My work has been published in Good Weekend, Smith Journal & The Big Issue. I was a senior writer for Frankie (2007-2011) and held a long running column StruthBeTold with Canberra street-press BMA (2002-2010). (There is a huge bank of my old stuff sitting over here.) Click on the tabs for themed topics and scroll to bottom for links to my latest musings.
They hover by doorways in clubs, hospitals and bingo halls. They lurk on street corners, vacant and ignored. They gaze forlorn over coastal foreshores, reflecting the smeary glint of yesteryear. Unlike Big M flavoured milk and AM radio, these ungainly icons are not yet being mythologised. Collectors haven’t racked up bids for this kind of memorabilia. Parents aren’t riffing wistfully about prank calls made with a found phonecard. Yet along with video arcades and photo developers, these stoic drones are being forced off their lot.
It’s official. Public telephone boxes are on the way out. The number of these coin-fed relics has more than halved in the past decade, such that there are now only 24,573 of them around the country. Some have been reassigned as Wi-Fi hotspots, meaning they now operate like a very low-budget Tardis. But while the federal government has signed a 20-year deal with Telstra to maintain the remaining fleet, this year the Productivity Commission declared public phone boxes “past their use-by date”.
It’s no surprise, given all this, that call use has plummeted. In 2014, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, only 9 per cent of Australians reported having used a public phone. I bet they were backpackers or schoolkids hiding from the rain.
To the metro dweller, the phone box has become a cultural oddity. Really, who still uses them? Desperadoes making shady deals in hushed tones. By their very design, public phone users appear shifty, their backs turned, isolated from the mob. Members of the mobile community, by contrast, have nothing to hide. They walk with their heads held low, conversations broadcast for all to ignore.
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1980s and ’90s, the phone was an appliance. A means to an end. The phone box held the social neutrality of other amenities: the toilet, the barbecue. You were as likely to see a business woman struggling out of the inward sliding door as a skater in a hoodie. Through the 2000s, the phone outgrew its station. It teamed up with the computer and they schemed a way to take over the world.
Today, the smartphone is an extension of our person. An emotional floatation device. jukebox, dating agency, GPS – anything but an actual phone. Professor Richard Buckland of the University of NSW said it best, telling the ABC that, “These days our phone is our castle.”
Public phones still have their supporters, of course. While a ringing booth is an ominous device in movies, it’s often a welcome communiqué in Australian indigenous communities. A quarter of senior Australians don’t have a mobile and, while the homeless are big mobile users, not everyone has charge or credit on the go.
For me, public phones are fused with memories of my Uncle Nigel. As an only child growing up with my mum in Burnie, Tasmania, I was most taken with this witty, sporty relative from Sydney. After an action-packed visit from Nigel when I was in year 7, our only contact with him was on the blower. Nigel lived alone and had a drink-dialling problem. He’d racked up so many bills from late-night calls to old school friends that his landline was permanently disconnected. For as long as I can remember, all contact with Nigel came via a phone box.
This gave him a certain edge. He was off the grid – not even in the phonebook! Occasionally there was talk of us “ringing the golf club” to get him, or the mobile phone of his glass-fitter boss. But mostly a call from Nigel, the youngest of Nan and Pop’s four kids, was a special occasion.
“Hurry up you fellas, his money’s running out!” was the rallying cry from Nan. Pop would spring out of his seat, lest he waste valuable seconds plodding to the landline. As the youngster, I was lucky last. A few words about school and footy were punctuated with the clank of Nigel’s last dollar. We never said goodbye. We just talked until the credit ran out. “Put some spuds in the post…” Click. When he was gone, he was gone.
Good Weekend 2017
Throughout the ages man has felt an insatiable desire to self publish. The origins of blog and zine culture can be traced back to the Stone Age. It was here that early man first became aware of his own genitals and was able to draw them on a cave wall (a cromagnadoodle).
This is the art world’s equivalent of inventing the wheel. Man then got in touch with his own ego (“grong woz ere 10000 b.c.”), and published a primitive rant piece (“mamoth sux.”) These incidents would also provide the well-tagged cornerstone for modern-day graffiti, which has itself evolved from “for a good time call” booty texts to pseudo-academic philosophies and grammar-defying blather.
My first memory of graffiti was in my hometown of Burnie where someone had spray-painted ‘BAD DUES’ on the swimming-pool wall. They were obviously such bad dudes they didn’t need all the letters. Other haikus included “RAP MUSIC”, “Karissa is a mole”, and a super-smiley, out-of- proportion woman about to rendezvous with a finger. When I was 10 I took time out from a pleasant family BBQ to use a public toilet, only to read some explicit scrawls about pleasuring a clitoris. There was no internet ‘safe search’ or shrink-wrap plastic to protect me from this self-published smut. Who were these profane prophets, putting the amen in amenities?
Stepping into a cussed-up cubicle is like being inside a not-so beautiful mind. Similar to the scene where Russell Crowe’s maths theories sprawl out like vines, in the uriney toilet it’s more of a spidery throwback to The Shining. The manic, the frustrated, the crestfallen and the bemused, their all-work-no-play primal screams tattooed in hexed texta. After a couple of breath-defying sessions in ‘they smell how I feel’ unisex booths, I’ve identified the five main genres of faffiti as:
ANGRY: ”fuckin shoeless punx homos the lot of em.” Burnt-out teacher-turned-pot-dealer who’s ran out of papers and missed out on the open mic blackboard.
POLITICAL: “You tosser…it’s getting weird everywhere. We’re so lucky here. Ever imagined Stalin’s USSR or Nazi Germany, or the Chinese cultural revolution? Get your head out of your own ass you tragic person.” Political Science student coked out on No-Doz in the ninth trimester of his PhD riffing with a Kerry O’Brien hallucination.
PHILOSOPHICAL: “Always keep a diamond in your mind.” Drifter hippy girl big on spirituality and getting smashed – full of love, unreliability and Tom Waits lyrics.
POETIC: “By the flickering stars with my legs around his hips. The currency of love is being cremated.” Scholarly goth hip-gypsy calamity girl with long legs and dark eyes. A walking Nick Cave song who’s constantly “burning off” and “workshopping.”
FUNNY: “What if the hokey pokey is what it’s all about?” Youth worker slash amateur comedian, spends a lot of time with teenagers – communicates in Simpsons quotes and sees toilet wall as platform for positive change.
I have an admiration for anyone who takes the time to write a letter to the editor in God’s pool room. Being a democracy, other users have the right of reply. The silver pen statement “LOVE EVERYONE” was met with “(except you).” The incongruous “I am in the ladies” was backed up with “fair play to u brother.” While my favourite was “playing banjo is the key to happiness all your problems”. On the bottom of the door was this quivering sonnet:
“all I had to do
was hold onto you
when the world spins so fast
and our grips cannot last
the force that holds us here
finally disappears. Xox.”
I felt a pang of sadness and took out my pen to reply, but found that I’d been beaten to the punch. “LIFE SUCKS DICKHEAD.” Sometimes words are enough.
Frankie Anthology 2016
When I was four I must have bumped into the fridge one too many times as Mum rushed me to the local optometrist. One of my earliest memories is liking the touch of his hands on my face as he fitted my first pair of frames. I was severely short sighted, and as the years went on the lenses only got thicker. As a lifelong member of Four Eyes United (we’re taking the term back), I can tell you it’s a proud society, whose members know the sacrifices they’ve made to earn the ‘square flair’ they enjoy today. Recently there’s been a battle for membership, and I’m championing to keep it exclusively to those who have been diagnosed with Visual Aids.
Long before geek chic there was just geek. In high school I had a bowl cut and Napolean Dynamite wire frames with heavy glass lenses earning me the name Coke Bottles. Instead of being picked on, I was studied with awe and my ticket through school was letting the tough kids try on my specs. “Fuck they’re thick!” they’d exclaim, staggering about. “Oh man, it’s like I’m stoned!” In Grade Nine I upgraded to plastic lenses and while much lighter, I was dismayed that they’d grown even thicker. Throw in some poor posture and I was pretty much a young Professor Farnsworth from Futurama. I enjoyed three years without a skerrick of interest from the opposite sex.
Being a surf club nipper I had prescription goggles. These stuck out because of the magnification and my rivals called me Blowfly. Before that I just used to wear my glasses in the sea tied up with underpants elastic. I can remember games of football being paused while I pawed around in the mud looking for my grizzled frames. In Grade Ten I upgraded to contacts and enjoyed improved vision and handsomeness, but they brought with them a new set of teary problems. Drunken sleepovers would end with me sloshing kettle water over two bottle tops and footy games had to be called off altogether while my team crawled around on all fours. One of the pleasures of the Four Eyes United is bumping into a fellow myope and sharing such war stories.
These days trying to pick genuine bifocal folk is like Harrison Ford trying to pick the replicants in Blade Runner. Fauxhemians have gatecrashed the party, bringing an eyesore of obnoxiously oversized frames that are so fad based they don’t even bother with lenses. If only they were doing it out of empathy, like classmates who shave their heads for a cancer victim, but no, this is surely one of fashion’s most hollow attempts to cash in on a subculture who have endured years of obscurity to cultivate their own grass roots cool. Seriously hipsters – as chairman of the F.E.U. I’m sending a message:
NO TWO EYES ALLOWED!
Specs have always been part of the ‘hot librarian’ ensemble, but let us not forget they are also pieces of equipment worn by the visually impaired. How would fashion feel about getting ironic with other medical necessities. How about wearing designer orthopaedic shoes to your next warehouse party, or carrying a glow in the dark walking stick at music festivals. Braces bling? Vintage print sling? Fixed gear wheelchairs? Man, if Darwin Deez can make a brown skivvy and government issue frames cool then surely there’s no limit to the shallow appropriation of daggy doodads.
Some glasses make you look smarter, some glasses make you look like a pedophile – The Beautiful People™ wear them for both these reasons. As a lifetime spectacles wearer, I’m offended at the idea of them being used ironically or aesthetically. When so much of my indie taste has already been commodified, must another of my ‘favourite bands’ sell-out? Listen up glassholes – you and your fashion cronies just back away from our optometric territory or feel the wrath of our cleaning spray in your face. There’s only one way to join the F.E.U. and that’s by taking an eye test. See how far you get down these letters:
E R S