Unnatural Selection

Melbourne Cup‘ The race that stops a nation.’ It’s a big claim by Racing Victoria, but is it really true?

Since its inception, and not even halted by two World Wars, the Melbourne Cup has been embraced with increasing gusto by every generation of Australians. But at some point during the 70s and 80s — when work was just a place you visited five days a week to fill in time and lunches were spent downing beers at the local pub — our attitude to (and love of) the race began a slow transformation into something much uglier.

Those heady decades leading up to Black Monday were a time of enormous wealth generated largely by a booming resource industry; a time when entrepreneurs like Alan Bond were showing the rest of us how they lived large in the ‘wild West’. A precedent was set and celebrating the Melbourne Cup ever more excessively became the new Australian way, the thing to do, iconic and culturally fitting.

Then, on the first Tuesday of each November, offices around the country would close for business from mid-morning. Old box televisions were wheeled into board rooms, canapés and flutes of French champagne were passed around with largesse by ruddy-faced directors, and there were always at least five sweeps on the go in any one place, giving every tipsy worker a fair chance of scooping enough cash with which to celebrate later. For those few hours, corporate tiers were torn down, bosses mingling (usually in more ways than one) with employees, the reception desk abandoned and the switchboard turned off — all for the sake of a three-minute horse race. What other nation on earth would dare to slow its production wheels for such a silly thing?

But if the race managed to grind too-rich corporations to a halt, there were plenty of industries that didn’t — couldn’t — stop to partake: teachers, doctors and nurses, emergency services, transport workers and the like. The adage that the Melbourne Cup ‘stops a nation’ didn’t then — and doesn’t now — bear scrutiny. How could it? But it’s a great marketing gimmick, and one that Racing Victoria clings to.

Even the most extreme measure taken by Victoria — declaring Melbourne Cup day a public holiday — hasn’t proved the claim true. In a number of regional centres it’s business as usual; they celebrate their own spring racing carnivals (Kyneton Cup) and they’ll take their holiday when it suits, thank you very much. Most Melburnians decide, since Tuesday’s already a holiday, they might as well bunk off on the Monday off too, so it becomes the longest of long weekends. A chance to get away. Race? What race? And for those Victorians who do give a damn; who plan a modest get-together of their own — the men tapping in online bets and beering it up around the BBQ while, in the kitchen (yes, even in 2014), women peel cling film from bowls of salads and supervise hordes of children — it no longer holds the same appeal. Because, just as it’s been for the last 40 years, celebrating the Melbourne Cup isn’t about watching a race. It’s about over-indulging and skiving off work. And when you’re already off work, what’s left to celebrate?

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Flemington main stand, 2013 Melbourne Cup by Jupiter Firelyte via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, unless we ignore the race altogether, what else can Victorians do except attend the bloody thing?

So we do. In droves. Every year the numbers increase (over 104,000 in 2013) and one could be forgiven for thinking the enforced holiday nothing more than a clever money-spinning ploy. But there’s no denying that for many who frock up and flock to Flemington for the big day (or the whole week: 331,196 last year), the Melbourne Cup remains a high point on the social calendar. And it celebrates everything that’s wonderful, as well as all that is truly awful, about our society.

It’s about selection – the fastest horses, the best-dressed race-goers, the most expensive foods and wines, the most coveted of tents — the rich, the powerful, celebrities and dignitaries alike, all choppered and chauffeured to the track and separated by affordability and popularity from the untidy masses who collect on the concourse. It’s as much about selection as it is about rejection, and it isn’t hailed ‘the sport of kings’ for nothing. Charles Darwin, if he were alive today, might be more than a little bemused by the spectacle.

Because there’s nothing natural about the Melbourne Cup. It has become a day of wanton excess. A day where twenty-four of the world’s most thoroughly-bred and genetically engineered horses compete for brief accolade, and their owners and trainers compete for huge prize-money.

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2013 Myer Fashions on the Field by Chris Phutully via Wikimedia Commons

It’s about breeding, and not just on the track. It’s about who’s-who and what’s-what and where to be as well as how best to be seen. It’s about gambling, about squandering that last fiver or throwing down another five hundred — because let’s face it, so many there can afford to — on a whispered tip. It’s a day that heralds every extravagance and every hope and every desperate dream. It’s a race that’s less about the majesty of the horse — its power, its grace, its extraordinary stamina — or the skill of the jockey, and more about a multi billion-dollar industry.

While it can be argued that the Melbourne Cup generates huge profits for all involved in organising and running the event (no, they don’t ‘stop’ either) and helps fill government coffers, it’s not all pretty.

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2007 Melbourne Cup race day – English import Bay Story put down after crash with Bling Bling in Race 3. Via Brisbane Times

It’s been impossible (for me, at least) to find any records stating the exact number of horses that have had to be euthanased as a result of injuries sustained on Melbourne Cup race day. Racing Victoria guards such statistics zealously. And this year, much has been made of the legal wrangle between the racing industry and The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, when the latter erected a billboard depicting a dead racehorse over one of Melbourne’s busiest tollways. (It’s since been removed). Add to this any number of horror stories about what happens to these magnificent animals once their use — their money-raking days — are over.

melbourne-cup-2009 -3But there are other horror stories too, the derisive kind, those that mock ridiculous fashion and excessive drinking and spending, and next-day’s tabloids are filled with pictures of the plastered and the poorly attired and all the mess they’ve left behind. And for us Melburnians who have ignored it — who’ve escaped the city and are returning from our long long-weekend — there’s the after-race spectacle to endure as dishevelled, panda-eyed girls totter and weave their way home, while already drunk race-goers decide it’d be a ‘great idea, mate!’ to continue their carousing, crowding pubs and clubs before vomiting and defecating on street corners. Yep, it’s a glorious day for all.

So wherever you are tomorrow, if you’re watching, make sure you savour every second of those three minutes. After all, ‘the race that stops a nation’ is the real reason you’re there. Isn’t it?

Jane Abbott   

Happy Halloween, Australia

Halloween-picQ: I moved house a few months ago, and I’ve been enjoying my new neighbourhood. That is, until last week when I found a note in my letterbox asking me to put a couple of orange stickers (supplied with the note) on my gate so I can join in Halloween celebrations. I don’t even have kids! And isn’t Halloween an American thing? I don’t want to upset the locals and be the only one not participating. What should I do?

Spooked, VIC     

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A: Is there anything more un-Australian than our adoption of a not-even-American festival that’s been plucked from the depths of pre-medieval history to become a sugar-hyped free-for-all? Probably not. Yet, since none of us have any real clue what it is to be Australian (and without any re-worked traditions of our own), what else can we do but tag along? (It could be argued that has become our tradition.) But don’t worry because it’s hardly the same thing at all.

Cotton wool strung between ragged gum trees, badly carved fly-buzzed pumpkins perched on picket fence posts, unlit lanterns thrashing in a hot wind, sweaty little monsters swathed in metres of bed sheets — no, it doesn’t resemble anything close to Halloween. Here (thanks to a little thing called geography, and a not-so-little thing known as daylight savings) it’s celebrated under a scorching sun. No spookiness, no ghosts or goblins, no haunting shadows cast by flickering orange-tinged candlelight, no screams of delight or even fear. It’s nothing more than tiny gangs of over-excited and already over-fed children shepherded by over-indulgent parents, who trudge from orange-stickered house to orange-stickered house hoping to snag a few freebies. And where’s the harm in that?

Many years ago, my mother — a schoolteacher who, by the end of every day was utterly fed up with children of all ages and sizes (including her own) — opened the door to a trio of brave trick-or-treaters. After they’d made their demands, she yelled, ‘This is not America!’ and promptly slammed the door shut. I don’t know who was more shocked, and I was still too young to realise the erroneousness of her statement. Australia may not yet be America, but by God we’re trying our hardest.

So take heart and suck it up. Put those little orange stickers on your front gate – hell, paint the whole thing orange; grab a few pumpkins and relieve your frustrations with the biggest knife you have; buy kilos of chocolate (the cheap kind) so by the time the little darlings get home it’s melted to brown goo; pull a sheet off your bed and wrap yourself in it — not toga-like, of course; this isn’t a Roman orgy. And when you open your door to their sing-song voices and their cherubic smiles, smile back and thank all that is Australian that we haven’t (yet) adopted more outlandish traditions.

If there’s any consolation to be found, it’s this: you may never fully embrace or even enjoy Halloween, but you can be sure your role as the Grinch in upcoming neighbourhood Christmas festivities is already firmly established.

Jane Abbott   

 

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‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas — Review

BarracudaBarracuda is the latest novel by Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap and Loaded.

Danny Kelly, known as Barracuda, wins a swimming scholarship to an elite private school, where he overcomes bullying through his drive to become ‘the strongest, the fastest, the best’. He sacrifices everything to his Olympic goals, but he doesn’t make it as a swimmer, and commits a violent crime out of anger and humiliation. As an adult, he has to overcome the shame of his past and create a life in which he can respect himself.

Barracuda simultaneously tells the story of the young, ambitious Danny, and the same character after he has ‘failed’. Tsiolkas tells a well-paced and engrossing story, populated with compelling characters — above all its flawed protagonist. The book offers reflections on a number of issues without descending into wankery or preaching.

The novel considers class issues in Australia through the clash between working-class Danny and his privileged schoolmates who make fun of his hairdresser mother. Several characters challenge the myth of an egalitarian Australia, but it is ultimately Danny’s experience at school — wearing the uniform he can’t afford to outgrow, intimidated by his classmates’ designer houses — that the book makes its most persuasive argument.

Danny’s character is also a vehicle to explore the idea of ambition. When Danny doesn’t make it as an Olympian, he realises there is only a ‘hole’ where he used to be. Gradually, he attempts to re-create himself as a decent person, who supports his family, earns his living and atones for his past. The book forces readers to consider whether our society pushes us to be great at the expense of being good.

Barracuda also offers a gorgeous meditation on the body — Danny’s fit, young body flying through the water, then losing control of itself as he faces failure and shame. It compares the sculpted bodies of Danny’s privileged schoolmates to the ‘slovenly’, ‘pear-shaped’ bodies of his family. Gradually, Danny comes to an understanding that class itself is expressed through the body.

Tsiolkas offers an insightful reflection on contemporary Australia, in an engaging novel which is possibly his best so far.

Four stars

Penny Jones   

Richard Flanagan wins the Man Booker Prize 2014

Deep Road to Narrow NorthThe Man Booker Prize for Fiction is considered by many to be the Holy Grail of literary prizes, awarded to an original work written in English and published in the UK. It results in huge acclaim for authors as well as their publishers, with longlisters, shortlisters and the eventual winning novel driving sales and propping the book trade.

While it’s not gone without its share of controversy, perhaps the most notable change to the Man Booker in recent times was its decision to open the competition to any English-writing author of any country (although the restriction of UK publication still remains). Thus the doors were nudged ajar, and this year’s shortlist included Americans Karen Joy Fowler: We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and Joshua Ferris: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Two-time winner of the Man Booker, Australian Peter Carey, publicly decried the decision, claiming the competition’s ‘cultural flavour’ would be lost.

However he, and everyone else who worried about the encroachment of US writers (who already have access to their own Holy Grail awards, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Award), needn’t have bothered. Did anyone really suppose that these first-chance ‘interlopers’ — despite producing truly wonderful work — would snatch the trophy? The Atlantic may have been bridged, but it’s a long drive between coastlines.

No. This year’s winner, announced last night, is Richard Flanagan (an Australian from down-under-DownUnder) for his astounding and deeply personal novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (published in Australia by Random House Books), which centres on prisoners and their captors in a Japanese POW camp along the Thai-Burma railway. The novel — Flanagan’s sixth — was described by judges as ‘a harrowing account of the cost of war to all who are caught up in it’. Flanagan’s father, a survivor of the Burma railway, died the day Flanagan finished writing the book.

It’s a remarkable win for Flanagan, though not undeserved. He’s the third Australian to have won the award in its 46-year history. Previous Australian laureates are Thomas Keneally and, of course, Peter Carey. Twice. And it does perhaps underscore what all writers know — that even with the backing of prizes like the Man Booker, there are few ‘overnight’ successes, and perseverance does pay. Eventually.

Naturally, it’s already been announced that a new edition of The Narrow Road to the Deep North will be out tomorrow. It’s a great coup, not just for Flanagan and his publishers, but also for bookshops, who are racing to stock their shelves. And it’s a great win for Australian literature — we really do write some great stuff, don’t we?

But for Richard Flanagan — a seemingly unassuming man with a ready smile (who looks an awful lot like fellow Aussie, Clive James) — it’s the great nod all writers look for. Well done, Richard, and congratulations.

The Cringe