Excerpts from Goodbye, Crackernight… Available at Dymocks Sydney, at AMAZON & through ALL bookstores (New Pics Below!)
JUSTIN’S LATEST BOOKS, “GHOSTS OF THE EMPIRE” & “NOR THE YEARS CONDEMN”, NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK & KINDLE FORMATS AT AMAZON, AT DYMOCKS BOOKSTORES, AT ABBEY’S BOOKS, GLEEBOOKS, BERKELOUW BOOKS, THE AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL & THRU ALL BOOKSTORES.
For any young child growing up in the suburbs of 1970s Australia, there were three days of any year that you held as holy. One was your birthday, one was Christmas, one – and by far the most primordially sensual, wondrous and potentially lethal to your young life – was Crackernight.
Crackernight was a night of skyrockets, bungers, po-hahs, thunders, Tom Thumbs, ball-shooters, throwdowns, Roman candles, blazing parachutes, Catherine wheels and more. If my birthday celebrated my birth, Christmas the birth of Christ, then Crackernight was my childhood’s annual pagan festival. One night a year, the infinite normality of the suburbs was shot with utter magic.
It was a childhood full of fireworks, and not without attendant injuries. A time of manic innocence, of euphoric adventure and discovery in adult hindsight the equal of any designer drug experience and of which, surely, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn would have been envious.
Let me take you back there. Join me on a ten-speed Malvern Star bike ride back to where we came from. To a lost era, and a vastly different Australia. If you’re really lucky, I’ll let you ride my dragster complete with sissy bar, chunky gearstick and speedo, but only if you give me a Peach Moove. Hell, a half-sucked Sunnyboy’d do. In any case, I’ll have you home in toime for tea.
It was bloody wonderful.
That bike guided me through the streets of the childhood we shared.
Also at Dymocks Bookstore, Sydney & orderable through ALL bookstores.
A Simpler Time
Almost everything we did for fun cost little or no money. How many suburban kids do you know today who don’t own or at least have home access to a personal computer worth a few thousand dollars? When I was a kid, the biggest things I owned were a second-hand bike and a surfboard made out of polystyrene foam. My friend Juliette’s idea of fun also cost nothing. Our favourite game together, playing commandos, quite simply encompassed all the key things that kept us happy; namely, make-believe, hiding, as well as climbing, running and jumping. Oh, she did have a cap gun, though … I remember it cost eighty cents.
Night of Nights
After my initial near-disaster, I came to wonderful terms with Crackernight. It was cold and beautiful. For once my father was letting me play with fire. From cracker to cracker, you never quite knew what you’d get. I revelled in the golden glow of the Roman candles, the showers of sparks and the ‘Awwwhhhs’, willing it to go on for ever. I think the most magical recurring moment of the whole experience was when, the fuse having been lit, it started to hiss. That tantalising moment just before the boom. I felt the exquisite thrill of cracker after cracker, despite every display bringing the box one closer to empty, to the commencement of the 364-day wait until next time. Till the end, there seemed always another cracker left, another brilliant, fiery bonus.
But then it was over to Steve’s house where Crackernight was a great big street party! All the families up and down his street had gathered in someone’s front yard and took it in turn to let their crackers off, everybody sharing the thrill of everybody else’s fireworks. Needless to say, with so many bags of them in one place, the display took blissful hours. Hard to pick a favourite – I had so many – perhaps the coloured ball-shooters. These were thin cardboard tubes about twenty inches long which shot out multicoloured fiery balls one after the other. Red! Green! Blue! Purple! Red! Green! Blue! Purple! I saw more of those splendid things go off on that one night than in all my future Crackernights put together. For sheer beauty, though, it was the Roman candles, and their shimmering gold.
That spellbinding brightness! Those colours out of the loveliest dream.
This was the time of crazes. My first notion of such things had been manic footage of a man wearing only white sneakers running away from the spotlight of a news camera chasing him down the street in the dark. The seventies was the era of the Streaker. There was even a pop song dedicated to them and deservedly so; streaking embodied the very spirit of the permissive seventies, the decade that asked the question, ‘Why not?’
There were, however, crazes of the 1970s that begged the question, ‘Why?’
‘String art’: In the long history of Man, he has come up with many wonderful inventions, useful innovations and social improvements for the purpose of bettering his quality of life. So, exactly what Man was thinking of the day he came up with string art buggers me. Moses comes down from Mount Sinai: ‘Hey, gang, I just saw this burning bush and I brought you these Ten Commandments stone thingies. Oh, and also this. I call it “string art”.’
Objets de string art were wall ornaments constructed of fluoro cord intricately wound between nails on black velvet boards, usually in the shape of something tasteful – glow-in-the-dark Spanish galleons abounded. It was from string art that I gained my first notion of kitsch and suspect its glorious reign, however brief, as the reason why the alien life forms so crowding the skies of the 1970s never actually bothered to get in touch with us.
The skies of my childhood seemed traffic-jammed with UFOs. Everyone was seeing them. No one you actually knew, of course, but someone you knew was related to someone who had. Joe Bashir’s second cousins’ ex-neighbours in Beirut, for example. In the seventies, aliens seemed to have hit upon Earth as a tourist destination just as attractive as Australia currently is to the Japanese. Maybe it was the exchange rate? Steven Spielberg’s alien contact epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind from 1977 bears witness to our obsession, the film remaining one of the most successful of all time.
Perhaps all the extraterrestrial activity was stimulated by the high level of radio traffic between earthlings at the time; CB radios were all the rage. This stood for ‘citizen band radio’, a craze that veritably swept the planet with everybody and his dog wanting to blab over the ether. ‘Breaker, breaker, C-Q, C-Q, this is the Rubber Duck seeking any Good Buddies out there, ten-four, ten-four…’
Alien spacecraft listening in at a hover: ‘Nope. No intelligent life down there.’
‘Pet Rocks’: Yet another reason why UFOs never bothered to land. If only they had. They’d have discovered the joys of beanbags!
These were overgrown vinyl cushions that, strewn around the floor, people could ‘bliss out’ on. So called for being stuffed with polystyrene pellets, or ‘beans’, they came in many lurid colours and were ‘a gas, man’. I learnt this term from Penny La Salle, eldest daughter of my parents’ nudist friends, a girl for whom things were often also ‘far out’, or at least ‘unreal’, pronounced ‘un-rool’.
This teenager truly held court with all the younger kids around her, the reason for this being her hippy status. She smoked cigarettes (coool!) and taught me how to make the ‘peace sign’. I was in genuine awe of her and inquired as to whether ‘far out’ was actually code for ‘fuck’ or something. Through a haze of strawberry incense, she considered me sagely and said, ‘It just means “far out”, man.’
On the subject of groovy seventies home decor, I think most young people considered the work of Mike Brady, father of the Brady Bunch, as the aesthetic zenith. Ah, Mike Brady, not only the ultimate architect but interior designer extraordinaire!
Take his fabulous use of brown for a start! Was Mike ever an influence. In the seventies, brown was nothing short of omnipresent. Just as in the Brady Bunch home, any really stylish Australian kitchen was usually orange and brown, presumably to balance the bathroom being in avocado and lilac. But brown was king. You may recall that on the excellent seventies TV show, Welcome Back Kotter, Mr Kotter had no less that a great big, fat, brown ‘feature stripe’ running right down the middle of his apartment! Oh, and did I mention the hip shade for Valiants was lime green?
‘Kinetic furniture’: Think vinyl lounge-chairs with handbrakes. The ‘Jason Recliner’ expanded and contracted into an infinite number of super comfortable positions, meaning now you could watch TV flat on your back. And if lounge chairs didn’t recline, they at least swivelled through 360 degrees. I’m not sure what actual benefit this provided for adults, but us kids put them to brilliant use by being madly spun around on them. Though this made watching TV almost impossible.
‘Copper art’: The less said the better. Except to say that my parents had a huge copper-embossed Spanish-Italo-Etruscan knight on horseback up on the wall. Everyone did. It seems these metallic masterpieces were the hot property one year at the annual St Mary’s Convent Art Show.
‘Mobiles’: Not mobile phones; these were hip works of hanging sculpture, a common sight in seventies homes though now extinct. Mrs White from next door went on The Great Temptation as a contestant and brought one home as a consolation prize! How I marvelled as its silver and pink fish shifted majestically in the breeze. But better than that, this sacred object had been touched by the very hand of the beautiful Barbie Rogers!
Another recurrent craze of the seventies was yoyos. I say ‘recurrent’ as there seemed to be a brand new yoyo craze every year. Being a total un-co, I could never get mine to work though I bought a Coca-Cola one every year anyway, just to be cool. Hell, I knew how to make the peace sign, didn’t I?
This brings us to ‘the Pepsi Challenge’, one of the key dichotomies and guiding principles of my childhood. The TV ad for the campaign featured a bunch of bleached Aussie teens goofing around a table set up at the beach. Before them on the table were two unmarked plastic cups, one containing Pepsi, one Coke. ‘Take the Pepsi Challenge, man, it’s un-rool!’
I wonder why there was never a ‘Tang Challenge’ versus Fanta. Presumably as the ad would have to have concluded: ‘So, there you have it. One hundred per cent of Australian kids not only prefer Fanta to Tang but vote to leave the jar of Tang unfinished and at the back of the pantry to be discarded at such time as the house is pulled down.’
Possibly the most influential ‘craze’ of the seventies was Disco, the whole phenomenon perhaps best exemplified by that classic ‘arm in the air’ pose struck by John Travolta in the movie Saturday Night Fever. It seemed a culture in itself, its philosophy: ‘No matter your age, you will always be young if you live for tonight.’ And people could; this was narrowly pre-AIDS. The bands were excellent, their music bold, brassy, and irrepressibly funky. There was Bony M, The Silver Convention, KC and the Sunshine Band, Donna Summer, Isaac Hayes, Gloria Gaynor and of course Abba to name but a few. In Howard Place, Sarah White and Genevieve Guerlain had put on Abba concerts in the garage, miming to Abba songs with hairbrushes for microphones. One was blonde, one was brunette – it was perfect. Compiling a comprehensive list of the great disco bands could take all day, there were so many, though I think the Bee Gees may just rise to the top of the brilliant bunch.
One afternoon, while still limited to a tricycle, I looked on at all the other kids zooming around the cul-de-sac at light speed. It was my first experience of acute envy. Their effortless, two-wheeled, fluid movement seemed something beyond my grasp.
It was my brother who eventually freed me from the tricycle’s earthly bonds. Being a logical child, I assumed that actually staying up on a bike was a physical impossibility. Surely, without training wheels it would fall over to one side. Pat had to walk along behind me as I rode, training wheels off, promising to hold on to the seat to stave off gravity. It worked! I didn’t fall to the right or the left; so far, so neurotically good.
‘Keep holding on, Pat! Keep holding on!’
‘I haven’t been holding on at all, dickhead!’
I looked back and saw that it was true. Pat had played the most wonderful confidence trick on me. I could ride.
As a result of this newfound mobility, for the first time ever I was ranging miles from Howard Place – best of all, with Steve. We rode together so often it wasn’t a case of my arriving at his house and asking if he might like to go for a ride; I’d simply turn up unannounced, tap on his window and say, ‘Let’s go.’
Coasting along the endless footpath, if ever I peered back behind me, there his smiling face would be, a gleam in his eyes as if on the verge of some significant discovery around the next corner. Half the time, we had no plan at all where we might be going; we just rode. Where we ended up was where we were going. Though sometimes I checked en route.
‘This way okay by you?’
Milk came to Howard Place in glass bottles with cream at the top of each. Mothers were where they should be – at home – hence the daily bread came around in a panel van. It had to. In the suburbs, the nearest shop could be a mile away and mothers had no car. There was only one per family and father drove it to work.
Dad had an olive green 1967 Valiant Regal. In fact, we all had Valiants, Juliette’s and Steve’s families included. The interesting point about my father’s, however, was what he did to it. These were the days before fathers traded up the car every few years. They just kept the car they had for a long time instead. So, when its paint faded, my father hand-painted the Valiant lime green. I honestly don’t know how he chose that precise shade. It was hideous. A really bright lime green, almost fluorescent. Now, let me think…
He couldn’t have been radically colourblind. As a young man he’d passed the medical for the navy, so I can only assume he went into the paint shop, thought: Now, what colour was the car again? Ah, yes. Green. I’d like some cans of green paint, please. What shade of green? Oh, what’s cheapest? That stuff you’re trying to get rid of because nobody would want it in a pink fit even though this is the mid seventies, a decade infamous for its disgusting colour schemes? Yes. Yes, that’ll do nicely.
Then he went and hand-painted it. With a house brush. With house paint.
Word went around the cul-de-sac like wildfire. One resident was an amateur race car driver with a bunch of snazzy sports cars in a huge garage he used as a mechanical workshop. This man had never been to our house before, yet there he was, standing in our garage, aghast. ‘For God’s sake, Joe, what on Earth are you doing?! I’ve got a spray-gun, the whole kit. I’ll get it for you, man! Stop what you’re doing and use that! Please!’
Dad thanked the man but declined the offer. He was half finished anyway.
The finished product of Dad’s work was stunning. Now my sister Bridget’s constant mortification at being seen in ‘The Wog Chariot’ at all had been rendered even worse, if that were possible. Not my grandmother though; old Josie loved being driven around in the Valiant. It was a big, comfortable car. She was a big, comfortable woman. To this day, I think the old Valiants you see around are great. Steve drives a 1965 model, in fact. But in the 1970s, for some reason the sole element within the Australian population who considered the Valiant to be an enviable thing (with the exception of my grandmother) was the Greek community.
This point raises what must surely stand as one of the most mysterious social contradictions of 1970s Australia: The ‘Valiant/Charger Dichotomy’. Whereas the Chrysler ‘Valiant’ was, to Anglo-Saxon children, the very nadir of embarrassing, the Chrysler ‘Charger’ was the epitome of cool, undoubtedly due to the swingingly catchy advertising campaign that promoted it. Even from the family Valiant, if a Charger went past, kids would hang out the windows and make the ‘V’ peace sign with their fingers while yelling out the ad campaign slogan, ‘Heyyy, Charger!’ Driving anywhere, we were on constant surveillance for a Charger just so we could do it. Every kid wanted one and would have passed on Christmas if only Dad had brought one home.
I felt sorry for the Lebanese kids not being allowed to come on school excursions with us, except for one time: Though the Marist Brothers excursion bus never hit a landmine as such, on one outing we did experience an ‘explosion’ of sorts…
The excursion in question took us to the James Ruse Agricultural High School in Parramatta. There were all the things you’d expect – ducks, sheep, a dairy, cows, cow pats, etc. Paul Grantham was a tall kid for his age with great, long arms in particular. At the end of the day, about fifteen kids were perched up on a farm fence waiting for the return bus. About five feet from the base of the fence was a large, ostensibly dry cow pat. I looked on, from a safe distance as it turned out, as Paul, a determined look on his face, picked up a brick in both hands and drew it high above his head in those great, long arms of his. With incredible force, he then slammed the brick back down again in the direction of the cow pat. Academically, Paul was hopeless. In terms of hand-eye co-ordination, however, he was a shining star, and on this day his aim did not desert him. I’m not sure if he intended what then happened, but the result was quite amazing. As the brick landed dead-centre of the cow pat, its interior was revealed as anything but dry and brittle, only its surface crust having been dried out by the hot sun.
All fifteen kids on the fence were completely splattered with flying shit shrapnel, in multiple places per kid. I’d never seen it before, I’ve never seen it since, I don’t ever want to see it again, but you can take it from me that exploding shit flies in large, anti-personnel type fragments.
Yes, attempts were made to wash it off their clothes, but I can still remember the smell inside that bus on the way home. All the way from Parramatta to Eastwood. Though I laughed about it at the moment of splattering, no one was laughing on the trip back.
Only the Lebanese kids later on.