January 29, 2016

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: Circus Tales and Strine Dining

A traditional Australian meal, apparently: take two slices of white bread. The instructions didn’t specify buttering them, so I didn’t. The gravy would make it moist anyway; that comes with the chips. Aussies call them ‘hot chips’, so you won’t confuse them with potato crisps. There’s a thing called chicken salt, too - but let’s not get into that yet. The deeper mysteries of Australian cuisine must wait until you’ve completed this initiation.

Dale Woodbridge-Brown was talking me through the process over the phone. This snack is one of the things he misses when he’s away performing with Circus Oz. Dale’s an acrobat, a dancer, and a trapeze artist. He trains from ten til six every day, plus performances, so I guess he burns up all this junk food pretty easily.

Next step: the chips and gravy go on the bread. You’re almost ready to put the whole thing together as a sandwich, but you’re missing the key ingredient. A snack is nothing without a little protein.

Dale’s a champion gymnast, a teacher of hip hop dance, and he can twirl a baton too. This versatility and flair scored him his audition with Circus Oz; after they saw him in action they upgraded his three month internship to a year-long contract. But Dale knows the smell of rain on a hot country road and he never forgets where he’s from, the border town which has been haunting my Queensland story: Mungindi.

“That place made me an acrobat," Dale told me. Working at the circus, he has to pick up new acts and new skills fast. "It's pretty much the same as my childhood. I learned to be a gymnast on the backyard trampoline. None of us had technique, but we always landed on our feet. We'd drag it over to the river and practise there, too. Jumping off the bridge is just what you do in the summertime. In Mungindi, you learn to swim by your dad throwing you in the river.”

Back to the sandwich, sitting on the counter with bread, chips, and gravy, waiting for the meat.

“Now you add a slice or two of Devon,” Dale explained. I’d heard this word before, but it took me a second: I had to flash back to the chiller counter in a Sydney supermarket before I got it.

Devon: it’s not a cheese and it’s certainly not custard. I'm talking about a processed sausage - a kind of luncheon meat which goes by weird and wonderful names across the Antipodes, including: Windsor, Fritz, Polony, Belgium, Stras.

Strange, but this is a country which calls bedlinen “Manchester”.

Dale's dad, Nigel Brown, chucked footballs when he wasn't chucking his kids in the Barwon River. Dale called him "one of those guys who was just naturally good at any sport." He encouraged the children to take up formal games but also to play on the streets of their town. "We'd have games of tiggy on our bikes, running all over Mungindi. The community looked out for each other and there was always someone keeping an eye on you out of their kitchen window, they could phone your folks and let them know you were safe.”

Between river games and biking around town, Dale and his mates got to know the territory pretty well. Geography mattered to them - well, some of it.

"Mungindi is a very spiritual place. There's a great history and many indigenous stories, although I don't know them all well. But as kids we'd always be saying there were things out there that would get you: Hairy Man or something else. If you wanted to win a game of tiggy you'd go hide on the island where the river splits, because we believed there was something lurking out there.”

The state border meant less to Dale and his friends - a world away from Red, the proud Mungindi Queenslander I'd met last week.

"I guess we were both Queensland and New South Wales. We moved back and forth across the state line. It was just one town to us. When I moved to Brisbane later, to study at the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts, I understood the Queensland side better. But it's the border of a colonised Australia: not ours, somebody else's."

I pressed down on the two slices of bread and looked at my sandwich of chips, Devon, and gravy: a Mungindi hamburger.

It seemed a good moment to ask Dale about sport and State of Origin, the annual match between Queensland and New South Wales. Surely his family picked one side or the other for that?

"We watch it for my dad really...but his rugby team is the NRL Warriors, from New Zealand. He doesn't even go for an Aussie team! He tells people he's from NZ sometimes, and makes up a fake Kiwi sounding name for his hometown, and I tell him: Dad, you're clearly an Aboriginal man, what are you doing?"

There was so much love in Dale's voice as he told me this. In Mungindi, playing with identity isn’t just a matter of choosing which coloured shirt you wear to the rugby. Dale told me that circus is about storytelling as much as feats of strength and skill, the same things which run through all his tales of childhood and family. 

"There's stories, and comedy, indigenous performance, and physicality,” he said. “It doesn't matter what you're good at, you can always make a show of it. Circus celebrates difference and that's what I like about it. Storytelling is our life in the circus."

Right now, Dale's on what he calls his "performance adventure", but he knows one day he'll return to Mungindi - and he'll bring a bunch of stories along with him.

"Growing up in the country, I always gave everything a go. There were so many opportunities for young indigenous people. That’s how I learned what I was good at. When it’s my turn, I want to come back and share some of the opportunities I’ve had. Not so much sharing skills as sharing my story, letting kids know that if you have a talent, you can make a go of it. That one girl who can do a super back bend could grow up to be a contortionist - those paths in life are real.”

I chewed my way through the Mungindi hamburger, glad I’d skipped lunch earlier. It was the kind of meal that makes you smile in between swallows, a stack of hearty fast food that bore its name with pride. And the longer you thought about it, the more it told you about Australian life.

Image from Unofficial: ABC Black Comedy on Facebook