2012 Date Europe Geography

Australian Relativity – Chainsaws, Fairy Penguins and Koalas

Today’s posting, dear readers, is a short exposé on the topic of relativity, as seen from the perspective of newspaper coverage of matters to do with Australia. Perhaps this it is not quite what Einstein had in mind, but I hope you find it illuminating, nonetheless.

I was recently in Melbourne, where I was spending a long weekend visiting my children. On the Sunday afternoon, I took my son to his first ever Australian Rules football match. I was eating a meat pie and trying to explain to a five year old the “rules” of the legalized carnage that was taking place in front of him (“It is quite simple really: the men try to kick the ball between those poles, and while doing that they are allowed to hit, punch and bash each other, and jump on people’s heads as well”), when I received a phone call from the CEO of the company I work at. I was needed urgently in London for a series of meetings, starting on Tuesday afternoon.

So by Monday afternoon I was on a plane en-route to Singapore, from where I would connect on to London. During the flight, I used the time to catch up on reading the papers, and having just left Australia, on offer were the major Australian dailies. Not surprisingly, these were filled with news almost exclusively about Australia – but quite staggeringly so, to the point that I could have been forgiven for concluding that Australia sits at the very epicentre of the known universe.

The big story in all the papers that day was the ongoing speculation that Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was about to be challenged, and probably toppled, from national leadership by the ex-Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Julia had herself come to office less than two years ago by toppling Kevin in a political coup of her own, and now, apparently, Kevin was lining up to do the same back to her, so that he could re-become Prime Minister and Julia would then be the ex-Prime Minister until she could mount a re-topple attempt of her own. Australian politics can be awfully complicated, and more than just a touch confusing at times.

As a sidebar to the main intrigue, Julia had just suspended one of her parliamentary colleagues over suspected misuse of funds, and a week before she had stood down the speaker of the Australian parliament after he was named in a sexual harassment lawsuit. Meanwhile, out on the political margin, a billionaire mining magnate had announced that not only would he be running for office in the next election, but that he had commissioned the building of a life-size replica of the Titanic, with its first voyage from England to New York scheduled for 2016.

The other lead story was a tell-all interview with an Australian woman who claimed that more than twenty-five years ago she had been one of Barack Obama’s squeezes: “I’m pretty sure we had dinner maybe the Wednesday after. I think maybe he cooked me dinner. Then we went and talked in his bedroom. And then I spent the night. It all felt very inevitable.” Other useful titbits of information she recalled were that Obama enjoyed drinking coffee, doing the New York Times crossword, wearing a sarong, and apparently he also had great sexual warmth. Not to mention that she recalled from his bedroom at the time “smells that so strongly speak of his presence – running sweat, Brut spray deodorant, smoking, eating raisins, sleeping, breathing.” Thanks for that. I think it is important for the world to have firm confirmation that the President of the United States does, in fact, sleep, breathe and eat the occassional raisin.

I landed in Singapore in the early evening and dashed to my apartment, where I dumped my weekend clothes and repacked my bag – this time with the suits and business shirts needed for a week of meetings in London. Literally four hours later, I was back at the airport and on a plane to the UK. Landing in the early morning, I picked up some of that day’s first edition English newspapers, to keep me occupied on the train from the airport into town.

Fresh from reading the previous day’s Australian newspapers, which had contained almost nothing but Australian politics, business and sport, it was suddenly quite strange to now read newspapers in which Australia had all but vanished from the news map. The world at large was back in view – the unfolding Greek and Spanish financial crises, ongoing massacres in Syria, the outcome of France’s presidential elections. On a global scale it seems that the shenanigans of Australia’s politicians did not merit even the slightest of passing mentions.

Thankfully, however, Australia had not completely disappeared from the world’s eye. Specifically, I was heartened to see the following story from Australia covered in a leading UK paper that morning:  “In a bloody battle between two warring neighbours in Australia today, one man’s arm was almost severed with a chain saw, while another had a finger chopped off with a Samurai sword”.

Later that day, a quick online search showed that this story had found its way not only into the English news, but into a good number of other international newspapers as well, in places as diverse as the United States, Canada, South Africa, Indonesia, France and even Singapore. The rather violent and warrior-like manner in which two neighbours in Sydney’s outer suburbs had decided to settle their differences was clearly of massive interest to the global media audience – and certainly far more so than anything else going on in Australia at that moment. Even the Chief Inspector on the case got his fifteen minutes in the global limelight, and offered up this especially incisive pearl of Australian wisdom when he was interviewed: “It’s very disturbing. A chainsaw and a Samurai sword are serious weapons…. which can inflict pretty brutal injuries”. No shit, Sherlock.

The next day, Australia again featured in the English press. This time, the interest in Australia related to the sentencing of two young Brits who had committed a horrible crime earlier in the year, while on holiday on Queensland’s Gold Coast. The lads had been out enjoying themselves, as lads on holiday in Oz tend to do, and over the course of the evening had consumed between them around 1.5 liters of vodka. Later, swept up in the mood of the moment, they had broken into the Sea World amusement park. There, they had dived into a pool to swim with the dolphins, following which they set off a fire extinguisher in the shark enclosure.

To cap off their night, the boys proceeded to kidnap Dirk, a 13-inch high, seven year old fairy penguin, and a star attraction at Sea World. The next morning, on waking up from their drunken excess, they were horrified to discover that not only did they have massive hangovers but there was a live penguin stashed in the closet of their apartment. Seriously: a penguin, in the closet.

In a panicked effort to set right their wrongs, it seems that our two heroes gave Dirk a quick shower in the bathtub, and then released the hapless bird into a nearby canal. He’s a penguin, so surely he can swim, right? As younger folk tend to do these days, they also videotaped the whole escapade, and posted it to their Facebook pages, where one of them haltingly comments: “Can’t believe it … hey, Mr Penguin …. There’s a penguin in our apartment, man…. we stole a penguin!

Dirk was spotted by a member of the public, unharmed and paddling happily in the canal. He was rescued and reunited with his penguin buddies at Sea World. Meanwhile his kidnappers, after being identified from Facebook (is it humanly possible to be any more stupid?), were arrested and charged with trespassing, stealing and unlawfully keeping a protected animal. A remorseful court appearance followed, in which they were fined about $1,000 each and told to behave themselves in the future. The Australian judge who sentenced them issued a stern warning, as reported widely in the English media: “Perhaps next time you are at a party you will consider drinking a little less vodka.” That’s the full gravitas of the Australian justice system for you….

Honestly, I thought that this shit only happens in movies. In real life, so it seems, this shit actually happens in Australia.

A few nights later I went to a barbecue dinner at the home of an old university friend who now lives in London (the same friend who I had not been able to see a few weeks before, and who set in chain a sequence of events that led to one of the more bizarre culinary experiences of my life – see my post Jellied Eel and Afternoon Prayers). A few other university buddies who now live in London joined us for dinner, too. It was a clear evening, and we ate outside, enjoying the start of spring.

The conversation inevitably got round to discussing Australia, and there was general agreement from all present that in London, Australia was very far away indeed, and news and current affairs from Australia hardly ever warrant a mention in the English media. According to my friends, the reporting of the recent chainsaw attack in Sydney and the penguin-napping on the Gold Coast was far from unusual, but rather a representative sample of the types of stories from Australia that tended to make it into the UK news.

At this juncture, someone said something to the effect of: “like the koala”, and everyone around the table chuckled knowingly. I must have looked confused, because my friends proceeded to explain to me that the biggest news story from Australia about a month before involved the superstar boy-band of the moment, One Direction, while on a recent concert tour in Australia. At a press conference two of the band members – Liam Payne and Harry Styles – had met and cuddled with Kat, a three year old koala bear, a very cute and media-friendly photo shoot with an Australian national icon.

Kat was obviously no different to many other young females given the opportunity to cuddle up to members of One Direction. That is to say, overcome with excitement, she peed herself, drizzling young Liam and Harry in koala urine. The boys found this all to be quite amusing. Until someone mentioned to them that about 80 per cent of Australia’s koala population nowadays is infected with Chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease. And which could potentially have been passed on to the young singers, pee-to-skin. His media training obviously had not contemplated this situation, as all young Liam could manage to say in response was: “I’m genuinely scared. This is worrying. I’d have never picked the thing up if I’d known.”

A few days later, Liam discussed the incident in another interview, and perhaps trying to regain his cool, he rather strangely noted that he had got over the shock of the koala STD scare and in any case, he and another band member both had girlfriends. I’m not sure what relevance his dating status has to  potentially contracting Chlamydia from an incontinent koala, but it did nevertheless lead me to imagine the possible conversation between Liam and his girlfriend on his return to England: “You’re a pop star in a boy band Liam, on tour in Oz, with groupies following you around day and night. But sure, I believe you when you say you got Chlamydia from a koala peeing on you. Makes perfect sense. Just what kind of moron do you  really think I am…..

So that’s Australian relativity for you. Within the confines of Australia itself, the country is the centre of the universe, a land of fascinating political intrigue, and where even the future president of the United States can’t resist the charms of our women. Yet outside of Australia, it is a country so monumentally irrelevant to the rest of the world that it doesn’t even rate a mention. Unless chainsaws, kidnapped penguins or STD-ridden marsupials are involved.

Or as Tim Burton, Hollywood’s maestro of the bizarre, so elegantly puts it: “One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”

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