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

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

    Circa £45,000-£50,000 + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ac...

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £12 - £15 Hourly Rate: Sheridan Maine: Are you an experienced Accounts Assista...

    Sheridan Maine: Financial Accountant

    £150 - £190 Daily Rate: Sheridan Maine: One of London's leading water supplier...

    Sheridan Maine: Portfolio Accountant

    £30,000 - £35,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a Management Accountant with...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor