Such a lantern jaw I have never beheld before! It shines with steely stubble – nay coruscates. Its owner sports a wide-brimmed hat, a short-sleeved shirt which shows off his bulging biceps, and still shorter shorts that display his mountainous thighs to even greater effect. He wears Blunstones, the toughest of Australian work boots – all in all he is a most rugged specimen. He’s pulling a dinky little electric cart to which, with a grabber as delicate as a pair of tweezers, he’s adding dry leaves. The contrast between his macho appearance and his effete manual labour is quite entrancing, and I watch him for a while until he straightens up and comes across.
“Oi mate,” he says conversationally “you’d better put some bathers on your lad there.” He gestures at a notice that details the playground rules: No this, no that, no the other – the usual crimps on juvenescence, together with a couple I haven’t seen before: no nudity, and no smoking within 20 metres of the playground. I call over the four-year-old, who’s frolicking unconcernedly in the water feature, and shackle him into a pair of pants. It’s difficult to imagine his genitals being that offensive to anyone. However, I know better than to argue the point with Crocodile Dun-Parkie. For this is Northern Queensland, and while the playground furniture is identical to stuff in London, Paris and Munich (we’ve swung and scampered on them all), in these parts the skin of liberality is stretched far tighter over the skull of bigotry.
Cairns, gateway to the Barrier Reef. To the north the fastness of Cape York, to the west the Great Divide. Cairns is another little scrape of civilisation on the edge of the great southern continent. I say the playground equipment is the same as the stuff I’ve seen in Europe, but the truth is that it’s far superior. The water feature is a little river full of spinning wheels and spurting jets; there isn’t one climbing frame – there are ten, once of which is a giant fish covered in handholds. There’s even a swing for children who are confined to wheelchairs, the gate of which can be opened with a special key. There are clean and functioning toilets, and the paths are immaculately maintained.
The only glaring difference is that in London there would be nonce-seeking CCTV cameras, whereas here a number of overweight, middle-aged men are hanging around the kiddies armed with cameras featuring phallic telephoto lenses. They’re not paedophiles – they’re twitchers. On the other side of the esplanade lies a broad mudflat, the remains of a mangrove swamp. Beyond this the Coral Sea winks on the horizon. Pelicans flap and flotch on the mud, while signs on the esplanade itself – a modular-constructed boardwalk stretching for several kilometres and featuring ‘information nodes’ – warn the strollers of the presence of crocodiles.
This is all of Australia in the span of a few paces: nature red in tooth and claw and humans piggy-pink in bathers and suncream. Not all the humans are pale – some are copper-brown. These are the descendants of the kanakas, South Sea islanders brought to Queensland in the late 19th century to harvest the sugar cane. Still others are café-au-lait Malaysians and Indonesians – more recent immigrants; while a very few are that very matt black peculiar to Australian Aboriginals. Here they are, gathered in the spiky shade of the palms, the dag-tail of a once mighty people, 40,000 years of continuous oral culture confronted by the legends of the playground rules.
In truth, Queensland still has a bad vibe. This is a place where well over 20,000 Aboriginals were massacred – and thousands more destroyed by European viruses – as the pastoralists took over their land. The last massacres of the Aboriginals took place as recently as the 1920s. As late as 1987, Queensland was the fiefdom of the corrupt, racist, misogynistic, demagogue Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and the state was closer to apartheid South Africa than any other polity in the so-called ‘developed’ world. No wonder the spectacle of public four-year-old nudity is so destabilising to this nervous collective psyche, grounded as it remains on a quaking fear of the other.
Now nose flute players strut the air-conditioned malls in heliotrope harem pants, and gap-year backpackers sign up for scenic cable-car rides and snorkelling trips on the reef. The child and I stroll through the playground to the café. It’s called ‘Skippers on the ‘Nade’. A typical white Australian contraction this; they love their diminutives as well, their ‘wrinklies’ and ‘sickies’. I ask for a cup of tap water. “I’m afraid we can only sell you a bottle,” the friendly sugar dispenser tells me. “It’s against the city ordinances to give out water – we might be sued.” Sued for giving out water in a semi-arid continent. A safety-mad playground on the edge of a crocodile-infested mangrove swamp. A triangle of cloth constricting an entire race. There’s nothing for it, I buy the bottle of water and we sit drinking it in our pants.