The next afternoon I get invited to an Australian home. I’m sitting in the backyard of this beautiful California-type home. All glass and all tile and there’s a magnificent emerald-green swimming pool. They’re serving steaks at least four inches thick, they’ve got seven bottles of wine, and the girls are wearing bikinis and the men are bronzed and they have not worked for six weeks. They go in for twenty minutes or so and fool with a paper clip in the office. Everything’s a game. Here these guys are, bronzed, eating the steaks and sitting out in the sun, and out in the driveway is a Maserati convertible. I can’t believe it—this is Australia! Somehow you have the idea that Australia is rugged. And I am beginning to feel that I am a primitive.
An Australian man is sitting opposite me and he says, “You know, there’s one trouble with you Americans. You just got too easy a life.” And he believes it!
I think, this is a peculiar scene. We’re sitting there and eating the dinner. You really realize that it’s another world and another way to live. And you keep getting the impression that you understand it.
We finish eating and now the time has come for casual, after-dinner conversation. We’re sitting there. These beautiful women there are talking—the wives and the girlfriends, and I’m all by myself talking to these chicks. And all of a sudden I get the eerie impression that the party has left. And there’s only me left there—with the women. All the men have gone! Absolutely, every last man has disappeared and it’s just me and nineteen chicks.
I say, “Gee, where are all the men?”
And this woman next to me suddenly—it was a transition like I’ve never seen in a woman—she says, “All the damn fools have gone into the next room to talk! This is an Australian custom! They don’t talk to the women, you know! You can tell you’re a foreigner. You’re here talking to the women! Australian men never talk to the women, you know.”
And all the women at once went on just like that—Boooom! And you can see that every last Australian woman wants to kill every Australian man—in the dark, with a dull stiletto!
And I want to know what’s going on in the next room—what the heck are they doing out there? So, here I am with all these women, and they’re all saying, “Gee, you just don’t know how it feels—we love Americans here!” (These are the women, see.) “You certainly treat women like human beings.”
And I’m thinking of the Village and I’m thinking of Playboy. Treat women like human beings! So I say, “Yes, that’s true.”
I’m an American. All these women are gathered around me and they’re coming closer and closer and closer. I’m beginning to sweat. And the kookaburra birds are going cucucucucucucucu! and the koala bears are squirting up there in a tree. And I say, “Excuse me a minute, girls.” And I go into the next room and here are the men—and the men are telling dirty stories.
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 being-ness 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.
I don’t know what it is about America. We’re the great dreamers of the world. Are we the idealists or are we bubbleheads? Or are we just plain dreamers? I don’t know. When you get out into a place like Australia and you walk around in the boondocks—they are only about an hour-and-a-half from Indonesia—they have a totally different view of the entire situation.
And it’s not a pessimistic view. It’s kind of a realistic view that says, “Well, that’s the way it is.” It’s a curious view. You want to shake them—“What do you mean, ‘that’s the way it is’? Why don’t we sit down and talk it over.” They just look at you and take another pull on their gin bottle.
I talked to one Australian who was a jet fighter pilot in the Australian Air Reserve. I said, “Bruce, gee, it’s just a shame that the world is in such a mess, that it seems like every twenty years it develops a giant boil and it just comes to a head and it pops. That’s all. Just a terrible thing. If we could only decide to become rational, blah, blah, blah.”
And he smiled. For a while he didn’t say anything. Then he said, “You know, you sure talk like an American.”
You begin to have a strange, perverse affection—for the nuttiness of your own country. You really do. We have a tendency to put our country down. We like to think our country is the nuttiest of all countries. This is a great illusion on the part of almost all the commentators I know. Most of the guys I know who do commentary about the world—and I know many of them—have never really been anywhere. You really begin to understand that Man is a really fascinating, paradoxical, nutty creature when you travel around the world and see Man—not just Americans or Indians or Englishmen—but just mankind.
I must point out that of all the countries I have traveled to in the last two or three years, the most paradoxical of all—it would be a fantastic feeding-ground for humorists if they really could get up the guts to do it in that country—is Australia. Australia is a wildly divergent country. In the sense that the people are very different from what they say they are! On the one hand they have very strict laws about obscenity. The strictest anywhere that I have ever seen in my life. They look through your luggage, when you come into this country, with a fine tooth comb. And if you’ve got a copy of Playboy, forget it! The guy in front of me had a copy of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which was a best-seller in America. They confiscated it.
On the other hand, do you know that they have more of what you could call deviant clubs, openly operating right in the middle of their show business district, than any other major city in the world? What do they stand for? Which thing is the real thing there?
On the one hand, all the people that I talked to were talking about censorship and about Lady Chatterley’s Lover. A couple of years ago that was a big issue in America. Do you know what is being sold under the counter now in Australia? Not Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but the transcript of the trial about it! This book of the court proceedings is illegal to have in Australia. The court proceedings!
So, while I was in Sydney, they were talking on the radio and I could hear different people calling up, and panel discussions about that issue. What was so curious about it was, hearing them talk, they were all against censorship—but they were all for keeping Lady Chatterley’s Lover off the stands! They really were for censorship but then they really weren’t. So you couldn’t tell what they were for actually.
People ask me, “Didn’t you find anything good about Australia?
Oh, yeah, of course! I think Australia is one of the most wildly interesting countries I’ve ever seen in my life! Fantastically interesting country. But one of the things that makes it so interesting are these dichotomies, these splits between what they say they believe in and what actually happens there.
I went down through their version of Times Square, which is where three or four streets come together and it’s called King’s Cross in Sydney. There are a lot of Chinese restaurants and shows and so on there. I was struck by one thing—there were more outright—what you would call—“obscene” shows running. Wild stuff—there it is! And nobody says a word about it.
On the other hand, Playboy, which is just a comparatively innocent magazine—the little foldout is about as offensive as the yearly calendar from Ed’s Garage in some small town in Vermont. And here’s the fascinating part of it. I’m with some very distinguished guys—a judge, a publisher, a general manager of a TV station and they said, “How about let’s go out and having a little of Sydney’s nightlife?”
I said, “Gee, that would be interesting,” so twenty minutes later I am in the club with these guys and their wives. We’re all going to enjoy nightlife. What do you think we went to? A transvestite review. That is the biggest thing in Sydney! There are about ten of them running full blast! The entire spectrum of it—you talk about blue! They’re incredible. Everybody is just sitting there talking, and later we get in the car, and we have seen this insane show, but nobody’s talking about it. We drive a bit and they get on the subject of censorship, and the man in front was very much in favor of them keeping that kind of terrible stuff, that would undermine the young, out of Australia. That kind of thing like Mary McCarthy’s The Group. And here’s the kicker—in this club there were at least thirty or forty kids, that I would assume were no more than thirteen or fourteen, watching this show. So I couldn’t figure out which—
I made a little mention of this on the way. I said, “You know, that was a pretty peculiar show we just saw.”
I have to explain myself, first of all. I do not pretend to be an expert on any of the countries I visit. I do not go there for that reason. I heard a man this morning being interviewed and he’s talking about people who go to a country and come back and they write a book and they become an expert on that country. They’ve been there three days. And I agree with him. This is a real evil in our world. But I am merely trying to tell you what it feels like, what kind of impressions are crowded in on you, what kind of sensations you have, if you are an American suddenly dropped into the middle of a foreign country.
I like to go to a country with that feeling. Just drop me down there and let me walk around. And I make sure that I get around, as you can probably tell. I really get around in a country. I travel, I do as much as I can, I walk and try to experience a country. I do not try to analyze the country. Because even the country itself can’t be analyzed by those who are in it. Even by those who have lived there all their lives.
T O U R I S T → ± ← T R A V E L E R
[Note: Shepherd traveled to Australia in the Spring of 1965;
Playboy was only sold in Australia from 1979 to 2000 (?)]
Stay tuned–just one more Australia post.