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Stranger #3 Scott - Summernats


Summer is the time of festivals in Australia: music, children’s and craft.  There is something for everyone, all activities are catered for.  The first weekend in January sees Summernats prick the  Canberra bubble; the festival of all things to do with cars. Big and small cars, old and new cars, cars that have been upgraded, cars that make a lot of noise.  Most of the weekend takes place at Exhibition Park In Canberra (EPIC) to the north of us, just along Northbourne Ave, but some of it spills over onto the main route into the city, and to Braddon for the Summernats Fringe, and anywhere else where a good burn out can be achieved.

The previous week sees cars and cars with trailers with other cars in them; cars too precious to be driven to Canberra, arrive.  The noise level on Northbourne Ave goes up.  Cars revving at the lights, cars dragging other, more normal vehicles, off at the lights.  Cars with sound systems so big they take up the entire backseat.  They all seem to play very bad gangster rap, no Ed Sheeran here.  We have witnessed this in previous years and decided, for the sake of our sleep, we will have to go and stay with relatives on the southside of the city.

This invasion to the otherwise mainly middle-class sedate world of the ACT has both its advocates and detractors.  The territory government is keen for everyone to know the financial benefits of hosting such an event: the weekend brings in millions of dollars to the local economy.  In an otherwise quiet period on the tourist calendar January sees hotels booked out, restaurants full to capacity and culture events, like the Egyptians exhibition at the National Museum, (surprising to some) fully ticketed.

The detractors cite the drinking, violence and other unruly behaviour of the visitors to Canberra and that this overrides the many financial benefits of the event.  (The most senior traffic cop called the visitors ‘sub-species of humans' suggested an IQ test at the border in a presser this week). I am viewing this as an opportunity to talk to at least one person I would probably not come across in my everyday life and find out something about their lives.

A quick viewing online of the program persuades me that there is nothing at EPIC I would want to pay the entry fee for.  The idea of watching burnouts, mullet competitions or modified lawnmowers go through their paces is really not for me, so I opt for hanging out at the free Fringe event in Braddon.  Billed as  “three nights of awesome cars parked up, great food and drinks, live music and mates,” I think that may be more my scene.  

Lonsdale Street has long been the centre of Summernats.  Back in the day when this area was car yards and light industry it did not bother anyone much, but now the street is lined with apartments with restaurants, cafes and bars below.  There are a number of food trucks that park up at the weekends and the main roundabout is surrounded by circles in rainbow colours indicating to the world that this a safe space for gay people.

On the Saturday we attend, I go with my partner as I do not feel 100% safe. We arrive early to watch the crowds roll in, and they do.  The new streetscape, half finished and designed to slow traffic and make the street more pedestrian friendly, is buzzing.  Souped up cars with bright colours and engines sticking out of the bonnets, cruise up the length of Lonsdale Street, some of them having difficulty traversing the new wombat zebra crossings.  The lowering of the car on the chassis was not expected to ever deal with speed humps at low speed. As a Torana with eight things sticking out of the bonnet covered in soft foam straddled the crossing, the driver hits the multi-toned horn to hurry up a silver scooter in front.  The rider dressed in the kind of outfit racing car drivers wear, and a white helmet with wings extending from the top, takes no notice and continues to pootle along the road at a very low speed.  He is also part of this parade.

Other cars are parked up with the bonnets popped so anyone can take a look in.  Many people walk up and down inspecting, nodding and admiring the cars as works of art and engineering.  All to the 1980s music being pumped out from the rainbow roundabout. We take up a position at the Assembly, outside, to watch the spectacle.

We share a table with two men dressed in black.  They are making their way through a jug of Pimms, or something similar. They are both scrolling on their phones showing each other photos of action that has happened during the day at EPIC.  I ask one of them if they have a car they are showing.  They both reply they are helping a friend.  “He has the car, we have the drink and we share both”, says the one to my left.  They go on to explain, in turns, that they attend most years, it is a highlight of the calendar, where they feel they can be their true selves.  One of them gets a message and they leave to meet their friend.

As I talk to the two men I am aware that I am not finding it easy to be at ease with them.  It may be that my partner is beside me, it may be that both of them look a little intimidating (very tall, tattoos, bulked up bodies and are barely more than monosyllabic in their answers to my questions), or it may be my pre-determined assumptions I have of people who attend Summernats and how they behave, or a mixture of all three.  The conversation is disjointed, not as smooth as it usually is.

In his book “Talking to Strangers; what we should know about the people we don’t know” (2019) Malcolm Gladwell investigates the death of Sandra Bland, an African American who was stopped for a possible traffic violation then arrested and jailed for not getting out of her car.  Three days later she had died by her own hand.  Gladwell looks back at moments in history where two strangers meet each other. Starting with Montezuma and Cortez, moving on to Chamberlain and Hitler and then to more modern interactions, he teases out three reasons that people cannot and do not understand the meaning of the words they say to each other, even if they are speaking the same language. Assumptions, understanding and coupling are the three things that stop us being able to know the other.  

We all make assumptions about other people from the first moment we look at them.  It is a kind of shorthand thinking that others in our group will understand.  I can tell people I know about the black t-shirt and mullet wearing, tatooed, bulked up bogans I saw at Summernats and each of them can see a picture in their head they would recognise, and the assumptions they have about this group will fall into place.  This, of course, does not mean that we understand, in any way, who Summernats attendees are or what they are attending for, but we trust that we do.    These assumptions and lack of understanding coupled with the actual circumstances we think we know the other, but do not. (The circumstances at Summernats are the environment, the events, the expectations of the organisers and event attendees.) 

Gladwell is at pains to point out, in his conclusion, we have no choice in interacting with strangers but we could learn how to do this in an improved way.  We cannot assume that the stranger will be or think like us, or that we can change their thinking.  He returns to the incident he is investigating, Sandra Bland and the Texas Highway Patrol officer Brian Encinca.  The officer trusted the manual and training he was given.  He trusted those that compiled the documents understood and knew what they were writing about.  Bland trusted that she, when stopped by the police and challenged the reason for the stop, would be talked to in a reasonable manner and they would tell her what violation she was in breach of.  (The transcript of the conversation makes this very clear).  In the officer’s world there was an assumption that ALL drivers could be categorised by the tone of their voice, how fidgety they were when stopped, and what sort and how many fast-food wrappers they had visible in their car.  Even though these two strangers spoke the same language they had very different assumptions coupled with the power differential the officer held (including a hand-gun) tipping the balance and exacerbating the emotions in the situation.  

I bear these things in mind as I try to engage in conversation, keeping my assumptions at bay.  I want to listen to understand what it is about the cars, the festival, that makes it such a popular thing that people truly love and keeps them returning each year.

Next a couple sit down at the shared table.  They are debating what to eat and drink.  She, dressed in floaty summer dress, is very keen to thank us for the use of the end of the table but not so keen to engage in conversation.  Maybe attendees of Summernats (she and her partner both wore the wrist tags) are very suspicious of people who look like me, without wrist bands.

I turn my attention to the three fellas sitting behind me.  Two of the three of them in the regulation black T-shirt.  They are consuming Expresso Martinis.  As a way in, I ask what they are pointing to the attractive black drinks in the cocktail glasses.  We fall into a conversation.  Scott tells me he is local and his two friends are visiting him for a fun weekend.  The coffee martinis are a pick me up so they can keep going all evening.  I ask if this is a usual weekend night out.  Scott tells me he does not usually do anything as he has two young children and he is suffering now as he and his mates were out the night before and when he was trying to sleep his kids did not want to.  “Their needs are my needs now” he says.  They are planning to visit EPIC on Sunday when it is a little less rowdy, but until then they are happy to watch the world of rev heads from the comfort of the Assembly windows.

We move on to why Summernats is a thing in Canberra, the most middle-class, highly employed, highly educated place in the country.  Scott explains that Summernats has been returning for many years.  He points to the apartments opposite.  Summernats was here well before the yuppification of Braddon.  We both agree there are benefits, especially when you have a young family, to living in such a safe place: schools are good, employment prospects are good and, it being the national capital, there is always something going on. Canberra is a bubble and the Summernats invasion of strangers can feel like a violation of the safe space.

Scott points to his mate, Jamie, and says he lives in Yackandandah, Victoria.  He works at Yack Distillery, as stated on his black shirt.  I am interested in what they distill and I get a list: gin, vodka, rum and a bit of beer.  I also get an invitation to visit and look him up.  Ben, to the right of Scott, is lost on his phone.  Scott explains “He is missing his other half.”  

I am interested to know what is so attractive about the cars.  Scott explains to me that it is admiring another man’s craft; the work, the engineering, the time.  I understand that part.  I tell them about my crochet projects and how I admire most crafts because I appreciate the skill, time and effort that goes into something that is hand made.  Jamie suggests a collaboration between Scott, who owns an old car, and me.  I could crochet seat covers!  Not a thing I have ever thought about but I think some of the old Holden Station Wagons I have seen would benefit from granny square seat covers in suitable 70s orange and browns..

I take my leave when our food arrives.  We watch the cars, people and activity.  My partner points out that no-one we can see looks happy.  Cars are a serious business.  We spend the rest of our evening out promenading the length of Lonsdale Street looking at the motor cars and trying to admire the work that has gone into them.  I attempt another conversation but no one was open to that, maybe the suspicion works both ways. 

As we travel home again I realise I did not talk to a dedicated Summernats aficionados.  No large tatoos, no talk about a particular car, no mullets. Although I attempted to chat with attendees of the festival, I self-selected a nice, safe looking group, who I made assumptions about. I did learn some things though: Yackandandah has two distilleries, people love Canberra as a place to live and enjoy living in a bubble as they feel safe, and it is not going to be as easy as I first thought to engage with people who are completely different from me.


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