Don Bentley, an old Africa hand, had worked in some pretty hot places during his career in journalism but he had not known anywhere with the heat of Townsville.
Although the coastal tropics were supposed to be humid in summer, Townsville was seared, burned and scorched in the same manner as inland cities like Mount Isa and there was no escape from the sun out on Townsville’s wide boulevards.
Townsville, unlike its steamy near-neighbour Cairns, was situated between two headlands that formed a rain shadow. On his first day at work in Townsville this had been explained to Bentley by the chief sub-editor, who had taken the new recruit out to the newspaper’s loading dock, which gave a fine view over the ocean. The sun was beating down mercilessly, but out to sea Bentley observed diagonal streaks of purple rain clouds dumping water into the ocean.
From that first day of his sojourn in the city, Don Bentley decided to buy a hat, not the basketball cap he often wore when out indulging in his hobby of birdwatching but a real hat he saw worn by the grown-ups in northern Queensland, those who knew the true power of the northern sun. Bentley was going to buy a wide-brimmed hat, a cowboy hat, a type of headgear he had eschewed in the past, even in his days in Africa.
Close to the offices of the Townsville Express was the type of establishment that would be termed an army surplus store in Bentley’s home town of Woking, in suburban Surrey. Each day Bentley paused to look at its window displays. Still suffering from jet-lag when he had first come across the shop, the emporium had told Bentley he was well and truly inAustralia, as if the palm tree-lined Flinders Street running through the city centre and Townsville’s white-washed buildings had not informed him otherwise. This was the home of the Akubra, R.M.Williams and the swag.
Now Bentley stepped inside.
Bentley had thought in terms of purchasing a wide-brimmed hat in vaguely cowboy style, conservative in beige felt with or without a hat band. It would be a hat much like the trilby Bentley’s father had worn to work each day while Bentley was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the hat his father would sometimes leave on the luggage rack of his commuter train travelling between Woking and Waterloo station in London, the hat he would have to claim from the lost luggage department next day.
Stepping inside the emporium, however, Bentley felt a little perplexed and confused, staggered by the extensive range of hats on display. Bentley in his naivety had believed Akubra was a style of hat popular in cattle country, and among country and western singers, and not a brand.
Cowboy country, Bentley had discovered on his first foray out of Townsville, started at the stockyards on Townsville’s fringe and extended to the town ofCharters Towers to the west and thousands of kilometres beyond.
Bentley may have read that the cowboy of America’s wild west was as thing of the past, the horse replaced by quad-bikes, but in northern Queensland cowboys still roamed the range and remained a vital part of the landscape. Not only were there genuine cowboys – graziers, stockmen and jackeroo and jilleroos – but there were trusty steeds and hand-crafted saddles, cattle to be roped and branded, cattle drives and even rustling. The wild west was alive and kicking in the wild west of Queensland.
One of the first stories Bentley had to edit as part of his duties as a sub-editor on the Bulletin had concerned rustlers making off with 3000 head of cattle from a ranch in the Channel Country, in Queensland’s north-west. In hot pursuit was a real-life posse, under the official guise of the Queensland Police Stock Control Unit based in Charters Towers. Cowboy country it definitely was but Bentley, the boy from Woking 30 kilometres west of Waterloo, was not about to become a cowboy, no siree.
Bentley was not impressed by the cowboy hats he saw in the swag emporium, even a flat-topped one that the prime minister at the time, John Howard, wore on his vote-catching jaunts into the bush. Bentley suspected the style of some hats, particularly the flat-topped variety, carried a code – a bit like the old school tie inBritain- that Bentley had not fully cracked. The flat-topped, wide-brimmed hat appeared to send out a message about status and station in life, and Bentley did not want to wear any of that.
Bentley, after trying on a range of styles, settled for a safe option: a simple brown hat, a cattleman. When he looked at himself in the mirror in the shop, Bentley considered that the hat was not so dissimilar to his father’s trilby, safe and conservative. It would do and, on purchasing it, Bentley immediately took off the hat’s price tag and label and wore it out of the shop, stepping into the bright sun of Flinders Street to try out its effectiveness. He was careful, though, on entering the Express building to take the hat off and place it on a hat rack out of sight, in case it drew ridicule from his colleagues, most of whom preferred hats of the baseball variety.
What was it about wide-brimmed hats and Townsville journalists that sparked ridicule. Had they seen those old Hollywood black-and-white movies in which reporters’ press passes protruded from hat bands, and did they cringe at this stereotype of the journalist from those times.
After work that night Bentley decided to visit a music venue, the Blues Bar, he had seen on Townsville’s entertainment and restaurant strip near the docks. Bentley’s family was still to arrive in Townsville and so he was not in any rush to get back to the hotel where he had been staying temporarily until their arrival. Bentley now took the hat with him instead of leaving it at the office. He would need it for his morning stroll along the Strand beach and recreation complex on the city’s waterfront.
Walking into the Blues Bar with cattleman hat on his head, he was stopped by a female security guard at the door.
She looked at Bentley’s hat, sternly and disapprovingly, and said in a voice that carried not just a no-nonesense air, but one of menace, “You’re not coming in here, you’re trouble.’‘
“But…” protested Bentley before he was cut short.
“Don’t give me, but, ’’ said the female bouncer. “You cowboys are all the same. You’re just in town for a feed, a fight and a fuck.’‘
“But,’’ protested Bentley again, “I’m fromWoking…’’