Tuesday, October 2, 2012


I’m a committed story trader. I’m always on the lookout for investment opportunities and everybody has a story to tell. From the six-year-old who told me he didn’t have a favourite mum, to the octogenarian who confessed to having never known love, the world is a pulsating matrix of stories. As a trader, I listen for the sparkle of potential in every conversation—not to steal a fragment from another person’s life and call it my own, but to load up my life with the iron ore of humanity. This stuff gets smelted in stillness and hopefully cast into something meaningful with a pen. There is little mystery to this; it’s the writer’s life, but there are moments when I have to shield my eyes from the heat, times when the humanity is too raw for fiction.

Welcome to the edge.

I went to a youth justice facility recently – not as an inmate (that would be way too Hunter S Thomson for my lily-white bum), but as a presenter. It wasn’t my first time behind bars, but this was high security. I had to leave my life and my digital security blanket (phone, laptop and tamagotchi) snug in a locker outside. I had my retinas scanned and my shoes x-rayed. No latex gloves, thankfully. Perhaps the retinal scanner could see the fearful volume of white in my eyes.

‘They’re cheeky bastards,’ my guide explained. ‘Half the time they want to shake your hand and thank you for being there; the other half of the time they want to shake your hand with the fingers they’ve just scratched their balls or their arse with. We’ve all been caught, but you’ve got to shake hands.’ He squirted hand sanitiser on my palm and then did his own.

The ‘boys’ filed in: some were monstrous, tattooed men, some were pasty-skinned junkies. They all wore fleecy blue tracksuits and velcro-bound runners. The biggest of the islander boys came and shook my hand, half a smile on his lips. His grip was warm and genuine, if a little moist. ‘I’m Kenny,’ he said. ‘What you in for?’

The edge is gloriously raw in jail and as soon as we realised we were safe with each other (which took three minutes and a couple of belly-laughs), the stories came thick and fast. Some of the boys were loud and proud about their lives of violence and crime; some were more discreet and rendered their shame and regret about their life choices using pens and paper.

Some of the stories made me laugh.

When they were living in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Nathan’s brother had been involved in a serious fight. Nathan could hear him talking with his mates about it in the next room as he drifted off to sleep. One of his brother’s mates shook him awake the following morning. ‘Cops!’ he hissed. ‘Everywhere!’ Nathan was twelve-years-old at the time and he strode out the front door and asked one of the police what was going on. ‘We’re filming an episode of Rush next door.’

Tom and his cousin were on the run from the police and had holed up in the bush. In the middle of the night, Tom heard the hoof-falls of the mounted division and they ran into the darkness—straight into an electric fence. Tom’s cousin got tangled in the wire and he could see her sparking. He kicked her clear and as she recovered, they heard the hooves again, only now they could see the shadows of the cows in the paddock on the other side of the electric fence.

Some of the stories made me ache.

The roughest mob were the guys on remand awaiting sentencing. They were unhealthy, restless things with wild eyes and plenty of the fire in their veins that had kept them alive on the outside. By contrast, the sentenced boys seemed like they’d been bred in captivity. In a candid moment, one of the sentenced boys told me that he was better off inside. Inside, he got clean and went to school, ate three meals a day and had a bed to sleep in every night. Outside was a lottery since his junkie mum had died. With my middle-class mores and judgments, I found myself thinking hard about how much better this kid might have been if he’d lived in foster care from the start and had a loving family who cared because caring was their reason-for-being. Was that the sort of judgment that spawned the Stolen Generation? My guide told me that most of the kids had been in foster homes, residential care and juvenile detention off and on all their lives. He said that the restorative practices in modern Victorian justice centres (with life-skills development, vocational courses and programs) were only marginally more effective than their punitive cousins in other states at keeping young offenders out of adult jail. He said that more than sixty percent of the kids in the room would do time as adults. Sometimes, however, the backstory makes a life of crime easier to understand.

Rikki, one of the Sudanese boys, saw a man beaten to death in front of his house. The mob doused his corpse and burnt it where it lay. Fleeing from the warzone his city had become, he rode in the back of a truck with one hundred other refugees. He told me the driver had done his best in treacherous conditions but lost control and rolled the truck. Six people died. The survivors righted the truck and drove on. He showed me the twenty-centimeter scar on his left calf that was his receipt of the accident. The desperation didn’t leave when he was resettled to Australia. Falling in with the wrong people and still fighting for survival had landed him in jail.

It was my job to count the pens at the end. It was unlikely that stolen pens would be used as weapons—the boys were universally handy with their fists and furniture—but every surface in the place that could be tagged had been tagged. I asked them about tagging and Kenny shrugged. ‘It’s how we let others know we’re alive. Like a dog pissing on a post, you know?’

Some of the purest deposits of human ore are found at the edge. My heart goes out to the miners and the people who keep them safe and give them choices. I want to shake your hands.

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