PROLOGUE. Olympic City.
The party was in a disused aircraft hangar in a part of town that half way through that violent decade would suddenly become cool, and thus gentrified and expensive. But at the time, on the closing night of the 2000 Olympic Games, it was a choice regarded by many as risky – controversial even.
Reporters complained it would be difficult to get to since everyone was working in different venues and at different times.
There were sub-editors working on the late news page in the city newsroom, along with the night news editor and a couple of late reporters. There was a photographer and a journalist who were on their way back from a siege in Bombaderry. There were crushed and sweating journalists doing vox-pops at the public screens at Martin Place and Circular Quay, photographers in situ at the stadium and executives suspended in glass boxes far above them in the gods. Then there were friends of the paper – the correspondents flown in from the Guardian and New York Times, the gregarious TV crew from Capetown, and the contingent of Irish print journalists. Would they be able to find the party held in the crummy end of town?
The executives, in a gesture of good sense and goodwill that would be talked about with disbelief for years to come, secured the last three luxury coaches available in NSW. The coaches, hired at an exorbitant mark up, were decorated with streamers in gold and green. In the seat pockets were croissants shaped like the Harbour Bridge and a chocolate Opera House wrapped in cellophane. More importantly, each seat had a mini bottle of champagne with a straw and a bottle of cold Crown Lager, so as the bus drove the guests from the cheering, high-on-life throng through the shining, shimmering city to the aircraft hanger, they could start drinking and watch highlights of the Olympics on the monitor at the front of the bus.
The driver – from Tamworth – went from one venue to the next picking up reporters, photographers, editors and executives. He was ecstatic to be driving through the Olympic city at this time, at this moment in history, with the Cathy Freeman victory lap looping on the screen above his head. He grabbed the microphone and yelled, “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!” – and the passengers – some of whom had recently been in the war-torn Balkans and were not prone to nationalistic chanting -were so touched by his middle aged boyish love for his country and pride in the Games, that they gave an answering, “Oi, oi, oi.”
Fireworks ignited all over the city that night and they lit up and reflected in the windows of the bus like a liquid hallucination. “Is any of this real?” the foreign correspondents asked themselves again, as they had been asking since they arrived at the sun lit halls of Sydney Airport, exhausted, cramped, thirsty and grey from the flight.
They marvelled how everyone in this city was tanned and tall, confident and lithe. The correspondents got a serious case of life envy – these vital-looking people coming to work in their gleaming city office towers, across the water on ferries, under the bridge, pulling into the quay and entered a city that smelt of fresh coffee and the sun-infused harbour water. The locals were courteous and friendly, the women beautiful, the men sturdy, the elderly healthy and robust with their volunteer badges and thrilled, smiling eyes.
The two week assignment to the Games had not wearied the foreign correspondents but rather had seemed like a respite in Shangri-la – in a place not of this world but a kind of early paradise, and the the Games the Greek ideal of all that they should be.
As for us, the trainees – our role in the games was relatively minor. Tom was sent to the javelin and high jump and filed an amusing piece on a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea that had been dubbed Eric the Eel. Augusten worked on the crime and security team but had a quiet time of it: crime was down all across the city and there were no major, or even minor, security incidents.
Liam and Marina followed legs of the torch relay. Marina had been sent to Taree and came back with a strange, formal sort of rage and a column that ran on the internet the day before the Olympics – “Whither the games for Australia’s indigenous forgotten.”
But by the closing night party she had forgotten Australia’s forgotten. She lost herself in a packet of cocaine and then when we saw her later she was darting round the hanger like a mosquito, getting in the ear of every editor that mattered – buzzing, confident and agitating for a column.
We had been at the paper only 6 months. There were 7 of us trainees – Augusten, Tom, Ben, Cecelia, Liam, Marina and Hadley. Cecelia was assigned to Arts, Ben, business, Tom and Augusten news, Liam sections, Hadley sport and Marina – much to her disdain – was going to the internet, a part of the news organisation that she didn’t believe had “much of a future.”
On our first day at the paper in February 2000, the company CEO – a man with a thread-veined face, menacing signet rings and an interest in what he called “businesses of influence” – looked around the conference room table at us and launched into the speech he gave every year. “It will be a year you will never forget,” he said. “Working as journalists on our paper, you’ll get an insight into this city that few have. You’ll see Sydney in all its majesty and its misery. There’s always a storm going on and I want you to be in its eye – all the time. You’ll see people when they are going through the absolute worst moments of their life, and you’ll be right there, and you’ll be the first. The friendships you make with people around this table and in that newsroom will be some of the most important of your life. They will be your great allies, but also your great competitors.”
Seven months later the allies and competitors gathered in the hangar for the Olympics closing night party. Things were discordant at first – as is the way at such parties. We jostled to speak to the news editor. Tom, the most confident of us got in first, and was devastated when after a mere four minutes with him – four minutes of what he thought was a sophisticated banter about how there was bound to be a mass depression among elderly Olympics’ volunteers when the Games ended – the news editors’ eyes started to wander over and beyond Tom’s shoulder, until he spotted the Guardian’s sports editor, a man higher than him in the status stakes, who offered infinitely more pleasing social promise than a nervous trainee. Maybe there were jobs going at the Guardian? Maybe he could raise the idea of an editor exchange? He didn’t even excuse himself from Tom; he just left mid-sentence, grasping the Guardian man’s hand, leaving Tom with a mouthful of funny anecdotes left unsaid.
Liam – who only felt comfortable talking to the canteen staff or the cleaners – spent the early part of the night avoiding social interaction by sitting in the dark end of the hanger, pretending to text. That later in the night, much to his surprise, he was lip-locked with a 45 year-old anchor woman from CBS America, a fact he would late only believe when shown photographic evidence.
Ben, in a manner that would make him cringe later on, tried to ingratiate himself with some of the newspaper executives by offering up unpublishable and defamatory titbits about the brewing HIH scandal unaware that one of his audience was the HIH’s boss’ godson, while Cecelia downing white wine and standing as close to Ben as she could bear, wasn’t interested in talking to executives, or news editors, or sucking up to the overseas journalists, she just wanted, with every breath in her body, to be with Ben and she wanted it to happen tonight.
Hadley was the first to be obviously impaired. Augusten found her walking in circles around the dodgy end of the hanger, populated by Canadian pot-smoking cameramen, and a small contingent of Ghanaian athletes who had come in from what they described as a ‘lame party’ out in the village . Augusten took Hadley outside to the light September air and held her hair back while she was sick.
Back inside, there was a light and laser show then the hanger plunged into darkness, Michael Jackson’s Thriller blared, and suddenly surrounding us were professional dancers in cat suits, breathing fire and moving in sinewy, crouched formation across the floor. “It’s the Sydney Dance Company!” exclaimed Phyllis Wilson, the paper’s modern dance writer. “I recognise the floor series. I can’t believe Graham’s done this just for us!”
Darkness again and another dancer appeared soaring above our heads in tulle, enormous feather wings and a white see-through body suit. She was an angel dressed as a dancer dressed as an angel – and for Augusten, Ben, Cecelia and Tom, she was the glistening point at which their hallucinogenic drugs kicked in and the hangar became a place where there was no more wanting. An explosion of light, hectic colour, the angel overhead, the feeling that – yes – this is the centre of the universe.
The party was for most newspaper staff a three day bacchanal and was talked about for the next decade and beyond in a kind of wonder.
People remembered different things. Simon Krettler, the portly property editor remembered part of the hangar had been transformed into an off-site Tetsuya’s restaurant, with high backed chairs and heavy tables, waiters bringing out sides of beef, a pig’s head with an orange stuffed in its mouth, baby quails on a bed of endames. He ate so much that his trouser’s split and instead he had to fashion a skirt for himself from a gold-flecked table cloth. There he was in all the photos, looking like a German on a tropical island holiday.
Others remembered giant chocolate machines beside each of the makeshift bars. Someone (was it an inebriated Hadley, people asked?) tripped on the cord of a chocolate mixing machine, sending a gooey chocolate river to run down to the dance floor. Liam remembered girls falling into chocolate puddles, chocolate kisses exchanged, white evening shirts suddenly transformed from starched nothingness to a delectable treat. Things were thrown, all night and people kept slipping over. Tom, who fell heavily, was laughing so hysterically that he thought he might be ill, even though he was bleeding from the head. The blood mixed in with the chocolate and he put a towel up to the wound and went right back on dancing, because he said he didn’t feel a thing.
The fashion writer, Selwa Lush, and her best friend the personal finance journalist, Fran Pith, both struggled with eating disorders and alcohol problems. The newspapers’ in-house therapist had told them the Olympics party was bound to contain many trials but if they stuck to mineral water, they could avoid being tested too rigourously. Ha! – what did she know about parties? Both women had relinquished their much cherished self-control hours previously – how could they not? There was a man with a tray of Bellini’s who would not go away and editors who they had previously thought to be tight-asses were sharing their cocaine and their marital woes. They had crossed some threshold of excess from which they could not return and so they walked hand-in-hand down the dark void of the hangar to find a bathroom that promised a refuge of cool tiles, running water and silence. Their mouths and the backs of their throats tasted of the not unpleasant cocaine burn and it was then, at 2am they felt such a deep dread, the one that they worked so hard to keep at bay, that they felt it would be okay if they died now, on the floor of this bathroom, because at least there would be release and relief. So close to the bathroom now, so close to disappearing and they wondered why the therapist had never explained how this would feel. All those stories on sling backs and halter necks, all those news stories on Managing Your Credit Card – yet they were unable to negotiate the darkness of their own matter. Why could they learn hemlines and interest rate calculations but not themselves?
Others remembered a fire burning – a huge fire pit in the centre of the dance floor, guarded by men from the Rural Fire Service who stoked it and kept the drunks away. Yet that still didn’t stop rumours from circulating that expatriate columnist Clive James burnt the sleeve of his jumper when he fell backwards into it after slipping on some melted chocolate.
That Tom didn’t come home from the party for three days after, and then when he did he had burn marks on his fingers and around his nostrils and seemed to have swapped clothes with an athlete from Switzerland, turned out to be typical. There were people that never came home from the party. A fifty-something vest-wearing subeditor called Stan had not been seen since. Years later his payslip sat in his pigeon hole and his cardigan on the back of a chair. No-one had sighted him since he had been hoisted up onto the shoulders of Verity Lafferty, the Zimbabwean weight-lifting champion.
The news editor in a moment of deeply personal bonding with the Guardian sports editor tried a relatively new drug called Ice, smoking it in the back seat of one of the coaches. Three days and nights without sleep followed, revelations of futility and sadness and waves of fierce desire filled 100 hours. He chewed his hands ragged, he wrung out his cock on Parramatta Road, he howled in the arms of his confused wife in the 82nd hour of his calamity. He abandoned the idea of an exchange program with the Guardian.
Every epoch has its Fall of Rome moment, when things get too bright around the edges and the decadence and hedonism seems less like fun and more like a corruption.
For us, the party had felt like our beginning. We weren’t to know later that it would be seen as the end – well, the beginning of the end -that the legendry party of 2000 would be talked about as an epoch, the defining symbol of a lost golden age – not just for newspapers but for the news itself.
The year 2000 became 2001 and the world changed. Tom carried the memory of the Olympics party and the joy that had been felt in the city when he flew to Dempasar and trailed around families trying to find their children who had last been seen on the dance floor of the Sari.
Hadley, on the foreign desk, became adept at naming the provinces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and came to understand that 26 dead in a suicide bomb in a market place was not as newsworthy as a single dead allied soldier. All day, every day, the news wire feed and photo after photo of torn limbs, warped metal, bloody blood blood dropped down the screen.
Cecilia spent her days writing about the rising phenomenon of celebrity chefs, the middle-class shift towards organic, artisan food, and reactions to the latest David Williamson play. Ben was sent on what seemed to be an endless series of stakeouts outside the mansions of the latest batch of Sydney’s corporate cowboys – Jodie Rich and Rodney Adler, Bradley Cooper, and later in a sad coda of sorts, trailling Rene Rifkin from outside a private psychiatric hospital in Bronte to Silverwater prison. A month later Rivkin would be dead.
Liam was in a lower circle of hell, stuck on the same lowly paygrade for, like, ever but given the beat of covering Sydney’s white-hot property market. He was forever scrimping on expenses – bringing sandwiches and flasks of coffee from home – while spending his days in the company of Double Bay and Mosman real estate agents with coiffeurs and spivvy hair who showed him Darling Point mansions with their own moats and moorings.
Augusten was sent to Bali, Banda Ache, Villawood detention centre, the AWB Inquiry, the Kathleen Folbigg multiple child murder case, plus a stint in Canberra deep in the Howard years: the Tampa, children overboard, border protection, Siev X, those little Afghani Bakitari boys on the run, Afghan asylum seekers, activist Melbourne QCs, the Coalition of the Willing, visits to Bush’s ranch in Texas, troops in Iraq and mass protests with a hundred-thousand shouting ‘Not in My Name’.
Marina attended Botox parties and wrote about the rise of cosmetic surgery among the young. She attended Hillsong church twice a week for a month, and wrote about the rise of religion among the young. She attended a drunken and undignified dawn service in Turkey and wrote about the rise in patriotism among the young people. She was the first at the paper to join Twitter, Facebook, Second Life, My Space and Bebo. It was she who first coined the term “digital natives” about the younger generation that were to spend the rest of that decade living virtual as well as actual lives. Marina spent much of that decade trying to define her position on things, and then once she had defined it, trying to convince readers to share her opinion.
To grow up in such a decade, to plunge straight in to all its misery and majesty, to surf those years on the waves of such hellish news, to emerge somehow alive, exhausted, exhilarated and gasping in the backwash would make a good story.
But this is not the story of that decade; it is the story of what came next.
Augusten, always the wisest among us, said it was our failures that make us interesting – not our successes. It is our failures which shape us into what we are, the disruptions that make us who we become.
So let this be the tale of our failures, a catalogue of our disruptions.