Kalgoorlie is an hour long flight inland from Perth, the world’s most isolated city. Off the back of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival I’d been offered a slot on a package show of stand-up’s touring Western Australia. It was reading a description of Kalgoorlie, where we were to play two nights, that convinced me to sign up for the full month. The 1996 edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Australia had little to say about the town other than that its 30 000 strong population was largely comprised of gold miners, and the strippers and prostitutes that serviced them, with men at one point outnumbering women 100-1. When I started stand-up again last year I conceived various strategies to try and keep it interesting for myself, and one of them was doing gigs I usually wouldn’t have considered – late night Edinburgh Fringe bear-pits, tiny theatres on remote Scottish islands, and shows in village halls and isolated pubs on the moors of various English National Parks. Kalgoorlie was a place I couldn’t imagine myself going down especially well, and I had no reference points at all for what performing there would be like. It seemed ideal.
I came out of Kalgoorlie-Boulder airport into a vast semi-circular domed black-blue sky, with the moon hanging heavy and low over thousands of miles of empty desert. I got a cab to the Railway Motel with Sam Simmons, a young absurdist comic from Melbourne. The driver said he was knocking off soon as his ‘tinny-squeezing’ hand was getting restless. I thought he said ‘titty-squeezing’ hand. My progressive deafness and intermittent tinnitus were combining with my prejudices about Kalgoorlie to create a new strain of non-existent Western Australian sexual slang to replace the region’s already thorough lexicon of euphemisms for heavy drinking. But I liked the idea of a titty-squeezing hand. It reminded me of the Arab tradition that you always wipe your arse with your left hand, keeping the right one clean for holy tasks.
One percent of the world’s gold comes out of an enormous hole on Kalgoorlie’s Eastern Bypass road. Well-paid young men work impossible shifts for ten years, and quit before they burn out. All the bars in town are staffed by skinny girls in tiny bras and pudenda-hugging shorts, known locally as Skimpies. A cab driver we spoke to said the Skimpies are mainly English backpackers working in relative anonymity far from home. He seemed angry about this, as if jobs were being taken off decent Australian girls who were also prepared to serve beer in states of near nudity. One of the pubs advertises ‘Sydney Girls – Live’. In 19th Century Tombstone Arizona, Chinese or French women fetched the highest value. Here the notion of Sydney seems impossibly exotic. Across town, Hay Street’s many brothels, described as ‘historic’ in the Lonely Planet book, offer a full range of sexual services as well as daily tours for curious onlookers.
Backstage in the dressing room of the theatre where we were to perform was a framed good luck message from Kevin Bloody Wilson, a crude Australian old-school comic, whose British tours are sponsored by the rapist’s choice of newspaper, The Sunday Sport. Bloody Wilson cut his teeth hosting strip-shows in Kalgoorlie. The sign said he had paid for the plastic chairs backstage so that other performers could relax, which was kind of him.
The show itself was fine. Everybody’s best bits worked the best and there was no need to play safe. The Irish-Australian comic Dave Callan hosted delightfully. Jackie Kashian, who is from Wisconsin, found some small town common ground. The 4 Noels, a New Zealand trio of physical theatre types, did interesting stuff that a Comedy Store or Jongleurs crowd wouldn’t have had the patience to tune into. And Sam Simmons performed a lengthy dance in which he assumed the persona of a sexually aroused cat whilst dressed in a blue boiler suit. I had lots of fun dismantling what I was doing and dragging the audience along with it. The Australian comic Greg Fleet had promised me an auditorium where fights would break out during the show, but instead a smart and attentive crowd lapped up all the good stuff.
Afterwards we all went to a big Wild-West style bar in a 19th century hotel called The Exchange. As we walked in, half the pub, who had been in the show, applauded. We got a standing ovation half an hour after the show had ended. And in a different building. People came up to us and thanked us for coming, but they weren’t mad, or annoying, or oppressive, just charming and grateful. The Skimpies were working behind the bar. I didn’t know where to look, and found ordering a Guinness acutely embarrassing. That said, the pub was full of women drinkers and couples, so it obviously wasn’t an issue for most Kalgoorlie people. Near the pool table, big mining men were punching each other in their chests and shoulders and shouting and spitting, but it all seemed good-natured.
There were three TV screens in the room. Two played sports, whilst one, inexplicably, showed a sub-titled documentary about European arts cinema hosted by Martin Scorcesse. The bar stools were saddles on legs, which was good for posture and, unlike most places in Australia, you could smoke, so there was a proper 20th century pub atmosphere. Calendars of the Exchange’s Skimpy girls were given away free at the bar, and showed the ladies out in the desert posing seductively in bras and shorts near the heads of pits or in front of heavy mining machinery.
After midnight the Skimpies came round with glasses asking for people, both men and women, to put money in the ‘kiddy-kitty’. Having earlier misheard the word ‘tinny’ as ‘titty’ I now realised I has misheard the word ‘titty’ as ‘kiddy’ and, rather than giving money to sick children, had had in fact unwittingly contributed to a fund encouraging the bar staff to work topless, which they now did, although with masking tape over their nipples to circumvent some local quirk of licensing laws. Call me a politically correct square, but I do not believe anyone should have to work naked. Soon after the bar staff’s breasts had been unveiled a Kalgoorlie man offered our tour manager Edwina $50 to take off her top. It was interesting to me that the un-displayed breasts had now become a focus of more interest to the man than those already available to his eye. I suppose we always want that which we cannot have. The forbidden breasts have a premium value. Edwina chanced her arm and said she would do it for $1000. The man offered $60, which is quite frankly insulting. This was not enough, and the haggling soon ended, though amicably.
In the morning we had a day off in Kalgoorlie. I’d just come off a week touring New Zealand. The second hand bookshops on the South Island were amazing, full of rare, out-of-print, esoteric, 19th and 20th century European literature, and I scored lost classics by Algernon Blackwood, John Cowper Powys, David Jones, Andre Gide, Thomas Love Peacock, Raymond Radiguet, Eric Linklatter and Neil M Gunn, which I posted home at a cost of $160 NZ. In Wellington the shopkeeper had been so impressed with my purchases he gave me a half hour free lecture on Powys’ life and works, and directed me to a book by his less well known brother, which I got for $9. I wondered if the volume and quality of great books stashed on the South Island of New Zealand had anything to do with the kind of people that emigrated, and when they arrived.
Applying the same speculations to Kalgoorlie was a little dispiriting. There was one second-hand bookshop and everything in it was airport blockbusters with embossed covers or true crime compendiums with titles like Children Who Kill or 20 Great Australian Murders. Where were the readers of Kalgoorlie? Did the people of Kalgoorlie not know that the unexamined life was not worth living? No. They did not. Nevertheless, to its inhabitants, Kalgoorlie was a goldmine. Literally.
Edwina offered to drive us out of town in the mini-bus to see the sights. First of all we stopped at the Super Pit, a massive man-made crevasse, the Grand Canyon of goldmines. A local guidebook said the trucks at the bottom look like Tonka Toys. It was clearly written by someone yet to grasp the idea of perspective. “This place is a hole,” said Sam, which is exactly the kind of joke I love, like walking around a Salvador Dali exhibition and declaring each painting to be ‘surreal’.
The Lonely Planet book recommended the 2-Up arena, five km out of town, up a dirt track. 2-Up is a traditional Australian game in which bets are taken on which way up two coins thrown against a wall will land. At one point it was banned due to players becoming totally broke. We drove off road into the bush, red dirt billowing up and green parrots bursting out of the eucalyptus trees. Lonely Planet said the 2-Up arena was open from 3.30 to 7pm daily but when we got there the site was in disarray. The arena was a collapsing corrugated iron shed. In the centre of a ring of broken benches was a concrete floor. It stood alone in a clearing and felt like something pagan you’d find in the Orkneys or on the Isle Of Lewis. A little way off, the remains of a corrugated iron fence had the word LADIES spray painted on it. Behind it a broken toilet stood exposed to the elements. The lid was on the floor. Edwina lifted it up and a bull ant blinked into the sun. Sam and Jesse from the 4 Noels stood on a pile of discarded Fanta cans and imagined a local ritual whereby those who had transgressed the law were Fanta-d to death in the 2-Up Arena. Whatever the site’s secrets, it was clear that the idea of going to watch people throw coins on the floor was no longer as popular as it had been in 1996 when the Lonely Planet guide was published. All people want to see these days is semi-naked women serving beer. What happened to the old traditions?
At 2.45 pm we arrived at the big 181 Hay Street brothel for the three o’clock tour. There aren’t any tours at night, when the place is presumably busy with genuine punters who don’t want to be gawped at. I don’t know why I thought the Brothel tour was a good idea. In Tombstone Arizona the legends of the Soiled Doves are seen through the gauze of history and myth. Here you’re just a voyeur. Kalgoorlie isn’t a theme park of a gold rush frontier town. It is a gold rush frontier town.
Outside, Jackie was taking photos. In the windows of the Brothel there were 70’s shop window dummies of women in flimsy dresses. “Look,” said Sam, “mannequin whores. I wonder if an old miner with no money has ever stood outside here looking at a mannequin and whacked off.” This made me laugh, but I patronisingly reminded him that we were about to enter a place of work, and that we shouldn’t say ‘whore’ as it would be offensive to the…. whores. I realised that I was approaching the Brothel with the same attitude I would go around the Vatican. I don’t understand what motivates prostitutes or their clients anymore than I understand the religious impulse, but even so I hate seeing tourists in churches chewing gum and wearing hats. When in Rome…
The tour leaflet encouraged us to enjoy ‘the sometimes amusing, but all too often sad, stories of the working girls.” I wondered how the actual women working in the Brothel felt about the fact that their lives were being described by their own employer as ‘all too often sad.’ Did the Madam who wrote the text mean this, or was she looking for a ‘human angle’ with which to market the place to tourists?
We went in and stood in the Brothel gift shop. You could buy academic tomes on the history of prostitution in Kalgoorlie, postcards of all the prostitutes, and the madam, and of the rooms, which were all themed. One of them was made up to look like a cheap motel room, like the cheap motel room I was staying in five minutes down the road, except slightly better furnished. You could also buy a laminated copy of the Brothel price list. It explained that girls were not obliged to offer services other than vaginal or oral sex without special arrangements. ‘Greek’ sex was $400 an hour. An hour would be enough for anyone I imagine, especially if bouzoukis were involved. It was while looking at the laminated price list that the five of us, three men and two women, reached the unspoken realisation that the Brothel tour wasn’t really for us.
Outside, I felt stupid. What had I imagined it would be like in there? Despite the fact that the Brothel had a coffee shop and a gift store something morally mysterious and ethically vague was still happening there, and in strictly delineated timeslots. Would we have been complicit in endorsing it by going on the tour? Or would we have contributed a little to alleviating a mystique that surrounds an ageless, arguably harmless and apparently necessary transaction? A sex worker once spent a few hours trying to convince me that stand-up comedians were the same as prostitutes, sharing something of themselves that is traditionally private with paying punters. I don’t know if I agree. And either way, on a good night I can make more that $400 an hour.
Not on this tour though. But it doesn’t matter. The second show was even better. I told the audience of 700 that they were all miners and prostitutes and should go home to their holes in the ground or their brothels where they all live, and they loved it.
Two days later, in the coastal town of Bunbry, I read an interview with the madam of the 181 Hay Street Brothel. She said business was bad. Pre-marital sex and an influx of families and young professionals into Kalgoorlie was hitting the oldest profession hard. The tours were an attempt to make 181 Hay street ‘recession proof’. So I was wrong about Kalgoorlie being a real frontier town. Already, like Tombstone Arizona, Kalgoorlie was becoming a museum of itself. In Llechwed, North Wales, former slate mine employees are employed to dress up as slate miners and display slate mining skills in a slate mining museum housed in the former slate mine where they used to work as actual slate miners. Soon, former 181 Hay Street girls will be re-employed to re-enact their own earlier careers for the benefit of tourists, in the very same rooms where they once worked a different market. Moral crusaders failed to clean up Kalgoorlie. Economics will do it for them.
I’m glad I saw Kalgoorlie while it still had something of its frontier flavour. Everything about it is exciting and strange. I would like to come here again and do an two hour set in the 2-Up arena by torchlight, with parrots flying around, in front of an audience clutching fanta cans. Then I would like to spend all the profits on one night in the Brothel’s fake motel room. Alone. With a mannequin whore.