Friday, July 10, 2009

All the Rage: A Short Festival on Westies



The most successful - which is to say the wildest, the loudest, the drunkest, the most fun - house party I ever had ran under the theme title of "Westock". More than just a party, it was our late-'90s suburban answer to Woodstock and we were proud of our ugh-booted, flannelette-wearing, hard-rockin', beer-drinkin' "pass-the-longneck", "let's rage" cultural heritage.

Our decorations included a torn-off car door from my house-mate's old Toyota, placed carelessly in the front hallway so people had to walk over it, and a badly sprung, lime-green lounge wheeled in front of a backyard barbecue fire assembled from the rotting paling fence.

The punch was mixed in a plastic garbage bin and the party tapes had cutting-edge songs by AC/DC (Whole Lotta Rosie), Cold Chisel (Home and Broken Hearted), Midnight Oil (Surfing With A Spoon), Hunters and Collectors (The Slab) and the Warumpi Band (Jailanguru Pakarnu) as well as more contemporary tunes by The Cruel Sea, You Am I and Silverchair - not to mention Kiss's Rock'n'Roll All Nite and an old vinyl 45 of Hush doing Bony Moronie ("she's as skinny as a stick of macaroni!"), which was unbelievably popular on the night with people in flares and a stupid friend who came dressed as Dennis Lillee.

Reminiscing about this grand event on the way back from my mechanic's - actually the flashbacks began while I was examining the flaming logos on his exhaust systems - I decided the time was right to share a more public-minded version of this festival. A Westock II that celebrated "westie" culture in all its grunting proletarian glory.

Hey, I admit it: my idea of the suburbs is a thing of memory, like that great line in the Pretenders song: "I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone." To put it in cinematic terms, I'm more Mullet than Mall Boy.

So perhaps we should clarify the meaning of the word "westie": a derivation of the Sydney compass point and a tribal title for anyone not interested in - or some distance from - the beach. Over time it's a term that has become synonymous with being, shall we say, noticeably suburban anywhere on the east coast.

With that in mind words like "bogan" and "yobbo" might be swapped for "westie" so that out-of-state visitors could understand the flavour of the event more clearly. However, I must make a small point of order: I regard a yobbo as nothing more than a stupid, aggressive "knob" - as we say in the 'burbs - a mutant subspecies found both with and without a business tie and therefore not a true representative of the westie.



Nonetheless, it would be a lie to romanticise westie culture. One sees the conformist torment of it in novels such as Andrew McGahan's Praise and James Ricks's criminally underrated Eleven Months in Bunbury. You also see something of it too in the chip-on-the-shoulder "humility" that Tim Winton carries about him like an attitude, and in the Subhuman Redneck Poems of Les Murray, an aesthetic defiance against the inner city's superiority and pseudo-sophistication, a feeling of primitive roots, however dark, versus surfaces.

Velocity is a keyword here because the suburbs are literally and metaphorically an "edge culture" slowly receding into a west-world many people think of as a wasteland or something to be frightened of.

Given the huge spaces that make Australia what it is, the ability of our cities to sprawl and finally dissipate, we have inevitably become a car culture. Our love of the six and eight cylinder machines, manifest in the mythology of the Bathurst 1000, Peter Brock, the Valiant Charger, the Ford GTHO, and "the history of the muscle car" as writer Clinton Walker puts it, is no accident. Indeed Walker - who previously completed books on AC/DC (Highway to Hell) and Aboriginal country music (Buried Country) - is now at work on that car history and how it defines us.

When one thinks of our national identity, I'd argue there are only two major cultural forces worth noting apart from the burgeoning indigenous scene - and that's the westies and the surfies, conflicted cousins whose differences are more a function of geography than class, and whose common interests often overlap (tying running shoes together and hurling them up onto power lines; constantly reinventing the length of a pair of shorts; appreciating The Very Best of Richard Clapton, etc) and, more seriously, a sense of ecstasy and anger fundamentally embedded in the landscape.

With all this in mind I'd go further and say that while bourgeois intellectuals fret over that hoary question, "What is Australian culture?" - without finding much of an answer - it is suburban westie culture which is forging the vernacular reality of all that we are and will be: from our slang and our humour through to the songs, poetry, novels and film-making that count for anything in our contemporary life. What a rage, eh?

- Mark Mordue



* This article was first published on May 25th, 2003 as part of the 'Short Festival' series that ran on the back page of the Sydney Morning Herald's Spectrum pages. The concept for this series of stories about imagined festivals was launched by editor Michael Visontay, one of the best and most original editors to ever work at Fairfax.
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