As this is a lighthearted column, I certainly do not intend to enter the lists on whether the NSW government was right to ban greyhound racing. I would refer you, nonetheless, to the delicious passages in Tony Blair’s memoir concerning his own blighted efforts to ban fox hunting.
He came to think it one of the dumbest decisions he ever made. For a start, it turned tens of thousands of politically inactive people into fierce opponents of his government, dedicated to his defeat. It also turned out it was not just upper-class Tories he was annoying. Loads of working-class people, involved with inns and stables and horses and country village enterprises of all kinds, were wrapped up in fox hunts.
Then when he tried to retreat to an honourable compromise, his own party activists went bananas on him. I wouldn’t trivialise animal cruelty, but I find it hard to believe you couldn’t possibly run the dogs honourably.
But what struck me was the lost world of the greyhound races of long ago, and how integral a part of working-class culture they once were. I have the faintest memory of going to the dogs in Glebe once or twice in early childhood more than a half-century ago. And am I wrong to recall that in the very distant past greyhounds occasionally ran exhibition races, so to speak, in the old Royal Agricultural Society Easter Show?
The thought of the dogs, the races, gambling, reminds me just how vastly different are the worlds of people who make decisions like abolishing greyhound racing and the worlds of the people who actually go to the races. Horseracing has its aristocratic side and gets to all classes but the dogs were a purely working-class preoccupation. The dapto dogs was a term to conjure with in my childhood.
I remember uncles who worked at the railways coming home with a tabloid newspaper folded to the race guide and stored in the back pocket of their shorts — an Australian workingclass uniform briefly given an airing on television in the early Paul Hogan shows.
The old Australian Anglo-Celtic workingclass life has gone, just as surely a small culture chased into oblivion as the old class of cultured graziers. A handful of graziers survive, as perhaps a handful of old-style working-class communities do, but the norms and the identity have changed totally.
And the language. I grew up with a rich brew of expressions to hand which have either died now or are no longer allowed to be used. I wrote the other day that blind Freddy could see what was going on and the subeditors, God bless them, wouldn’t let it find its way into print. Fair enough, if it’s now considered offensive. The same I suspect is true of saying that the government’s submarines policy was all over the shop like a mad woman’s breakfast.
Let me hasten to say I am not using these expressions, merely citing them as historical artefacts. Can we say, now, that something is a complete bugger’s muddle?
Even the old sayings which are not now banned as offensive to good taste and common decency have lost their salience. I loved the for- mulation of two politicians that there was not a cigarette paper’s difference between them. But that comes from the days when a lot of people smoked and many of them rolled their own cigarettes.
I did this myself for a short time in late adolescence, but the cigarettes I rolled were always grossly obese in the middle and emaciated at either end, and though I liked the feel of tobacco on my tongue, these were not satisfying smokes.
Partly as a result I abruptly switched, as one does in youth, from the swaggering, toughhanded, working-class lout with a fag in one corner of his mouth, to being a young fogey with a fashionable polished wood pipe. From this device I blew billowing clouds of superbly aromatic smoke. I loved that flavour, but I could never get the damn thing to stay alight.
Blimey Charlie, as I was inclined to say, or, as my father might have put it, for the love of Mike, smoking was a dodgy business. And I never backed a winner at the track either.