescript suits and crumpled shirts and fat beer guts and bad grooming, and lack of women in the shadow cabinet? Um, let me see…mmm, how ‘bout never?

And how many times did you question Tony Abbott about his wife’s sexuality? Or her job, or lack of one, or how dumb she looked trailing behind her husband, smiling, waving, trotting out the obligatory offspring, and not speaking? Let’s see, once again – never.

Plenty of people have written far more eloquently than I about this period in Australia’s political history and many more will probably do so. Why did I want to meet Julia Gillard? Well, for one, I was so proud that Australia finally had a woman Prime Minister, when countries not always known for their record of equality had elected female PMs decades before us (think Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey: all those nasty Muslims! Fancy them having women in leadership! Shock, horror!), and despite there being a number of smart and eligible women in politics it seemed that conservative Australia just wasn’t ready for a woman leader.  I was proud that the Labor party had the guts to back Julia Gillard and depose that odious, bad-tempered micro manager K-Rudd; a pretty hard task when most of the electorate had no idea how destabilising Kevin 07 was. How did I know? Well, I do live in Canberra. And I was also privy to conversations with a whole lot of very distressed senior public servants, people of integrity who were so stressed and distressed that they weren’t eating, sleeping or seeing their families because of the onerous workload that Kevin kept piling up on top of them. Mostly because he couldn’t, or wouldn’t make a decision.

I wanted to know how Julia Gillard kept getting up day after day to face her enormous workload and the ever-increasing sexist criticism, the bloody-minded rudeness that was flung at her every day. I could only conclude that she was one very resilient woman, focussed on doing her job. I wondered what support she had, and hoped that she and her partner had good people around them to counter the bigots and misogynists.

The night before the book signing I thought hard about what I wanted to say to her. I dearly wanted her to write “to Julia, from Julia” on the inside cover of my book, but apart from that I couldn’t think of anything  witty and eloquent to say.  The day of the signing I was held up at work and I desperately texted a couple of family members who were holding my place in the queue to ask if I’d still be able to make it. The signing was due to start at 11am, and I was worried because I wouldn’t make it to the city until 11.30am. They reassured me that the line was long; it stretched from the entry to the Canberra Centre back to the Carousel; I’d be ok, I wouldn’t miss her. The crowd was friendly and excited; shopping centre staff gave out free water and we were delighted to finally be inside the air-conditioned centre and we could see her. The line moved fairly quickly and before I knew it I was standing in front of her. She was smaller and more diminutive than she seemed on TV; she looked relaxed and her skin was glowing. She has great posture too. Her assistant took my book and handed it to her.

“Hi Julia, I’m Julia”, I gushed. OMG. She looked at me and said “Well, that deserves an underline”. And she underlined her name and then signed my book. She had the good grace not to look at me as if I was a very special kind of idiot. There was a pause, and I knew I was expected to move on. But I didn’t. Instead I said very quickly: “I’m so sorry for everything that happened to you while you were the Prime Minister. I think you were a fantastic Prime Minister – you did a great job, I don’t know how you did it day after day. Thank you so much”. Then it was over, she smiled and said thank you and she touched my hand, ever so briefly, but genuinely. I was smitten, and I walked away clutching my book to my chest and joined my family where we waited to take photos of each  other with Julia in the background, still signing, still smiling.