Skirting the issue

The column A civilised evening in his best sarong, discussing Australian passion at a cafe parlant, is just not enough to keep Howard Jacobson in Broome
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I've bottled out. Couldn't take the heat and the light and the red sand and the insects and the crocs and the circles of abrasive women. Suddenly got city longings on me and hopped on to a plane to Melbourne. And a man who hops on to a plane from Broome to Melbourne deserves what he gets, eh?

Well, whether I deserve it or not I've got it. It's cold here.

Unseasonably cold. And dark. I don't expect you to sympathise where you are, but you choose to live in a dark cold land, whereas I have opted for heat and light.

So why didn't I stay in Broome?

What are you, the voice of my conscience or something? I didn't stay in Broome because it was getting too hot. OK? Now can we drop the punitive stuff. I'm feeling flat. Pinched. And a bit stupid as well. I have a suspicion I made a poor job of my last night in Broome. You know what it's like - you want to make a final splash, give them something to remember you by. So I put on my most sensual sarong - a blood-red Krishna with flabby pecs and bells around his ankles - and had my hair done up in a Samurai topknot.

Excellent for the dinner-party element of the evening, when I could sit musing under the genitalia trees, under the swaying gonadial boab nuts and mangoes, knocking back purple Shiraz and flapping my skirt to cool my thighs, while the warrior women fought. "Look at you!" one of them would occasionally remember to say, by way of testimony to the transformation that had come over me in my time in Broome, and I asked for nothing more than that - a little bit of complimentary notice. But it was when we got up to go to the cafe parlant at Town Beach that I lost confidence in my appearance. I would be bound to talk. Talking is what I do, what I have always done. But never before in a frock and topknot.

Did I say a cafe parlant? Well I have to admit that I was mystified, too.

It was by now nearly 10. The tropical night was soft and sticky on our skin, like silk pyjamas. The moon was high and full, the ticking tide out, the crocs snoozing in the creeks. For some mango-related reason the flying foxes were low over our heads, squeaking, their anxiety palpable, malodorous, as sickly sweet as a kindergarten in a rainforest. Aboriginal laughter drifted in from the town, dark and rich - the party no white man ever gets invited to, the party you will never have. And hither we had now repaired, the excluded ones, to the garden of a coffee house overlooking Town Beach, waiting to be instructed in the conventions of a cafe parlant by a Frenchman called Philippe who had blown into Broome only a few days before.

All I know about Philippe is that that's what he does. He makes cafes parlants happen in the bush. He brings Parisian cafe society to the outback. Don't ask me why. Last week Kununurra, the week before Darwin, now Broome. The word goes out and we turn up, shrugging our shoulders, smoking Gauloises, and otherwise making like Jean-Paul Sartre, all so that Philippe shouldn't be left looking a tit.

Nothing untoward about a little Frenchification on the shores of Roebuck Bay, I grant you. The French have been nosing around these waters for centuries. How else do you explain Cape Latreille and Cape Boileau to the north; or Cape Latouche Treville and False Cape Bossut to the south? But a cafe parlant, Philippe!

"Last week in Kununurra," he told us, "we discussed the question of passion in Australia, and why there isn't any. It was very successful."

We suppressed a general groan. The world was standing on the brink of moral and economic ruin and he wanted us to discuss passion in Australia!

But the tit factor was operating. We couldn't bear to hurt a Frenchman's feelings so close to Cape Villaret. When I say "we" I exclude the distinguished lady writers from New South Wales whose wonder dog Scruffy I have eulogised in an earlier column. It was intellectually out of the question for them to accede to such rules of the cafe parlant as "no politics and no religion". "That's fucking bullshit, Pierre!" they said as one.

I taught in New South Wales a long time ago. Suddenly I was desperately homesick for the place.

I didn't charge into the discussion at once myself. That's not my training. You bide your time, if you've been to Cambridge; you drop your head on the table while the ferals with wispy chin beards and rings through their noses witter about what passion means to them; you look like a person whose head will never come up again, and then suddenly, like a rudely wakened cobra, you strike. Saronged I may have been. Topknotted, too, in the Samurai style. But my Leavisite teachers would have been proud of me.

"Passion? Excuse me, but who wants it? You praise French passion, Philippe, citing the number of striking lorry drivers you can muster on the streets of Paris, but consider this: the country that gets overexcitable about its own rights doesn't, as a rule, give a shit about the rights of others - as witness the French nuclear tests in the Pacific."

Right on. For a brief moment the ferals love me. I'm against bombs. But my rejection of fervour in favour of "that taciturn scepticism which is surely the great Australian contribution to the world's intelligence" gets me into trouble. It's not a position that goes with my get-up.

So hasn't Broome transformed me into an instinctual sensual being after all? Is that why I've flown to Melbourne, because I'm still the dead-fart Cambridge prig I used to be?

No wonder I'm feeling flat

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