When I was a boy I came across cultural truisms like, “Aussies will bet on anything; they’ll bet on two flies walking up a wall.” What I heard was something to celebrate, a playfulness in the Australian spirit. When I inherited from a great uncle a curious little plank with two identical circular depressions, someone had to explain this relic of “two-up”, a national pastime. It spoke to me of the irrepressible Aussies of “Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”. As a more than commonly sentimental bloke myself, I was not disposed to judge or diagnose any malady.
In 1972 I met Darkie Harris. I was the new GP in an ethnically homogenous semi-rural community, an oddity in a skullcap. Somehow the community embraced and included me while excluding the pig-raising Maltese and my only co-religionists ‘the Jews on the hill’.
Darkie Harris differed from everyone and in ways solely his own. Unprepossessing, short, stocky, swarthy, with a face marked by scars and improved by large purpling lips and a vocal tone that ranged from a growl to a bark, he looked older than his fifty-four years and fiercer than anyone so old (I was then exactly half his age) had a right to look.
Darkie distinguished himself by a sort of verbal pugilism. By word and facial expression, and yes, by facial complexion, Darkie dared everyone he encountered to fight him.
What was it that Darkie wanted to fight against? One thing, one thing only. Racism: I don’t care if you’re a chinaman or an abo or a white man. If I cut you, you’re blood’s the same colour as mine.* Darkie was the only person in the town who saw this Jewcomer doctor as undifferent. In equal parts alarmed and charmed, I found I liked him. To most in town I seemed exotic, to some a too shiny exception (‘you’re not like the others’), to some an emblem of a nobility I never earned.
Darkie was retired by the time I met him. He’d take up his position on a bench outside the Chinese café and the fish and chip shop run by a pair of Maltese brothers. He’d sit and glower, softening into a winning chivalry towards women (a sweep of the hat, a flash of gaptoothed smile, “Good morning, Ladies”) and to engage toddlers in amiable conversation while uncertain mothers tried to hide their nervousness and drag their children away.
Darkie sat on his bench and kept vigil. He was waiting for the unguarded comment, any reference he could take exception to, any sneer at the immigrants he championed.
Young hoons and would-be thugs about town learned to shy away from Darkie. As he informed me on a number of occasions, I’d sooner have a fight than a feed. Darkie was referring to his younger self in the Depression days when he was a runner for an illegal bookie, a risky position in a volatile industry. But in 1972 his interlocutor would take Darkie at his word as he’d rise and stride, frothing, barking menacingly to confront the casual bigot.
Darkie never gambled. Those were not the risks he’d take. He described his working life as an honest buccaneer. He served his boss – some degree of criminal – honourably. He’d take the blows and deliver his own and he’d return home and hand his earnings to Joyce, his leathery wife, who subsisted in a cloud of tobacco. Before Joyce Darkie would humble himself, confess his escapades and worship.
The stories of Darkie and flies on a wall and two-up created the sketchy image I had of gambling in Australia. We must have had gambling addiction but I never knowingly met one. I knew dimly of the ancient rabbinic edict that disqualified a gambler as a witness in court proceedings because an addict could neither trust himself or be trusted by others.
In 1976 I went for an early morning run in Launceston, pausing to poke a curious nose into the local casino, a gruesome cellar where women in curlers and moccasins sat mechanically before fruit machines from six in the morning.
Shaken, I ran away.
For some years in the late nineties my younger daughter, a psychologist, worked as a therapist at Gambler’s Help. Her stories of human wreckage at our dinner table opened my eyes. In 2000 I met Alan, a shining youth who became my patient. He starred at hockey, graduated from his elite school, studied business, was recruited by a leading financial institution that trained him as a currency dealer. Two years ago Alan married his golden girl Helen, a primary teacher. They bought a house together in the regional city were she grew up. Neither Alan nor Helen yet realised the bank Alan worked for had trained him as one of their corps of gamblers.
A year ago doctors in the city’s ICU worked on Alan through a Saturday night and all the next day and night. At 27 years of age, Alan’s life seemed at its end, his blood pressure unrecordable, his breathing and heartbeat negligible. It must have been his hockey that saved Alan, his underlying fitness, that brought him back from where his overdose had taken him. After gambling away the contents of the joint bank account, Alan punted on the marital home and lost it. On a weekend when Helen was out of town for a friend’s hen’s night, Alan wrote a note and swallowed the tablets that were to end his self-loathing and his shame. Only Helen’s dog, locked out of the house all Friday night and Saturday, raised the ire of neighbours with her barking.
The marriage died and was buried in a divorce. In the settlement there was little to apportion: Helen took her dog, Alan his shame. His need, his comfort, his fateful hoping – I mean his urge to gamble – survives. It is a daily battle which Alan does not always win.
I turn on the TV to watch sport. Sport still has the power to inspire me, to express nobility, to create wonder, to delight, to unite and uplift. Before and after and between plays, the gambling industry shouts its messages of slim hope, seducing, reducing the game to mere exchange. It is not possible for a child to watch sport on TV without seeing gambling ads. I turn off and prowl my bitter old mind and think of Alan.
In these wrinkled years the past glows, the present moulders, the future threatens. We need someone to blame. That’s why we elect governments – there are some things you just can’t blame on your wife. In the matter of our gambling pandemic I blame governments. Governments bankrupt of funds fall hard for the revenue that streams from gambling. Soon the treasury is addicted to gambling. A few budgets later, we have a government bankrupt of judgement and ultimately of morality. In their lonely amorality, our representatives fall into bad company, the Gambling Lobby. Governments collude with the industry to prevent and foil the simplest attempts to ameliorate our national malaise.
Over two decades I have witnessed the card games in remote Aboriginal communities. Large numbers, women usually outnumbering men, sit on the ground beneath huge trees and gamble from first light to nightfall. Darkness falls and the players shift to the bitumen and sit on the roadway and play through the night.
In Arnhem Land once a nurse and I battled through a long day to save an underweight, undersized infant with life-threatening pneumonia, the child starved because his mother had no money for food. After the necessities – I mean cigarettes and Coca Cola – the young mother consumed the family income at the card games.
And now comes the news: the next government social initiative, the next gesture to human rights, the final surrender to the “industry”. (Industry – properly used, that word refers to the organization of effort and capital and efficiency. But the gambling industry offers profit without effort – industry’s antithesis. But naming something an industry launders and hides pathology.)
And what is the bright new idea? Soon we’ll see poker machines introduced in indigenous communities. What was wrong, you might ask, with the old card games? What benefit can be gained from the pokie initiative? You can’t tax a game of cards, but the pokies generate luscious lucre.
Governments surely are not blind: some bureaucrat must have seen how Aboriginal people gamble: they play, and pay, in cash. When the cash runs out they walk away. But where there are poker machines there are ATM’s, credit, loans for the next losing bet. Someone in government has decided the suicide rate among Aborigines was really too low.
*I need to resort to bold print for all of Darkie’s utterances. Everything he said he almost spat at the world, his verbal challenge to differ from him.