Sunday, March 09, 2008

Get Innocuous!

When our party arrived in the city this morning we didn't intend to participate in Melbourne's fifty-somethingth annual Moomba festival and in fact a forceful argument can be made that we didn't actually participate, despite occasionally (maybe, from certain angles) giving the impression that we were. Yes, our party was at various times in the vicinity of all the getting together and fun having, and may even have inadvertently wandered through the main Moombazone and had to brush loose flakes of fun from our shoulders and toupees so in the thick of it were we. But if we participated, if we did indeed get together and have fun, then it was accidental and largely unnoticed by even the most gotten-together and fun-having members of our party.

If you're not blessed with a Victorian passport you might be wondering what on earth is this "Moomba". Briefly, Moomba is a four-day festival traditionally celebrated over the Labour Day weekend in the sunny bayside city of Melbourne. The weird thing about Moomba is that unlike most civic/religious/cultural festivals, but in common with, say, the human vermiform appendix, Moomba has no raison d'etre, it merely is. Which doesn't really explain what this festival that merely is is, but does go some way toward explaining what it isn't, which is of course: relevant.

But what is it? Well, imagine a school fĂȘte or a seasonal beachside fun fair or a rural agricultural show minus the animals but plus twenty-thousand half-dressed teenagers. Add various river activities (competitive water-skiing, dragon boat races, random drownings), a parade of themed floats (the theme being, broadly, innocuousness), fireworks, a Birdman Rally (explanation to follow), and an atmosphere of officially-sanctioned partying down and you've got the big mess of what-the-fuck that Melburnians are slightly bemused to call Moomba.

Probably the most interesting thing about Moomba, and the thing that outsiders are most likely to know about it, is the strange history of the festival's name. Even the official history (big pdf) acknowledges that the festival owes its name to a brazen piece of political subversion that has since transcended its context to become one the most durable practical jokes in Australian history:
One of the federation jubilee events of 1951 was an Aboriginal theatre production called An Aboriginal Moomba: Out of the Dark. It was staged at the Princess Theatre with an all-Aboriginal cast. Organised by the Australian Aborigines League at the urging of Pastor Doug Nicholls, this performance sought to promote Aboriginal rights and culture in southeastern Australia, thus operating as a political tool. Intense colonisation of the southeast had rendered Aborigines of the region almost invisible, and the theatre production hoped to redress this.

When a name was needed for Melbourne’s new festival, Bill Onus, president of the Australian Aborigines League and a performer in the earlier jubilee event, suggested ‘Moomba’ to the Melbourne City Council. The name had been successful for the theatre production and the council believed it to mean ‘let’s get together and have fun’.
The official history relates that the good citizens of Melbourne proceeded to moomba their brains out by the Yarra each March and - a clear indication of how self-assured white middle-class society was in the mid-20C - it wasn't until the late sixties that anybody bothered to consult further on the etymology of "moomba" and it was discovered that the whole thing was a big prank. It turns out that in certain local Aboriginal languages "moom" means "buttocks" or "anus" and "ba" can mean either "at", "in" or "on". "Moomba" can therefore be translated into the vernacular as "up your bum". (The racial-political motive behind the joke is obvious, but Snopes provides an unattributed statement that suggests that Onus was also a "staunch unionist" who may have suggested the name in order to undermine the new Chamber of Commerce-sanctioned festival.)

It is probably another indication of how self-assured white middle-class society was in the mid-20C that this revelation presaged zip save the ongoing and increasing success of the Moomba festival. The City of Melbourne continued to put it on, the people of Melbourne continued to patronise it in their thousands. You have to remember this was in the days before the internet and pay tv, so there probably wasn't much else to do, but still the popularity and longevity of this fundamentally meaningless festival is impressive. In 2008 it's still going strong, and every year articles appear in Melbourne's newspapers rebuking the festival's critics and pointing out "why we still love Moomba", although the reasons offered as to why we still love Moomba are generally along the lines of us having always loved Moomba, because that's what one does with Moomba, one loves it.

But does one love Moomba? Actually, no, one doesn't. To not love Moomba is to flirt - maybe even make out a little - with the demon of elitism, but I offer in my defense the following facts: 1) that I am myself a lower-middle-class white person from the 'burbs who is dressed exclusively by Jeans West and Target and who has almost zero sense of hipness and therefore is in no position to be criticising the average Moomba attendee or their idea of fun; and 2) that I have never loved Moomba, not even when I was a kid and incapable of even falsifying a hip persona for the purpose of criticising the average Moomba attendee and their idea of fun. Know this: my Moomba-loathing is not a pose, it is as innate to my being as my sense of bitter regret or that weird lump on my left shoulder.

Moomba to me is a dead zone of incomprehensible voices booming from PAs, noisy rides that give me motion sickness just thinking about them (if I'm ever dragged off to Room 101 to face my worst fear I'm certain I'll find something like this waiting for me), overpriced food, groping teenagers, leering carnies (or at least the local equivalent whom our party, with admittedly some latent hipster elitism, dubbed moomba-loombas), shouting red-faced young men not used to engaging with their children outside of the relatively sound-proof environs of their homes, prematurely-aged young women not used to having to engage with their shouting red-faced husbands at all, heat, dust, flies, locusts (plague of), etc.

Moomba takes the worst things about the Royal Melbourne Show and conveniently assembles them on the banks of the Yarra, 'pon which still further mind-numbing entertainment is being enacted. Water skiing looks like fun but curiously enough isn't all that much fun to look at. Once you've seen one decent jump and one decent stack you've pretty much milked the sport's entertainment sacs dry. I don't think I've ever seen a dragon boat race but I'm willing to bet that real dragons aren't involved and that therefore the "dragon boat race" is really just a plain old "boat race" only with, hmm, let's see, dragons painted on the boats or something.

The main event on the river is the traditional Birdman Rally, which our party was lucky enough to witness this afternoon. I say "lucky" in the sense of "lucky we were witnessing the Moomba Birdman Rally rather than, say, having our eyeballs pecked out by hungry crows". If since the demise of Hey Hey, It's Saturday you've felt starved of contrived wackiness/zaniness then the Birdman Rally is the event you've been searching for. The idea is that members of the public build rudimentary aircraft and/or dress up like birds and leap off a raised platform into the murky Yarra, with the winner being the person who manages to fly or glide the furthest (and presumably who doesn't subsequently succumb to a water-borne infection).

Sound like a laugh? It is - if you're five years old and/or stoned. Anybody else both gets the concept - it's wacky! it's zany! - and gets tired of the concept within seconds of the contest starting. The thing is, there is no way that a contestant can be true to the wacky/zany component of the Rally and its implicit-if-underplayed amateur aeronautical aspirations. Some of the gliders work quite well, which is impressive from a technical standpoint but disappointing in that you're not there to see things work well, you're there to see wacky/zany. But the contestants who bring the w/z to the fore are just as dull because all they do is put on a costume and plummet more or less directly into what we'll diplomatically refer to as the "water".

When our party wasn't staring blankly at Rob from Brighton dressed as a purple chicken diving to his certain death in the pursuit of a cash prize (or whatever the winning birdperson gets, aside from their stomach pumped), we were mulling the resilience of this strange festival. Melbourne City councillor Carl Jetter suggests that the festival's conservatism is its fundamental appeal: "After 53 years I think the highlight is that the festival hasn't changed much. I think nowadays it is still popular because it hasn't had too many dramatic changes." For the record, our party tabled a number of theories including plain old nostalgia, the economic strength of middle-Australia asserting itself in the cultural realm, and even civic jealousy of the more organic festivals that have developed in other major cities such as Sydney's Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras and Hobart's Stupid Hat Day. Ultimately we decided that whatever the reason for its ongoing popularity, and whatever its problems, Moomba is benign and probably not worth losing sleep over. (Let's not debate whether it's worth writing a long and ungainly post about.) Festivals built on high ideals (eg. nationalism, religion, French cinema) can be divisive - Moomba avoids this by having no ideals save for "having fun" and "not mentioning that embarrassing 'up your bum' thing". The only serious question the harmlessly diverting Moomba festival raises is what kind of effect a surfeit of harmless diversion has on a society. As the candle is now guttering and the cows mewing for their midnight milking, I'll leave that question for another day and another idiotically extended post or, what is more likely, simply never mention it again.


Anonymous said...

"I don't think I've ever seen a dragon boat race but I'm willing to bet that real dragons aren't involved and that therefore the "dragon boat race" is really just a plain old "boat race" only with, hmm, let's see, dragons painted on the boats or something."

Idiot. Dragon Boat races originate from China and is a rich cultural and festive occasion celebrated by Chinese and Westerners alike. It's a 40 feet narrow boat with 20 paddlers plus a drummer and a steerer. Organized internationally by the International Dragon Boat Federation. Here's something for your education:

Next time, do some research before sprouting ignorant trash.

Tim said...

Yeah, no shit. The sentence was facetious in intent - I've attended more than a few Up Your Bum Waterfests in my time, sonny Jim - but leaving that aside the fact remains that a dragon boat race 1) doesn't involve actual dragons, and 2) is really a "plain old boat race only with...dragons painted on the boats or something". So what's with the attitude?

BTW, I wonder if you're the same person who recently left a comment on this post then followed it up with a post here? Reason I ask is because on both occasions the word "sprouted" was used when the meaning intended was, I assume, "spouted". Not that I care about your spelling, just curious to know if there are two humourless tools frequenting our fair blog.