Thursday, May 24, 2012

Before the queue.

As we drive through the national park on the way into Victoria Falls, the sky is a clear, bright midday blue, punctuated by a giant black plume of smoke far in the distance. A little worried, we point it out to our driver, Sunny, who cranes his neck to see but he doesn’t know what it is. He hasn’t heard of any fighting today, but who really knows in Zimbabwe. As we get closer, we start to see groups of wild animals wandering up the road towards us: a small herd of elephants, kudu scattered here and there, an oddly stoic looking gang of monkeys. The landscape is all smoke and charcoal – the animals are trying to find any plants left that are still edible. “Another bushfire”, says Sunny, and we fall silent, briefly relieved to be out of danger. But it’s hardly great news: Zimbabwe is still on fire.
Beyond a broad idea of the corruption and violence of Robert Mugabe and the military, I don’t know a lot about Zimbabwe before I go to Africa. My best friend, Tammy, is currently working at a freedom of information NGO in South Africa and wants to visit, so we decide to take a day trip together. Tammy tells me that FOI activists like her go missing and are murdered in Zimbabwe on a regular basis. We decide to take a guide. In a country with an unemployment rate of between 80-90%, work is shared around wherever possible, and so our guide, Tamai, brings along Sunny to do the driving. Both men are friendly, interesting companions, gently humoured about some pretty grim circumstances. The petrol gauge on the van is just under empty, which it somehow (miraculously) stays on for the entire trip. Over the course of the day, neither Sunny nor Tamai eat or drink anything: everything they earn (even the food and drink we share with them), they take home to their families. 
By 2007, an estimated quarter of the population had fled the drought and financially ravaged country of Zimbabwe altogether. In Australia, this is the equivalent of the entire population of Victoria running for their lives, never to return. Soon after, President Mugabe began severely restricting passports and abolishing all rights to dual citizenship, leaving hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans stateless and without important identification documents (as with many victims of war and political violence across the world). Last year the UNHCR estimated that one million Zimbabweans are internally displaced persons: meaning one in every twelve Zimbabweans have no home and no way to find a new one.
Once we have climbed the epic Victoria Falls (what the locals call “the smoke that thunders”) in the way only two pale-skinned liquor loving inside types can, Sunny and Tamai take us to a market. Like many African cultures, I’m struck by how engaged Zimbabweans are with everyone around them. Indeed, when I return home to Fitzroy after this trip, I wonder if perhaps all the hipsters in my suburb avoid eye contact and feign superiority so readily out of some secret guilt for all our wealth and good luck. Then I read the newspaper and see people like Gerry Harvey crying poor and suspect not. It hurts my guts. Back at the market, all the stallholders are friendly young men, wanting us to see their best goods, to buy something, anything. Failing that, they want to know whether we would sell them our own possessions – the shoes on our feet and the clothes on our backs, if we had anything else they could buy from us, where we came from, what we did, whether we were married, whether we would come back: whether we would take them with us when we left Zimbabwe.
I can’t imagine asking that of a stranger, or how it could be possible to even find the words to say that, one stranger to another. So politely, almost laughing, but not joking; finding that perfect tonal balance between “yes-I-really-do-mean-it-but-no-I-don’t-want-you-to-feel-uncomfortable”. I can’t believe that it’s even possible. And yet what else would you do? Earlier that morning, Tammy and I had queued for an hour and a half at the border to get into Zimbabwe – standing in a hot tent in the midday sun, our pale white skin burning, sweating and impatient to get on with our day. Queuing to get IN to Zimbabwe – what irony. For all the rhetoric we hear about queue jumping, what of the people whose own government kill those who vote for the ‘wrong’ party? What about the victims of governments who torture their own citizens and raze entire villages without batting an eyelid? What about people who are brave enough to talk back to a government who kills entire communities for one person talking at all? They would die to even be allowed to queue. They have, and they do.
Driving back toward the border at dusk, we can see the bushfire is still going. Having burned steadily for the last several hours, it has now jumped the highway and started back the way it came, destroying any life that gets in the way. As far as we can see into the national park, everything is ash. There are no park rangers, no fire brigade, no anyone to put the fire out, Sunny says; this fire will just continue to burn, until the rain comes, perhaps, or perhaps until there is nothing left to burn. As we’re considering this, a tall streak of cream amongst the black and grey outside the van catches my eye. Craning my neck, I look back to where we’ve just been, and tucked behind some blackened trees, the shape of a young giraffe emerges, meandering her way toward the road. Sunny spins a U-turn and takes us back to get closer. There’s three of them, a baby giraffe and two older ones, shyly wandering up the side of the highway, nibbling vaguely at trees, their beautiful coffee and cream colours breathtaking against all the wasted land. The four of us sit in awe while the giraffes ignore us, silently making their way back up the road, graceful and peaceful and completely unaware of how remarkable we find them, just getting on with the business of their day despite the danger and destruction all around.
We had to leave then, to make sure we got back across the border before it got dark. I hope they found somewhere safe. I really do.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Women of Letters, 1st May, 2011

On Sunday afternoon I was honoured to be a guest of the splendid Sunday afternoon soiree, Women of Letters (curated by Michaela McGuire & Marieke Hardy) which celebrates the lost art of letter writing with a show each month based around a theme. You can read more about the show on their website or also via the facebook

Sunday's show featured Helen Razer, Christa Hughes, Jess McGuire, Pip Lincolne & myself, & all their tales were funny & sweet & sharp & dirty & enthralling, & such a huge pleasure to hear in the 70's ballroom surrounds of the Thornbury theatre. I can't recommend the show more highly - if you get the chance, do yourself that favour, much like Molly Meldrum would want you to. 

Since it's been so long since I've written & also since you might not have made it along, I thought I might post my letter here, too. The theme of this months' was: The moment I knew it was time to go home, & while I was rather tempted to write about the BBQ punching incident of Comedy Festival 2007, here's what I wrote instead.

Hey you,
Sometimes when my parents go away on holidays, I like to borrow their car and take it for a drive back to the home where I grew up. I grew up in Nunawading, which is an Aboriginal word for “home of crime and boredom”. Though Nunawading hasn’t been my home for over fifteen years, it’s still the place that I’ve always returned to by instinct, to remind me where I came from and where I belong. 

When was little, there weren’t any factory outlets in Nunawading, aside from the Chinese grocery where my mum would buy huge bags of rice to make her special Chicken Chinese dish – which entailed chicken, definitely, and rice, which perhaps was meant to account for the Chinese element. Though less distinguishable in their meaning to the dish were the celery and pineapple. As you can imagine, it was an incredibly multi-cultural suburb, where I was honoured to be the only tall, awkward white girl included in the traditional Cambodian dancing demonstration on Australia Day. I can still speak a little bit of Mandarin and Vietnamese – ee, er, sahn, suh, woo, liou, chi, bah, doh-mah, which means one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, motherfucker. The most exciting school excursion we had at primary school was when we were all herded out onto the school oval while a gunman held some people hostage in the nearby commission flats.
In my mind, Nunawading was that kind of working class, egalitarian suburb that Bruce Springsteen would have written about if Bruce Springsteen had grown up in Forrest Hill. We lived there until I was about fifteen years old, when we moved further in to be close to the girls’ school I’d been admitted to. I never felt like I fit in once we moved – amongst all those kids with money and entitlement and that disturbing combination of all the opportunities in the world and all the indifference, as well. I gave raging yet shaky orations about female genital mutilation in the third world to groups of teenage girls who thought feminism was some sort of fungal infection that their mothers had warned them about. I wrote furious treatise about Pauline Hanson and the benefits of multi-culturalism for girls who came from second-generation English, Irish, Scottish parents – quite literally all the colours of the white rainbow. I also wrote a lot of bad poetry about Paul McDermott, but that was the teenage pants-love talking.

I always felt like an outsider – someone who knew what it was to go without, who longed for my old home where no one cared whether I had the right PE shorts or whether I was in the rowing team or which of the boys at the local boys’ school talked to me on ICQ. I hated my parents for sending me there. I felt like the underdog in a room full of bitches. My empathy for people who are unlucky or disadvantaged is still a huge part of my character. But who am I kidding? I’ve always had an incredibly lucky and privileged life. I’m a white middle class girl with a voice and brain and both arms and legs aren’t painted on. But I still identify with the underdog. And even though the teenage years are all about struggling to find who you are, how to exist and what clothes you can wear to look attractive next to your best friend who has a huge rack while you have a chest blank enough to paint art on, even once you finish all those years and think you’ve finally survived and thrived… where are you then? Where does that leave you?

Back in Nuna, I walked to the shops where my brother used to piggyback me around until it was time to go home and watch Magnum P.I, and past a restaurant where I could see three generations of the same family sitting and having (having is the word - they were certainly not ‘enjoying’) a meal. They all had the same facial features, the same disinterested look on those features and they all sat in a row, pulling the same face into the very same face reflected before them. It looked like a really shitty Saturday night out. A bit further up the street, I picked up a newspaper that was littered on the road and put it into a bin. A woman walking past said “Tut, tut, that’s not a recycling bin, is it?” and I said, “Sorry”, though I immediately wished I’d said “Fuck off”, but finding the honest yet civil point between those two phrases is ever the bane of my existence.

I went past the main road where there used to be a tyre shop and a petrol station and now there’s a giant Harvey Norman and a Bunnings and a McDonalds that’s so big that there’s a well-designed garden set up around the drive-through where the kid who set the dental van on fire used to live. I went into the local fish and chip shop and mid-step into the doorway knew just what it was like for those movie stars as they step into a western saloon and music stops. Everyone, literally, the cook, the lady at the counter, the bored guy reading the local paper and the woman with her kid (and the kid) all stopped to stare at me. Perhaps I was hypersensitive, but I felt so out of place. Not as though all my years away had changed me so much that I obviously no longer belonged, not that, but something else. I could finally see why my mother had been so desperate to get me out of there. She very kindly describes me as “a bit eccentric”, and perhaps becoming a bolshy smart-arse political comedian isn’t necessary what she always dreamed of for me. But my mum always fought to give me the opportunities she never had, and the importance of a good education can’t be underplayed in that. She was never allowed to read any books other than the Bible when she was a girl, and she somehow raised a daughter who, sometimes, when the going is good, is able to write for a living.

Driving home again I wondered if this is what being an adult is about; some kind of final “the grass is not greener” realisation? An end of that need to shine a torch down all those paths not taken? The final moment of clarity when you realise that your hometown is much more Bryan Adams than Bruce Springsteen? But I don’t think so. I came away from that last trip to Nunawading strangely free of that old nostalgia. What I truly miss and had been searching for were not just memories or an actual place where I belong, but the sense of belonging that I felt back then. Of feeling at home without ever having to question where I fit – even as a tall, gawky white girl dancing amongst half a dozen delicate, beautiful Cambodians. And I’m still looking for that. I feel as though I’m on that strange part of the path that’s too far between my origin and my destination to feel anywhere but very far away. Bob Dylan is an incredible artist but also an unbearable wanker. But I think he explains it best. He said once, “I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so, I’m on my way home, you know?” Yeah, Bob, I do. Guess I’ll see you out there.  

Love Courteney x

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Basic Guide to Australian Politics 2010, for Barack.

Dear Barack, 

We're so glad that you're finally on your way. No, of course we don't mind about the delay. We did have to cancel the BBQ we'd arranged, but we've got some other things happening instead. Jessica Watson is back. She recently didn't break the record for being the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world. Isn't that remarkable? And the footy's on. You'll love the footy. It's an incredible sport. Just don't pay any attention to the footy players when they're not on the field, because that's a whole different story.

I hope you don't mind me calling you Barack. We like to call most of our politicians by their first names. It's a sign of affection. Or at least, familiarity. Or at the very least, a sign of our awareness that having a leader named Kevin is kind of ridiculous, but we're working with it anyway. Since you haven't visited us here before, I thought I might give you a quick rundown on the big names and issues in Australian politics. Obviously you've been pretty busy trying to convince your fellow Americans that taxpayer-funded healthcare is a good idea (and with you guys having the highest rate of preventable deaths in the world, I'd say it should have been an easier sell than it was), as well as managing that big old oil spill, so we thought you might appreciate a bit of a precis before you meet the gang.

We'll start with the big cheese. Kevin Rudd is our current Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party. But you know that. Kevin says you guys know each other ''pretty well''. Do you? Is he just showing off? Not that he's a big show-off or anything, it's just that you seem cool and impressive and Kevin … well, Kevin can be a bit of a dag (that's like a dork). Sometimes Kevin uses Aussie slang phrases like ''fair shake of the sauce bottle'' or ''don't come the raw prawn with me'' or ''the rough end of the pineapple''. In case you're wondering, all these phrases mean the same thing: Kevin's trying too hard and we're all feeling a bit embarrassed for him.

Kevin's deputy PM is Julia Gillard (Jules). Jules is pretty popular. In fact, at the moment, Jules is more popular than Kevin. That's partially because Jules is pretty smart and ballsy and seems much more at ease with herself than Captain Idiom up there. But mostly because Kevin has been PM for almost a full term now and voters are concerned that he promises a lot, but doesn't deliver, especially on issues like climate change. In your country, you might say he's ''all hat and no cattle''. Here we'd say he's ''all mouth and no trouser''.

Speaking of no trousers, the leader of our opposition party (the Liberal Party) is Tony Abbott. To be honest, you'll be lucky to see him fully dressed. Tony likes to be seen in his swimming trunks (or, as we call them, ''budgie smugglers''), which is not to say that we don't take pant-based wildlife trafficking very seriously here in Australia. Like an Australian John McCain, if you can imagine swapping being a POW in Vietnam for running triathlons, Tony likes to think of himself as an action man. He runs! He swims! He shoots off at the mouth! Tony tends to get himself into trouble by speaking before he thinks. Like recently, when he told a reporter that he doesn't always tell ''the honest truth''. Or when he suggested that the most precious gift a woman can give is her virginity. Full on, right? I bet Michelle would have a bit to say about that.

Like your compatriots in Arizona, some Australians get pretty het up about immigration. With a coastline about 11 times the size of your border with Mexico, that's a lot of border to feel insecure about. When dealing with asylum seekers, Kevin and Tony have basically the same policy. That policy is to look around at other countries in the Pacific and say ''dibs not us''. Tony has also vowed that if elected he will ''turn back the boats''. We imagine it may be just through sheer force of personality.

We are having an election later this year, so it's likely you'll get to see lots of native Australian politicians on your visit. If you're bailed up by an older man who rants madly at you, that's probably Wilson Tuckey. It's a good idea to pretend that he's a crazy old uncle who doesn't speak English. It's usually more fun (or at least, less offensive) that way. And don't mind Barnaby. He's absolutely loopy but he's really a nice enough bloke. Just don't let him count anything for you, because maths isn't really his strong point. In fact, it's kind of hard to say what Barnaby's strong point is. Anyway, we're really glad you're coming. We hope you have a great time here in Australia. Just be sure to keep an eye on your passport. You never know what people get up to with those things around here.

Yours etc,

Courteney Hocking

This was first published in The Sunday Age as Crash course for Obama Down Under, 30 May, 2010.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The precious gift of your vote (& more)

My friend Cara & I have taken time out from our hectic ironing schedule to tell Tony Abbott what we think of his efforts to take women back into the 1950's with some neat-o badges & stickers.

You can find out more here:

You can also get your monthly fix of hot topical & political comedy (if you're in Melbourne, though we'll be touring later in 2010) from

Annnnd you can find me (almost) daily talking in 140 characters or less at

Plug fest over! Hope you're keeping well.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why the GFC is my fault (by Courteney Hocking, age 27)

I want to apologise. I know it’s not like a member of Generation Y not to be boorish, shallow and selfish but it’s time to stand up and take responsibility for what I’ve done. For wreaking economic disaster on people the world over.

The Global Financial Crisis is my fault.

It started small, like all human-created disasters, I suppose. I set up a system where the world became dependent on credit by laminating plastic credit cards during art class at Nunawading Primary School and lending out my pocket money from my Dollarmites account. I used my little orange moneybox to lend billions in unsecured sub-prime loans to people clearly unable to pay them back.

Soon I got into the habit of using the ridiculous interest I paid myself for lavish bonuses, spending up big on chocolate milk and sausage rolls, and unlimited trips to the local park. I even bought myself some roller-skates. Who did I think I was kidding? I was flying too close to the sun on wings made of paper money and dreams. It was never going to last.

Of course, once out of school, the years of success and greed made me aim too high once more. Having a job while getting a degree? Was nothing ever enough for me? I even went so far as to work two jobs while wasting my time over-qualifying myself. I became what is known as a "job hog". But when Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull united in a bi-partisan chorus of "you don’t know how lucky you are, kids", I realised how terribly mistaken I’d been.

I realised that infinitely more worthy Generation X and Baby Boomer workers were still unemployed while I was living high on the hog in a call centre complaints department. I immediately handed in my resignation. I wasn’t worthy of listening to a woman crying about the weather in Mentone. I didn’t deserve to be screamed at for the newsreader sending subliminal messages about spaceships. I hadn’t earned that right. Maybe I never will.

Even writing this now I am taking valuable writing work away for someone older, wiser and doubtless more worthy than myself. And for that, I am sorry. But I write not to ask for your forgiveness, but to acknowledge the pain I’ve caused. All of this is my fault -- the whole stinking lot of it. Generation Y did this to you. You suffer because of us. Not just the GFC but climate change, too. Global warming wouldn’t even exist if my generation weren’t breathing so much air all the time. One might say the world would be a better place if we’d never been born at all.

We have failed you. And it is a burden we will carry -- along with a dying planet, an aging population and degrading generational stereotyping - for the rest of our selfish, useless lives.

This article first appeared in Crikey.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Australian news comedy - what's going on there?

Happy moon landing day.

I wrote this piece about news comedy today & thought you might like to read it.

With much fanfare, The 7pm Project finally arrived last night, the latest in a series of news-based comedy shows that have been popping up on Australian screens in the last few years. Purporting to be “…not a satirical newscast in the style of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, but a TV show joining in the conversations going on in living rooms around the country”, it seeks to engage younger viewers who have grown up with a 24/7 news cycle and short attention span. News-based comedy seems an ideal template for the Twitter generation, but it’s also a tricky art to nail in a country where our TV comedy tradition is more firmly based in sketch than news or satire.

The shift toward news comedy hybrids in Australia has given us shows such as The Chaser’s War on Everything, the revamped Good News Week and Newstopia.

Ian Simmons, the head writer for Good News Week (both incarnations) tells Crikey there’s a good reason for this shift towards the topical.

For a start, it’s relatively cheap to make. Your source materials are newspapers and unlike a sketch or sitcom, you don’t have to pay for expensive wardrobe, sets and locations. You just need the right five people in front so you can watch them find out things.”

As a rule, Australians seem to prefer relatable faces messing about with the news to hard-hitting satire. It’s a strange paradox that we judge Americans as backward in their sense of irony when it is they who currently lead the field in satirical, topical comedy with shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. Simmons believes it’s a numbers thing.

America has 280 odd million people and 50 states. There is an enormous amount of people generating news and an enormous amount of things to talk about. Here, there’s only just enough news, weirdness and stupidity for about an hour a week.”

It’s also a cultural thing. Australian TV comedy is deeply steeped in sketch and character-based acts. From Barry McKenzie to Norman Gunston, Dame Edna to Kath and Kim, our characters are the best-known parts of our comedic tradition. Even the two men who have continued to hold the flag for satire for decades, John Clarke and Brian Dawe, do so in the guise of characters in either sketch or sitcom form. It seems to be what Australians are most comfortable watching. And when Australians are uncomfortable, you can be sure that you’ll hear about it.

When The Chaser team was roundly castigated for their “Make A Realistic Wish Foundation” sketch it revealed another reason why satire rarely makes the grade in Australia.

There’s almost a part of people that wants to be outraged,” says Simmons. “That sketch was two minutes in half an hour. People being outraged the next day, sure, but it went on for weeks.”

Simmons believes it’s partially attributable to our uncertain times.

So much is out of our control  — the war in Afghanistan, the GFC, Swine flu, they all affect us in different ways. This is a way for people to claw back some control in their lives, to express their anger and their outrage and to make them feel good about themselves.”

Which leads us back to the numbers thing  — because of our relatively small population, vocal and indignant wowsers receive a greater share of voice than they would in countries like the US, where they can turn over and watch something else.

But the good news is that we can laugh about the news again. Post-September 11 there was a dearth of news comedy that lasted until not long ago  — roughly around the time K-Rudd dispensed with the J-Ho. Twitter and social networking sites mean people are more personally engaged in the news cycle and can connect not just with the stories but with people involved in stories as they happen, which should put paid to the notion that Gen Y was always going to be zoned out in front of the Play Station ignoring the world.

News comedy in Australia might not be The Daily Show we wish it were, but if we can dispense with the wowserism and give it some backbone, we may see some decent satire yet.

This article first appeared on Crikey

Friday, April 17, 2009

Final Week of Comedy Festival

Hello my dear neglected blog folk.

I apologise for my extended absence but I really have spent the past two months stressing about, then writing & then performing my Melbourne International Comedy Festival Show, 'Miss Right'. (I've also been reading 'Against The Day' by Thomas Pynchon but a girl also needs her personal time).

To be quite honest, I'm really proud of 'Miss Right' - it's the best show I've ever done by a long shot, it's fun to perform & even after 15 performances I'm still not tired of doing it (which is bloody rare). Other people who have seen it say they love it, but they would say that to my face because they are not solidly evil, so make of that what you will.

It's about my transition from post-Howard/Bush unemployed left wing comedian to a hard-edged Right Wing policy maker with concurrent designs on being an obedient housewife. There's Obama talk, the Credit crunch, the mortgage crisis, Alco-Pops tax & quite the rant against the molly-coddling nanny state we seem to inhabit. If you want to find out more, here's a link to the Comedy at Trades website where you can read my blurb, look at my picture & even buy tickets. I would give you a link to a review but I've not had the Age come (yet, theoretically) & I'm waiting on Chortle & the Pun to post theirs (they are the only reviewers I really trust for both my work & anyone elses, & even then, BYO grain of salt & be yourself, be yourself! etc)

There is only one week to go! I will never be doing this show again so it genuinely is your only chance to see me do this show before I go & get an office job (which you're welcome to come & see for however long that takes but I can guarantee that will be much less entertaining).

Other shows which seem brilliant are Philip Escoffey's Six Impossible Things Before Dinner, Sarah Bennetto is Lucky & Deborah Frances-White's How to Become An Overnight Celebrity. Of course I'm also doing the Anarchist Guild Social Committee Best Of, our last show being this Sunday 19th April, which is a laugh & a half & really lovely silly fun. Chortle reckoned it was alright, too.

I hope to see you there. Once it's all over (& I've had a week to sleep it off), I'll be back blogging like nobody's business. Hooray.

Thanks for your time. Hope you're really very good indeed. xx