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Edition 36

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Reportage

The best in the world

WHEN WE REACHED the woodchop we looked at the line-up and knew it was the old boys – the vets. There they all were, quietly lined up before their stumps. None impatient, most carrying guts. One or two looked well over sixty, the age to qualify as a veteran. Most were in sleeved shirts. They milled around, waiting the ten minutes in quietness that didn't look anything like preparation for a world championship.

The guy on the far end, right in front of the overhead footbridge, had come from New Zealand, so everyone in the small stadium knew he would be good. The guy down the other end, a tall man with a reserved, inwardly focused attention was the defending champion. We bet on who would win.

My girlfriend was all for the Champ. He carried less of a gut than most, and when he took off his shirt his arms looked full – not cut, but capable. The rangy guy next to him would have been my choice, except there was a Queenslander in the line-up in give-away maroon. I had to barrack for him. But number two, next to Champ, was very appealing. A long-limbed, easily muscled man with simple lines and a loose way of standing, he looked a lot older. His muscles had turned a corner and were just lean lines – nothing stringy –just simple, long, no-frills forms that aligned with all the simple planes of his rangy frame. Like the others, he looked quiet and considerate. He honed his axe and concentrated on his block, but not with particular focus. Rather, with an obliqueness that took the task in as one among many – another thing to be dealt with in its own good time, with the concentration needed when its time came. Not before. Not after. He was a farmer, the announcer said. The Champ was an axeman from northern New South Wales – one of the few places on earth where forests still stand. Another guy hailed from up near Taree, a place called Possums Brush. Even the announcer had fun with that – imagine, a place called Possums Brush. Sounded like a fairytale. But as the announcer joked the small man just stood there, and peeled off his shirt. He'd heard it all before. He was built like a cane toad: lean limbs; full, slab-like body; no neck.

There was a Tasmanian too. He might have been a thylacine – I wondered how long his species might last. The best in the world, the announcer said. It was printed on the walls of the little amphitheatre too: 'Australian and New Zealand axe men, the best in the world.' I thought about where there might be other forests, where other axe men might be able to chop them. Canada – but then my imagination ran dry. I didn't care: here I was, watching the best in the world, a line-up of older men, quietly preparing for their short burst of energy. Silently amassing their thoughts about the first cut, the next, the wedges flying, the turn of the wrists, the pivot of the waist and the impact running up that metal axe head, up the long hardwood handle and into the sinews of the hands, the forearms; right up to the shoulders and across the back. All while the nimble feet stayed still, pivoted, just a little, gripped the earth enough to put the weight of the body into each decisive stroke and then, razor-fast, back again with the full weight of the axe and the grip of the wounded wood to balance for the next stroke.

The men wore long white pants and sandshoes – they looked light and dainty beneath the mass of their bodies. There was no glamour: just draping garments to get them into the ring. And as the announcer prepared the amphitheatre for the final five minutes, they pulled off their shirts to reveal the singlets underneath. The real stuff. Not Jackie Howe, but close enough. White hair covered their shoulders, and most had a full head of hair as well. It was like looking at how the species used to be – many of the younger men in the stadium were bald.

Except the Tasmanian. He wore his singlet over his sleeved shirt.

The late-afternoon sun was in our eyes, the announcer called for the start, and they were off. It was so quick– a hurl of bodies thrown behind wedges of steel sent accurately into the bite. Once, twice down – deep enough – turn up and gone! The wedge flew out, the block took shape. And turn again – throw the axe, balance – whack whack whack. Everyone throwing their weight into that biting and thrust, that lift and force back into the wood, and the crowd cheering, cheering to see who would win. Full concentration down the arms and into the axe handle. Pure will and full body energy, and into the steel and gone – each wedge gone– until bingo, the first block stood like a pentagon, a winning pointer to heaven.

And what a shock! It was the guy who looked like a cane toad – the little guy with no neck and a big gut just caned it, romped through the chop. No one could believe it. And then the Champ came in – a good two strokes after the little guy – and then the gentlemanly farmer. 'The Champ aimed too high on his first stroke,' my girlfriend said, leaning into me as we left the grandstand. 'I reckon he would have taken it out – it's just that he aimed that bit too high on the first.' The crowd was howling and the afternoon sun streamed down on us all. I didn't care: I'd just watched the best in the world.

 

THE SIGN OUTSIDE the pavilion read 'Domestic Animals'. The crowd in the entrance queued – parents laden with bags and provisions, prams, throngs of kids with smeared faces and rabbit-ear headbands and loopy, lack-of-attention head spins. Little ones surveying their vast kingdom from the layered interiors of their pushed thrones, rugged-up and fat, charioted around by pale parents. We joined
the queue.

I was hoping for a range of specimens – maybe rabbits, some long-haired guinea pigs, cats and dogs – but there were only cats. All along the side walls, way back from the barrier, was a wall-to-ceiling line-up of boxes. They were lined with white satin and reminded me of old-fashioned sewing boxes – padded, genteel and snug. The crowd inched forward and peered over the metal barriers. Most of the boxes were empty. But one or two had a label naming a winner. Inside were the cat champions. Most posed facing the back wall, so they looked like furry loaves of bread.

All the action was on the other side – around the bend from where cat-product salespeople were peddling a special exhibition backpack with flea treatments, diamante collars and novelty-shaped chewy treats for decaying cat teeth.

Beyond that, on the line leading to the exit, three women in white starched coats were performing to the crowd. The one with the microphone was detailing the points that had led to her selection, while the others dragged a winner from its box and held it aloft while the main judge described its strong points. There was a Cornish Rex, a British Blue and a Scottish Fold. None of them looked happy. Why should they? It was almost clammy; the crowd was unkempt and disruptive. The Cornish Rex's big batwing ears were swivelling like radars. Elongate and elegant, the animal's huge gold pupil-free eyes swung across the crowds to place a slippery curse on all. When the British Blue was held aloft, its chubby qualities detailed and celebrated, it looked as cross as Churchill. The indignity of having its vast pillowed bottom supported by a palm was just too much – it seemed to curse the judge and the assembled human race for the indignity of it all. The Scottish Fold seemed slightly more phlegmatic – the densely packed crowd cooed at its little flat ears, but it showed no gratitude, just feline tolerance and a feigned indifference mastered by squinting the fat fur around its eyes until they were little more than slits. We clicked away on our iPhones – the cats were pretty special. They seemed to have come from somewhere else, and we, the people, herded through turnstiles and the queues as if we had gone to see the body of Mao or Lenin or Ho Chi Minh. There was reverence to it, as reverent as 'the people' ever get nowadays, and we moved on out of the claustrophobic space in the early winter sunshine, as if we had made a pilgrimage.

 

THE BARNS OF the new auditorium were cleanly plotted and pieced and filled with straw. Each of the little booths had a display of alpacas. Most were in twos or threes, but some alone. Two had been painted green. I wondered why – maybe a kind of camouflage. Except that in the middle of the gold straw they stood out even more.

But it was impossible to stare too long, wondering – your eyes were always drawn back to the charm of their gentle faces. Soft and forgiving, long downcast eyes framed by model-length eyelashes and sooty-black eyeliner, they may have looked apologetic if not for the way they held their perfectly formed heads so beautifully aloft. Poised to the last gasp. Some were stressed: the rapid movement of panting gave it away. But otherwise, their expression was pure grace – they surveyed the panic and movement of the exhibition venue and the crowds like genteel widows, aristocracy in the face of chaos.

Two were being clipped. Turned out in a tiny, delicate diamante bridle, a small brown one captured the attention of a group of Asian students. One by one they leaned in towards its little head, smiling, their fingers in a V for the cameras of their friends. I loomed in, eager to touch the wonderful wool, but the gentleman with the double-diamond earrings and clippers turned on me. 'Not that one – don't touch that one – these are ready for the ring,' he snapped. 'You can touch any of the others' – gesturing to the green ones. The ones he was working on were models of perfection, sensitively sculpted soft forms with the softest wisps of ear hair. Real little Kate Mosses, both of them. Reluctantly I turned away. 'Let's watch what's happening in the ring,' suggested my friend.

The ring was a rectangle surrounded by tiered seating. We squeezed in at the front to watch the judging of the females between eighteen months and three years. There were six, each led by a person dressed in a stiff, white, cotton coat. The little black one at the end kept rearing. She'd jump up on her back legs, and then swivel and complete her pirouette, tucking her little woolly head back into her keeper's side. The animal was not very strong or heavy – the keeper had little trouble pulling her back in – a tiny gazelle dancing on air.

Each was completely different – some fuller and fatter, the one second from the end much younger, grey with sooty extremities. Their tails arched like commas; their tummies were tucked in neatly into alignment with their chubby upper back legs. The distance from their knees to their little feet was much less than horses, and their little feet were exactly that – little feet with two long toes – they walk flat on their soles as if wearing slippers, not on the tips of their toes, like sheep or goats. The two judges would study and then lean in to separate the wool. The animals didn't seem to like that – they would pull towards their keepers and try to bury their perfect little heads, like children in a vaccination line-up. Then one of the judges would spread a piece of the wool across the arm of her black jacket and peer at it, officially. It was all very official: clipboards, brisk pace, close survey. Only at the end, when the chief judge spoke about the reasons for her choice, did it become transparently an act of passion and subjectivity. She used adjectives of love.

Nevertheless, the two older women who we'd squeezed in next to us on the pews knew which would win well before the announcement – a tall blond curvaceous animal with a swelling middle and a wonderful way of placing her feet. Her keeper was a big beefy-faced man, and he beamed quietly. The crowd was appreciative – no one seemed to object. The older lady next to us leaned in conspiratorially. 'They're addictive, you know,' she confided quietly, directing her silver head towards the female alpacas on their final circumambulation of the judging ring. I understood. Glamour, softness, and the possibility of competition as well – a heady brew.

 

THE DOG STANDS at the exhibition grounds are famous for those who want to test the myths about canine-owner relationships. Much has been written about owners or breeders looking like the dog. But I've never really found it. Sometimes quite the opposite.

There are plenty of obese, earthbound shapes lovingly tending the Salukis, for example. And the Afghans. Those wonderful hounds bred to pound over the barren high deserts of the Hindu Kush, hair streaming from the ears and tail as they lunge in unison after gazelle across the surface of ancient Mughal and Ottoman paintings. Long nose and limbs, high-cut waist, belly arching into an inverse curve before meeting the flanks. Every bit as beautiful as in legend and painted miniature – and yet here lolling in blanketed square boxes deep in the heart of Ozzieland. Patiently dreaming of an exotic past as their squat owners brush and part, smooth and fuss, bending over their wonderful living sculptures to dedicate their tiny lives to an infinite perfection mastered well before Australia was dreamed into being.

These dogs were Persian aristocrats and their owners know it, prepared to devote money, time, relationships and attention to these creatures from another culture. Reminders of other places, other cultures, other times: cultural data inscribed in every line of their wonderful bodies. These dogs were from the stuff of legend – amid the paraphernalia of the everyday they appear as strange as might a man in lightweight Ottoman hunting armour. And yet here they were as pets.

Questions about how much the owners knew about the cultures that had originally refined the breeds drifted in and out of my head. I passed the wonderful, compact, panda-like contours of the Akita Inus and thought how well they seemed to fit with the place and purpose from which they had originated. Aloof as the sighthounds, but stockier, focused, unrelentingly strong-willed, these were thick-coated aggressors bred to bring down the really solid prey – boars, elk, even Asian black bears. They looked so wonderfully Japanese, regal in a nonplussed Japanese kind of way. I couldn't work out whether I imposed this on the animals, or whether it came through the forms themselves. I wondered again how the owners felt about cultural diversity.

Lots of booths were empty, but on the third turn of the labyrinth of the pavilion, just before the exit, I watched a large smudgy woman grooming the fur of an outstandingly sure-footed little dog into bows and carefully arranged moustaches. I made a horrible mistake. People who compete at such events must get sick of the ignorant though adoring public, and I can't blame the breeder for almost reducing me to dust with the brevity and simmer of her response. Admiringly, I asked her if the little animal was a Skye Terrier. 'She's a Lhasa Apso [you retard],' she hissed. In her skilfully aimed, truncated response it was obvious that the woman could not believe that a little animal which had been engineered in the magnificent high deserts of Tibet by generations of Buddhist monks could be confused with anything else.

And she was right. I'd lost my eye, forgotten my history, and had behaved like the enthusiastic amateur I was. I was glad to leave. Outside, in the full glare of an early winter afternoon, the judges were concentrating. The white-coated breeders and handlers were attempting to bring a bevy of Basenjis into order. The Basenjis, true to their breed, gazed in a faraway mode, at things and ideas beyond the incidentals of the competition at Homebush. Their little brows were furrowed in concentration, their little tails curled against their short, strong backs. I had no doubt inner visions took them back to Africa, to the view of the savannah from atop a tree, from a place where wider horizons and longer histories might be dreamed about anew.


From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review