A Saturday night incident in Newtown


And some musings on Hanson’s racism

Bob Gould

Like thousands of other Australians, I run a small business, in my case an unusual one, combining the normal local newsagency with possibly the most diverse new and secondhand bookshop in Australasia.

My main premises are in King Street, Newtown, on the boundary between the well-patronised King Street restaurant and entertainment area, and the Sydney University precinct. We open until midnight every day.

It’s a good spot for a bookshop like mine, particularly during evenings and weekends. However, as everyone else in small business will tell you, times are tough, retailing is down a bit, despite their rhetoric banks won’t increase their lending to small business without massive security, costs are up, and I spend an awful lot of time working in the shop.

I don’t mind too much, as the business is my baby, so to speak, and I defend my bit of turf quite vigorously. Lately a new gang of young thieves hass been working King Street pretty hard. A group of three between 15 and 18 have been in the shop a few times in the evening lately. Two of them get up on the catwalk, create a bit of a disturbance, and one of them positions himself near the counter, eyeing off the till.

Several nights earlier in the week they’ve used this modus operandi, but the woman working on the till has been pretty vigilant and called me down from working on the stock and they’ve wandered off into King Street, yelling a bit of abuse as they go. As a result, I’ve got to know them by sight.

They appear to be a mixed-race group, one Aboriginal, and two Anglo-Celts. The following Saturday night I was working at the till marking books and the staff member on duty was upstairs working on stock. The young Aboriginal from the gang came into the shop at a peak time, about 9pm, hovered around the magazines, watching me carefully, and obviously preparing to make a move. As I began to serve a customer, he grabbed two or three copies of Playboy and ran.

In the heat of the moment, I violated my own long-standing rule to get the merchandise back by any means short of grabbing the thief, and make a kind of flying tackle at the merchandise. This kid had got under my skin. However, he was younger and stronger than me, a wiry little man, and he dragged me towards the doorway. I tripped and fell, and much to my own and assorted customers’ amazement, split my left cheek open on the corner of the Lotto table.

The young bloke, needless to say, was off into the King Street crowd with his three Playboys. I was bleeding profusely from the wound, but kind of relieved I hadn’t hit my eye or broken anything. The other staff member took over the till, and two rather startled but very kind regular customers drove me down the road to Prince Alfred Hospital casualty department, where a very busy Saturday night casualty was in progress.

Casualty was very busy, understaffed as usual, and my wound, while painful, was not life-threatening. A nurse stemmed the flow of blood, and they sent me off for an X-ray, and put in their bid for a plastic surgeon to come and look at me.

A lot had been happening in Casualty that Saturday night. There had been some kind of incident with a slightly disturbed patient threatening a nurse, so there were two police standing around. At a bed near me the very patient, very matter-of-fact doctors and nursing staff were trying to treat a young drug user and trying to get out of him what substances he had injected, what quantity, and where on his body. Not judgmentally, just very practically, and the bloke being rather out of it, wasn’t very good at supplying them with the information they need to treat him.

After waiting for treatment for a while, I began to get restless. As it happenned, a close personal friend of mine, a nurse, was working evening shift in another ward of the hospital, and I asked a nurse I knew slightly to let her know I was there.

After she finished her shift, she came down to see me, a little amazed at the unusual sight of me with the proverbial hole in the head. Finally, the doctor on duty came to see me. I was chatting to him. He was obviously a migrant, and he turned out to be from Egypt, a member of the Coptic Christian minority in that country.

We chatted about the difficulties that face the Coptic community in Egypt with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, a subject that interests me a bit. He was waiting for the plastic surgeon, who eventually turned up. He’d been very busy and turned out to be a very laid-back, efficient, youngish Japanese bloke.

I chatted to him. He was working in Australia for a couple of years because he’s a skin cancer expert and Australia is the skin cancer capital of the universe, and a good place to get practical experience in his field. He studied my wound, looked at the X-rays, told me nothing was broken, tested my eyes, which turned out to be all right, and very efficiently inserted eight stitches, gave me an anti-tetanus shot and a prescription for antibiotics, said I was a bit lucky that the shape of the wound was such that I’d only have very slight permanent scarring, and that it would only make me look slightly like a pirate, which amused me. But I could go home.

My nurse friend drove me home. So, there I was, with a very typical kind of Sydney small business story in these tough times. I had an unpleasant experience trying to defend my turf and property against a young thief from one ethnic minority, and I’d been very effectively repaired and got back on the road by a couple of Anglo-Celtic nurses and an African doctor and a Japanese doctor, during a hectic Prince Alfred Hospital Casualty Saturday night.

My response to Pauline Hanson and to the even more offensive remarks of the Mayor of Port Lincoln in South Australia, who babbles about “mongrels”, is this: I have just been patched up by doctors from a couple of the groups against whom your xenophobia is directed, and who you would not let into Australia.

I earn my living in the gloriously cosmopolitan and multicultural inner-western suburbs of Sydney. Many of my customers are migrants, from every country under the sun. In fact, my customers include quite a large number of multiracial couples, straight and gay, with many beautiful, vigorous and intelligent mixed-race children.

What breathtaking, offensive stupidity this Port Lincoln man’s remarks display. No wonder all but one of his councillors resigned to get away from him. If I have a conflict of material interests affecting my business and life with someone like the young bloke who successfully pinched my magazines, I react sharply and try to defend my territory.

In such matters I’m no bleeding-heart liberal and, indeed, in the inner-west, where some house burglaries are committed by young unemployed urban Aboriginals, local literate people behave likewise. They bar their windows and defend their video recorders, and it’s perfectly natural and justifiable for people to do that.

But most civilised people around here, and anywhere else for that matter, while they protect their own turf, view with contempt the attempt of the Pauline Hansons of this world to turn that conflict of interest, with some unfortunate historically deprived urban Aboriginals, into a witch-hunt against our native Australians.

Any honest survey of the real history of Australia’s occupation over the last 200 years shows the enormous injustice to Australia’s indigenous people that was part of that process, and which continues. The fact that some young unemployed Aboriginal kid manages to get away with some of my Playboys leads me to upgrade my general vigilance in the shop, but it is not going to get me to join the witch-hunt indicated by Hanson.

In my case the whole thing is sharpened by the fact that in the grotesque way the Port Lincoln individual used the word, mongrel. I’m a bit of a “mongrel” myself.

My grandparents on my father’s side were both Irish Catholics who immigrated to Australia in the 1880s. As everyone knows, the Irish are one of the most mixed races on earth after 1500 years of invasion by and intermarriage with the Danes, Normans, English and Scots, to say nothing of the survivors of the Spanish Armada.

The great capacity of the Irish for survival in fact, can be ascribed to their hybrid vigour, a biological and genetic reality in both the animal and plant world, which the Port Lincoln individual has obviously never heard of, with his stupid fantasies about “pure” races.

My maternal grandfather, Dick O’Halloran, was the son of an Orangeman from Ulster, which suggests some Scottish ancestry. On my grandmother’s side, you finally get back to a male ancestor who only appears in the official record when he marries in Maitland in the 1830s. He’s not on the Colonial Muster — the meticulously kept Colonial census — and he’s not on the record of any ship that came to Australia.

There’s a vague family memory of some Aboriginal ancestry, which is given some weight by a very old family picture of the Maitland ancestor’s daughter, taken when she was an elderly woman in the 1890s, and she is of distinctly Aboriginal appearance. The Maitland ancestor’s lack of documented existence before marriage, combined with the picture of his daughter, is a strong inference of Aboriginality.

“Half-castes” were not counted in the census in the 1830s. A bit of lateral thinking reinforces the strong probability of some Aboriginal ancestry. It’s highly unlikely that anyone who has working-class origins in Australia before the gold rushes that began in the 1850s doesn’t have a bit of Aboriginal ancestry.

About 168,000 convicts were deported to Australia, and only 30,000 of them were women. There was also a great imbalance of males among the free settlers before the gold rushes. In the classic way of all conquest, many Aboriginal women were seized for domestic labor and sexual purposes, and their mixed-blood offspring survived in greater numbers than their full-blood Aboriginal relatives, because they had inherited immunity from the white side to the imported diseases that killed off vast numbers of full-blood Aboriginal people.

It defies all our knowledge of human behaviour to resist the proposition that Aboriginal women, and particularly “half-caste” girls, were in great demand in a woman-poor society, as concubines, wives etc, and by the second generation of intermarriage they tend to disappear into the plebian underclass of colonial society, with its rich mixture of emancipated London petty “criminals”, Irish Catholic petty “criminals” and political exiles and others, from which colonial underclass my remote Maitland ancestor obviously came.

The Chips Rafferty type of Australian is probably as much a product of genetic mixing, including an Aboriginal element, than it is of the simple influence of the Australian sun. I share with many thousands of other working-class Australians, particularly in the western suburbs of Sydney and in the bush, a haunting suggestion of some Aboriginal ancestry, without even the satisfaction of being able to totally prove it or disprove it, because of the way the documentation disappeared in the 1830s and possibly because of the natural tendency of working-class people of mixed ancestry to conceal it in the face of the prejudice that existed in such matters until fairly recent times.

Anyway, this difficult knowledge of a possible distant kinship certainly doesn’t lead me to let the kid pinch the magazines without hindrance, but it does lead me to give considerable consideration to the social circumstances that have turned him into a wiry, energetic and so far successful thief.

The current outbreak of mad xenophobia offends me in another core part of my being, so to speak. Most Sydney people who know me, do so either from my bookshop, from my past activities in the labour movement and, even more so, from my 10 years of public activity in opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

In 1965 I was a founder and the secretary of the Vietnam Action Campaign in Sydney and, particularly for the subsequent seven years, the totally justified agitation against the Vietnam War consumed my life. Recently I was asked to participate, along with then draft resisters Bill White and Simon Townsend, a policeman from the Police Rescue Squad, Bill Fay, two other Vietnam protesters Jean and Ann Curthoys, and Dr Jim Cairns the leader of the massive Moratoriums in which the movement culminated, in the Peter Luck prime-time television program, Where Are They Now.

In a crisp eight minutes of commercial television, this program managed to jam in the whole history of the Vietnam protest movement. No mean achievement! As the culmination of the program, Peter Luck asked us if we would do it again, and what we thought of it all now. I seized the moment, so to speak, to make the following statement:

    Basically I believe we were right to oppose the war and conscription. I also believe that the NLF had majority support in South Vietnam, so their ultimate victory was justified, but it was a genuine civil war, and the other side had substantial support in the country as well. As it turned out several hundred thousand people from Indochina, mainly from the side that lost the war, found refuge in Australia, and they have settled in and contributed a great deal to Australian society. I am greatly interested now in reconciliation between people who had different points of view in the Vietnam conflict.”One of the paradoxes is that Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which was totally unjustified, has tied us in, in a most material way, with Vietnam. Due to the fact that we didn’t embargo Indochina when the Americans did, Australian business has a considerable presence in Vietnam. Australia’s Vietnamese community sends back a lot of money to their compatriots in Vietnam, and the direct flights to Ho Chi Minh City are chockablock with Australian Vietnamese, often trying to help their relatives back home set up small businesses etc, etc. This connection with Vietnam, which had such unfortunate origins, is now of considerable benefit to both Australia and Vietnam.”In the midst of all this, suddenly this woman from Ipswich and assorted allies are starting to whip up a vicious witch-hunt against Asian Australians, including Vietnamese Australians. I believe that us old hands from the Vietnam protest movement ought to take the lead in forming an alliance with all Australians of goodwill, including people with whom we may have disagreed about the Vietnam War, in organising a big Vietnam-Moratorium-type mass movement in defence of the new and healthy multicultural Australia and defending particularly our Asian, other migrant and indigenous Australians.

What took me a bit by surprise was the extraordinarily enthusiastic applause my statement received from the couple of hundred people in the quite ordinary, but predominantly young, Channel 7 studio audience. As we walked out of the studio Simon Townsend said to me: “That was a great statement Bob, but its commercial television and they probably won’t use it.”

As it turned out, he was wrong, and they did use the last two or three sentences calling for the moratorium and the warm audience reaction. A big public campaign is needed to defeat this current outbreak of reactionary, vicious racism.

Unfortunately the leaders of the main political parties, the most outstanding example being John Howard, are conspicuously failing to launch such a campaign. It is therefore up to other Australians, lesser mortals like us, to commence such a campaign, as we did over Vietnam. If we could get, say, 500 notable Australians, covering a very wide spectrum of professions, religions and political and other views, to put an ad in the major Sydney papers calling for a moratorium-type event in Sydney, before Australia day, in defence of multicultural Australia, we would get an enormous popular response.

The only thing lacking is the kind of united front structure needed to organise such an event, but such a structure could be organised quite rapidly. In the absence of such a campaign, which I believe would stop the current rampant xenophobia dead in its tracks, the Pauline Hansons and other unrepresentative foolish people have the field to themselves.

November 1996

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