The Vexillographer’s Daughter by Chris Green
It had rained every single day for the three summer months. Every morning at around five past seven with my bacon and egg sunny side up I would watch the weather forecast on JustNews. The weather presenter would come on and shrug sheepishly in front of a weather map of the UK covered in black clouds, and apologise for the synopsis he or she was about to offer. JustNews had attempted to break up the monotony a little by promising different intensities of rain from day to day, thunderstorms, heavy downpours, incessant rain, squally showers, patchy rain, or plain old ordinary persistent drizzle, these blamed on a variety of distinctive and often unexpected frontal systems pushing in from the Atlantic, coming in off the North Sea or crossing the channel. Risk of flash flooding was a phrase frequently used along with ‘you’ll need to take your umbrella’. JustNews had tried their best not to be completely downbeat or discouraging and only once or twice suggested we might be experiencing monsoons. Even then they had been careful to add that what we could expect was nothing compared to Bangla Desh or Pakistan where they were suffering the real thing, rivers forty miles wide, tens of millions of displaced people and all of that. They had never once gone so far as to argue that weather patterns for the UK had changed and rain and more rain was what we could anticipate for the foreseeable future. Occasionally there had been a cheery grinning face in front of a map showing lots of sun graphics and temperatures in the high 20s, but these never seemed to materialise.
They had even over the last few days, I couldn’t help but notice, introduced the idea of shapely babes showing acres of leg and cleavage to stand in front of the sodden UK, but this had made little difference. However you dressed it up, it was going to rain. If it was not raining by the time I got in the car, it would be raining by the time I got to work. Admittedly it was a long commute from Oxford to Norwich which increased the chances of running into a shower or two, but most days the wipers on the Isuzu were running non-stop. Quite often the journey which should have taken just three hours in the powerful SUV took four or five, as I struggled to avoid roads that might be flooded.
Imogen and I had often talked about relocating closer to the flag design studio where I plied my trade. Huntingdon and Cambridge had been mentioned. But there never seemed to be the time to look into the idea, what with Imogen’s beagle breeding business taking off and the time and energy taken up by Kurt’s seemingly endless run of court appearances. There hadn’t been any reported fires in the area for a while now so hopefully Kurt had at least grown out of his arson fascination, although it would be hard to describe his behaviour as exemplary. It would be fair to say that on the whole things at home were less fraught since Ann had gone off on her gap year. She seemed to view 42 Auden Avenue as a twenty four hour hotel. Now at least there was only one teenager in the house and one source of dissonant music. Ann and her friend, Drew, who was a few years her senior, had set off on a round the world trip, quite suddenly I felt, at the end of June. We had of course rowed about it, with me pretending to be completely against the idea, but I had to admit she would in all probability learn a lot more about life than she would have at Warwick or Winchester. I only wished that I had had the imagination to have done the same at her age. And as Imogen had pointed out Ann had always been a bit of a tomboy. Not being at home as much I did not notice these things, but she did play a lot of rugby. Drew, if Kurt was to be believed was a lesbian, or a ‘rug muncher’ as he so delicately put it. ‘She’s got a man’s name innit,’ he had offered by way of explanation. ‘And she’s got a kd lang haircut.’ This was lost on me as I had no idea who kd lang was. I did not give the idea much credence. Kurt was always coming up with wild stories. Ann’s hair seemed perfectly normal for someone of her age, long and short, up and down, straight or wavy and a different colour every week. She never tidied her room, left clothes scattered around the house, CDs out of their cases, and copies of Curve and Diva magazines lying around just as you would expect. I took Ann and Drew to Heathrow and there was no sign of any funny business. On the journey we talked about the national characteristics of different countries and of course flags and the many of the other things that come up in everyday conversation. I helped them with their suitcases and I slipped Ann an envelope with a couple of hundred pounds in it while we had a cappucino in the departure lounge. ‘Keep in touch,’ I said – and we had had a postcard or two from India, weather very hot, cows on the streets and lots of beggars, that sort of thing. The last we had heard from Ann, they were in Kyoto valeting love hotels to pay for their flight to Darwin.
Family life was pretty much on the back burner as I was very busy working on the commissions that had come my way over the last few weeks to design flags for three breakaway Russian republics and an up and coming African state. The extra work had kept me in Norwich sometimes late into the night and once or twice I had stopped over. Imogen, remarking that I never seemed to be around to help her rotovate the vegetable garden, or clear out the loft, or make sure Kurt kept his appointments with the Youth Offending team, had a few times in desperation suggested that I might be able to design flags somewhere nearer to home.
‘What exactly do you do?’ and ‘How difficult can it be to draw a few lines and colour them in?’ were typical remarks showing her lack of appreciation of the complexities of designing flags. Also she did not seem to understand that Norwich was the established flag design centre in the UK, perhaps even Europe. If you wanted to be in the vanguard of vexillography Norwich was the only place to be.
TWO: BIG COUNTRY
Is Australia ever big? I hadn’t realised just how staggeringly huge Australia is. When you see it in the bottom right hand corner of the map it looks like an afterthought. But, trust me, it is colossal. The Stuart Highway running from Darwin to the south of the continent, Drew and I noticed from The Rough Guide, runs for 2,834 kilometres. The road signs we passed in the Toyota coming out of Darwin displayed absurd distances such as Adelaide 3,034 kilometres and Sydney 4,084. I don’t think we really believed we were going to complete such a journey; we we’re just going to go with the flow and see what happened. No point in making plans; this was an adventure not a commitment. Perhaps we would get to Alice Springs, where we might be able to get the odd days work in a bar or restaurant. We’d seen some awesome blogs about Alice Springs. Or Brisbane. Brisbane sounded cool. Plenty of Brits in Brisbane, the Guide said. And Fortitude Valley, wherever that was, was wicked, we’d been told.
We were of course travelling on a budget and the beaten up old Toyota which we hired from Bazza’s Car Hire in Darwin had no air conditioning or sun roof, no radio, no speedometer and no headlights. And an oil indicator light that stayed on. Whether it was down to Drew driving with the handbrake on or me not being able to change up from third, the engine kept overheating. We were both crap drivers. Drew had failed her driving test five times back home. And I did not have a licence at all, but Bazza hadn’t worried too much about that. He just wanted to look at our legs and maybe get the scruffy old wreck off the lot. It didn’t seem to matter therefore when we had a bit of a random shunt and lost the front bumper as the Toyota was so janky to begin with. You get what you pay for, Dad always used to say to me whenever my cheap phone or mp3 player broke, and we had paid diddly squat.
It was blisteringly hot and uncomfortably humid. Drew and I stripped down to shorts and bikini tops and even so these stuck to us like a second skin. The six five litre bottles of water we had bought at Strewth Bruce in Darwin were soon gone as we used it to pour over ourselves to cool down. We had to keep stopping for more. We had found India pretty warm but even the heat in Kolkata was nothing compared to this. Every twenty clicks inland we travelled, the temperature rose by one degree Celsius. By the time we got to Pine Creek the temperature had risen to over forty degrees. This was where the Toyota’s engine finally blew up and we abandoned the smouldering heap by the side of the road. To lighten the load and lessen the panic of being stranded we started on the Darwin Stubbies we had in our bags. Warm beer but still very welcome.
‘No sign of the Amber Nectar round here,’ I said.
‘I guess they don’t drink it in Australia,’ said Drew.
‘Perhaps they wear cork hats either.’
‘Or play cricket.’
‘It’s not the same country as the one on the posters back home is it?’
It was a Monday morning and I had been on the road for the best part of four hours driving through torrential rain. Honey, showing even more leg than Jasmine had the day before, had forecast ‘isolated showers’. I was making very slow progress due to surface water on all of the roads from Oxford to East Anglia. I was listening to a Radio 4 discussion about why the country’s largest supermarket chain had suddenly collapsed. This had replaced Hurricane Nigel as the number one news item. I was stuck in a long queue of traffic waiting on the approach to the Kings Lynn roundabout, when I got an unexpected call on the handsfree. The world of flag design certainly has its share of spills and thrills, but I had never expected to get a call from the Prime Minister. He wanted me to redesign the British flag. With the prolonged bad weather, the run on the pound, the the conflict in the Middle East, and what he termed a series of negative news items lately, he felt that confidence in the government and the country was at an all time low. Then of course there had been the embarrassing performance in the football World Cup (who could forget the sending off of the entire English team) and the humiliation in the Test Series (in the matches that had not been rained off). People, he said, needed to see the nation in a new light and one of the key steps to redefining Britain was to come up with a new flag. The Union Jack comprising of St George’s Cross, St Andrew’s Cross and St Patrick’s Cross as I well knew dated back to 1801, and a version without St Patrick’s Cross dated back to 1606. Apart from its militaristic and racial subtexts the flag was to put it in a word, hopelessly old fashioned both by design and as a symbol. The British people could no longer be fooled into thinking they ruled the waves. ‘So we’re going to ah, waive the rules.’ The PM laughed nervously at his play on words.
During our conversation, which saw me edge ever nearer to the Kings Lynn roundabout, he confided that his radical cultural shake up plans also included a new National Anthem which he had given over to Radiohead, and moving Parliament to somewhere more contemporary, and indeed, higher up. I took it that he was referring to the fact that the present location as it was on the Thames might become flooded should the Thames Barrier be breached. Why was I based in Norwich, he was curious to know, and not somewhere more urbane and higher up?
He said he would call me again in a week and hung up just as I was coming off the roundabout. The rain seemed to have eased a little now leaving a free run to Norwich. I put on a relaxing CD of Boccherini string quartets and tried out the steering wheel isometrics that I had learned to release some of the tension that had accumulated from the long drive. As the big Isuzu powered along the A47, I was able to give some thought to the new commission. Environmental issues were being talked about a lot, what with the Earth Summit coming up. How about a green flag? There weren’t many flags that were primarily green…. Well, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were mostly green. And Libya’s flag was entirely green. Perhaps these were not the right examples. What about a pink flag? I wondered. There were I could quite categorically say no pink state flags. Militaristic subtexts were not an issue with shocking pink, Pantone Process Magenta.
I should explain that flag design departs considerably from logo design: logos are predominantly still images to be read off a page, screen, or billboard. I occasionally dabbled in logo design. I had recently for instance designed the official Recession logo for the BBC, but on the whole I steered clear of this enterprise. In a word logos are flat. Flags on the other hand are alternately draped and fluttering images to be seen from a variety of distances and angles. The prevalence of simple bold colours and shapes in flag design is paramount. It is customary to use primary colours and white or black. One of my personal favourite state flags is the Seychelles flag which is a bold geometric design consisting of four triangular shapes of blue: Pantone 294 yellow: Pantone 122 red: Pantone 1795 green: Pantone 356, each starting from the bottom left of the flag and sweeping out towards the top right. Ann had sent us a postcard of the Seychelles flag earlier in the year when she was working in a Surf Shop on Mahe Island to save up the money for her passage to India. They were planning to go to on to Japan and Australia, she had written matter of factly as if all these places were nearby.
We continued our trek south, hitching lifts with a succession of lecherous truck drivers with bad breath and crusty cattle farmers moving their stock. Our progress was slow. Although it was oppressively hot and we were minging, we made serious attempts to cover ourselves up. Some of these guys in the outback were really creepy. Mikey, a bauxite mining engineer from Wagga Wagga, who picked us up in his Mitsubushi ‘ute; near Emu Hole had a Bobby Peru grin and the seduction technique of a bull seal. He was revolting. He had a smile like an alligator. He talked on his CB radio to someone called Jeck about how he was bringing two dirty little beaches over and how they would be able to ‘fuck them like jeck rebbit bunnies’. ‘You bitter deegout year rittlesneke Jeck, we’ll be thayer in foive.’ Perhaps I’ve got the accent wrong but while he was still talking his strine bogan jive, he grabbed be by the neck and pulled me towards him. I screamed and Drew using her ample bulk dived in to help. In the frantic struggle that followed the Mitsubishi left the road, but Mikey had locked the doors so we couldn’t get out.
It was fortunate that Koorong, a hunky native didgeridoo maker from Timber Creek, came along at this moment in an old flatbed truck which was loaded with brightly painted instruments. Not so lucky though that he was headed west. Although we were grateful to have been rescued, this was one of a run of rides that took us hundreds of clicks off course. We would have preferred to carry on by the most direct route down the track, as the vast Stuart Highway was commonly known, but we were taken along a selection of single lane roads and rough tracks on a zigzag through the Northern Territory. Koorong seemed to be in no hurry. He chewed hallucinogenic plants and talked to us about Walkabout and Dreamtime. In the time before Time, he told us, there was only the barren land and the empty sky. The sun, moon and stars slept below the land along with the spirits. On the First Day, the Sun was born from the land. He rose into the sky and his light warmed the land. Slowly the other Ancestors awoke and emerged onto the land. This marked the beginning of the Dreamtime. As the Ancestors crossed the land they spoke names, calling into being all of creation, natural features as well as plants and animals and even abstract concepts such as death. They sang songs which incorporated the names they had created. They left a web of songlines on the land which indicated their progress. During their travels the Ancestors also deposited guruwari particles, the seeds of life which have existed through the generations and through these particles life today is linked with life in the Dreamtime.
‘This place belongs to my ancestors,’ he continued. ‘It is our spirit. We, the aboriginal people live in this country as one spirit. But today because of the white man’s consumption and greed, the ancestral way is threatened by climate change. We are always looking at the seasons. The dry season is now very hot. You will see if you stay here. And what water there is can be bad. The food cycles are shifting. We need to get back to the Dreaming to ensure the continuity of life and the land.’
Having been brought up with a different story, Drew and I were grateful for this fascinating explanation of creation and were saddened by what we in the the twenty first century were doing to Koorong’s heritage.
The slowness of these days in the outback gave me time to reflect. I had escaped the two crazy lunatics I had spent my life living with. Can you imagine, Dad made me collect stamps. Every week, until I was about sixteen, he would march me down to the philatelists (yes they do still exist) to buy a set from Paraguay, Vietnam or the Dutch East Indies or similar far off places, and supervise me at home while I stuck them in my album. He was completely obsessed. Quite anal about the whole exercise. Don’t you think you should put the Johore ones into the India pages? I remember him saying. Some of the stamps were quite rare. I had a set from Qatar with pictures of the first Soviet astronauts that was worth several thousand pounds. I did have some pretty ones with butterflies on from Tristan da Cunha that were valuable and a Silver Jubilee set from Basutoland. I hadn’t let on to Dad that I had sold these on the internet to buy my iphone. He was not very observant. When I had my hair cut short and died purple a year or so back, he did not notice. He did not ever comment on the fact that I never brought boys home or that Drew stayed over quite a lot. He also did not seem to be aware of what the rainbow bracelets and earrings I wore signified. He was in his own world. He had this annoying habit of whistling Elton John or Dave Brubeck tunes when he was in the house. I didn’t mind the Elton John so much, but can you imagine anyone trying to whistle Blue Rondo a La Turk? Admittedly it was a big house but it was hard to get way from Dad’s collections of Coronation memorabilia, pre-war cameras, licence plates, Macintosh computers and of course, flags. Perhaps everyone thinks of their parents embarrassing but if Dad was mad and a little remote, Mum was barking. She would dress up her dogs and take them to shows, no not dog shows, she would take them to Mamma Mia and Les Miserables. Totally kooky! I was only now able to appreciate that I was finally free from all that. Oz was by comparison sane.
Koorong introduced us to ostrich eggs which were I would have to say a bit tastier than some of the other fare on offer. He lived it seemed mainly on a diet of bandicoot, tubers and insects. He showed us how to make a fire by rubbing sticks together and to my surprise after a few attempts I found this remarkable easy. But pointless as I always carried a lighter. He showed us how to craft a didgeridoo from a eucalyptus branch and how throw a left handed boomerang (like we needed to know). Despite our Rough Guide we really had no idea at any moment where we were or where we were going. This was off the map. The alien flora and fauna and the strange indigenous wildlife that we saw around us made it seem like another planet. We saw red kangaroos, water buffalos and packs of fierce looking dingoes. We saw scary lizards of all shapes and sizes and colossal birds of prey swooping on the roadkill in the open areas. We were treated to spine-chilling stories of venomous snakes slithering in beside people in their beds. Tales of bloodsucking bugs and spiders the size of a volleyball. We saw nine foot tall Aboriginals, tree climbing crocodiles and two headed dragons. The hallucinatory landscape of the ‘Top End’ as the northern half of Australia was known both entranced and terrified us.
‘Just think,’ said Drew one night ‘you could be at uni in Reading reading Renaissance texts and the Romantic poets. Wouldn’t you rather be doing that ?’
‘And you could be coordinating conferences in Cowley,’ I said, sliding my hand between her legs.
I think we both knew where we wanted to be.
When I arrived at the office there was a message from Imogen. I could hear the nerve jangling chords of Dying Fetus or Angel Corpse playing in the background, which meant that Kurt was at home, something unlikely to have improved Imogen’s disposition. I spent the rest of the day running through her list of grievances, chasing up the cowboy contractors who were supposed to be fitting the air conditioning for the new kennels and the plant hire company who claimed that the rotovator we had hired was overdue. We had returned it last month, along with the stump grinder. I wrangled with the internet service provider over the broadband contract and tried to negotiate with the vicar over the damage to the church that he alleged Kurt and his friends had been responsible for. Later in the day another band of torrential rain blew over from the west and set in and I found myself stranded in Norwich on account of the floods. Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, traditionally two of the driest areas of the country, were particularly badly hit. Most of the rivers in both counties had burst their banks. I asked Rachel to find a hotel. Rachel always seemed to know which hotel to book. Also where the best restaurants were.
The following day as I worked on some initial designs on my Mac with Radio 4 in the background, the news was pretty grim. Inflation had hit a twenty year high and the stock market was in turmoil. All of the major money markets had taken a tumble but the FTSE was in free-fall. One of the UK’s largest and most revered financial institutions had collapsed, the one we had our mortgage with as it happened, and the Youth Offending Service called to say that Kurt had missed his appointment. Late in the afternoon the PM rang to see how I was getting on with the flag. His voice echoed the pressure he was clearly under. He sounded desperate.
‘I need it by Friday,’ he said.
I told him I was working on some ideas and that Friday wouldn’t be a problem.
‘You won’t let me down, Paul, will you?’ he pleaded.
I called an emergency meeting of my team for a brainstorming session. Flag design isn’t labour intensive and my team wasn’t a large team. It consisted of just myself, Rachel and Magda, the work experience placement who came in to service the Linotype and maintain the roof garden.
The flag did need to be a departure. Rules as I saw it were there to be broken. Perhaps there were no rules, only perceived limitations.
‘Think radical,’ I told the others. ‘Think outside the box. leftfield’ I couldn’t believe I was coming out with these clichés, the banal staples of business meetings, conference calls and lengthy self indulgent speeches. Could anything be considered radical or leftfield in this postmodern digital age which emphasises the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge? There were after all no overarching truths anymore. Narratives were all tainted by the concept of the unreliable author. Now everyone could be famous for fifteen minutes.
Rachel took up the challenge. ‘Damien Hirst did a series of paintings of dozens of different coloured spots, a bit like a colour chart.’
I felt that the idea was a tad hackneyed. I had recently seen a similar design on Imogen’s mother’s ironing board cover. The perception of an art flag, a flag that made a statement as a work of art was an appealing one though especially if you delved a little deeper into the history of art. The 1960s geometry of Frank Stella or Gene Davis, to which it could be argued Damien Hirst’s paintings owed a debt, would suit a flag. I made a note.
‘What about a white flag,’ suggested Magda. ‘For peace.’
‘A white flag means surrender,’ I pointed out. ‘Universally.’ But I couldn’t argue that the idea was not ‘outside the box’.
‘A black flag’
‘A transparent flag’
‘A mirror flag’
‘An invisible flag’
‘A virtual flag’
The ideas kept coming. Magda was clearly on a roll. Perhaps I was not making the best use of her skills getting her to plant santolinas, bronze fennel and Iceland poppies up there on the roof.
My mobile rang. It was Imogen. She sounded distraught – and confrontational. Bella, one of her favourite beagles had been savaged by a Staffordshire bull terrier, an alarmingly ugly brute with fangs like a tyrannosaurus rex. She had rushed Bella to Village Vets where she was now in the Emergency Room with Dr Marciano fighting to save her life. I tried my best to console Imogen but it seemed the call had been primarily to apportion blame. We managed during the heated exchange that followed to establish that it was my fault for not getting round to repairing the fence. My excuse that it had been too wet lately did nothing to improve my standpoint and we ended the conversation without the usual pleasantries.
No sooner had I put the phone down than Kurt phoned asking if he could borrow a ton. Sensing my reluctance, he added, ‘I could always find it another way, you get me.’
‘What is it for?’ I asked, hoping he might surprise me with something like, ‘it’s to buy the new digital Encyclopaedia Brittanica’ or ‘to buy some new weatherproofs for the geography field trip.’ His thinly veiled threat, ‘Or I could tell mum what you’re really up to in Norwich’ suggested he was not going to tell me what it was for, so it was probably for drugs. Admittedly he was nearly fifteen but a hundred pounds did seem to be quite a large sum for a personal amount of cannabis. It seemed however that I was on a loser to nothing by pursuing the matter. I told him where I kept the float for emergency household situations.
‘I already know that innit?‘ he said with a laugh. ‘I was just being polite like. SYL.’ He was even talking in text now.
I momentarily contemplated the discrepancy between my global influence and my domestic authority. I had the trust of the Prime Minister and other heads of state but my own family saw me as a doormat. Perhaps everything in life had a tendency to balance out. Yin-yang according to Mi Fu, my traditional acupuncturist, is a dynamic equilibrium. Because the two opposites arise together they are always equal: if one disappears, the other must disappear as well, leaving emptiness. This I was told is rarely immediately apparent because yang elements are clear and obvious while yin elements are hidden and subtle. I had heard on a science programme on the radio the other day that a chunk of Canada the size of Scotland had broken off and was heading south. Sea levels were expected to rise significantly as the ice melted. The next item had been about how mathematicians had discovered a new prime number with 1,300 digits. So it goes. Tomorrow there might be a dozen more flood alerts but Natasha might read the weather in Agent Provocateur lingerie.
After a good deal of deliberation over a bottle or two of New World red, we settled on a vibrant flag design based on a contemporary Aboriginal art postcard that Ann had sent, a startling riot of colour that we felt would stand out anywhere. It was so vivid you might need special sun specs to view it. This was the breakthrough that we had been waiting for, the design that would put Paul Caruso Flags well and truly on the map. Once the new British standard was raised, leaders of nations would be queuing up with their commissions for new flags.
Our optimistic representations did nothing to temper the inclement weather. The wind turned round to the north gathering in strength, and heavy showers persisted through the afternoon. Rachel and I once again found ourselves stranded and were forced to stay another night in the Georgian House Hotel. The following morning the biggest bank in the country collapsed, the one I had my savings with as it happened, the FTSE hit a twenty year low, and Imogen phoned to say that Kurt had bought an air rifle and was firing at the fantail doves in the Henderson-Goughs’ garden. At least she thought it was an air rifle. It was certainly a gun of some sort. I was unable from the muffled report I heard in the background to confirm the type of weapon. I told her I would deal with it later, but for her not to call the police just yet. I was fairly sure that a hundred pounds would not have purchased an AK47 or anything like that. Imogen did not however seem happy with my uncooperative response and we picked up the stock conversation we employed for such disputes.
Around midday the storm surge generated by the low pressure all around the British Isles funnelled down the North Sea and at high tide the Thames barrier was breached. London began to flood. Within an hour the central districts along the river from Greenwich up to Chiswick were inundated. The underground network was closed and the rush to leave the city was causing gridlock on all roads. Rachel and I, still holed up in the hotel, watched the news as it happened on JustNews.
At 4pm the Prime Minister phoned from Muswell Hill where Parliament had convened to a temporary location by Alexandra Palace. This he explained was ‘ah, one of the highest places in London.’
I wondered where the highest place in East Anglia might be.
‘The flag, Paul!’ said the PM. ‘Can we start producing some? The public need a distraction.’
I told him a little about the design and the process.
‘I don’t care about any of that,’ he said. ‘Just get it to me.’
I was about to put the phone down when he said, ‘by the way, Paul. On a brighter note, you’ll be pleased to know can now download Radiohead’s new National Anthem off the Direct Gov website. I’m told by my musical advisor that it sounds, ah, cool. Have a listen and see what you think.’
When we finally made it back on to the track, The Magnetic Ant Hills dominated the landscape; these so called we were told by a crusty Norwegian backpacker with an unpronounceable name because they are orientated in a north-south direction, on account of the way the termites react to the position of the sun during the day, or something like that. And there was sun in abundance. Every minute of each day the sun burned down with unrelenting ferocity. There were no speed limits here, but no-one appeared to be in a hurry. We seemed to get rides that only took us a few clicks and then it would be hours before someone else stopped and one day passed into another. The distances on the signposts never seemed to get any smaller. We stayed sometimes in cheap run down backpackers hostels. One night we stayed in the shack where the owner Wayne, a bogan redneck in flannelette shirt and stubbies, told us Frank Ifield wrote She Taught Me How To Yodel. Who? Another night we found ourselves under canvas at a Steve Irwin survival camp beneath the stars huddled together for warmth as the temperature dropped to around zero. How could this happen when it was so hot during the day? It is only then when you find yourself unable to sleep because of the unfamiliar nocturnal sounds that you realise that your tenure of this land is a fragile one. At any moment you feel you might be attacked by a giant porcupine, a forty foot ant or some other disgusting alien creature.
The further into the interior we went the drier it became. The drought blighted hinterland was like an oven. No wonder there were so many bush fires in the outback. One match and there would be devastation across whole states. One discarded cigarette end could start the whole thing off. We passed through a place where it hadn’t rained there for seven years. As we approached the Simpson Desert it was over fifty degrees. Only cacti grew here. It was four weeks since we had left Darwin and we were the colour of the natives, some of this may have been dirt and grime of course. There had been nowhere to take a decent shower since Darwin.
We finally made it back to something like civilisation. Places were closer together and we were able to get more frequent lifts. Little mining settlements gave way to bigger mining settlements and finally we reached Alice Springs at the end of November. I first became aware of the new British flag in Alice. Drew and I were in a bar sipping at a couple of cold tinnies. We had heard random stories from other trekkers in Alice and we were laughing about having avoided the floods back home, when lo and behold Dad appeared on the television that was playing in the corner of the bar. Struck dumb and rooted to the spot I was and the rest. It was a chat show on one of the hundreds of satellite channels that you can pick up even here in the outback. It was a British show; I recognised the presenter, although I could not think of his name. It was a noisy bar and the television was turned down so I did not catch much of the conversation but Dad was being talked up to as something of a celebrity. In between Dad holding forth, they kept focussing on a large Aboriginal painting. Drew and I had seen some like it in Darwin and one or two of the towns we had passed through. Hadn’t I sent a postcard of something similar from Darwin? They showed a picture of what appeared to be the same painting flying as a flag above Buckingham Palace and I put two and two together. This must be a new British flag. What a weird design for a flag I thought, but it was probably no odder than the tie dyed flag Dad had designed for the Federation of Balkan States. Thom Yorke of Radiohead was also a guest on the chat show and, although I did not grasp the connection there and then, the band performed what I later discovered was the new British National Anthem.
It was not until the following day when I saw the headline in The Alice Springs News that I realised that there was a controversy here in Australia over the new British flag, because the existing Australian flag had in its left hand top quarter the Union Jack. On the face of it you would not have thought that this was something the average Aussie would feel proud of or want to defend. You would have thought they would be glad to replace this symbol of colonial suppression with something a little closer to home. Not so. The Australian government it seemed were not at all keen to replace the Union Jack with an Aboriginal design. Giving Aboriginals voting rights was one thing, but acknowledging them on the national flag was altogether unacceptable. This was one step too far for a majority of white Australians. Further controversy arose from the fact that the Aboriginies themselves were outraged that an Aboriginal design had been plundered by the super colonial power. The country was in uproar.
We kept an eye on the news sites on the net. Gradually the blame for the flag shifted from the British Prime Minister to the designer of the flag, largely I gathered through dad’s unrelenting procession of chat show appearances. He probably even appeared on the one with the presenter that was always taking her kit off for The Sun, Tori something or other. He was shameless. I decided that I would not contact him.
Meanwhile the name Caruso became reviled in Australia, and Australians took their hating very seriously. Zoo Weekly, the Australian magazine held an annual poll Australia’s Most Hated. Near the top of the list the previous year in a mixed bag we found out were the Bali bomber, The Pope, and Toadie from Neighbours. The shows on television were inviting nominations for this year’s poll and among the candidates being suggested was Paul Caruso. The knives were out. Backpackers are constantly asked for identity in this over-bureaucratised country and Caruso was not a good name to have on your passport. We headed for Queensland, back into the bush. This joke might help to explain.
A Queensland farmer got in his truck and drove to a neighbouring farm and knocked at the farmhouse door. A young boy, about nine, opened the door.
‘Is your Dad home’? the farmer asked.
‘Sorry mate he isn’t,’ the boy replied. ‘He went into town.’
‘Well,’ said the farmer, ‘Is your Mum here’?
‘No, mate, she’s not here either. She went into town with Dad.’
‘How about your brother, Greg? Is he here’?
‘He went with Mum and Dad.’
The farmer stood there for a few minutes, shifting from one foot to the other and mumbling to himself.
‘Is there anything I can do for ya’? the boy asked politely. ‘I know where all the tools are if you want to borrow any, or maybe, I could take a message for Dad.’
‘Well,’ said the farmer uncomfortably, ‘I really wanted to talk to your Dad. It’s about your brother Greg getting my daughter pregnant.’
The boy considered for a moment.
‘You’d have to talk to Dad about that,’ he finally conceded. ‘If it helps you any, I know that Dad charges $200 for the bull and $150 for the pig, but I really don’t know how much he would be asking for Greg.’
Queensland you will gather is considered in Oz to be a tad rustic.
‘You must be very pleased with the country’s response to your new flag, Paul,’ said Tori Kenyon, fiddling with her tortoiseshell glasses.
I was. It had been well received at the opening of the new Parliament on Shooters Hill and at the Sports Personality of the Year ceremony, won for the second year running by that cyclist whose name escapes me. People were coming in their thousands from all over the world to see the flag flying majestically over Buckingham Palace, which had remarkably escaped the worst of the flooding. It had, I told Tori, been my proudest moment to been invited to the palace.
Radiohead’s new National Anthem by contrast had had a mixed reception. Many had liked it but a number of people who were familiar with their oeuvre maintained that it was just an up tempo remake of ‘Fake Plastic Trees.’ The Telegraph music critic took it a step further and suggested that ‘civilisation as we know it is doomed and that brimstone is going to start raining from the sky any minute.’
‘But a little concerned I’d imagine about its not going down so well down under?’ continued Tori, fidgeting with the strap of the low cut top she was wearing. Tori was the new queen of chat show hosts on satellite TV, with a number of viewers’ awards to her name. She had also appeared in various stages of undress in FHM and GQ, and had even I was told featured as a cover girl in Nuts. Kurt had probably jerked off over her.
I admitted that I was more than a little concerned as Tori put it about the colonials’ reaction to the aboriginal design, not least because my daughter was out there.
‘Yes. One or two of the tabloids picked up on this in the week didn’t they?’ smiled Tori. ‘You haven’t heard anything then?’
I told Tori that Ann’s phone had been dead for a couple of weeks, and that her last communication was an email sent ten days before from an unknown location. I had tried all the usual channels to try to find out where she might be. Unfortunately as part of the backlash against the threat to the Commonwealth Blue Ensign, the British Embassies in Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth were all under siege. There had been a number of supposed Ann sightings reported in the press but none of these had led to anything.
‘She is probably on her way back home,’ I said, ‘but anyway if the tabloids can’t track down an attractive twenty year old backpacker in Australia then I probably can’t.’ I realised as I said it that this did not come across as the attitude of a responsible parent. Now that I was a celebrity this would no doubt be picked up by the more moralising tabloids.
‘And there was that little piece about your your son Kurt being involved in Nazi style initiation ceremonies at his school,’ continued Tori.
How had she found out about this? The article had only appeared in the Oxford local paper and they had not mentioned Kurt’s name because he was a minor.
Before I had chance to comment she moved on to the affair that I was allegedly having and the impending divorce. We seemed to have lost sight of the subject that I was on the show to talk about, the celebration of the flag. I considered removing the microphone and walking off.
Tori seemed to sense that she had perhaps overstepped the mark and in an attempt to get me back on board she uncrossed her legs offering me a glimpse of her white panties.
‘But of course on the positive side rumour has it that you have been invited to appear on Celebrity Russian Roulette on Happy TV,’ she beamed. ‘Not tempted by the generous cash prizes?’
‘I don’t think that I will be accepting the offer after what happened to Teddy Trimmer the darts player,’ I replied. Teddy had been the first celebrity on the show to select the live chamber.
‘You don’t think that Celebrity Russian Roulette is stage managed then?’ said Tori, looking up to see if her next guest was ready. The next guest I notice was the winner of Celebrity Kidney Swap. The concentration span of viewers of Tori’s show was clearly mercilessly short.
‘Not worth taking that chance, is it,’ I said, but Tori was already introducing the short balding magician.
The short balding magician shook my hand as he passed and said, ‘Good luck finding your daughter mate, I expect progress is slow because the Australian Police have their work cut out trying to find the people who are starting those terrible bush fires that we are hearing about on the news.’
It occurred to me slowly as I listened to Tori ask the short balding magician about the twilight of his career that Kurt may not after all have been the Headington Firestarter. There had been no reports of arson around Oxford since June. Perhaps Kurt was telling the truth for once. And Ann had always been the one who wanted to go to firework displays when she was younger.
Oh my god! Dad thinks I may have started the forest fires that have been sweeping the south of the country. I spoke to Mum on the phone and I was horrified when she told me. What on earth is he on? What a shitbag! I’m never going to speak to him again. I can’t believe he could think I would do such a thing. Just because Kurt got into a bit of trouble a while back. I don’t even think it was Kurt that lit the fires in Headington. He was hanging round with those pikeys from the caravan site at the time. Elvis and Tyson and Danny. It is just that Kurt was stupid enough to take the blame.
All else aside, Drew and I haven’t been anywhere near Victoria or New South Wales where the fires are. They’re about two thousand kilometres away. Doesn’t Dad know anything about geography? How big Australia is? I sent him an email three weeks ago now saying that we were in Richmond in Queensland and had got jobs on the Dinosaur Trail, thinking he would be pleased we were doing well – despite his best efforts to fuck things up for us with his throwaway comments on all those cheap chat shows back in the UK and his ridiculous tweets. He’s really flipped. Mum’s divorcing him. I don’t blame her. How could she live with this obsessed crazy madman for so long? And all that crap he gave her about Norwich being the flag design capital when it was obvious he was having an affair there.
Anyway, the Dinosaur Trail is really cool. One hundred million years ago the Queensland outback lay under inland seas swarming with marine reptiles, and prehistoric creatures roamed the land. It has the most amazing fossils. It’s in the middle of nowhere really and it’s really laid back. No-one cares that we’re Brits or who we are. Cannabis grows well in these parts and most of them are too stoned to notice. We’re totally incognito out here. It’s brilliant. The Australian Parliament is still fighting over the flag, but again no one round here is bothered one way or another about politics. In the last election Richmond had the lowest turnout anywhere in the country. And the weather’s ace once you get used to the fact that for months on end it never rains.
© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved