AUSTRALIA Day. Race 12. 4.45pm. And The Global Goddess is off and racing. Problem is, I can’t figure out which one she is, among the other critters on the field. I’m at my first cockroach races at Brisbane’s Story Bridge Hotel and have paid $10 to name and race a cockroach. But The Global Goddess doesn’t stand a chance against the tough boys like “Campbell’s a cock head” and “Keep your cock in your pants” and I never see her again. Just like the time I paid $60 for a lizard at the Eulo Lizard Races in the Outback. Oh, the frilly ran alright, straight out of the ring and into the Aussie desert, and like my $60, never to be seen again.
Australians love a wager and we’ll bet on anything. Some say it’s our ragged spirit, borne from living in the harshest country on earth. As I write this, a tornado rages around me. Last week it was the sickening stench of drought. I’ve spent this morning deciding in which room I might need to shelter later, and whether I need to do my hair and make-up in case a handsome emergency volunteer arrives to save me in the midst of the fury. And who said you can’t find someone while hiding under your bed?
But it’s exactly this rough and tumble of the land that I love. Whenever I’ve lived overseas, it’s the early-morning and late afternoon cackle of the kookaburra I miss the most. The punctuation mark on my day. Others hate the nagging crows. I adore them. They’re brusque and ballsy. I love how the summer rain tap dances on the hot tin roof of my timber cottage. The imperfect knots in the wood of my bare floor boards. I ache for the smell of the ocean when I’m stuck in a foreign city. Salt air you could eat sprinkled on a bucket of hot chips. Coconut sunscreen you could drink. Sticky mango fingers. Real waves that dump you, thrash you around and pick you up again. Just like this harsh land.
In her latest book Honestly, Notes on Life, novelist and columnist Nikki Gemmell writes of returning to Australia after living in England. “Life is about wringing the most happiness we can out of our time on Earth, and for me that means old mates and family and land and beauty – a spiky, prickly, ravishing Australian beauty, not that soft, benign, European one. Under a replenishing sun.” Her words make my soul do a somersault. Lost and lonely sometimes in foreign lands, I wonder if I’m the only weirdo who feels sentimental and soppy for the Southern Cross.
Knowing all this, who wouldn’t want to live here? And so this Australia Day long weekend I turn my thoughts, yet again, to boat people. I’m stunned when Australians who claim to love this country turn their backs on asylum seekers. Like they’ve forgotten how their own families arrived in the Great Southern Land. For me, it was five generations ago, via a perilous three-month boat journey from Europe. My adventurous Great, Great Grandfather Christian and his brave wife Amelia boarded the Susannah Godfrey in search of a new land and a better life for their family. I am direct descendent of a boat person. Who am I to deny any other family the same privilege of living in Australia?
And yet, somehow Aussies do. It’s what I call the ugly Australian. Devoid of compassion, insight and education. There’s a nasty rumour doing the rounds of Ipswich that the Sudanese refugee population receives $30,000 upon arrival in Australia. The ugly Australian is outraged. Frankly, if I had my way, they’d receive $100,000 to start a new life, away from the ravages of war, rape and the kind of hunger we will never imagine. Yet the ugly Australian resents these beautiful shiny black people who have suffered so much, they’ve relinquished their homeland.
So, enough. The time has come to accept we are global citizens and all the responsibilities that come with that privilege. Or before too long, Australia will not be our home of mirth by sea, but the laughing stock of the world.