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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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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Our parents told us to never air our dirty laundry in public, but what choice do we have at the laundromat? It’s Sunday afternoon at the Fortitude Valley’s Coin Laundry, and people from blocks away have descended here to get their clothes in order for the week ahead. On a black slab of a table that dominates the room, I am forced to join my fellow launderers in quietly but fervently sorting through our various stains and shames: the End-of-Fortnight Underwear; the Bedsheets of Doom; the Yellow-Patched Gym Gear from Hell.
If you’ve lived in Brisbane long enough, you’ll know this laundromat is legendary for all the wrong reasons. When I first moved here a decade ago, working girls could always be found hanging outside at all hours of night, waiting for clients. Across the road, a sprawling household of artists and filmmakers would watch over the women at night, sometimes taking notes about which girl went off with which client, to keep track of the women’s safety, at least in an ad-hoc way.
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Conducting interviews in the nude can be difficult. For starters, you need a pen, notepad and dictaphone, but when you’re naked, you don’t have pockets for any of these things. It’s also hard presenting yourself as a hard-hitting professional when your interviewee has just seen your butt and can now see everything else. And on a day like today—white hot sunshine; barely any clouds—it can be hard to concentrate. Soon enough, you are overwhelmed with a paranoia that you haven’t applied enough sunscreen to parts of your body that don’t usually see natural daylight, and are therefore—you now realise—susceptible to burning.
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In the ballroom of the Royal on the Park—a 42-year-old Brisbane hotel that reeks of long-gone glamour—young women are parading down a catwalk for inspection, like so many thoroughbreds. It’s only a rehearsal, but the clock’s ticking down to the real thing and everyone’s feeling the pressure. In pairs and trios, they strut onto stage while a glamorous blonde woman in a blue kaftan gives orders. “You’re the first girl out!” she snaps. “Don’t look so scared, please!” Smile. Stand tall. Don’t look at the floor. Never have your legs apart; never. “Don’t look down when you’re at the end of the catwalk!” she cries, exasperated. “You look like a hunchback.” As I watch, I lean over to a primary school-aged girl beside me who has done this before. “This seems scary,” I say. “It is,” she whispers back.
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In the second term of Year 11 English, Callie MacNaughton and her classmates were given the outline for an assignment: they would each have to give an oral presentation and it could be on any topic they chose, as long as they argued a point and it was something they believed in.
Speech day arrived and students launched into passionate, earnest manifestos on ‘why all cigarettes should be banned’ and ‘why people shouldn’t drink and drive’. Callie nervously waited her turn. She’d chosen a sensitive, potentially contentious, subject: why gay, lesbian and transgender people deserved equal rights.
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When you’re a blind parent, you can’t see if your kids are red in the face and choking, if a scrape is infected or not. When they’re infants and you’re changing their nappies, you’re never entirely convinced you haven’t left poo somewhere on their bottoms, on their faces, on yourself. Eventually, you become so worried and exasperated you resort to stripping off completely and taking them naked and howling into the shower with you.
There’s relief when they’re older, talking and able to communicate their discomforts, but even then you can’t read their body language or see beyond their angry words to the silent tears rolling down their faces. The sheer act of growing is coupled with its own brand of sadness. It’s around this age, says parent of two Gerrard Gosens, that you start to lose a concept of how your kids look.
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Drive west out of Brisbane, and the road eventually becomes a single-lane highway. Out here, billboards display Bible verses instead of ads and crows own the bitumen stretch, strutting across the road like they’ve never seen a car before. About an hour from Warwick you’ll find the small town of Inglewood, population less than 1000. Locals say they don’t measure distances by kilometres but by hours: three to Brisbane; nearly one to the nearby town of Texas.
It’s not often that the local school attracts visitors. But today, Inglewood State School is playing host to Straight Talk Australia, a Toowoomba-based Christian organisation here to preach the gospel of delayed gratification. Its founders, Jim and Faye Lyons, married for 35 years, are a friendly couple who advocate a zero-tolerance approach to sex before marriage. They’ve recently been to Victoria to spread the word, often tour capital cities, and speak throughout the Pacific Islands too.
As the Lyons set up their DVD player, projector and pamphlet display, they chat to school staff about a recent incident that demonstrates why they need to be here today. According to Jim, a young boy from a private school was on a bus and showed some girls the condom he carried around in his wallet. The girls were aghast, so were their parents. Jim shakes his head in disbelief; some of Inglewood’s teachers make tutting noises. “These parents: doing the right thing, sending their children to a good Christian school,” Jim says. “And for what? Their daughters to be corrupted on the school bus.”
Students from Years 8 and 9 file in. Boys are told to sit on the left; girls on the right. Ranging from 12 to 14 years old, they’re at the age where school mornings are a hassle, and some students slouch into their seats sleepily. Jim tries rousing them with his standard ice-breaker. “How many of you are planning – as one of your goals in 2008 – to get a sexually transmitted disease or infection?” he asks. “Can I see the hands of those who are planning to get an STD this year?” No one puts up their hand.
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Waiting rooms are tense, silent places. Nervous patients in the reception areas of GPs, physiotherapists and proctologists sit quietly wondering the same thing: whether they’re worse off than the person beside them. Usually it’s hard to tell, but sometimes there are clues. If you’re at the ophthalmologist you can watch how closely someone holds a magazine to their face. At the chiropractor observe how people are slouching.
In the waiting room at hair surgeon Russell Knudsen’s clinic in inner Brisbane Spring Hill, men discreetly judge one another’s scalps in glass reflections and self-consciously run their fingers through their remaining locks. The man in the leather jacket sitting opposite me I notice has broken a golden rule of hair loss: don’t grow it long to compensate for its absence. While we don’t make eye contact, I know he’s surreptitiously examining my head too.
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