Thursday, 28 July 2011

Leaving Brisvegas ... and other cliches

I didn’t always want to live abroad. But by the time I departed Australia in 1992 for the helter skelter of Hong Kong, it felt like the last plane out of Brisbane was almost gone. The urge to broaden my horizons had swelled to a kind of reverse vanishing point. I didn’t just have itchy feet … more like athlete’s foot of the soul. A dull ache in some hidden hollow place that suburban bliss in Brisbane was failing to fill, and a nagging fear that if I didn’t get out and see the world soon, perhaps I never would.

HE SHOULD HAVE HIT SOME
HONG KONG MATTRESS
I’d married far too young, at 21, to Joanne, a tall, beautiful blonde from Sydney. We met at the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, where I was pursuing my pointy-toed dream of becoming the next Baryshnikov and revelling in the realization that I was one of the few heterosexual males amidst a veritable hit parade of unfeasibly flexible, smoking hot totty. Injuries put paid to Joanne’s nascent dance career, and the short sharp shock of that, along with my own persistent aches and sprains and niggles, convinced me to hang up my tights and jockstrap. Bereft of other ideas, I figured I might as well follow in my father’s footsteps as a journalist, and secured a job as a cub reporter on a suburban weekly newspaper on Brisbane’s rough southern outskirts.

The ‘news’ consisted chiefly of alcohol-fuelled domestic violence, petty theft, vandalism, and tawdry pork-barrel politics, leavened only by the infamous 'toxic ooze' scandal. Like something from a B grade schlocky horror show, a bunch of suburban backyards were invaded by unstoppable eructations of black, treacly goo which had spent decades working itself up into a poisonous rage in the bowels of some abandoned gold mines. The decaying suburb of Kingston was the perfect setting for an amorphous evil. Suddenly, the goo was mad as hell and wasn't going to take it any more. It might have been channelling the dull and unfocused angst of the area's inhabitants, Ghostbusters-style.

SURPRISINGLY, STICKY FINGERS
WASN'T A HIT IN KINGSTON
I immersed myself in the story, but when the sludge subsided, along with a few dozen homes and my enthusiasm, it was time to head back to the big city, or at least Brisvegas. I landed a job at The Courier-Mail. The Curious Snail, as we often referred to it, sometimes with affection, boasted a boisterous and vibrant newsroom, a throwback to an earlier era of gritty glamour, where contacts were greased over long liquid lunches and stories shouted down phone lines, the words transmuted into molten lead and occasionally solid gold. Of course the hot metal rattle had long since been supplanted by the subdued hum of a hive-mind of monitors. But a certain spirit persisted. You almost expected someone to shout 'stop the presses!'. The screens glowed a radioactive green, which was apt if you knew someone else had the scoop. And Phil Dickie, a mild-mannered reporter who looked like some uber-nerd out of central casting, had the scoop of a lifetime. A series of his stories had lifted the lid on police corruption on a grand and depraved scale.

What began as some bespectacled David pot-shotting pebbles against the granite-faced giant that was State Premier, Tsar, Fuhrer and hillbilly dictator Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his cronies became an unstoppable wrecking ball that cut a swathe through the establishment. Everybody from the police chief to some of the government’s most senior ministers had their snouts stuck in the trough and their hands in the brown paper bags, in on ‘The Joke’, as this unprecedented gala of graft was known. Exciting times for a wide-eyed scribe manqué. As the scandal played out, I was thrust into the role of court reporter and went on a rich run of bylines, covering the trials of some of the key players.

OLD QUEENSLANDER
So there I was, living the dream. Work was going well. I was married to a dead-set stunner. We had purchased our first home, a quaint old worker’s cottage and renovator’s delight, upon which I unleashed my limited handyman skills. Life went by in a blur of backyard barbecues, home improvements and sun-and-surf-soaked weekends at the beach. 'Queensland, beautiful one day, perfect the next,’ was the advertising slogan du jour, a boast based on the state’s unusually high average of sunny days per year. But as those dazzling crystalline days accrued into years they became brittle and fractured, as the first cracks in our marriage began to appear.

I threw myself into work at the paper and pretended all was well. By now we’d moved to a bigger house; an ‘Old Queenslander’ that was all rambling verandahs and crumbling charm. Its inexorable march towards entropy was a constant and accusing mirror help up to my life. By night, I tossed and turned. Shafts of moonlight through our bedroom’s stained glass windows bathed Joanne’s peaceful, perfect features in a lambent glow while my mind roiled and raged. Was this all there was? Had I become just another faceless suburban drone living a Stepford Life? At least once in a lifetime, I wanted excitement and chaos, passion and danger. But underneath the seething unease, all this water flowing underground, a small voice was also whispering: Be careful what you wish for.

16 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. P.S. Do you think Joh was actually complicit? I always felt he was naive in the extreme, but was a decent man who didn't understand the corruption his "friends" were capable of. I followed the Inquiry closely of course - as we all did back then (being working hacks) - and after it all I still felt he was innocent of all the nasty things his government was involved in. The left wing bias in Brisbane media was intense back then and its own world of corruption, so of course they crucified him. I was never convinced of his overt guilt though.

    By the way, there is a book written by my third cousin (a few times removed) - Director of Public Prosecutions at the time I believe, Des Sturgess - that aggressively defends Police Commissioner Terry Lewis. Des is convinced Lewis was scape-goated and is in fact largely innocent. He has been instrumental in overturning a few wrong convictions after examining evidence closely, and "A Web of Lies" is his summation of the evidence against, and the botched trail of Lewis. Interesting reading if you can find a copy.

    Ugly days in Brisbane, albeit exciting for young journalists. I uncovered a prostitution racket in Townsville preying on schoolgirls via Avante (the upmarket dress store), but it touched on the cocaine trade and I started receiving threats. My paper wasn't going to provide protection etc., so they told me to drop it and just let it come out in the course of the Inquiry. I spoke to a policeman who was transferring to Townsville and tried to fill him in, and he stopped me dead, telling me he didn't want to know about it. It was then I realised how deep the corruption when. That, and the murders we all knew about, never came to light in the end. I think the Fitzgerald Inquiry was the end of my innocence.

    As a final footnote, my sister knows of a girl who was a high price prostitute from the Gold Coast at the time who swears one of her regular clients back then was Tony Fitzgerald. What a dog's breakfast ;)

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  3. Yeah I agree to some extent that Joh was naive but I also think the bumbling feeding the chooks act hid a razor sharp political animal's mind and if you're running the show it behooves you to know what's going down on your watch. Lewis, hmm, covered the trial from start to finish, I came away from it feeling he was right for it. Didn't know you were distant rellies with Sturgess!

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  4. I wrote a piece called 'What the jury didn't hear' which raised a bit of a ruckus. I stayed put and took notes on all the legal argument and then wrote a story on it at the trial's end. I'd like to take all the credit but I was urged to do so by my excellent Chief of Staff Shane Rodgers. Apparently they refer to it in journalism classes in oz these days.

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  5. On the Lewis trial, not Joh's, I should add

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  6. I should write a piece on my infamous buck's night ... that ended up getting mentioned at the Fitz inquiry. Dammit, yeah ... I believe I will

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  7. http://netk.net.au/Whitton/TBV04.asp

    http://netk.net.au/Whitton/TBV28.asp

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  8. Your buck's night got mentioned? I was there! I was watching over you in the graveyard after they left you blindfolded and tied up because I didn't trust there weren't some dodgy satanic covens operating there (which there were at the time).

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  9. Yeah ... remember the stripper who did a hammy? Her boyfriend was a Beenleigh detective using his Q car while ON DUTY to take his stripper slapper around to make an extra buck doing bucks' nights. Mike O'Connor mentioned it in his column and next thing we had ICAC types in the office interviewing various participants!

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  10. Someone did piss on my leg though. Hope that wasn't you Monty!

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  11. Haha OMG! I remember that! Poor girl. That was cringe worthy. Gees, you were in the thick of it back then. The most exciting thing that happened to me was old colleagues phoning me constantly trying to get comment and information when Clark was front page news. I want those years back dammit! There are a few choices I want to revise...

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  12. Hell no. I was hiding in the trees about 5m away making sure no-one did anything (too) stupid.

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  13. Hehe .. how dd you dredge that Whitton stuff up Ken? He wrote me a very nice letter after the trial ... he was in the same year as my old man at Qld Uni studying journalism ... how's that for coincidence?

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  14. I'm a Google professional. Yeah wow. Lots of coincidences and criss crossed links everywhere. I wonder what happened with the Avanti thing.

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