All posts by Michael Burge

Journalist, author, artist

Send her down Hughie!

WAITING FOR RAIN Midwestern farm by Margaret Bourke-White.

A Writer’s first exposure to supernatural forces.

IN MY childhood, rain meant something. It meant action.

Buckets had to be strategically placed along the hallway of our farm-house to catch the roof leaks.

My father had to move fast, to get outdoors towards the approaching bank of clouds, cup his hands to his mouth and lean back into the wind, crying out: “Send her down Hughie!” as loud as he could. If my grandfather was around, he would yell it too.

“A farmer had to take things into his own hands, not by bending to his knees in prayer, but making a proactive, dramatic, full-throated invocation.”

I don’t recall asking what the shouting was for, like I don’t remember asking why we had to run around with buckets while mum lifted the rugs. Somehow it was just part of living on a farm.

Dad was doing what many farmers do, calling on the weather god to send down the rain and not miss our farm. Too often we’d see heavy showers passing to the south at the far end of our shallow upland valley west of Delungra, leaving our hillsides dry and cracked with the heat.

A farmer had to take things into his own hands, not by bending to his knees in prayer, but making a proactive, dramatic, full-throated invocation. Nothing less would do. You had to make a great gesture of effort, a visible show of need.

My father would also pretend to be the ghost of ‘Old Harry’ walking down the long hallway of our home, scaring me and my brother into our beds.

Seeing dad’s familiar figure pass in the half-dark, I was never sure it wasn’t ‘Old Harry’. After all, if your dad is yelling to a weather god, then anything could be true.

These days, people will try to tell you that ‘Hughie’ is Saint Hugh, the Catholic saint associated with rain. Surfers apparently invoke Hughie for the best coastal conditions. Slim Dusty even wrote a song about him.

But none of that is what Hughie means to me. Hughie is darkening skies. He’s dangerous gales. He’s the hood on your parka flapping in the wind, while you think about getting inside before the storm hits.

STORM FRONT Cumulus panorama.

Hughie is fickle and chaotic. He doesn’t just drop the rain anywhere. He’s up there, riding the front of the weather where it’s so loud you need to wail at the top of your voice for him to hear you. To send down the rain, Hughie needs to see someone, and not just anyone. He takes orders only from the most stoic, the most reserved member of your household, and that’s always dad.

When Hughie’s feeling generous, he’ll give you gentle, soaking rain when your crops are in and it’s time for them to grow. When you’ve pissed him off, he’ll send your sheds tumbling over themselves, and lift iron sheets off your roof.

Perhaps Hughie’s a stray weather god stranded in the southern hemisphere, lost after some climatic sortie when people stopped believing in the pantheon of Greco-Roman Gods? Perhaps Hughie’s always been here, and we’ve just given him a new name?

For me, Hughie was a precursor to chaos. Not just bad weather, but death, divorce and family divisions. He chased me and my family off the farmhouse in the late 1970s, and I even felt him blowing around the town houses we lived in after that.

I became a weather-watcher, because I could sense a change coming. My parents’ separation, divorce, and our move away from the country was all played-out against a great tension I had due to the fear of abandonment. I could hardly go to school for fear of coming home to find nobody there, with thunderstorms raging outside and no-one to protect me.

That was Hughie.

The day we arrived at our new home on the fringe of the city, shell-shocked, I began to relax. Something about that place is beyond Hughie. He rarely makes an appearance there, with the cool climate gardens and higher average rainfall.

But I still feel him at work whenever I take off in a plane. He’s that gale which creates turbulence, reminding me I am no longer earthbound.

Next time you’re waiting for rain, think of Hughie. You’ll know what to do.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A waiter’s revenge tragedy

220px-Waiter!THERE isn’t much to write about waitering that hasn’t already been covered brilliantly by Steve Dublanica in his blog and book Waiter Rant, but if I might add my own perspective…

I waitered throughout the first four of my five tertiary education years. During that time I wasn’t eligible for government support or scholarships. One of my parents couldn’t assist in supporting me financially, while the other one just wouldn’t.

A bad lot? Not really, but with six 12-hour days of coursework, there wasn’t much time left for earning an income to cover the costs of leaving home.

Café waitering wasn’t rocket science, but food experiences were very different two decades ago.

Coffee making wasn’t the exact and particular science fretted over by millions every morning across the world these days. A caffè latte had no froth (or coffee art on top), just plenty of hot milk. Soy milk was a gluggy, grey substance which you wouldn’t want to drink with coffee. Baby-cinos were just the sparkle in someone’s eye.

There was also a new bread on the scene: Focaccia. I fondly remember the year when diners couldn’t say the word. “Fossa-see-a”, “Fark-arr-chee”, and “Fock-akki” are three of my favourite mis-pronunciations of the Italian flatbread that was being filled and toasted like it was going out of style.

Yet the differences in cuisine back then did not mean people were less demanding. Not in the least.

FOCC-UP Could you pronounce the name of the new bread which hit Australian cafes in the late 1980s?

Every eating destination has its regulars, ready to pounce at the slightest change in serving size or ingredient. I got to know a few people like this in my waitering years, the kind who’d make your teeth gnash, the kind you’d like to suggest just go to the nearest supermarket and spend $10 on ingredients, go home, and make their own damned meal for once.

But my real hatred was birthed by those I’ll call the food pedants, those for whom nothing is ever good enough. “Please ask the chef to…”, or “my coffee is not hot enough”, “can I use my own tea bag?”, “I’m only paying for half the coffee because I only drank half”, and all manner of pinickerty requests. The kind of people who don’t know they’re alive unless they’re getting someone else to do something for them.

Such folk were a great source of inspiration for a story I called A Waiter’s Revenge Tragedy, one which I formulated in my left brain in order to escape the piles of washing-up along the floor and down the stairs, because there was no dishwasher and only one small sink in that particular establishment.

In this never-written story, a Waiter was pushed so far by a difficult customer that he plotted the man’s death in an elaborate and long-term strategy, culminating in what appeared to be suicide, after the customer’s attempts to get his way became so extreme that he faked a bout of food poisoning. Of course, the noble waiter would also need to perish at the end of the story to make it a true ‘tragedy’.

It was convoluted, sure, but planning this magnum opus brought me great delight. Each new encounter with a food pedant fed the story arc, until I’d made myself immune to them through the sheer delight of encountering more material.

Perhaps other people just switch off under these circumstances, but not this writer. Imaginary revenge was simply too delicious. A Waiter is only one letter away from being a Writer anyway.

The best part about being a waiter was working for a supportive boss. My last café manager was an ex-boxer who once removed a complainer through the front door by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his pants for querying the bill. He always said he’d support his staff against any customer complaint, even if we were in the wrong. The result? Excellent staff who did their job with energy and without fail. These days, that boss would probably end up in jail.

I now share meals with plenty of hospitality workers, and the stories they come out with would curl your toes. All I would advise readers is this:  respect your waiter, and never be a pedant. If you ignore this simple advice, you’ll never be able to trust anyone serving you…

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The prophet Elijah got me published

ACADEMIC PROPHECY ‘Elijah reviving the Son of the Widow of Zarephath’ by Louis Hersent.

A Writer’s narrow escape.

BY the time I got to Sydney University to start my arts degree I was so sick and tired of essays, studying, research, and examinations, that I pretty-much floated my way through the whole year.

I was thrust into large, anonymous lecture halls, where everyone else seemed to be getting the jokes, was cooler, better connected, more studious, more artful and more alive than I was.

So I spent a lot of my time skulking around, mainly in the Fisher Library, reading titles that were not on my reading lists (actors’ biographies, mainly) and going to the movies in the city during the afternoon.

My results reflected this malaise, but even then I didn’t care. Years of academic competition at school had rendered any desire for tertiary achievement completely impotent.

I lived on campus in an all-male college, which was a total shock to the system. Escaping the ritual humiliation inflicted on new students was not actually very difficult – the older students doing the shaming really only wanted willing participants in their ridiculous ceremonies anyway. I would hide out in the cafeteria of the neighbouring hospital.

In terms of essay writing, I learnt very quickly how emotion and opinion were to be stripped-away. This made academic sense but put my enjoyment levels into the negative. I recall using the term ‘pure art’ in a Fine Arts paper, only to have it red-penned with great question marks. I couldn’t see why, if all the professors and tutors were having so much fun, that the words on the page had to be so damned boring.

In Ancient History I excelled, but only by default. Our chaplain had been the Ancient History teacher at school, so we had studied minimal Greece and even less Rome, but instead we’d gone through the history of ancient Israel in enormous detail.

The Old Testament of The Bible had come alive in those classes, not in an overtly religious sense, but as documentary evidence of societies long gone. This working knowledge of texts that have become so influential to modern thinking would prove invaluable in years to come, particularly as I joined one of the groups sidelined by the Levitical laws.

So it was a case of laziness when I selected an essay topic right in my field of knowledge – to examine another scholar’s views on the prophet Elijah. I can recall neither the scholar nor his views, but I brought the prophet himself as alive as I could, using neither emotion nor opinion. The trick was quoting far and wide, from dialogues full of religious fervour and belief, to soundly trounce my academic colleague for his lack of imagination.

In hindsight, the effectiveness of my argument was undoubtedly the way I suggested that in ancient Israel, blind faith conquered rational thought each and every time. I probably also felt that in three thousand years, not much had changed.

Prophets were always more three-dimensional than other biblical figures. They were cantankerous, usually because they worked hard at day jobs and resented the holy spirit taking them away from the basics of regular life. And they were funny – some of the only classic humour in the old testament appears in Elijah’s challenge to the high priests of Ba’al, when he heckles them into throwing more sacrifices onto their altars, shouting ‘Where is your God? Where is your God?’

Juxtaposition is everything, even in academic writing it seemed. For my word tricks, I got a high distinction, and an invitation to my Professor’s office one afternoon.

The thought that I’d been caught-out as a complete fraud did occur to me, but as I sat down in this man’s office, after he’d cleared a chair for me from underneath the layers of dusty papers and books, and looked at me through his thick glasses, blinking in the half-light, he said: “And what are you going to do with this high distinction?”, before blinking again and expecting me to speak.

HALLOWED HALLS The very English Quadrangle of Sydney University.

Nothing crossed my mind, except what a strange question it was. “Do better next time…?” I muttered.

“No!” the Professor boomed, banging his hand Elijah-like onto the desk.

“You’re going to do honours, and I shall help you. First, we are going to publish this paper of yours.”

Being published sounded like fun, and in due course, my fervour-filled evocation of the prophet took its place in the front of that year’s edition of Edubba, the Ancient History and Classics Department’s undergraduate journal.

Becoming an acolyte of this professor did not sound like any fun at all. Any chance of his fervent prophecy about me coming to pass was all the fuel I needed to get out of university by applying to drama school.

I completed my final exams, including one in which I answered questions about Roman writers whom I had read not one word of. I passed, miraculously, and waited for my escape plan to come to fruition.

That one essay is all I have left of my sole university year – I don’t have a copy, but it will be there in the Fisher Library somewhere, testament to my ability in writing to a prescribed, academic formula, but with a fine flame of life burning within.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.