My Australian tour for the IPA seems a lot longer ago than a couple of weeks. Returned to the tender mercies of America’s hideous Transport Security Administration, I pine for the (literally) lighter touch of Aussie airports — no coat removal, no shoe removal, no digital imaging of one’s genitalia. From Brisbane to Perth, the screening areas are spacious and organised; in the US, it looks as if 9/11 happened last week, and they’re improvising with some trestle tables from the discount warehouse. And don’t forget the ‘enhanced patdown’: last time, the TSA guy ordered me to raise my arms above my head, ran his hands down my back, spread my legs, slid his palm along my inner thigh, swung me around and patted my bottom. When we reprised it on Dancing With The Stars, we made the semi-finals. A lavishly funded bureaucracy that has never intercepted a single jihadist, the TSA is touchy in every sense: it’s now criminalising yawns, eye-rolling and other expressions of disrespect toward officialdom. In Australia and elsewhere, life goes on; in America, the terrorists have won.
It took me a couple of days to get used to the Qantas style. I was flying Business Class and had expected to enjoy the frisson of superiority that comes with ‘priority boarding’. Instead, they just called the flight, everyone got on, and then it took off, in nothing flat. Just like that. I brooded over the absence of large orange ‘Priority’ labels affixed to my luggage. Yet, upon landing at Melbourne, my bags and everybody else’s were waiting for me by the time I’d walked from the jetway to the carousel! In America, amid the general decrepitude of air transportation, we frequent flyers prize our measly perks, like the strip of worn red carpet United and Delta offer for their Priority-Super-Mega-Elite-Platinum customers. Alas, no matter how frequently I fly, I find that when it counts — when you need the last seat on the last flight out — I’m never quite up to snuff. Yeah, sure, you’re Priority-Super-Mega-Elite-Platinum-Premium, but there’s a guy ahead of you who’s Priority-Super-Mega-Elite-Platinum-Premium-Prestige. In their abandonment of general service, US airlines fuss over ever more finely calibrated orders of precedence Buckingham Palace would balk at: the widow of a second son of a baronet can priority-board only if she is the daughter of a duke or marquess. But Qantas seems to operate a genuinely classless society: everyone’s priority. So who needs Super-Mega-Elite-Platinum?
Something of the same spirit pervades the Australian political sphere. I introduced my American manager, a former staffer for a US senator, to Julie Bishop. She asked the Deputy Opposition Leader, Shadow Foreign Minister and Shadow Trade Minister, how many staff she had. ‘Three,’ said Julie.
I could see my manager thinking, ‘Loo-zurr.’ Julie asked how many staff her senator had had. ‘About 50,’ said my manager. I could see Julie thinking, ‘Loo-zurr.’ America is the Brokest Nation in History. Getting citizen-legislators to cut back on their Gulf emir-sized entourages would be a good place to start turning things around: you can’t have small government with big retinues.
Aside from the dearth of courtiers, I appreciate the somewhat more freewheeling nature of small talk among the Australian political class. Over the sauv. blanc after the ABC’s Q&A, former senator Amanda Vanstone mentioned that a friend of hers had just emailed to say I was ‘eminently shaggable’, but that she’d hate herself in the morning. On a previous visit, I sat next to a very, very, very prominent cabinet minister at a critical time in world affairs, so critical that Tony Blair had interrupted his holiday to make a statement from his beach resort. The cabinet grandee turned to me and asked sombrely, ‘Did you see Blair’s press conference?’ I replied no. He said, ‘His moobs are out of control.’
On the off-chance Amanda’s chum is reading this: if it helps, my moobs are way smaller than Tone’s.
On a free night in Adelaide, I went to the old gaol to see Instructions For An Imaginary Man, an evening of poems by prisoners of conscience sung by a soprano and baritone. I had vaguely assumed that ‘The Old Adelaide Gaol’ was just the name of the joint: it had presumably been long converted, in the way that London media types have weekend homes called ‘The Olde Smithy’ but there’s no danger of being woken early by the sounds of the squire’s stallion being re-shoed. However, upon approach, I deduced from the royal cypher above the door — ‘E II R’ — that this had been a gaol within recent memory. 1988, as it happens. And it hadn’t been converted. To make the production’s evocation of the prison experience more intense, all seating for the play had been requisitioned from the cells — there were a few hard stools, plus a couple of cots with discoloured mattresses. The stools seemed least likely to lead to infection. In the general melee, I elbowed elderly Adelaide matrons out of the way and snagged one. When the cots ran out, theatregoers were given a piece of sacking to place on the floor. If you’d told me the big bucks were in presenting opera singers in a gaolhouse and charging full price to sit on cold stone to listen to them, I would have been sceptical. Yet the place was packed, SRO: sackcloth room only. The gaol would not be unsuited to the IPA’s admirable free speech campaign. But I worry that the average posterior requires something a little more upholstered to get through a Steyn gig.
On the Q&A panel, my old friend Natasha Stott-Despoja was filling in for a sick Geoffrey Rush. I returned home to find that Dick Cheney had pulled out of a speech in Toronto because he’d decided Canada was ‘not safe’ (the Somalia of the north and all that) and that I’d been asked to step in, as the Mini-Me to his Dr Evil. The radio host Hugh Hewitt now calls me ‘Dick Cheney’s body double’. Given the state of the Vice-President’s body (he’s got more stents than the supply cupboard at Royal Perth Hospital), I’m not sure this is a compliment. Body-double-wise, Geoffrey got the better deal.
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