I heard it on the Central Line

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OTHER WILLIE lived in the far Deep North and didn't have a bean. Up to Darwin, turn right, across the interminable scrub and keep going until you can't go any further. Then a bit of a trek. Anyone would tell you where Other Willie was, except there wasn't anyone so you were kind of on your own, but you'd catch up with him sooner or later. You'd see a pillar of fire by night, a pillar of cloud by day, and you'd know you were on the wrong track because that was Willie, not Other Willie.

Willie was a fire-raiser. That's what he did. If he'd been a bit sharper, he'd have been down to Canberra, explaining about the wisdom of the ancients. They're big on the wisdom of the ancients in Canberra, particularly if it's backed up with modern science, and you can always find a biologist, no worries. Willie could have explained that all his ancestors had been fire-raisers, the biologist would have chipped in to say that fire cut back the old growth and split the seed-husks to allow new growth to germinate, and Willie could have headed back to Kalumburu with a nice little grant in his hands, joined in with the other guys and their nice little grants. It fair got the goat of the pastoralists - upwards of $50,000 on the card-tables, some days, so they said - but a dollar was a dollar and you can't blame the abos for being up to all the lurks. Way of the world, you might say. Bloody government. Still; no worries.

But Willie wasn't a bit sharper. In many ways, Willie wasn't sharp at all. When his little experiments took hold and the whole top half of Australia seemed ablaze, they'd send the police out to get him in their little aeroplane, nosing around the red-earth airstrips of the back-country cattle-stations. Go anywhere, the police; couldn't afford to be picky, unlike the Flying Doctor service; they'd cry off because the weeds alongside the airstrip hadn't been cut back, because the surface was potholed, because the flare-pots weren't bright enough, because they didn't like one of the boundary riders' missus's hairdo. But the police didn't have that option. Police work, you see. Can't bugger about.

Well, true. The police were more buggered-about than buggering, particularly where it came to Willie. Ancestral wisdom? No. Blame the firebird, that was Willie's line. Not the black firebird, the brown one, that bird, he's a fella, eh?, come down, pick up them burning brands in his beak and he's away. Yeah; that's the firebird for you. Not the black one, the brown one, eh?

So you'd not follow the pillar of flame by night, the pillar of cloud by day. Head in the other direction, if anything, and then he'd be on you, booming in the night. He had a didgeridoo, did Other Willie, wasn't that good on account of his lungs but he knew all the pieces, the ceremonial ones and the corroborree dances, some for festivals and some for war, and he knew the narrative ones as well, the hunts and the journeys and the two-hour-long rambling commemorative accounts of the doings of the ancestors. Set `em up with a low drone like the breath of the gods, and then you'd get stuff on top, animals running like, and things barking or howling as they do, butcher- birds and the crow's call like a cat on heat, and blokes chatting and shouting and running and panting. Clear as a movie, and all coming out of a length of hollow log on the end of Other Willie's knackered lungs.

Didn't even hollow out his own log. You don't, not to get a didgeridoo. Termites do it. There's probably a waiting-list. Some kid says "Dad, I want to be a didge player," what can you say except, "Well, son, them termites over there look pretty hungry, let's see how they cope with that log over the next few months." Then you paint it: dots, spirals, zigzags, how it's meant to be, wax the end to make it nice, and off you go. Cast-off rubbish, a husk even the termites won't eat, and thanks to human ingenuity you end up with a whole history, an entire creation in a tube. Just add breath.

Other Willie got it all off the end of his old man's didge, not to say there weren't a few amendments of his own, not improvements exactly but just ... well, variations, eh? There'd been blokes up wanting to put him on the radio but he wasn't having that. Your music's like your missus; once you'd got it you didn't go putting it about. Weakens it, somehow, was how he saw it. Never mind the Dreamtime business, Americans and women and such, asking questions for a few days, believing everything they were told and getting it all wrong. No, it was just a sort of ... it was like your old fella and his old fella and so on ... well, it just wouldn't mean much unless you already knew what it meant, eh? Right.

Last week, down in the fluorescent chill guts of Bank underground station, I heard gods breathing, a visceral vacuum borborygm rumbling off the technological walls. You couldn't tell where it was coming from, the deep bass notes being non-directional, but round the corner on the way to the Central Line there he was, a pale young man with a didgeridoo, cranking up. HoooowOMhhhoooooWOMhoooooooYIK!yyyIK!oooommm, a distant echo of an aboriginal dog-bark and if you closed you eyes you could be back in the far Deep North, the red earth and the deep sky and the high wave-cloud rolling in from Papua New Guinea ... but we were here, in London, and this was no Aboriginal, this wasn't Other Willie but ... what? Hah. I knew what he was like, probably a starry-eyed environmentalist, one of those people who seeks the numinous in cultures he doesn't understand.

We despise people like that, don't we? We have to despise people like that because the alternative would be too unsettling, like rolling a naked emollient trollop into a polite Fulham cocktail-party. Too much of a glimpse into another world, too disagreeable a reminder that we may not be right, that there are other ways to live, that somewhere in the far Deep North, there's Other Willie, with his hollow tube and his gasping histories, minding his own business without a bean.

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