Hissing witches and naked killjoys in the Australian bush

Photo: flickr

Confest, Easter 1995 – Tocumwal, Victoria

This was my last Confest before I went home to Scotland.

Prior to ’95 I had some great Confests and met some great people. I even fell in the huge communal fire during Confest 93/94, while on acid, and burned all the skin off my arse. But ’95 was sullied by generational tyranny, in the form of a naked ‘older man’ who destroyed my whole Confest vibe in one fluid motion, during a historic protest that changed everything for everyone. This has never been documented properly, until now.

Anyway, me and my Confest comrade, Mr Gorgonzola – patron saint of Doof – were kicken’ about the Chai tent discussing the itinerary for the night, which was pretty much the same as previous nights – find some acid, take it, get some scran from the Margas, dance round the fire and get lost trying to get back to your tent in the dark, while fighting the demons in your head. But this was to be a very different night, even by Confest standards.

Electronic music had just started to infiltrate Confest and the older members of the community had become rather confused and upset by this new aspect of the Confest experience. I have an image of them all sitting cross legged in a Tee-Pee, sharing a bush weed spliff, discussing the problem in dulcet tones, as young acolytes danced for them, wearing risque, barbarian chic outfits. Electronic music had become the cold piece of steel between their ribs and as older people do, they blamed the younger generations for their lack of moral fibre. Positive progress is always labeled as the path to moral bankruptcy by older generations. Mark Davis calls this generationalism – a concept honed and refined by the Boomers.

Me and Mr Gorgonzola knocked back a wee square of paper and waited for the special bus to arrive. When it did, we went for a wander to take in the sights, sounds and smells of Confest. There is nothing like it. I always felt I was being transported back in time to a bacchanalian medieval festival, where the world is turned up-side-down. Victor Turner called it liminality, an eclectic hyper reality, where we come to escape and follow a different set of rules. Yes, rules. Even though it looked like a place where anything goes it still had its own prescribed set of rules, which involved mutual respect and the right to express yourself without hurting others. The bogans across the river never got this.

Photo: The Northern Daily Leader

Every year the bogan horde amassed on the other side of the river like hungry consumers out the front of a department store on Boxing Day. Salivating men on jet skis, over weight party animals, wearing loud shirts and novelty boxers, chicks like Shaz with lines around their mouths from smoking and bitching about people behind their backs and kids, dressed as their parents. The all-consuming face of Australia – the battlers, the larrikins, the keepers of the key consumer products, the children of the plasma screen TV (not ready for widespread distribution yet but etched onto the consciousness of every true blooded bogan child in 95).  However, it was difficult to work out who the barbarians were on either side of the river but more importantly, who had the key to the gate.

Once the wee piece of paper delivered its goods, Mr Gorgonzola and I embarked on one of those Confest journeys into the known unknown. It wasn’t long before we discovered a haphazard maze, made from twigs and bright stuff. We ventured in. Had I been sober, I’d have taken one look at it and kept on living my life. About half way in we stumbled upon two women in their 20s, careering around like a couple of tweakers stuck in the maw of a Venus Flytrap. They claimed to be witches but as soon as they opened their mouths I had them clocked for what they actually were; a couple of privately educated, upper middle class snobs, playing counter culture dress ups, before Daddy gave them a job in the family business. They hissed at us and clawed the air. To this day I’ve never seen two adults make a bigger arse of themselves. Being at the end of my Confest odyssey this compounded all my misgivings about the festival and its overall intentions.

Photo: Down to Earth

A man, who Mr Gorgonzola met again years later, stepped in between ourselves and the private school girls and acted as a buffer. I never found out if he knew them or not but the hissing stopped. He told us they were ‘white witches’. This meant nothing to me. I just saw a couple of idiots in a crap maze. He suggested we withdraw because they were performing a rite. Aye, I thought, their inherited right to cultural capital – Bourdieu would have decapitated the fuckers. Mr Gorgonzola and I withdrew and found ourselves back in the village square surrounded by the usual stalls and dirty faces.

This was the final turning point for me, or so I thought.

Later that night we heard there was going to be some electronic music being played somewhere on the periphery of the action. This lifted my spirits because I needed a break from the drums and the fire twirling and the suburban witchcraft. This is what I wanted from Confest, to see it rise up from the dark ages and embrace the digital world. I longed to banish the saggy-balled old men and the sexual predators and bring in the true spirit of the 90s that had taken so long to travel to Australia. The rest of the world had been dancing to a different beat, while Australia was still pounding out mainstream Oz Rock, the scourge of modern music. When I emigrated to Australia from Scotland  in the late 80s it was the music I missed the most – its progressive qualities, the way it came with a new look and a different lifestyle.  In comparison, Australian music seemed stuck in a 70s rut – in fact, a lot of Australian culture seemed stuck in the 70s.

From memory, we bought another tab and shared it in preparation for the coming of a new Confest era. We could hear the deep bass from a long way off. It directed us through the bush. For the first time I knew where I was going at night; heading towards the music and the strobe. This made a pleasant change from the usual imbroglio. There had been a couple of times I gave up on the trek home and just slept next to any available camp fire.

Dancing in the warm depths of the crowd was just what I needed. This was my Confest. There weren’t a lot of people there but just enough to fill the designated area and bring exactly the right atmosphere. It was like a Gen X haven, away from the antiquated rules set out by the elders of Down To Earth. At some stage, the old need to fuck off and let the new generation take over; it’s the natural progression of life. All animals practice this cultural rite, it’s nature. This music felt like my nature.

Now, I could wax lyrical about beats and sensations and drug-induced epiphanies etc. but I’m not going to because that sort of writing is pretentious and ultimately debases the feeling of being fucked up in the bush and dancing all night. I will say this, I was having a very good time, that is, until, some naked man in his 50s or 60s appeared out of the night and disabled the generator that fed my good time. Everything descended into darkness as I saw the only light in the vicinity, his naked wee arse getting smaller and smaller. It was like some willow o’ wisp had pulled the plug. I staggered from the makeshift dance floor looking for light and Mr Gorgonzola (he knew the way home).

I remember a lot of commotion and booing after the naked man spoiled our fun but what I didn’t realise was that I’d been there for some Confest history. The old guard taking a swipe at a new generation’s choice of music. It reminded me of playing chess with my Dad’s mate’s eldest son when I was about 8. I was winning, thrashing the little bastard, so when I wasn’t looking he put his arse on the board and wiggled it about, sending chess pieces all over the floor. I had the same feeling when I saw the naked man disable the generator.

Back at the camp site, I rolled myself a bifta and decided never to return to Confest. It was at this point that I also made my mind up to go home. After years down under I was going to pack my bags and spend my inheritance unwisely. It wasn’t just the naked man and Confest that made me want to leave, or the systemic racism and Oz rock, I just realised that everything had run its natural course and it was time to go. But this is my last strong memory before I left, so it’s important to me and pivotal in its own way and I’ll never forget that white arse diminishing in the darkness.

It was that last act against musio-cultural progress that pushed me over the edge and led me to Flight Centre, where a week later I bought a one-way ticket back to Edinburgh. A month later I was staring at the Granite City with a decent wedge of cash down my jocks and notebook full of bad poems. From there I jumped on a bus and went back to a place I left for very good reasons in the first place. I didn’t last long and then Morocco beckoned and it changed me forever, and not for the better.

I’ve always wanted to meet the man who stopped the music. These days, I imagine he’s either re-living the 70s in a home or had his ashes scattered across the Murray by the Down To Earth Elite Guard. Either way I wonder how he felt in the morning after his solo raid on our little party. Did he feel like a hero or did part of him feel some regret for what he’d done? I hope it’s regret because he broke his own rules: mutual respect and the right to express yourself without harming others. Maybe he should have taken some advice from Hal in 2001 A Space Odyssey; when Dave returns to the ship after Hal has killed all the other crew members he says,

‘Look Dave. I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over’.