First night in the Outback

The column Why would anyone want to fly 2,500 kilometres to see an Aboriginal musical? To have a laugh at someone else's expense, says Howard Jacobson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Life is a perpetual margarita. You sip the tequila and the lime, you taste a little salt, you need to sip again, you taste more salt, and so it goes - you grow increasingly thirsty on what you drink. If you're not a drinker you could say life's a perpetual Cleopatra. She, too, made men hungry by what she let them feed on. If you're not into the flesh either then scrub the whole thing. I only write for the incontinent.

I think it was incontinent of me to have done what I have just done, though I guess to some people it would merit about as much remark as a picnic in a lay-by. It's all to do with the way you were brought up. I was taught to count every penny and never to travel further than a quarter of a mile for any pleasure. Had Cleopatra lived more than a shilling's bus ride away my parents would have suggested I find somebody cheaper. "There's plenty more fish in t'sea, our 'Oward." So to me, it feels pretty reckless to have flown in from London to Perth (Perth, Western Australia, not Perth Scotland - I'm not that much of a cheapskate), and then a day later to have flown out again to Broome, 2,500 kilometres up the coast, just to take in an Aboriginal musical.

I'd said no at first when a particular person suggested it. I was jetlagged. I was middle-aged. I was skint. And I didn't like Aboriginal musicals.

"Name one."

I couldn't. I thought perhaps South Pacific, or Porgy and Bess, but I wasn't prepared to risk ethnic approximateness.

"Why don't you let me sleep for a week, then I'll take you to the pictures?" I said, and where I come from you can't say much fairer than that.

"Are you a man or a mouse?"

"I'm a man," I said, "who is just going through a mousy patch."

Four hours later, I am 2,500 kilometres up the coast, sitting in the gardens of the Mangrove Hotel under a scimitared moon, listening to the wind rattling the louvred palm fronds, waiting for the curtain to go up, and trying to make it right with myself. I add up the cost of the plane tickets (no discounts when you don't book two years in advance), the taxi fares, the accommodation in Broome (height-of-season prices), the stiff thirst-making margaritas, and calculate that Onassis would have shelled out this much in aeroplane fuel every time he jetted out from Santa Barbara to catch Callas doing La Somnambula at La Scala, which he must have had to do on a pretty regular basis. Don't you hear of people selling their houses to pay for one night of Pavarotti? Isn't there a woman, on a moderate income, who has been to the first night of Phantom of the Opera in every city in the world, barring Kabul where it hasn't opened yet?

It's terrible to have been born in the north of England and brought up to be careful. Behind me there are dolphins leaping in Roebuck Bay; above me there are whistling kites and wedge-tailed eagles waiting motionless for the red tide to trickle back out through the mangroves and reveal the whereabouts of mudcrabs; the night is as quivering and velvety as a Balinese maiden's first embrace; stars are falling out of their appointed places in the heavens with giddiness, and I ... I am doing my accounts.

And then the musical begins with a woman wailing for her pidgin lovers - "I bin losin' three mans" - and her grief is so inordinate that the hairs above my collar prickle and money is suddenly the last thing on my mind. Remarkable, though, that Aborigines in the audience - in so far as one can be certain, in a place as richly mixed as Broome, who is Aboriginal and who isn't - find the inordinacy comic. Another way of putting it is that what they find comic is themselves. Remember comic? It used to be a quality of musicals prior to Phantom. It also used to be a quality of Australian life prior to Pauline Hanson, the one-time fried-fish lady from Queensland who has recently risen from the stale chip oil of far north Australian discontent like some anti-Venus of un-love, and formed a minority-phobia party - One Nation - on the strength of a vocabulary of 12 words and a platform of a dozen ideas fewer.

The fact that the party is called One Nation tells you all you need to know about it. Why would anybody want only one anything?

To say that Corrugation Road was written as a musical rejoinder to One Nation would be unjust to its author, Jimmy Chi, who was making art when Pauline Hanson was battering saveloys. But in its celebration of variousness and plenty, in its magnanimity in the face of cultural schizophrenia even - and you have to see the black fella in his Father Christmas hat with your own eyes to take the full measure of that magnanimity - it plays like a risposte. That's how we take it, anyway, sitting mixed and merry in the mongrel night. That's what makes us laugh and cheer and sing along.

It is, of course, especially pleasurable if you are an Aborigine, to see comedy made out of all those missionised Christmases in the course of which you had to dress up like little white-faced angels and hymn "Silent Night". But the laughter is good for all of us. It multiplies us. It makes the world a bigger place. You never see Pauline Hanson laugh. You only ever see her succumbing to a hot flush when some fellow monoglot pumps her fishy hand.

I, meanwhile, have worked out how to halve the cost of flying 2,500 kilometres to see a musical. By staying another night and seeing it again