For the last week, I’ve been in Australia’s capital, Canberra, delivering the keynote speech at the first-ever X-Ways Forensics Users Conference and conducting a forensic witness skills workshop for the Australian Federal Police. I flew to Australia from New Orleans, where I’d delivered three presentations in a day for the Louisiana State Bar Association. It’s been quite the busy week; so, after a picturesque drive to Sydney this morning and bidding goodbye to my top bloke and host, Zoran Iliev, I was glad for a few moments to catch my breath in this incomparable city of bridge, bay and soaring Opera House.
In the parlance of south Louisiana, a lagniappe is an unexpected benefit—that little extra that sweetens the deal. It’s been a fortnight loaded with lagniappes, starting with Mardi Gras. It was my first Fat Tuesday in New Orleans and, thanks to Jack Frost and Jane Rain, it was not crowded. Thanks to my dear friend and world-famous e-discovery maven, Tom O’Connor, I enjoyed Mardi Gras from a French Quarter balcony overlooking Royal Street, with friendly folks, good food and an open bar. I was throwing beads to the masses instead of jockeying for position at the barricades. If you know Mardi Gras, you know what an amazing lagniappe that was.
But it was tonight’s lagniappe that moves me to write. Driving into Sydney this afternoon, we passed the State Theater, a lavish mishmash of Gothic, Italian and Art Deco elements. But what caught my eye was the marquee, which proclaimed that American ex-pat author Bill Bryson would be appearing that night. If you’ve not read Bill Bryson, you’ve missed some wonderful, laugh-out-loud travel books. I’ve been a fan for twenty years, since I first read his send up of Britain, Notes from a Small Island. Many know Bryson from his bestselling A Short History of Nearly Everything. The only time I’ve ever heard my wife laugh aloud reading was when she read Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country (a/k/a Down Under). I was pretty excited to hear him.
Apparently so were many of the 4.6 million Sydneysiders because the event was sold out. Now, in my old home town of New York, “sold out” is a relative term meaning you’re going to pay more. If you want to see a “sold out” show in New York, you call the concierge and pay through the nose for a scalper ticket. If you could pay enough, an enterprising New York concierge would bring the Beatles back to Shea Stadium (yes, even the dead ones, and, yes, despite Shea having been torn down). In New York, there is no obstacle that cannot be surmounted by great gobs of gelt.
But in Sydney, when you tell the concierge a show is sold out and seek help securing a ticket, he looks blankly at the same Ticketmaster page you’ve already checked twice and relates that the Bryson Show is indeed sold out. “No worries,” I say, “I’ll pay the scalper price.”
Australia is a very egalitarian society; so, I should have anticipated the Concierge would respond, “We don’t have ticket brokers here. There’s no way to get a ticket tonight at any price”
Undaunted, I went to the theater an hour before curtain with a characteristically American determination to buy my way in.
The next lagniappe was that the man in front of me at the box office window was unmistakably John Cleese, the Monty Python co-founder and star of the film, “A Fish Called Wanda,” (where he portrayed a lawyer named Archie Leach–Cary Grant’s given name). Cleese also memorably played “R” (Q’s successor) in a couple of James Bond films. He even did some funny commercials for Iron Mountain’s ill-fated foray into e-discovery. I ran into him twice in Sydney, and that was pretty cool. He’s not hard to spot as he towers over the crowd and, in person, looks like Hollywood’s ideal of a proper British Field Marshal.
The box office was singularly unhelpful, which is to say guileless. Bribes are of limited utility in a country where everyone is paid a fair wage (there’s a lesson there, but not one that gets me into the theater). Though my desire to buy a ticket curbside seemed vaguely subversive to the older hirsute gentlemen in the box office, he let on that there had been a man “with glasses” skulking about trying to sell a ticket.
Armed with that intelligence, I began approaching myopic men loitering on the crowded sidewalk. All were sympathetic to my plight—Australians are unfailingly nice to Americans, suggesting they can be nice to almost anyone—but, all my four-eyed friends assured me that their wives would be along from the lolly shop in no time. Never have I so wished for a sudden outbreak of marital disharmony.
As the minutes ticked toward curtain and hordes thronged the entrance, I desperately downloaded banner software to my iPad thinking I would hold up a sign saying…what?
“Buy your ticket.” (No, that would seem like I’m the scalper).
“Will you sell me your ticket please?” (That seemed too long for a scrolling banner message to a swiftly-moving crowd).
Before I could get a message onscreen, the crowd had vanished. I was sulking by the doors when a man with glasses approached and asked “Are you Bob?” I spotted the ticket in his hand and quelled the impulse to answer, “No, but Bob’s my uncle.” You’ll be relieved, dear reader, to know that I eschewed the opportunity to buy the coveted ticket as Bogus Bob. I learned that Genuine Bob was keen to buy the ticket and en route. Bob had struck a deal to pay just half the A$150.00 face value, which Glasses Guy described as “pretty cheeky.” I promised to do better if Cheeky Bob failed to appear; but I knew that there was little chance an Australian would make a promise and fail to keep it. There aren’t a lot of Australians; they rely on one-another and rarely treat each other unfairly. In due course, Cheeky Bob showed and declined to resell at a tidy profit.
So, as curtain time came and went, I abandoned my post and steeled myself for the parade of scantily-clad beauties that is George Street on a warm Sydney evening (it’s late Summer down here).
As I shuffled out, defeated, I spotted two women briskly leaving the theater. I approached and inquired if they were quitting the show and if they might wish to resell one of their tickets. One responded that she was “desperately ill,” but notwithstanding, kindly tendered her ticket, declining payment. I wished I’d properly commiserated with her condition and offered assistance, but instead found myself thinking her profusely and sprinting into the theatre. Thank you again, Lauren King, late of Stalls W32. Get well soon.
Bill Bryson was delightful; as witty and engaging in the flesh as on paper. The stage setting consisted of Bryson and interviewer Ray Martin in chairs stage left and a sand artist with a light table stage right. A large projection screen was center stage. As Bryson read passages, answered questions or shared stories, sand artist Brett Bower depicted same.
Bryson confessed to a great fear and disdain for animals, and a video clip played showing Bryson meeting a (friendly) bear. He related the two tips he’d been given for avoiding bears in the wild:
“First, you should wear little bells on your clothes to warn bears of your approach. Second, you should keep an eye out for bear scat (dung) on the trail.”
He added that you can recognize bear scat by the little bells in it.
It was all weirdly marvelous: an American down under listening to a kindred soul share stories of growing up in Iowa and dressing like “a cross between Father Christmas and the Pope” while serving as the Chancellor of Durham University in England. It was such a complete lagniappe or, as Bill Bryson put it in a passage he read, “One of those moments when life seems perfect.”
I leave Australia in the morning, sad to head home, but grateful to Aussie friends old and new who so generously carve out time to show me this wonderful sunburnt country. Thanks, mates; Bob’s yer uncle!
An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land –
Ah, you who have not loved her
You cannot understand…
…The world is fair and splendid
But whensoe’er I die
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly!
My Country – Dorothea Mackellar c. 1908