Friday, May 16, 2014

Interview with a pigeon fancier

This afternoon I visited a man to interview him about his racing pigeons. We sat out the back of his house in the sun. He'd been in bed with the flu. He's 87 and appreciated the sun's rays. After a bit of a chat, I followed him up the hill to the hutches, where pigeons sat on the roofs, gleaming iridescent, eyeing me cautiously.

"They say I have a way with birds and animals," he said. "But I can tell you another story if you want to listen. It's all in here." He stabbed with his fingers at his West Coast Eagles beanie. "Have you ever heard of the Kalgoorlie Race Riots of '34? I was there. I remember it. It's all in here."
"Lets go and sit down," I said. "Do you mind if I record what you have to say?"
"Nah, nah, mate. I'm happy to talk. You can tape it if you like."

The recording, because I couldn't work out how to do a voice recording on my phone in the seconds I had before he started talking, is a ten minute video of a pigeon fancier's sock in a black plastic sandal. (And apologies in advance for the derogatory racist titles but this interview was about a racist uprising and has been transcribed verbatim.)

"They reckon they were doing slingbacks, you know? To make a bit of money on the side?"
"Who, the Italians?"
"Yeah. And the Aussies. Anyway. That's only half the story. This day ... er. The bloke's name was Jordan. And the Ding's name was Mataboni, he was the one who owned the -"
"Was that Maroni?"
"Nah, Mataboni."
"He threw this bloke Jordan out of his pub, you know? But when he hit the ground, he was stone dead. And some stupid bastard yells out, 'he's got a knife!' but Mataboni didn't have a knife at all but anyway, the game was on."
"So the Australian man was dead?"
"Yeah. But anyway, it was one of the best sporting families in Kalgoorlie, the Jordans. The game was on. So this Saturday morning, six or eight o'clock xxx come to our place, said to my Mum, 'we're gonna give the Dings the run around tonight Mum. You know ... lucky for me I got it all in here. And that next night it was on mate. They burnt all their hotels down. We were kids. I remember it all. Then they burnt all their houses down. All their shops down. Ah ha. Then anyway. There was a copper there called xxx and he's taking all the kid's names, you know? He couldn't stop them, this lot of bloody maniacs, anyway, this is true. they were going along 'this is a good one,' 'this is a bastard, we'll burn his house down', this is true. So they came to this house and this Slav is standing in front of his house trying to protect his family and the bastards shot him dead, see?"

"My old mate, he said 'you can't do that,' he said. He said that. They were his exact words. He said 'I don't mind burning his house but I don't wanna shoot no poor bastard.' They were the exact words he used to me but he died years ago so I'm using them myself now, you see."

"You may think it's bullshit but it's not bullshit mate ... but anyway ... two days burning houses down and a bloke called Joe xxx who had more testosterone than bloody brains, so all the Dings were down by the railway line building trenches to save themselves, dig themselves in and this bloke got his mates together and they pulled all these pickets off the fences and used them to charge them, they charged them. It's true!"

"That was nineteen thirty ...?"
"Was that the same year as the Kristallnacht? You know, the night of the breaking glass, with the Nazis ... ?"
"Nah, nah that was a few years later."
"Oh. Okay."
"Yeah well. There was other blokes see? My father was a very violent man. You wouldn't know it from looking at me but he was. Oh, but he was a violent bastard. Anyway, so that night, he got his .22 out the bloody corner and a packet of cartridges out the cupboard, I can see it now. Like the other night. I didn't know he was gonna go out and find this Ding though and bring the poor bastard home, see? One of his mates from up on the mine. So he brings him home and hides him for two days and two nights. I didn't even know he was there. Two days he hid him. I'll bet that'd open your eyes, hey?"

"I tell you what, the people who were there, there's no one left alive now. All my mates are all dead. One of my mates said afterwards, 'you couldn't find any young men between 16 and 20 in Kal after that. They'd all bolted!"
"Right. So you reckon men between 16 and 20 were the ones who were burning and -"
"Oh yeah. All over the world, it's the same age, no bloody brains ..."
He laughed then and I could see the tension of the story leave him for a moment. "I was six, you see? Six. And I can remember that bloke saying to my Mum, 'we're gonna give those Dings some hurry up tonight, Mum.'"

"But of course it goes back a lot further than that. Hoover the bastard. He sacked all the Aussies from the mines and kept the Dings and Slavs on. Bloody well cut their wages and increased their hours! It'd been bothering the Aussies for a long, long time. You know how that is?"
"Mmm. Yeah, I get that."
"There was another bloke too. Everyone reckoned he was getting slingbacks from the Dings so they burnt his house down too that night. And while they were burning his house down, he was trying to put it out and someone chopped off his hose with a bloody axe. That's the truth."

"Jesus Christ, that's the truth. It'd open your bloody eyes, eh?"

He finished up at this point, wiped his eyes and put his glasses back on. I turned off the recorder.

Then he said, "You know, two days later me and my Mum were looking out the front window at these Italian women walking down the road, in the middle of the road with wheelbarrows full of tents and pots and pans and things. Those women were as black as the clothes they wore ... from the soot, you know. My Mum was watching them, and crying."


  1. Jesus. And Australia calls itself a civilised country. This redneck attitude is still so rife here and always just brewing under the surface. Kalgoorlie sure was the wild west in those days. Amazing story.

  2. Drove home with my head spinning.

  3. That image of women walking down the middle of the street, heading for the outskirts of town, their whole lives in their wheelbarrows, their faces blackened by soot ... 'as black as the clothes they wore.'

  4. Let's hear it for the good old days, when people were community minded and it was safe to walk the streets at night, because you didn't have gangs of dangerous thugs like you do now.

  5. I've been turning this story over in my head, and it makes me wonder what other stories this bloke has "in here"; and how many of these types of stories get lost forever when blokes like him drop of the perch.

    Stories about Dings, and Chinks, and Tykes, and Coons ...

    Seriously. I think it's important to preserve these kinds of tales, told word for word, so that we don't end up polishing the past into something it's not.

  6. I agree, in that the language is really important when it comes to history. I heard that story only once before and it was a rather dry, academic piece on racial tensions in Australia. It had none of the same kind of heat in it and was probably gleaned from newspaper articles rather than oral histories.

    A friend said tonight, 'Just go down to the Community Care centre for more of those yarns,' and I think she's right. The impression I got from this particular man was that if I just sat down and let him know I was going to listen, then he would tell me stories, and stories, and stories.

    People are sensitive to the fact that the times have changed - and attitudes and language with it - but in some kind of way Alex, it is refreshing to hear the old, nasty language that jogs alongside their stories. It gives them texture ... and context.

    1. Oh, and the other stories 'in here'? (Taps blue and yellow beanie)
      The murder of two Gold Stealing Squad detectives ... and being part of the post war Japanese Occupation forces. In my book, he's the best pigeon fancier ever when it comes to a ripping yarn.

    2. Yes, I really feel that if you censor the language, you actually lose a piece of the story.

      Are you going back for another dig into that blue and yellow beanie? It certainly sounds like it'd be worth it. I've been trying to get my old man to sit down with a recording device. He keeps fobbing me off and telling me "one day, matey, one day". I hope it's one day soon.

    3. Hi Alex, if you've come back to this post via my latest one, right there is your argument x

  7. Great story. You're writing has always featured that kind of heat Sarah, if don't mind me saying so. Academia is about accuracy really, facts. It doesn't mean it can't be insightful but most of the work, I guess, is about laying out the truth as far as that truth can be determined. Stories on the other hand, are an altogether different animal. The truth lies in the heat, the language, the imagery, the tension and passion. Like your man there, the pigeon fancier. Capturing that is worth an awful lot, good on you.

  8. Thanks Ciaran. It was a good day, talking to him. I'm buying him a copy of Salt Story, seeing as he is into the odd ripping yarn!

  9. Actually, I have to take issue on academia being based on facts. From the work I've done, it has never been about factual accuracy but individuals summing up characters and events to come to their own subjective conclusions. That's part of the beauty of it.
    Pure math, maybe. Not history, sociology or anthrop.

  10. Great story Sarah - please keep gathering (is that the right word?) them. These colourful yarns are too easily lost.