The Brisbane Entertainment Centre smells like bullshit tonight. Somehow, the amphitheatre has been transformed into what looks like indoor rodeo, complete with metal pens that hold nearly 60 live bulls. Up close, the bulls are massive, majestic beasts, all muscle, fat and—this can’t be ignored—humungous genitals. Some bulls weigh 1000 kilograms, the weight of 10 obese men. There are bulls that are magnificently horned; others are pristine white and stare at you, god-like and knowing. Seeing them like this, you understand why the Hindus revere them.
The young men who have gathered here haven’t come to worship these bulls, but to ride them and hang on for dear life for money and glory. This is the PBR (Professional Bull Riding) Australian Cup Series’ Brisbane Invitational and riders have come from all over Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada to try their luck. Brisbane’s event is Round 2, and the match before the PBR National Finals in Sydney where the winner will score a sweet bonus $10,000 on top of any earnings they’ve made in these premilinary shows.
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St Peters Lutheran College, Queensland’s largest private school, is so vast you actually need to drive between some of its facilities. Before dawn, parents drop off children from Audis and Range Rovers to various stadiums, but the school’s hallowed domain is its heated outdoor 50-metre pool. Members of the Australian Olympic swim team are training here in the lead-up to London. There is Leisel Jones, pumping her legs on an exercise bike. Stephanie Rice is doing crunches, shadowed by a television crew from 60 Minutes. And here, jumping rope furiously, is Nick D’Arcy: Australia’s best butterfly swimmer, a serious gold medal prospect, and the most loathed athlete in the country if magazine and online polls – not to mention Australian Olympic Committee sanctions following last month’s media beat-up over Facebook photos – are any indication.
There are legitimate reasons to dislike D’Arcy. In March 2008, shortly after qualifying for the Beijing Olympics, he knocked out fellow qualifier Simon Cowley, a triple Commonwealth Games gold medallist, at a Sydney bar. Cowley’s injuries were gruesome. X-rays revealed breaks to his jaw, eye socket, cheekbone and nose, as if a metal pipe had been rammed into his face, rather than a human fist. Most of Cowley’s teeth came loose.
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On Saturday nights, Archerfield Speedway becomes a dangerous feline ecosystem. Animal-like vehicles group themselves by species in the pits, readying themselves to race each other on the track. Sprintcars are the king beasts here, their majestic engines bellowing out like lions. Outlaw sedans growl panther-like, while modlites—comically tiny things—screech like feral cats once they’re in motion.
Welcome to Round 13 of the KRE Race Engines Sprintcar Track Championship, one of the last races left in the season. Stakes are high tonight. In the pits, drivers are strapping themselves into their assorted vehicles. One sprintcar driver has a personal motto plastered onto his dash: “Hold it wide open ‘till you see God … then lift!” Mantras help when you’re steering a 900 horsepower vehicle with a power-to-weight ratio finer than a Formula One car, and a purpose-built 410 cubic inch engine that generates speeds of up to 135 kilometres an hour. When men talk about these cars, it’s like they’re describing something sexual.
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The Long View is a series of ten long review essays (up to 3000 words) on Australian writers and writing, commissioned by Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. You can read the other essays here. I chose to write about AIDS in Australia and Timothy Conigrave’s 1995 memoir Holding the Man.
Tracing the origins of HIV and AIDS is a slippery task. You can always go one step back. For Australia, HIV was an American import, helped along by gay men who frequented cheap Skytrain flights between here and San Francisco in the early 80s. Before that, there was so-called Patient Zero, a gay and promiscuous French-Canadian plane steward who knowingly and unapologetically infected hundreds of men around the world, triggering off a global epidemic. And we can go even further back than that, to the moment of first transmission: most likely an African hunter who contracted a simian version of HIV by accidentally mixing his blood with a chimpanzee’s while slaughtering it for food.
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People pinpoint the start of winter in all sorts of ways. Australians like to keep things neat and go by the calendar: winter officially starts on June 1 and finishes at the end of August. Simple. For those inclined towards astronomy, the cold season is defined by earth’s orbital position in relation to the sun, with its midpoint – winter solstice, the shortest day of the year – signalled by the midday sun appearing at its lowest point above the horizon (June 21 this year). My personal method is far more instinctive. I know winter has arrived when I find myself making roasts, craving nothing more than hot tea and a doona, and waking up so cold that I weep ice and question my will to live.
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Recently, I shattered my elbow so badly that what I suspected was dislocated cartilage was actually broken-off skeleton. I was immobilised for weeks: my arm was in a cast and my bicep bruised until it resembled a sausage casing that had been haphazardly packed with thick clots of black-currant jelly. “We’re keeping you in a cast,” the surgeons explained, “to prevent your wound from exploding.”
During this period, some people were godsends. My best friend sat in the emergency room with me, bringing me fruit, juice and crackers, somehow knowing that I hadn’t eaten properly the entire day. She gasped over my arm’s wrong angles, before we joked and gossiped about other stuff to take my mind off things. Back home, my sister put fresh sheets on my bed. Friends SMSed their concerns, insisting that I needn’t reply.
Others expressed their concern in odd ways. Horrified by what they’d heard through the grapevine, they called me in hospital – at night – although I’d only just come out of surgery and the anaesthetic was just wearing off. When they finally got me on the phone, they insisted things could have been a lot worse. Others sent urgent emails pressing me for details about the accident, forgetting I had shattered my elbow and could not type. Still, one of the worst things was acknowledging that I probably would have reacted the same way: expressing concern while somehow managing to make the situation worse.
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Being asked to speak on ABC TV’s Q&A is a horrifying prospect. Well, at least it was for me. Going on that show is like engaging in a blood sport where audience members yearn to see you die on national television, mainly so they can tweet about it. Think The Hunger Games, with less blood (usually) and worse costumes, but similar amounts of sadism. So when the show’s producers summoned me in March I merrily said “yes”. Inside, though, my intestines felt like soup. What made things worse was being told one of my fellow panellists would be Germaine Greer.
Now, I’ve always been a fan of Greer. The woman has had her own goddamned postage stamp, for starters. Plus, anyone who has: (1) written such fiercely intelligent volumes of polemic; (2) blisteringly communicated complex ideas to global audiences; (3) posed nude in their youth with their ankles behind their head; and (4) posed nude in old age while looking magnificent, gets my vote. Sure, Greer has said some ridiculous stuff in her time, but when people dismiss her as a mad old cow, Greer wins, not the nay-sayers. Plus: people seem to forget there’s never been a time when Greer hasn’t said ridiculous things. She’s cantankerous and contrary, wild and rude. Even if those traits are considered negative, why should they cancel out all the times she’s been incandescently brilliant?
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Every time a new fiasco explodes out of Parliament House lately (press gallery journos just call them “Tuesdays” now), I have this pathetic urge to revisit some old photos. Call me a sentimental fool, but there’s one shot from 2007 that just kills me nowadays. Shot in the inner-city Brisbane suburb of Paddington, it shows around 40 of my friends and me gathered in front of the TV, right after the ABC called victory for Labor’s Kevin Rudd. In the photo, some of us pump our fists in the air. Others laugh so hard you can probably see our dental fillings and brains. Goddamn, we were all so hopeful.
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It’s raining softly across the Northern Rivers and everywhere is the smell of wet jungle. This region of north-east NSW – encompassing the Ballina, Byron, Kyogle, Lismore, Richmond Valley, Tweed and Clare Valley councils – is Australia’s organic heartland, a lush stretch of green that hangs like ivy over the Queensland-NSW border. Cynics often dismiss these shires as refuges for tree-hugging, granola-grazing hippies. Educated lefties who live here say it’s all about getting back to nature.
But the Northern Rivers is also a public-health black spot, notorious for flash outbreaks of infectious, preventable diseases. In August and September 2010, measles infected 14 people, mostly high school students, in the Tweed area, after an unvaccinated teenager returned from an overseas holiday. Last year saw a big jump in the incidence of whooping cough in the region, with 493 cases reported between the Tweed and the Clarence rivers.
Childhood immunisation rates here are among the lowest in the country. Many parents distrust conventional medicine. One in 10 kids aged under 10 doesn’t have a single vaccination recorded against their name. Similarly low vaccination rates can be found elsewhere in Australia, but the Northern Rivers can claim the dubious honour of having the highest percentage of parents who don’t immunise their children on purpose, believing vaccines may do their kids harm. In the Byron Shire town of Mullumbimby alone, a fifth of all parents identify as conscientious objectors to vaccination.
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Before I start, I should make one thing clear. I would rather be run over by a bus — a bus that was on fire — than marry my boyfriend.
Don’t get me wrong: Scott and I been together for a decade (longer than any heterosexual couple our age, not that we’re counting or anything) and I clearly adore the bastard. Hell, when he doesn’t shave for a week and serves me breakfast in bed half-naked, I’d even go so far as to say that I love him.
Still, the prospect of a wedding — the stress, the cost, being photographed a million times and making out in front of relatives — really doesn’t appeal to either of us.
The average Australian wedding costs $50,000 and if I had that kind of money, I’d rather buy, say, a round-the-world plane ticket. In fact, doing the maths, I could buy more than 20 tickets. We’d bring our friends! And maybe buy drugs!
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