Mild at heart
The column When it comes to a choice between a beer in a topless bar and a carpet of Australian wild flowers, Howard Jacobson plumps for the scarlet banksia
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 22 August 1998
So much is that not a sentence I ever expected to find myself writing, I am going to write it again.
I've never really had a handle on flowers, wild or tame. I get taken round a garden centre opposite Wandsworth Prison periodically, where I am put through my catechism - "What's that?" "A climbing rose." "And what does it do?" "Climb" - but my heart isn't in it. I'm told that that's because I don't have a heart, but I doubt if that's the reason. What I don't like about flowers is that they come out of the soil. It's a feeling for soil I don't have. Soil depresses me. Especially the soil you find opposite Wandsworth Prison.
But Western Australia's another ball game. In Western Australia you have earth, not soil, and the earth is blood red. Which means that there's blood in the flowers, too. In Western Australia, wild means wild. They can tear your heart out, these wild flowers; there are "ouch bushes" here that will scratch you to pieces; there are armoured grevilleas that will make you wish you'd never been born.
And when I say they are flowers I mean they flower. Forget the solitary shy English buttercup of slithery June. Forget the Sunday daisy or dandelion which you have to get out of your car and search for on your hands and knees with a magnifying glass in the hedgerows of the M25. I'm talking profusion! Pokers, spider orchids, pixie mops, scarlet banksia, everlastings, running postmen, things hairy, spiky, crawling, pawing, carpet of the most extravagant colour, bouquets for all the world's brides, natural rockeries as ornamentally laid out as any country house estate, extending for distances that make a mockery of the speck of soil we call Great Britain. Gran Bretagna will fit into Western Australia 16 times. Though why Western Australia would want it there even once I cannot imagine. Too wonderful the way it is. The earth blood red. The rains falling on the inland ranges 500 miles away, flooding the coastal roads, jolting the ancient humus into another violent birth. The cockatoos screeching. The jabirus fishing in the swollen creeks. And the wild flowers out.
The other thing that's out in Western Australia is the skimpy. A skimpy - for those of you uncertain of its etymology - is a noun derived from an adjective, and refers not to a wild flower with blood in its pistil but to a pale tart in her underclothes who pulls you a beer. A bar person skimpily attired would be the strict definition, but not one likely to bring in the blokes. So the chalk boards outside the pubs simply say, "Skimpy today - between 1 and 2", and the meaning is pretty well universally taken.
Or at least you would think the meaning is pretty well universally taken, but in fact the issue of just how skimpy a skimpy is allowed to be has just been raised in the hell-raising gold town of Kalgoorlie, as a consequence of a police raid on a popular hotel and the detention of its favourite skimpy on the charge of exposing her breasts. It would seem that so long as a skimpy only intimates her breasts through her skimp she is within the law, but the moment she liberates the same she is in contravention of the Western Australian liquor licensing provisions.
What this puts paid to, among other things, is the much loved miners' gambling game of "head and tails", in which a drinker tosses a coin and the barmaid whips out a "nork" if he calls correctly. Since there was an international miners' conference on at the time, it's not difficult to understand the measured dismay expressed by the owner of the offending hotel after his No 1 skimpy was put out of commission - "About 800 people from all over the world were here experiencing Kalgoorlie culture and they loved it ... the police are morons."
I experienced Kalgoorlie culture myself a few years back, before the word skimpy was common parlance, in the days of the simple topless barmaid. I was writing a travel book, so it behoved me professionally to take a pootle down Hannan Street and see if the beer tasted better when a topless barmaid pulled it. What I remember was an unaccustomed reticence around the bar, a sort of collective melancholy which was certainly the consequence of the barmaid in question having the saddest, greyest, most un-outgoing little tits any of us had ever seen, but which also had something to do with the utterly wrong-headed concept of mixing beer, which is convivial, with toplessness, which, look at it from any angle you like, is solitary and reflective for all parties.
The skimpy may be an attempt to meet the melancholy half way. Though it didn't work for me the time I inadvertently found myself with one in a pub in Fremantle. She was undernourished, wore an off-white slip and a pair of flip-flops, bit her nails to the quick, and looked as though she had just run away from a remand home. All at once I wanted to be a little boy again, safe on my mother's knee, listening to Larry the Lamb on the wireless.
But then I'm not a miner.
It's a question of general pertinence, however, why anyone would make a special effort to drink in a place where there's a wasted chit in a slip and flip-flops when every woman in Western Australia routinely gets around in a slip and flip-flops?
Myself, I'm a wild flower man now. Call it maturity. The putting away of childish things. Why gape after a skimpy's meagre norks when you can marvel at the extravagance of a Verticordia grandis?
Mind you, that "head and tails" game sounds like fun
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