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Home » Australia » JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel–Australia, part 4

JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel–Australia, part 4

austraalia flag

I want to tell you this about Sydney, Australia.  For those of you who don’t know anything about Australia—and most of us don’t.  I’ll frankly admit I knew very little even though I read seven books on it before I went.

If you can imagine civilization as a big, mainline railroad track and all the countries are a different train and they’re all roaring along toward god-knows-what goal.  You know, we use that term, “progress.”  Now progress means movement, it means to be transported from point A to point B to point C to a recognizable goal.  I mean, this is “progress.”  But what is the goal?  Well, that’s a pretty hard thing to answer.  If you can imagine all the nations of the world on this railroad track, some of them are going faster than others, some of them have these fantastic, streamlined trains, like—America! And they’re going hell-bent-for election.  Broooooooorowaaaa!  And they’re barreling along that track. And then there’s another one going chuga chuga chuga chuga—it’s trying to make it and its hollering, “Wait for me! chuga chuga chuga.”  These are other little countries, they’re like England trying to make it, see, and you’ve got a couple of others like France, but they’re all on the same railroad track.

Now, if you can imagine one country that somehow has gotten off on a siding.  It turned left, or right, it got off the main track and is now in the roundhouse.  That’s Australia.  And they can see those tracks—way off in the distance, and they can hear those other trains going Woooooooowoo whoooooo! screaming off toward progress.  And they’re in the roundhouse.  They’ve been there for maybe ten or fifteen years.  They’re forty-seven-million miles from anywhere.  Ever looked at the globe?  This whole big mess, see, and everything is all swinging here—it’s all going—fistfights and bombs and everybody’s yelling and hollering and rock-and-roll is going on.  Way down here on the bottom, barely hanging on, is Australia.

australia on globe

Barely hanging on.

And once in a great while they hear from the other side of the world that something’s breaking out.  But what they hear down there is after it stopped!

They’re hanging down there.  I’ll have to explain something else about Australia.  I have a feeling that the physical surroundings that we live in have far more effect on us than we ever admit.  We’re much more like an animal than we concede, you know.  By that, I mean, a turtle that lives in a certain kind of pond, with a certain kind of water, is going to be different from the same kind of turtle that lives in another pond with another kind of water.  And another kind of weed to eat.  And that’s the way we are.  The people of Australia are affected by where they live.

Let me explain how Australia looks.  The first place you land, at least on the trip that I took, which came down by way of Karachi, Pakistan, came through Calcutta, came down through Singapore and then we finally flew over Indonesia.  Boy, that’s really gettinn’ out there, man!  And the pilot says in seven languages, “Attention, passengers, we are flying over Fiji Islands to the left, under the left wing you will see Borneo.  We will be in Darwin, Australia in forty-five minutes.  Will you please prepare to land.”  There I’m sitting, and underneath me is Borneo.  It’s dark and mysterious down there and the plane is flying at thirty-five-thousand feet, whistling along through that stratosphere, and then we begin to come down.  And you know when the big jet planes start coming down, your ears start popping, and they’re throwing in the brakes and they throw out the flaps and you hear this Whisgawhoooooooo and she sort of jumps and you can feel it sort of hovering in the air.  And there’s nothing but darkness out.  And it’s Australia.

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Pitch, stygian, tar-coal black.  And we’re coming down through that darkness Weeeeeeeeeeee!  Weeeeeee!  And then you see one or two tiny yellow lights, just flickering.  How exciting!  These are the lights of Australia!  People are living down there.  And you’re coming down.  And then you feel those landing gears come down into position.  Bragagagagaga! And you’ve got the seatbelt snapped.  You know that slight moment of panic when the plane is coming down?  Like—this is it—it’s been all for nothin’—to crash on a lonely, unsung, forgotten landing strip on an alien continent, ten million miles away from Hessville, Indiana.

I’m looking out of the window.  And then they turn on the landing lights.  Gunnnnng!  Reaching down through the darkness.  You see nothing!  Just a lot of mist swirling by Weeeeeeeee!  And then suddenly there’s that landing strip and you see green stuff going past and Guuuuuuuuung!  She goes Ayaaaaaaawuuuuu!  Gunnnnnnnng!  Whoooooooo, they reverse the engines and then the voice comes on.  They say it on every airline, believe me, if you’re crash-landing in Antarctica, that voice will come on:  “Will you please keep your seatbelts fastened until the plan comes to a complete halt.  Thank you.”

We’re rolling along and I’m looking out, and I can’t see anything!  We’re in Australia!  It’s black out there!  Pitch!  Stygian darkness!  And the plane is swinging around with the interior lights lit. You don’t know what day it is, what month it is.  You lose all sense of time and they keep bringing meals, I’ve been eating all the way from Central Europe.  I have eaten everything from rare Swedish hors oeuvres to Indonesian food, I’ve drunk nineteen kind of liquor.  You’re drinking martinis at seven in the morning.  Your head’s buzzing for one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand miles.  I say, “Oh, this I left the Limelight for?”

Now we are in the Outback.  The plane slows up and Weeeeee weeeeee, and you see those little trucks come out of the darkness.  The guys with the baseball caps.  And the doors open.  I get up and my kneecaps are crooked—I’ve been on a five-thousand mile trip.  No matter what they do—the in-flight movies and all that jazz, they give you fancy food—nothing!  They do nothing for your kneecaps.

I start getting off the plane and then it hits me!  I get hit with a wave of heat that just rolls over you—Boooooom!  It is the kind of heat that we get maybe once every ten years.  It’s four in the morning and it’s about a hundred degrees and about ninety-percent humidity.  You walk down the little metal steps and they give you a transit card.  And now I am in Darwin, Australia.

Let me tell you about Darwin.  Darwin has twelve-thousand people, very widely separated.  Darwin is a tropical outpost and we spend about twenty minutes there on what really amounts to nothing more nor less than an extended fighter strip.  In the darkness there are a couple of fighter planes.  It’s an airbase for the Australian air force.  That’s all.  They sell stamps.  It’s the native economy.  A plane comes in every seven months and people buy stamps.

Then we took off again and we’re heading out over Australia.  Australia is the size of the United States.  We’re going to Sydney.  It’s roughly like taking off in San Francisco and you’re heading for Portland, Maine.  But what’s in-between?  Indianapolis?  No.  The Howard Johnsons?  No.  What is in-between Darwin and Sydney?  Oh, ha, ha, ha, ha—boy!  You have no idea!  Between Darwin and Sydney is Hell’s own acre.  It is a desert, man, that does not stop.  This is the desert they created when they wanted to prove how rotten deserts can be.  It makes the Sahara look like Westport.  I’ve been over the Sahara and it looks magnificent when you’re flying over it.  I’ve been over Death Valley.  This is a desert that is really a desert.  It is deserted.  There’s nothing! 

outback

OUTBACK

They say that there are certain places in this desert where in all of recorded time, there has never been one drop of rain.  There are vast areas of this desert where nobody has ever walked.  And you’re flying over this thing.  You look down there thirty-five-thousand feet, and the dawn is beginning to break.  It’s like you’re flying over some vast, wall-to-wall carpet that is kind of coco-colored, and it’s like somebody has spilled coffee here and there.  That’s all.  And once in a while you see a little plume of smoke where there’s a fire that’s broken out just because of rotten-ness.  It’s like the earth is just being rotten—that’s all.  You have the feeling that this is the moon, it’s not the earth.  You can’t make contact with it.  We’re flying on and on and on and on and on, the plane is going on forever.

austraalia flag

And then, suddenly—Sydney.  Well, I can only say that Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.   Sydney looks like San Francisco squared.  Magnificent city, with that unbelievable harbor! sydney

Sydney–that unbelievable harbor.

These beaches, fantastic comers coming in, and these hills.  And there it is, sitting right there, and the old plane is coming in and the sun is shining down, and I say, “Oh boy!  This is what I came for!”  And she’s coming down closer and closer, and into that airport.  We stop.  And I’m out on the runway.  Sydney, Australia.

Well, I want to ask you—what does it do to people who are living forty-seven-million miles from the mainstream of civilization of the Western World?  Next to a desert.  You know, just about a hundred miles outside of Sydney, they got kangaroos, believe me, that are nineteen feet tall.  There was a lady who said to me, “Oh, ya, I used to feed the kangaroos every morning.  They come to the door, I feed them.”

I say, “How big are they?”

“Oh, they be big, like that!  They reach out and grab ya, almost killed me one day.”

Yeah, very affectionate.  They have mixed marriages there too.  Oh, kangaroos are very aggressive.  The men hate them—they go out and shoot ‘em and yell at ‘em.  It’s all jealousy.  You know that whole bit—it goes all the way back, deep inside.  So here are these guys, living a hundred miles from this!  This desert.  These kangaroos.

And right on the other side is the ocean.  What kind of an ocean do they have there?  Is it like Jones Beach?  Oh, no!  They’ve got sharks in that ocean—in fact, the sharks—you can see them out there, they are shoulder-to-shoulder.  It’s like Sixth Avenue in the subway at rush hour.  The sharks out there with their eyes happily looking in at you.  They’re just looking in at Sydney, and you can see their fins, they’re jostling, hitting each other, waiting.  They’re waiting for the surf boarders to come out.  And they say, “The sharks are not so bad this year.”  They mean that you don’t hear them yelling.

Here, these guys are living in between this!  On the one hand the sharks and the ocean.  On the other hand the desert.  What kind of a guy does this breed?  Well, I’ll tell you—you never saw anything tougher than an Australian.  I got a guidebook—one of these very polite guidebooks.  Every guidebook you ever get says the natives are nice—if you understand the native customs.  Like human sacrifice.  If you understand what it’s all about it’s not so bad!  They do it real quick with the boiling water, you know.

This guidebook said one fascinating thing.  They said there are three stages through which you go with an Australian.  The first stage is you’re impressed by his unbelievable friendliness, and that is the truth.  An Australian is like a true noble savage in the Rousseau -ian sense.  He just says, “Hiya, pardner,” like Indiana cubed.  “Hiya, buddy, hiya, pardner.”  Oh boy, everybody talks that way.

This book is put out by Life Magazine.  It’s a beautifully written piece and very true.  They say the second stage is if you have made one false move, when you have made the slightest slur on Australian womanhood, the flag, the sky, the weather, you just look too long at a guy in a bar, or maybe you just walk funny.  This second stage you better get over very quickly.  Because the Australian hits very hard, very directly, and completely.

And the third stage is when they don’t even notice you.  Then you’re one of the people.  Then you can hit guys.  And that’s the way Australia is.  It’s like the last of the frontier.

You don’t really understand role reversal—where women are obviously becoming more masculine in America, and the men are going in the other direction.  You don’t really recognize this until you get to Australia.  The Australian men—you never saw anything like them.  These guys all look like they’re roughly nine feet tall.  There’s a kind of genuine beingness about them.  And let me tell you!  Men—have you ever dreamed about the ultimate woman?  Each man has in his little mind’s eye that thing called “the girl.”  I’m not talking about your dream girl, but the ultimate woman.  Well, they still exist in Australia.  Women are really women.  Men are really men.  There’s a sense, in the middle of the afternoon, when you walk down the street, a kind of dialog that goes on.  You go into a coffee shop.  There’s a bunch of men sitting there.  And they’re really drinking coffee.  They’re not reading poetry, standing up there playing guitars, talking about their soul.  They’re sitting down there dropping down coffee.  And there are women sitting there drinking coffee and being women.  It’s a very exciting feeling.

austraalia flag

So I’m in Sydney now.  Brisk, clear, brilliant air, and these red-faced guys.  Everywhere you walk around in Sydney you see red-faced people.  Their faces are all bright red from two things.  The sun and gin.  This is a drinking country.

You know another thing, they’re maniacal about censorship.  Playboy is banned in Australia.  I arrived in Australia and immediately one of the local columnists  discovered a Playboy writer was in town.  And he called me. “I say, chap, you write for Playboy, don’t you?”

I say, “I indeed do.”

He says, “You realize, of course, you chaps are banned out here in Sydney, you know.”

I say, “I know.  I’m perfectly aware of that.”

“Of course it’s a ridiculous situation.  Everybody’s laughing about it, you know, but you are banned, you know.  What do you intend to do about it?”

I say, “Don’t say anything, but I have brought in my luggage, hidden way down near the bottom, where all my underwear and the soap is, a copy of the May issue of Playboy.  It’s an advance copy and I’ve got it hidden in a copy of The Christian Science Monitor.” 

And there I was in Australia with a contraband copy of this magazine.  How this columnist knew I was there I don’t know.  “What do you intend to do about it, chap?”

I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.  I passed a coffee shop right down there by the hotel called the “Wimpy-Burger Palace.”  they have outdoor tables there, see, and I’m going to sit at high noon there at the Wimpy-Burger Palace, and I’m going to unfold my copy of The Christian Science Monitor.”  I’m going to order myself a double Wimpy-Burger and some iced coffee.  I’ll play it right to the hilt.  And then I will spring out my copy of Playboy and ostentatiously, I will unfold the center foldout!  At high noon, and sit there in front of the fuzz and say. “Miss May, oh, wow!”1965-02-dd_022_playboy_cover

February, 1965 issue–

containing Shep’s Beatle interview

He said, “Really?”

And I said, “Yes.”

He said, “By George, when do you intend doing this?”  He’s taking me seriously.

I said, “I will be there at high noon on Monday.”

Well, I had no intention of going at high noon on Monday and reading Playboy at the Wimpy-Burger Palace on Pitt Street in Sydney. But I found out later that he was there with two photographers and the Chief of Police.  I almost precipitated an international row.

They also have very strict drinking laws.  They’re maniacal about their drinking laws.  They have gigantic bars on every corner and they’re only for men.  Immediately after work they’re jam-packed with guys.  And they’re all laughing it up.  Because it closes at six.  Immediately after six, the streets are paved with drunks.  What a country!  It’s a nutty place.  It’s not only “down under,” it’s upside-down under.  Everything is slightly out of focus.

You may think they’re just like Americans—well, they aren’t.  This friend of mine I was traveling with keeps saying, the only thing they share with the English is they have a vague English accent.  Outside of that, they hate the English.  They’re always yelling about the English and they love Americans.  And they love American television shows.  When you travel around the world, being an American, generally you have a feeling of vague cultural inferiority.  You go to an English party and you feel kind of clunky, like a clod when you’re an American, but in Australia, for the first time, I felt very, very genteel.  Very cultivated and cultured—I’m from the home office.  I’m from where they created “Naked City,” I’m from the home of “Ben Casey,” I’m from where “Dr. Kildare” originated.  Yeah, me and Elvis, we come from the same root stock.

 austraalia flagEnd of part of Sydney

Stay tuned

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