Voodoo politics

IN THE '70s and early '80s, Terry Forrester was an inveterate street marcher who took every opportunity to put the boot into Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen's corrupt cops, shady lands deals and conservative government. In the further reaches of Queensland's gutter press, Terry sought to add a few facts to the many conspiracy theories swirling around Joh. His research into the premier's election funding led to questions in the Senate and earned Terry an early morning police raid with the threat of a drug bust that would send him away for life.

Terry decided that discretion was the better part of valour and he became a Queensland refugee. He moved to Sydney, got a girlfriend and found a steady job in public relations. Meanwhile, the Fitzgerald Inquiry rolled through Brisbane and Terry laughed at the nightly news as the old conspiracy theories were proved correct. A mate from the street march days was now the Labor campaign director and when the call came to work on Wayne Goss's campaign, Terry was on the next bus. The campaign director liked Terry's ability to conjure something from nothing and after the Goss victory gave him a gig as party media officer.

The early years of the Goss government were a magic time for Queensland. The change of government brought back many political refugees and unleashed the creative class. Cafes with half-reasonable coffee sprang up all over Brisbane and the cafe culture fuelled people to write plays, make art and create a vibrant scene. Andrew McGahan and John Birmingham and Nick Earls were toiling at novels redefining Brisbane and the bands of the Livid Festival provided the backbeat. Brisbane boomed. Brisbane bloomed. Brisbane blossomed into something that even a decade before would have been derided as the utopian dream of a hopeless hippie, high on magic mushrooms. Queensland was changing and anything was possible.

The gentrification of West End had only just begun so there was still the odd chance of finding a run-down old Queenslander by the river, so ensnarled in tropical vines or a family trust that it was available at a reasonable rent. Terry moved into such a place with a bunch of malcontents whose lives had interconnected with his all the way back to the street marches. His housemates were caught up in the spirit of the times and had a vision to start a circus. There was magic in the air, but not all of it was good. For every utopian dream, a nightmare from the netherworld stalks the land.


ROWDY ROWERS WOKE Terry early one morning and, as he took his constitutional through Orleigh Park with mist still rising from the river, he ran into a police cordon.

‘What's going on?' he asked, still suspicious of the Queensland police.

‘You wouldn't want to know,' the young copper replied with the arrogance of his breed.

The seven o'clock radio news had it all: some Goth girls picked up an old drunk outside the Caledonian Club and brought him down to the riverbank to drink his blood and do some vampire lesbian hocus pocus. They probably would have got away with it if they hadn't killed him and left a credit card. Who would have believed the old soak if he turned up at the Caledonian Club the following night with a story about comely blood suckers and a band-aid on his inner arm? But going for the throat was a big mistake, and if you leave your credit card at the crime scene you are clearly not in touch with any higher forces. The lesbian killer vampires were rounded up by morning tea time.

It was only a little later that Terry had his own dalliance with magic, and to this day he doesn't know if higher forces were involved or whether it was just a whole complex of coincidences. The years had made Terry a pragmatist. He knew the power of demographics and regressive analysis but he also knew that the human mind is a powerful thing and that too much tequila can warp the fabric of the time-space continuum.

‘I should never have eaten that worm,' he says. But he knows that if he didn't eat the worm then maybe Jim Soorley would never have become lord mayor of Brisbane and dragged the big country town kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.

At this time, the lord mayoralty was in the hands of the Liberals' Sallyanne Atkinson, and she had the media tamed. She'd been a journo herself, and most of the male members of the press corps had had the hots for her since they were all cadets together way back then. The younger, female journalists just wanted to be her. She had a 10 per cent margin and two-thirds of the councillors supported her. She was going to be hard to beat.

But the Labor Party had to run a candidate and, after a couple of weeks of back-stabbing, all the factions agreed on Jim Soorley, a management consultant who had just joined the party and so had no factional ties. It was a perfect solution: after the expected debacle, no faction would have to take the blame.

Jim turned out to be quite a character. He was an ex-priest whose only contact with the media had been when, in his radical priest period, he put himself in a cage in the city square to protest against the jailing of another radical priest in the Philippines. When Terry introduced Jim to the press in that same city square, they mauled him for five minutes before the campaign director ordered Terry to step in and stop the debacle.

‘Get this guy some media coverage,' the campaign director told Terry as he headed overseas for his extended study tour of great curry restaurants of the world.

Over the next three months, Jim and Terry worked hard to little effect, releasing policies on rates, roads and rubbish that were lucky to get one column inch on page thirty-five of the newspaper. In the meantime, page one saw Jim's management consultancy go belly-up, his rates information caravan totalled in a traffic accident and the finer detail of Jim's personal life explored at some length. Terry bore the brunt of the derision from ministerial spin-doctors and factional hacks.

‘This is great,' said the campaign director when he got back from his international sojourn. ‘You're getting coverage in parts of the paper that I didn't know existed. And the even better thing is that when all his stuff-ups make page one, everybody knows you are in charge. You can buy me a curry for lunch.'

Then, a couple of months out from the election, Terry was sitting alone in the kitchen of his rundown house, watching the moon rise over the river, thinking about his girlfriend in Sydney and the impossibility of the 10 per cent swing that kept him from her. He had finally convinced the campaign director to do some polling.

‘This is the last money I spend on this hopeless disaster,' the campaign director said. ‘Even if you put acid in the water and get the 10 per cent you need to get the radical priest on the cover of Newsweek, you'll never get the 18 per cent swing he needs in Fairfield to control the council.'

Terry knew he needed a drink when his housemates turned up fresh from circus training with a bottle of tequila and a burning desire to stage a voodoo ceremony in circus costume.

‘It is a special day for Erzulie, the spirit of love,' explained Sam, the punk rock fat lady. ‘We're going to make this circus happen.'

‘I'm not a dark crafts kind of guy,' Terry said. ‘I'm not a believer.'

‘What's to believe?' said Sam. ‘It's just voodoo. You don't have to believe in it for it to work.'

‘Visualisation,' said Stevie, the apprentice stonemason who gave up acrobatics after she broke a leg and now coveted the role of bearded lady. ‘It's all in the book.' She waved The Beginner's Guide to Voodoo under his nose. ‘Have a tequila while we prepare the altar.'

‘Altar,' Terry said, concerned but still taking the proffered tequila. ‘I'm against animal sacrifice of any kind.' These city kids had never seen a headless chook running around the backyard with blood pulsing from its neck.

‘Stop worrying,' said Judy, an arts administrator and circus pain merchant. ‘There won't be any animal sacrifice here because we are vegetarians.'

‘Yeah,' chimed in Amanda, acrobat and contortionist. ‘We're going to cut up a chocolate frog.'

‘Just think of it as a salamander,' said Stevie. ‘That is what it says in the book: sacrifice a salamander. Terry, you can eat the worm from the tequila because you're not a vegetarian.'

‘I get it: I do the animal sacrifice for everyone,' Terry said to no one in particular while helping himself to more tequila.

‘Where do you get a salamander?' asked Pete, the legally blind juggler. No answer came.

Sam and Stevie decorated the coffee table with plastic animals, statues of Buddha and V.I. Lenin and some tarot cards. Amanda went to get hibiscus flowers from the garden. Pride of place was taken by Judy's glow-in-the-dark plastic skull that she had bought at Silly Solly's for $2. It gave the eerie impression that those sunken pits, where eyes never were, were following you around the room.

Amanda organised people into a semi-circle around the coffee table, giving everyone the candles that were supposed to be kept for blackouts.

‘This is how it goes,' said Stevie as she started reading from the book. ‘We all chant ‘I build my house on the heads of my enemies', we all have a swig of tequila, Judy cuts up the chocolate frog ... er salamander, then we all go up to the altar one by one, leave the candle, make a wish and have a piece of chocolate frog – or in your case, Terry, the worm.'

‘And remember to keep the chant going,' said Sam. ‘I build my house on the heads of my enemies.'

‘It all sounds quite sick,' said Terry. ‘So soon after the whole lesbian vampire thing. I don't have a good feeling about this.'

‘There is no such thing as vampires,' said Sam.

‘It wouldn't be news if they weren't lesbians,' said Stevie.

‘I have no enemies,' said Terry.

‘I wouldn't say that,' said Pete quietly.

‘Alright,' said Sam. ‘Let the chanting begin.'

They all started as one: ‘I build my house on the heads of my enemies. I build my house on the heads of my enemies.' Terry had half a thought that they had done this before but you don't have much time to think in a voodoo ceremony.

Stevie had the last swig of tequila, shook the marinated worm on to the altar and stroked her chin as she gave Terry a meaningful look. Then she bent down to the box on the floor and pulled out a live carpet snake which she wrapped around her shoulders.

Terry could not avoid joining the chant: ‘I build my house on the heads of my enemies, I build my house on the heads of my enemies.'

The circus folk began to go to the coffee table altar to leave a candle, make their wish for a circus and eat frog. Then it was Terry's turn, but when it came to the wish, he was inconclusive: ‘Can we win the election? Whatever. Here's hoping I end up in the same city as my girlfriend.' Fat chance on any of that, he thought. And then he ate the worm.

The ceremony went on and the chanting came to a climax with people beating out the rhythm on tables and chairs and their bodies. ‘I build my house on the heads of my enemies, I build my house on the heads of my enemies.' Then someone put on Van Morrison doing Into the Mystic and they danced out into the moonlit garden. A great voodoo time was had by all.


NEXT DAY AT work, Terry got the raw data from the election survey. It confirmed how hopeless the campaign was, but down the bottom of page eight, in the free response section, eight people thought Sallyanne was paid too much, five said she was only interested in herself and three said she was arrogant. That was 4 per cent of the respondents who volunteered something negative about the incumbent but it was a glimmer of hope for the campaign. Terry put out a press release saying Sallyanne was aloof, arrogant and paid too much while Jim was hands on and would take a pay cut.

Negativity works and suddenly the media were interested. Jim was on page five and, though the story began with Sallyanne attacking him for getting into the gutter, all her negatives were stated. Terry did a graph for the Sunday paper comparing the lord mayor's salary to the prime minister's and by Monday talkback radio had picked up the issue. All the callers agreed that no matter how much a politician was paid, it was too much. Jim was pissed off about the pay cut but this was a great victory for the campaign and the campaign director invited Terry to go Dutch on a curry lunch.

Terry was on a roll, and the next day he convinced Jim to highlight their recycling policy by having his photo taken in a wheelie bin. The photo was so quirky that it made page three then went national.

Later that week, a conspiracy theorist from Terry's past rang from a pay phone beside a major arterial road: ‘Hey, I see you're finally doing something with your campaign. You should check out the garbage contract that council is negotiating. It's an environmental nightmare and the mafia are involved. I've got to get off the phone before they trace the call.'

On a whim, Terry popped into the State Library and found the details of the parent company of the garbage contractor. Its registered headquarters were in Chicago. This was before the World Wide Web, but Terry used the library's computer to do a newspaper search for the parent company and the terms ‘environment' and ‘mafia'. About fifteen seconds later, the librarian came rushing out from behind her desk to remonstrate with Terry for overloading the system.

‘There's a hundred and forty-two stories,' the librarian explained, ‘and that is too much for the system. Your only option is to print them out but that will cost $125.'

‘Start printing,' Terry said. ‘I'll be back with the cash.'

Finally Terry had a story on page one that didn't involve Jim's business or personal problems. The campaign director produced a nicely symmetrical chart: Sallyanne had The Super-Dump, Labor had recycling; she was in bed with the mafia, Labor wanted accountability, she was Salary-Anne, Jim would take a pay cut. Timing, in politics as in comedy, is everything.

A wild trip of a campaign ensued that ended when Jim won the mayoralty with a 10 per cent swing and Labor won a majority of councillors with an 18 per cent swing in Fairfield ward. Everyone who had derided Terry's early efforts was now claiming responsibility and the campaign director bought Terry curry at the swankiest restaurant in town.

Terry took a week off and went to Sydney where his girlfriend tried to dump him. Back in Brisbane, Jim wouldn't give Terry a job because he knew far too much. But Terry still had the job in party office and he realised that it was a good time to talk to the bank manager about a loan.

He started looking for a house and in the next six months he was out-bid and gazumped on a selection of Brisbane's worst hovels. Then one day he answered an ad in the paper and the real estate agent took him to a place with a great view of the freeway. Terry explained the aesthetic problem. Next the real estate agent took him to a place where you could almost hear the termites munching away. Terry explained the maintenance problem. The real estate agent said something strange. He said: ‘I'm going to sell you a house today.' Then he took Terry to a pleasant, solid house in Fairfield, overlooking a park with a cool breeze wafting through the windows.

‘What's downstairs?' Terry asked.

‘Storage,' the real estate agent said. ‘Want to see?'

The downstairs storage area was locked but, by wriggling the bolt, Terry opened the door and stooped to get under the house. There were boxes of discarded household goods, egg-beaters, colanders and the like. There was a suitcase of Masonic paraphernalia. And against the back wall there was a pile of plastic signs favoured by real estate agents and election campaigns.

‘What are these?' Terry asked the real estate agent.

‘I think the owner was running in the council election,' the real estate agent replied.

Terry lifted up the sign, turned it around and saw that it extolled the virtues of the now-failed Liberal candidate for Fairfield. He smiled and knew that he was about to build his house on the heads of his enemies.

The financial details were duly sorted and Terry asked his girlfriend up from Sydney. She took one look at the house and said: ‘I could never live here.'

Nevertheless, she took Terry to a motel and three weeks later she was on the phone to say that she was pregnant. Terry had to move to Sydney to share parenting responsibilities. ‘I can tell from the house that you're committed,' she said. Terry moved to Sydney but kept the house in Fairfield and it has since quadrupled in value. Jim remained mayor for twelve years, Terry's voodoo friends got a government grant and set up their circus, and the campaign director retired from politics to set up a chain of curry shops.

Terry Forrester does not drink much tequila these days, and so has fewer dark nights of the soul, but when they come he just puts it down to the spirit Erzulie rattling in the trees, looks in on his kid and remembers that anything can happen when there is magic in the air.


Editor's Note: This article was incorrectly listed as 'Memoir' in the print edition of Hidden Queensland. 'Voodoo Politics'  is the second step in a long-term discontinuous narrative about the intrusion of mystical moments into Terry Forrester's mundane life.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review