Today, 26 January, is “Australia Day”, commemorating the day in 1788 when the British Royal Navy invaded what was wrongly deemed to be a largely uninhabited continent and set up a colony as a dumping ground for Britain’s unwanted convicts. There were thousands of them, and the American Revolutionary War had closed off Britain’s North American colonies as a convict dumping ground. Another possibility was Das Voltas Bay, on the south-west coast of Africa, but the sloop Nautilus which they sent out to check the site’s suitability returned with the news that there was “no bay, river or inlet, but only a step barren rocky shoreline… without… a drop of fresh water or… a tree…” according to Andrew Tink, Lord Sydney’s biographer. It looked as though any convicts sent there would not survive long, and you didn’t want to actually kill your convicts; they were more useful working in the fields. So they tried Australia, the Great South Land.
The first settlement, at Sydney, consisted of about 800 convicts and their Marine guards and officers, led by Governor Arthur Phillip. They arrived at Botany Bay in the “First Fleet” of 9 transport ships accompanied by 2 small warships, in January, 1788, then moved to the more suitable Sydney Cove in Port Jackson (on Sydney Harbour) on January 26. That’s why I am here today, in Sydney, writing this journal entry.
Years ago Margaret Jones, the literary editor of the «Sydney Morning Herald», asked me to write a poem for the front of the paper on a forthcoming Australia Day. “Mention the Harbour,” she said. “A bit of history, a generally positive note, not too long. We can offer a hundred dollars.” How could I refuse? I set to work, and as the day wore on and I revised and revised, my poem “Australia Day” grew uglier and uglier: by dinner time it was full of crooked cops, bent businessmen, tax avoidance schemes, a gangland murder, and lot of cooked prawns. Australians like a good plate of cooked prawns, served chilled, on any public holiday, and Australia Day falls in the middle of Australia’s summer.
“Oh dear,” I thought as I went to bed. “Margaret’s not going to like this.”
The next morning, fortified by the vision of the $100 fee, I wrote another, less bleak poem, which was accepted and published. But as with any family, the black sheep is often the more interesting offspring, and the original poème noir, “Australia Day”, remains one of my favorites. It is printed below.
The poem is partly a dramatic monologue; the character who speaks some of the lines, the “Sydney business identity” (journalistic code for “successful criminal entrepreneur”) is certainly not me, but rather a character in the story. I imagine him as having a vocal style rather like that of Sir Les Patterson, the stage creation of Barry Humphries; a leering and corrupt petty politician with an eye for the ladies. [See Wikipedia] Sometimes I think that Barry Humphries is the secret author of all of Australia’s myths, and a good deal of its history.
Bottom of the harbour scheme] The deliberate stripping of a company’s assets so that it is unable to pay its debts is a time-honoured practice. It also happens to constitute a criminal fraud. During the 1970s in Australia, variations on this practice were employed by hundreds of more affluent members of the community to avoid paying taxes. This genre of tax evasion was to contribute a new term to the Australian lexicon: Bottom of the Harbour. [….] Expertise within the Australian government, indeed, within the Australian legal profession, in prosecuting such matters, was all but non-existent… the full cost of this chapter of Australian criminal history ran to thousands of millions of dollars. Some 7,000 companies were involved… The proliferation of extremely artificial tax avoidance schemes in the 1970s was to a large extent encouraged by members of the legal and accounting professions. (Published in: Wayward governance : illegality and its control in the public sector / P N Grabosky Canberra : Australian Institute of Criminology, 1989 ISBN o 642 14605 5; Australian studies in law, crime and justice series; pp. 143-159)
Buddha sticks… the life of Riley] — In 1956, the year Allen Ginsberg wrote the poem “Howl”, Murray Stewart Riley, a detective-sergeant in the NSW police force, was honoured by the Queen of England for the bravery he’d shown when he disarmed a psychiatric patient. He had been an outstanding Commonwealth Games gold medalist, and was an Olympic bronze medalist. In 1978 he was sentenced to ten years jail for conspiracy to import drugs. Riley had admitted being responsible for importing a third of a four-and-a-half tonne shipment of cannabis in the form of buddha sticks, worth altogether some $30 million dollars. One and a half tonnes of the shipment was loaded onto the yacht Anoa from a reef in the Pacific Ocean where it had been dumped. Apart from the use of this common colloquial expression, the imaginary incidents and personages outlined in this poem have no connection with Mr Riley.
‘Lovely, isn’t it? The water views?
And there’s something historical
about the Harbour – go on, help yourself,
there’s heaps more prawns – of course
in the old days it was totally unimproved.
But they brought in boatloads of crims –
and screws, prostitutes, a few politicians
to run the show and look after the profits.
A set-up built to last.’
So spoke a Sydney business identity, over
lunch on the water – oysters, chardonnay –
‘Another lobster, love?’ – while far below
his former partner drifted fathoms deep
through the blue gloom, in a concrete suit,
to his final bottom-of-the-harbour scheme
among the barnacles and the bones
dozing in the wavering light.
A seagull sailed across a paler blue.
The rigging tap-tapped against the mast;
nearby, rich kids wasted a weekend
on Daddy’s yacht. ‘See that boat?
The Sergeant here reckons
it’s full of buddha sticks, no risk;
he’s waiting for the appropriate
moment to drop over and say g’day.
It’s gotta be the life of Riley. Go on,
have another prawn.’
Copyright © John Tranter