bliumchik: THIS IS NOT SPARTA. I AM LOST. (scenic detour!)
[personal profile] bliumchik
The sky was taunting us. Not two days ago I had been convinced that summer was coming early, but on the day we set off for Newcastle with tents and sleeping bags in tow the clouds appeared to have settled in for the long haul. “Come to TINA they said,” I grumbled, heaving my backpack into Natalie’s car. “We’ll all camp out, it’ll be fun. Oh yes.”

“They” were the UTS Writers’ Society, or rather that portion of it currently occupying another car somewhere between Sydney and Newcastle, and TINA was an arts festival ironically titled This Is Not Art. Earlier that week I had stayed up late, frantically typesetting the Society’s black and white half-A4 fiction magazine so Hannah and Anna, the club president and my co-editor respectively, could get it printed in time for the ‘Zine Fair that was our primary reason for attending. Hannah, in a fit of enthusiasm, had suggested we all go up to Newcastle a day early so as not to have an early-morning drive on the day of the fair. My prior experience of Newcastle had been as a place to drive through, not to, so I had left the organisation to Hannah. The cheapest accommodation, it turned out, was the official TINA campsite, BYO roof. And so with naïve optimism, two carloads of writers set off on a rainy weekend for a few nights of camping adventure!

Our car contained: me, making like a girl scout with tent, bedroll, sleeping bag, pocket-knife and duct tape; Abi, an exchange student and newcomer to the Society whose English was quite good but cost her a great deal of concentration, giving her a perpetual inquisitive expression as though she was trying to get her head around differential calculus during every conversation; and Nat, who wasn’t strictly speaking a Society member or in fact a UTS student, but rather an acquaintance of mine with a zine of her own who had offered to exchange car-space for tent-space. Hannah’s car contained herself, Anna, the conspicuous absence of several writers who had checked the weather report and called to make their excuses, and Hannah’s sister, as well as another tent and the box of ‘zines.

So there was the Writer’s Society, faces bright and pens loaded. There was the freeway, full of long weekend holidayers. And there was a good percentage of the Pacific Ocean, hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles, only damper.

“I’m excited!” I announced brightly. “Are you guys excited?”
“I have never been to a zine fair,” said Abi. “I hope it will be fun!”
“Annnnd here’s traffic jam number one,” said Nat. “Put some music on, this is going to be a long trip.”

It was a long trip.

By the time we arrived in Newcastle it was raining heavily. We drove around in circles for a bit, then parked in a puddle and tried to figure out where the entrance to the campground was. Ten minutes of puzzling at maps and some legally questionable turns later, we were greeting the friendly campground attendant and explaining that we were with the UTS Writer’s Society, who – oh? Hadn’t arrived yet? We’d just wait then.

The campsite consisted of a large fenced off grassy oval, a gravel road, some bleachers and an admin building with communal kettles and frying pans. All of these except the latter two were quite waterlogged – some opportunistic campers had attempted to set up tent on the bleachers, which seemed like an excellent plan provided one was willing to sleep at a forty-five degree angle. Eventually Hannah’s car pulled into the small parking lot, and it shortly became apparent that the rest of the Society would not be joining us for the campout – they left us the box of zines and Hannah’s tent and drove back to Sydney, where they would sleep in their warm beds and make the return trip for the fair in the morning, the bastards.

With the aid of a shoe and my trusty duct tape, we got the tents up during a brief interval in the downpour. As soon as mine was pitched we realised my father had drastically underestimated the space taken up by three young women plus luggage, so it was lucky Hannah had left us an extra one. Then we ventured into Newcastle proper to obtain nourishment and investigate Saturday’s festival offerings. The streets were damp and bare – hard to tell if the regular denizens of Newcastle were staying out of the rain, avoiding festival kids or away for the long weekend. A fourth possibility came to mind when we stopped for lunch in a small cafe, the proprietor and apparent sole cook and waiter of which was entirely unprepared for astonishing crowds of… six simultaneous customers.

By the time we’d eaten our sandwiches and drunk our tea we were quite late for the panel on Australian comics we’d been planning to attend. We made our way to a cobbled arcade full of familiar retailers and quaint antique shops, united by Closed signs hanging in their windows, and found the building labelled on the map as the China Club Arts Hub. That turned out to be an enclosed food court with several levels of (closed) shops surrounding it – it was unclear what this had to do with China or whether it was an arts hub in the absence of arts festivals. Up the stairs we edged past some modern art installations and a crowd of people dressed in neon and leopard print to finally sit down apologetically at the edge of our panel’s audience.

At that point we discovered that the neon-clad group were in fact attending something titled Let’s Paint, TV, which consisted of a roomful of TV screens and strobe lights in which they were to dance like maniacs to blaring disco music, and which was unfortunately separated from our panel only by a doorway sans actual door and several metres of artfully decorated cardboard. We therefore listened attentively to the occasional snippets of comics advice we could hear through the noise and then set off to dinner.

Even more of Newcastle had shut up shop by then and we ended up eating burgers in an RSL club full of old blokes watching the footy. Then we went looking for the Playhouse to see some monologues, but only found the charmingly named House of Crack. Tired, we stayed there and were entertained by a Stoppardesque detective farce and some sort of postmodern piece in which CCTV footage was projected onto the walls and people undressed and shouted a lot.

Back at the campsite, I made use of the communal appliances to prepare instant noodles and bonded with some fellow travellers, huddled in the pool of light like moths. They turned out to be from Sydney, like us – less than surprising, given where they were.

“Yeah,” one of them said, rolling her eyes. “Somebody asked us what it was like to live in Newcastle earlier today, like we’re not sleeping in a tent. I was like, probably less soggy and with more internet access.”

Sunday dawned marginally drier, although clouds still loomed. The zine fair turned out to sprawl over several levels of an empty parking structure, completing my impression of hubristic festival-goers taking over a ghost town, vainly plastering with cheer a misty, ramshackle, abandoned city.

As more people arrived, however, my bleak thoughts were banished by the lively crowd of writers, artists, craftspeople and musicians setting up shop on tables and chairs – mostly tables, as somebody had fallen down on the logistics and failed to provide enough seating for all the zinesters. Abi, Nat and I unrolled our UTS paraphernalia, arranged our zines and negotiated a timeshare of the one chair we could lay our hands on. We were sharing a table with my new friends from last night, who were selling a zine with a stylized nude woman on the front which proved quite popular.

The place literally thronged with people – it seemed like there were hundreds of zines alone, as well as several clothing shops, art booths, badges, small earrings made of scrabble tiles... Nat introduced me to the practice of swapping one’s own zine for other zines – I was not sure that I was strictly authorised to do so by the Writers’ Society, but since the others had by this point failed to arrive entirely I felt within my rights to take some liberties with the merchandise. I also bought a small painting of a robot for a friend’s birthday, and spent exactly an hour standing in line for veggie burgers while the organisers assured us the missing ingredients would arrive any minute now. Later on it rained some more, as though for emphasis.

We drove out of Newcastle on Monday morning with a trunk-full of zines, wet sleeping bags and tents that somehow wouldn’t fold up as small as they’d originally been. We were low on sleep, high on paint fumes and camaraderie, and thanks to a detour to return Hannah’s tent a little bit lost.

The sun was coming out.

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Captain Oblivious

October 2014

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