Margaret River, Western Australia
I’m here for a food festival, and to help along my autobiography. The Blonde had cashed in turn-left, en-suite tickets, and said we were going to take the twins. I pulled faces and sucked my teeth, and whined that it was an awful long way, and it would mostly be work. But as usual, she was quite right. Travelling with the kids has made everything brilliant, intensely observed fun.
But I have spent a lot of time standing under eucalyptus trees in the dusk, being lectured about marsupials by men in shorts. The marsupials are interesting, though oddly unempathetic or winning, and they remind me of someone or something else. A decidedly irascible collective of single-minded obsessives, with issues and dietary requirements. And then we hear the noise a koala makes. It’s an unexpectedly guttural, grating, grunting, constipated groan of entitled complaint. And it comes to me in a flash — they are the Liberal Democrat party! Every Liberal you ever come across is halfway up a gum tree with a bulging pouch full of nascently brilliant, though ungestated, ways to do old things.
Koalas sleep for 20 hours a day. Not because they can, but because they have to. They are unimaginative to the point where they have only got round to eating eucalyptus leaves, which contain infinitesimal amounts of carbohydrate, and don’t generate enough energy to stay awake for more than a couple of hours, which then have to be spent eating. It’s the stupidest condition in all of creation. Our young guide finds a grunting koala who’s fallen out of his tree, and he asks in an encouragingly play-school voice, if anyone can think of a name for him. ‘Vince,’ I shout. ‘Vince?’ he replies. Yes. He’s definitely, uncannily a Vince.
The world’s resistance to antibiotics due to profligate prescription is becoming acute, so the Sunday papers tell me. And again, here the liberal marsupials may have got an out-of-the-box (or rather, out-of-the-pouch) answer. Apparently, lady wallabies’ handbags, where joeys grow and suckle, are utterly disgusting: full of poo, mucus, half-eaten dinners, dirty socks, and grotesque amounts of belly-button jam. It’s a Gladstone bag of potentially lethal infection. So wallaby milk has prodigious antibiotic capability, and it may be part of the answer to the next generation of drugs. Any day now it’ll be offered to you along with soy, skimmed, coconut and almond milk.
Promoting a memoir about alcoholism to provincial Australia in a landscape of vineyards is interesting, if not terribly profitable. People don’t want to buy the book, but they do just want to come and look at me, in the way you might look at a particularly zealous Indian fakir. I’ve noticed there is a markedly telling difference in what the Australians and the English ask. At home, they inevitably want to know how much I drank. In Australia, they want to know how long I haven’t drunk. ‘Thirty years,’ I say, with Hugh Grant-ish deprecating apology. ‘Jesus,’ said one Ocker, with a mixture of awe and disgust. ‘What do you do for mates?’
I was on Kangaroo Island, in the great Australian Southern Ocean, when I heard about the terrorist attack on Paris. It was Paul, an abalone diver, who passed on the brief story of atrocity as we bobbed in his chaotic old rubber boat beside black swans, piebald cormorants and piping oystercatchers in the silver morning chill. He was putting on his wetsuit and checking his air line, strapping on his weights before slipping over the side to collect urchins and purple-shelled king scallops. ‘It’s terrible, just terrible,’ he said, in a tone that implied I must be used to this sort of thing. ‘It’s why we live out here. Nothing happens. It’s quiet and safe.’ Just before this, he’d been telling me about the increasing number of great white shark attacks. Overfishing has forced them into shallower, narrower corridors of plenty. He’d had 11 encounters with them. Two abalone divers have already been eaten. His diving partner has been crippled by the bends in a panicked escape from gaping jaws. Abalone diving is now one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The silent, committed ripper killer can sidle out of the dank darkness behind you at any time, and it’s only a matter of the wrong place and the wrong time, like being in the wrong café.
The perception of danger and fear are all relative to what you know, and your own sense of competence in an infinitely unknowable world. The king scallops straight out of the ocean were a glottal-stopping, ozoned, umami’d, sweet, complex flavour. Some of the best I’ve ever eaten. And a reminder that the globe is still more wonderful and miraculous than it is benighted and tragic.
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