May 11, 2017

Marvellous, Electrical: Couldn’t Escape If I Wanted To

“The world comes together every four years to compete in the soccer World Cup and the Olympics, but there are very few global events that celebrate the cultural as spectacle. We could argue for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but their budget for wind machines and holograms is notably lacklustre.” - Jess Carniel

We sat on the deck of an old house and drank cocktails and when we got bored, we walked down to the lawn and played a Swedish stick-throwing game called Kubb. I looked it up later and Wikipedia said it dates back to the time of Vikings. I was useless at it. The sun was setting over Kelvin Grove and we only just finished the game before night fell. The darkness wiped away the surrounding suburbs, so you could imagine how it must have felt when the house was first built, the Brits up on the hill with the bush all around, far from home, claiming this place for their own.

Time passed. When the host got tired of showing off his mixology, someone brought out jam-jars full of homebrewed limoncello. An Italian-Australian, newly granted his citizenship, had made it for us in a Brisbane suburb. The drink was strong and sweet and the colour of the sun which had just disappeared. And the drink came with a story.

*

The next day I go into work with a sore head and ring Doctor Jess Carniel at the University of Southern Queensland. Her expertise: gender and national identity, the internment of Italians in Australia during the Second World War, masculinity in Australian soccer. Oh, and the Eurovision Song Contest.

“I watched Eurovision as a kid, same as everyone,” she tells me over the phone. “My family background was European, it was something you put on after Sunday lunch every year, but I didn’t really get into it until 2002.”

That was the year Jess traded Brisbane for Melbourne. Getting settled in to the new city, she found herself sitting in front of the song contest on TV - “the Estonian entry was good as I recall” - and texting friends back in Queensland. The jokes went back and forth across state lines as they watched together. That was all it took to pull her back in.

Jess studies Eurovision now, and writes about it for Aussie broadcaster SBS, and also throws parties which are legendary, including fancy-dress contests, foods from the competing nations, and even Eurovision bingo. You stamp the bingo cards when you spot things like key changes, costume changes, and sexual innuendo between the hosts - “that went through the roof for Sweden last year”.

Isn’t this just a bit of fun?, I ask Jess. I was a child of the 80s and 90s, and grew up imagining Australia as a haven of kitsch and camp: Muriel’s Wedding, Priscilla, Bjorn Again, the Sydney Mardi Gras. Glitter runs deep as dirt in the modern Australian character. 

“Well, yes,” she says, “but Eurovision is all about politics. As soon as you represent yourself on stage as a nation, you’re taking part in political discourse.”

*

My friend told us the limoncello story. “This is a third-hand story,” she admitted, “but what you’re drinking? My boyfriend made it himself, so the truth is not all that far away.”

Her boyfriend works as a chef. For a while he cooked at a big, busy city-centre pub, pushing out burgers and pasta and chips through the serving hatch. A group of Tibetan men - no, they were Nepalese - worked with him in the kitchen.

“They were cheap labour, but they didn’t speak much English.”

Here the third-hand story began to split, changing between rounds as we drank. Were they in the kitchen because the pub couldn’t find Aussies to do the work? Or because Aussies wouldn’t work for so little? Were they so cheap because, despite doing the work of chefs, they were being paid as if they were kitchen porters?

“Restaurants need to hire foreign workers,” she said firmly. “They need so many hands in the kitchen, and it’s hard to find people willing to do that job.”

The boyfriend went to the boss and had to ask for help. The Nepalese cooks were too slow to keep up with the pace of the kitchen. Between their level of English and their limited grasp of the typical Aussie pub menu, the job just wasn’t getting done.

But the boss was never going to get rid of them - because of the grog.

He had a still making homebrew - my friend telling the story had lost track of whether it was in the pub storeroom or his home garage. Either way, he was selling that clear cold rocket fuel to the Nepalese men.

She sipped her limoncello. “They were happy, because it was cheaper than the bottle-O; he was happy, because it was tax-free cash in hand.”

“One thing I really want to make clear,” she said. “The only arsehole in this situation was the guy making the moonshine, right?”

*

Britain’s current Eurovision commentator Graham Norton called it crazy that they let Australia join Eurovision. They’re on the other side of the world, he pointed out. “I’ve got nothing against Australia, I just think it is kind of stupid.”

Australians don’t really care too much what Graham, or anyone else back in the colonial motherland, thinks. When they made the move to join the Song Contest, the promo video included a cheeky animation showing Australia cuddling up to the coastline of Europe. The British Isles were discreetly nudged out of the picture.

Now Australia is a fully-fledged contestant. It’s a far cry from the days of “Boom Boom Boomerang”, Austria’s 1977 entry. It was trying to spoof novelty Eurovision tunes, but forty years down the track its Aussie stereotypes are pretty cringetastic.

“The Europe we see today is a unified post-World War 2 culture and identity,” Jess explains on our phone call. “The 2017 theme is ‘Celebrating Diversity’, a pretty pointed choice.” 

“Diversity isn’t just ethnic or sexual; in the past few years we’ve seen an ideological splitting point, with people adopting all kinds of progressive or conservative national attitudes.”

Jess sees Eurovision as a space where countries can demonstrate these unified, cosmopolitan European values, defining themselves before a vast international audience. “You’ll see singers playing with this kind of politics - kissing someone of the same sex on stage, or even putting on a dance performance about the migration crisis, as the Swedes did in 2016.”

Jess sees Australia’s choice of singers as a form of “strategic diversity”. Sending Jessica Mauboy, Guy Sebastian, and Dami Im as representatives from Indigenous and non-European backgrounds respectively presented an Australia that was cosmopolitan, multicultural, and appealing to the Eurovision ideal - despite its ongoing struggles with racism and offshore detention of asylum seekers.

Jess isn’t too cynical about this, however. Somewhere amid the glitz is a real sense of community which extends from the contest stage to living-room parties the world over. 

She points to Conchita Wurst, Austria’s former Eurovision champion, comforting Russia’s Polina Gagarina when audiences booed her entry at the height of the Crimean crisis in 2015. Conchita’s own 2014 victory had prompted vitriolic attacks from Russian politicians, Jess explains, but that didn’t stop the Austrian from sitting with the Russian singer and comforting her on-air, despite the audience’s behaviour.

“You can question the politics and explore the implications, but Eurovision’s also really fun to watch, to think of all those people celebrating this show around the world - with more viewers than the Superbowl - drinking Spanish wine, eating French cheese, dancing along with the glitter and the wind machines. It is about bringing people together.”

*

So what happened with the moonshine and the Nepalese cooks? I asked my friend.

“Ah, it all simmered down. My boyfriend moved on from that pub. And he got some of the hooch.” She held up the jam-jar of limoncello with a smile.

“He’s Italian, just became an Aussie this year. Every family in Italy makes their own flavours of grog, putting in fruit or whatever according to their own recipe. In Italy, they sell the alcohol base just as it comes - neat alcohol - but here, you can’t get it. So he took some of the hooch to make this.”

We sipped a little more from the jars and picked at the olives in the bowls and the last scraps on the cheeseboard. More even than the proverbial barbie, this is the staple food of the Aussie backyard party. It doesn’t go at all with the lemon liquor, but that didn’t stop us. 

“You know,” my friend said, thinking about it, “even the pub guy wasn’t totally an arsehole, because he’d just had a baby, and chefs get paid bugger all - so he was doing that stuff with the moonshine to help his wife and kid. No one was an arsehole in that story.”

“Right.” I knocked back the limoncello, sweet and complicit.

Back at the office all sober and still happy despite the sore head, I will pick up the phone to find out about Eurovision. A few weeks after that, it will be time for me to leave the city of Brisbane. I will see those friends again, but I will never find out what happened to the Nepalese men.