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My name is Northern Territory and I am an alcoholic. Getting Groggy with it in Darwin

Everyone assumes that grog is an exclusively Aboriginal problem. That is simply untrue. Around 50 per cent of Aboriginal people don’t drink at all. If the Northern Territory were a nation, we would have the third highest per capita consumption in the world.

Therese Ritchie, Mandatory man 2, 2013

September in Darwin. The town lurks under pregnant clouds that will never shed a drop of rain. A cruel sun bakes the air and melts tar and brains alike. Temperature and humidity are lock-stepped in an upward spiral. Soon it will 32 degrees at 8am with 80% humidity and climbing.

Welcome to the build-up in the Top End.

This is why we drink … or at least that is the excuse that I and many others rely on. Some people think about these matters more and better than I can or do. Two of them – Therese Ritchie and Todd Williams – are local artists who can think, talk and make images that resonate, tease and discomfort all at the same time.

Here are their thoughts – and some of their wonderful images – from their new show ‘Groggy‘ at the Northern Centre of Contemporary Art in Parap that will run through to 12 October.

Enough from me. Here is Therese Ritchie’s address to the crowd from last evening

When Adam Giles and Dave Tollner, guest speakers at the Australian Hotels Association annual awards dinner, described the territory’s drinking culture as a core social value and that “having a coldie” in a pub should be “enshrined” as part of Territory life, Todd and I were disappointed in their lack of critique but also in accord with the view (creepy as it may have felt).

Our confusion, however, was with why only a small percentage of the population are vilified and held responsible for alcohol related issues that are problematic; why it is only distasteful when certain people drink in certain circumstances and why there is differential treatment for some drinkers than others.

If the Northern Territory were a country it would be the second biggest drinking country in the world. Yet, out of a population of 233,000 all ‘blame’ for the excess and consequent problems, seems to be with the 64,000 Aboriginal people, out of which only 20% (a total of 12,800) demonstrate hazardous drinking.

Therese Ritchie, (Making money out of the suffering of others) Cage Bar, Beachfront Hotel, Darwin, 2013

So, on the subject of Grog, both Todd and I agreed to go the track less travelled, and focus on the culture of ‘Territory drinking’ that is much more agreeable; ie when white people do it.

Our research is digested and on the walls for your enjoyment, but I did do a little bit of extra homework involving ‘language’ and its usage; because paralleling the work on Groggy—I was—and still am working on a wonderful project, Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and illustrated dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. My client is a great Australian, her name is Laurie Baymarrwaŋa—a 97 year old woman from the Crocodile Islands. Along with Bentley James, she has recorded over 4,000 words of her near extinct language, Yan-nhaŋu. Nothing short of inspired by this woman’s integrity, the absolute love for her language and her children, and the more cohesive understanding that a culture is revealed through it’s mother tongue, I did some searching for meaning through my own mother tongue—English.

On the subject of emotions I looked up how many synonyms there were for Love: 97; Compassion: 34; Sobriety: 59; involving the act of warfare or engaging in war I found 1,370 words (and it is growing); involving the act of the ‘getting pissed’ Chips sent me a link to a book called Intoxerated, the definitive drinker’s dictionary by Paul Dickson. Paul had collected 2,985 synonyms for various states of intoxication (that is over 12,000 tweets). 

Therese Ritchie, (Making money out of the suffering of others) Chief Minister, 2013

Taking that on board, it appears pretty hypocritical and delusional to attribute blame for ‘problem drinking’ on a marginalised group of people—even if they do make a good go of it.

Groggy challenges us to shift our gaze onto our own history and habits, because in the 4,000 words I have been designing for Laurie I have not come across any words that mean, getting hammered, shitfaced, trashed, maggoty, shickered or fucked up. Her words are about this country and it’s seas; the country we walk all over and think we can buy, own and carve up; or the sea that we fish and dredge or mine. Her words are about her people; the people our culture is suspicious of and question; disrespects, and send to the fringes until they learn how to behave like ‘civilised’ Australians.

Speaking of civilised, let me finish with a brief history of the first 20 years of Australia’s colonisation, from the perspective of Grog.

On 26 January 1788, Arthur Phillip, a company of British marines and 40 male convicts gathered around a flagpole after a hard day of cutting down trees, clearing land and erecting tents… a well-earned thirst…the officers drank a toast to the health of the royal family and the new colony. The first recorded alcoholic drink by Europeans on this land. 12 days later, the last of the fleets 11 ships carrying female convicts, disembarked. A night of drunkenness and rape ensued. Alcohol had begun playing its part in bringing European ‘civilisation’ to Australia. (Under the influence Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor L. Jordon.)

England sent no currency out with the convicts and for the next 17 years, rum became the medium of exchange, monopolised by the corrupt NSW Corps or ‘Rum Corps’. The population of New South Wales soon became divided into two classes—those who dealt in rum and those who were paid with, and drank it. Rum could buy anything. The wages for the construction of buildings—some of our most famous landmarks were paid out in rum. Rum was offered as a reward for the capture of bushrangers. Men sold their wives, farms, and stock for rum, whilst the Rum Corps officers maintained their monopoly by controlling liquor licenses and or becoming publicans.

All sounds a little too contemporary to me.

Groggy is not advocating prohibition or telling anyone to get off the grog. Lets exercise our right to drink and when we find ourselves unable to stop sipping on our share of the Territory’s ‘core social value’, no matter how expensive or special, lets not delude ourselves—we are on the same continuum as any other drug addict. Pretending otherwise would be colluding with one of our biggest cultural lies and it really is time to stop telling lies.

Thank you for being here tonight, Todd and I are grateful for your support and audience, we do hope you enjoy Groggy and in closing I quote Adam Giles our current leader “This is our lifestyle, this is the way we live”.

Todd Williams, Finest drop, 2013

Todd Williams, aka “The Chin” was next up.

Douglas Adams wrote in the HGTTG about travelling via hyperspace, that it was ‘unpleasantly like being drunk.”

Arthur says, “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”

To which Ford Prefect said “Ask a glass of water.”

Therese has spoken enough about the Australian history of grog… so I’m just going to add some interesting facts, some, as it were, ‘takeaway’ points.

The human body produces its own minute supply of alcohol naturally on a continuous basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week … but we obviously need a top-up.

The amount of alcohol consumed per person in Australia is roughly 10 litres of pure alcohol per year, most of which, as you can see, gets consumed at the Beachfront on Australia Day.

In order to make a bottle of wine, you will need to have approximately 600 grapes on hand…

A bottle of Champagne contains approximately 49 million bubbles, which is about the same amount of beer cans that Boony drank on the plane to England…

Which leads us to the fact that the heaviest drinking 10% of the community account for half the alcohol consumed in Australia. Interfering with that 50% of alcohol consumption, the binge drinkers, would have a huge impact on the alcohol industry’s bottom line, as the all-powerful drinks industry, represents about 2% of our GDP…

The pressure in a champagne bottle is 90 pounds per square inch, that’s about three times the pressure in car tyres, and five time the pressure of maintaining an erection after drinking said bottle of champagne … and five times the pressure on the brain inside the skull in the morning

Speaking of which, the term ‘honeymoon’ traces its roots back to ancient Babylon. It was a tradition for the father-in-law to supply the groom with a month’s supply of mead. This time period was referred to as the honey month, which became ‘honeymoon’… and also, due to popularity of the tradition with new husbands, the expression…’honey, I’m home!’

One third of homicides in Australia are associated with alcohol misuse.

Almost half (44%) of all intimate partner homicides, and 87% of intimate partner homicides involving Indigenous people, are alcohol related…

So I’d like to raise a toast, which is a tradition means wishing ‘good health’ and originated in ancient Rome. Back then, piece of toasted bread was literally dropped into wine and consumed… today, one recent estimate of the total cost of alcohol-related crime put the figure at $1.7 billion… which by anyone’s counting, is a whole lot of bread.

To alcohol…

To which everybody – because who in truth could resist – raised their glasses.

Therese Ritchie, (Social Fabric) River of grog 1, Katherine, 2013

Next was Darwin raconteur and self-confessed artist Chips, to whom fell the duty of officially opening the show.

My name is Chips Mackinolty and I am an alcoholic.

I haven’t been without a drink for 69 days.

I am currently out of work, with no intention of getting a job.

My favourite song is “I’ve been drinking” by Andrew McMillan. It’s no accident he always got me to sing the song with the band.

Much the same—I’ve no doubt—could be said of many people here this evening, with the possible exception of unemployment, and the number of days involved.

Certainly it is something that could be said of a majority of Northern Territorians—and that’s what this show is about.

Everyone assumes that grog is an exclusively Aboriginal problem. That is simply untrue. Around 50 per cent of Aboriginal people don’t drink at all. If the Northern Territory were a nation, we would have the third highest per capita consumption in the world—and that is not statistically down to Aboriginal Territorians—but to non-Aboriginal people living here.

Our Chief and deputy Chief Minister attended the AGM of the Australian Hotels Association a month or so back—and praised the liquor industry as being a crucially important part of the Northern Territory lifestyle.

This is the same industry that screams bloody murder whenever there is any attempt to reduce alcohol consumption in the Territory.

The same industry that howls with rage if there are restrictions on takeaways, or criticism of the animal bars in Alice, or setting a floor price on alcohol.

At last Therese Ritchie and Todd Williams, in this show, have said is enough is enough about this immoral industry—an industry whose indignant self righteousness is of North Korean stature.

This show is about turning off the tap of an industry that grows rich on misery in ways which defy belief.

And it’s also a show that says: up front and centre, that artists have a critical role in analysing the society we live in, and unmasking the truth.

And the truth, according to the Bible, will set us free.

So make no mistake about it: Therese and Todd have given us the tools for that freedom.

That Todd and Therese do it with great skill, humour and beauty is a hallmark of the work I have seen from them for the last three decades.

And I am sure all of us will thank them for it.

This show is open for trading!

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  • 1
    Hector Lung
    Posted September 15, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Groggy memories abound for a Territorian and some of my more hard to dislodge flashbacks concern Katherine. Long famed to have the two most lucrative grog licenses in the NT (which could make them world beaters) in the form of the two pubs, Crossways and Kirby’s. In the immediate aftermath of the 1998 flood that bore through the town, Crossways was especially diligent in getting back into business. With government flood relief money raining in the town, Crossways was there to mop it up. Assuming no one would give a toss, all semblance of responsible service of grog went out the window and an abiding image is being in the Last Chance Saloon to witness groups of people allowed to sleep off their initial intake in the bar, some still perched on high stools slumped over those tall circular drinking stand tables. Nothing was about to stop the imbibing. As recently as last Thursday I was passing through the town and parked near Kirby’s to get to the newsagents. It was midday and the back bar disco was going flat chat. The pub puts on some music and gets the punters in for a couple of hour session before they are lost to the takeaway grog shops that open at 2pm. No rest for the stonkered. The song they had thumping along as I got back into my vehicle was that old 80′s rocknut “Turn Me Loose”. Indeed.

  • 2
    Posted September 16, 2013 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Good article Bob and hope the exhibition goes further than Darwin, especially to Katherine which as Hector Lung rightly singles out as a hotbed for NTs infatuation with grog and “our right to drink”.

    The ABC recently reported that Katherine is the only town in the NT where alcohol consumption is actually increasing: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-08-30/nt-alcohol-consumption-fall-govt-report-shows/4924326

    I find it wholly embarrassing and absurd that restricting alcohol sales in Katherine seems to not be on anyone in power’s agenda.

  • 3
    sarah toa
    Posted September 17, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Great article Bob and thanks to Ritchie for the speech.

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