The opening of the first paragraph of Testostero by David Foster may be the most Australian thing* I have ever read, and it is not even set here:

The most astounding feature of Venice to Noel Horniman, who at age forty is seeing it for the first time, is not the architecture – which seems shabby and run down – but the fact one can walk from Campo de Gheto Novo to Piazza san Marco and vice versa wihtout seeing anyone push anyone into a canal, which would be the easiest thing in the world to do, given there are no railings. … if the bars of Darwin … opened as the bars of Venice do, directly onto canals, one would expect to see there a constant stream of grappling men emerging from doorways and plunging into the water; the more so if the water, as in Venice, were not dangerously deep, but of such a depth as to cushion a fall.

Testostero by David Foster

Yes! Of course – coming from a country so young in terms of white colonisation, architecture, city building and so on, Australians are often (my hand is up, I am guilty) astounded and bewildered by the age of buildings, the heritage, the mix of styles over centuries, and so on as they wander and wonder about the bits of Europe that were not blasted to shit by the Axis and the Allies in WW2 in particular. But coming from a new place where Premiers and Developers love tearing down old stuff in order to build a high rise or a casino or a Multilevel Shopping Experience, yes, there is often a bit of, they don’t spend much on maintenance, do they?

The winner for me is the shock of canals not being fenced off. Coming from Australia, land of the backyard swimming pool where you must have a two metre fence, and where it feels like every bit of Sydney Harbour is fenced off, the land of let’s sue the local council, there is a genuine reaction on arriving in parts of Europe to the ease with which you could just push somebody into the water. There is a reason we fence off waterways. We cannot be trusted. We do stupid things. As a boy, I would have been pushed in, or pushed someone else in, every day of the week, and spent much time avoiding being pushed in, and plotting to push others in. The occasional granny would have been pushed in, though not on purpose, mostly. There are far fewer pubs these days than when I was a young man, but if there had been open water in front of them, I agree with Foster that it would have been a regular event for men to fall in grappling with each other, or groups giving some fellow the bum’s rush straight in.

I did not live in Venice, I lived in the Netherlands – as an adult of quite mature age – and I suspect no Dutch person ever thought as often as I did about pushing somebody in to a canal. I never did it, you’ll never prove a thing Guvnor. Of course, unlike Noel Horniman (I knew many Noels once upon a time, but you don’t meet many Noels these days. Or Claudes. Or Wallys.) I would not think of the water of a Dutch canal as just a safe landing spot to break one’s fall. Yuk. I would assume that I was killing someone if I pushed them in. It was safest for me to think that way. It tended to stop me. And there was nothing about that water that looked inviting.

I don’t know why I have never read this book before. It has been on my shelves for over 20 years. It did not take me that long to read his Mates of Mars, which I love, though there was a period in which I mentally divided that into two, if not three separate stories, only one of which I loved. Very funny so far, and unfortunately rings very true, at least for various Australias which I remember, which may not be extant today.

*so many caveats, presumptions and assumptions to load in there, if I could only be bothered …


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