Red Dog is a wonderfully delicious, quintessentially Australian film. It’s a funny, heart-warming story about a legendary dog, if one that presents a romanticised picture of life in the Pilbara in the 1970s. How do I know? Because I was a barmaid at the Mermaid Hotel in Dampier where much of the action takes place.
It was 1977. I had quit my job as a teacher in Hobart, gone to Perth, got the job and hitched a ride to Dampier on a road train, teed up by a friend who knew the driver. I’d answered an ad for barmaids at the Mermaid, was interviewed by someone from the Swan Brewery which owned the pub, who didn’t care that I lacked experience and employed me on the spot.
Red Dog switches back and forth between 1971 and 1979 and I can tell you – regretfully – that it’s not how it was. The gorgeous Pilbara scenery is true blue and the red dust. But all those lovely white blokes? Dinky-di Aussie fellas? And quirkily winsome migrants? It’s not how I remember it.
Forget the caravans and tin sheds. Okay, there might have been some but Dampier was a company town and Hamersley Iron owned everything. There were pre fab, air-conditioned boxes in which families lived, while single men lived in quarters with everything provided, including food which came up in road trains from Perth.
The Mermaid was an air-conditioned brick building by the sea and not the fibro and tin, inland watering hole depicted in the film. It was run by managers with a bevy of barmaids, not by a publican who owned it, who worked behind the bar with his wife and nary a barmaid in sight. There was a big public bar with a jukebox, a saloon and a lounge, but the single men stayed in the public bar, which is where I worked.
Like all the barmaids, I shared a small room in a building behind the pub, in my case, with Annie. She was keen on a man in Perth called Henry. One night when she was working and I was in bed, there was a knock on the door. It was Henry.
He came in and perched on the end of my bed and we got talking and in passing he said he hadn’t long been out. Out? “Inside,” he said, shaking his head at my question. He’d been gaoled for rape. I remember thinking that Henry seemed an unlikely name for a rapist, I don’t know why, not that I had one sitting on my bed. Later that night I was woken by the sound of them bonking. Henry stayed for three nights.
I haven’t read Louis de Bernieres book on which Red Dog is based, but in the film, the migrant workers came from everywhere but Yugoslavia, while most of the men I served were Yugoslavs. They got into fights, as in the film, but not over things that made the audience smile, such as the size of a moustache; they got into fights over Balkan politics.
I had some trouble one night when I asked a chap what part of Yugoslavia he came from. “Why,” he asked suspiciously. Well, Serbia, Croatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia and so on. I thought he’d be pleased but not so. He thought I was a plant. Where from or why, I had no idea but most of the Yugoslavs thereafter eyed me askance. Management wasn’t happy either. Barmaids were meant to indulge in banter to keep the punters happy, not engage in politics no matter how rudimentary.
Dampier was a white town and in that the film was true - there was one Asian face in a non-speaking role but otherwise, the cast was Caucasian. Aborigines, when I was there, were not allowed to enter. While it was a company town, I doubt that Hamersley Iron could legally vet who came in, but it was segregation in practice. An exception was made for Torres Strait Islanders on Saturday nights, when busloads of workers from Tom Price would arrive at the Mermaid, among them the Islanders.
Aborigines in the region drank at the pub in Roebourne and were often referred to as savages or niggers or worse. There was one comment in the film that lightly touched on racism: an Aussie chides a migrant that he isn’t really from Abruzzi, he’s probably Albanian. Our migrant bristles, retorting that he’ll call our Aussie a nigger, who in turn is affronted. It comes across as an innocent exchange between two nice blokes but in reality, Dampier was rampantly racist.
I was a lousy barmaid but what really got me into strife was my idea of interviewing some of the barmaids for a story. I didn’t write one, but I kept transcripts from the interviews I taped and reading them after seeing Red Dog has revived memories of how it was back then.
Ann, 20, had dropped out of art school, had never been to a pub before and hated the amount of grog consumed by the men as she watched them drink their money away. “Sometimes it’s hard to be tolerant but you’ve got to handle it,” she said. “Alcohol is an escape. They can’t escape in any other way. Can’t cope without it because reality is too hard to face.” On the plus side, she felt that coping in this environment had made her a stronger person.
It was a new experience for Merron too, who found it hard going physically and mentally. She’d joined the Liquor and Allied Trade Union when a rep visited, but like most, she thought it false security, that she could only rely on herself. And like Ann, Merron had found inner strength in dealing with the hassles of living in a place with so few women and dealing with so many men who came on to her when she was working: “I think it’s an enormous test of oneself.”
Theresa, 25, loved her work but was a realist. “In a new place I pick out a guy and go with him body-wise, just to satisfy me, because I need it just like anyone else,” she said. “And picking out one guy saves me from going from one guy to the next to the next, and saves me from being hassled. But most of the guys end up giving me the shits as I get to know them from working behind the bar.”
Linnet had been in Dampier for 15 months but had been a barmaid for ten years – one of the few with real experience and who knew that a good barmaid needed to be a good listener. As in Red Dog, there were a lot of lonely men to listen to - Dampier had a population of about 3000, with about 2000 single men and 100 single women.
Linnet got on well with the men but she didn’t take any nonsense: “One man wouldn’t give me his money and I got angry and he said ‘Oh go fuck a dog lady.’ I picked up his drinks and walked off.”
She went on: “About 80% of the guys are dick wits. They are. They are unintelligent, unoriginal, chauvinist fucking pigs. The other 20% are nice guys … I’ve got a nice guy.”
One day I was sacked. I’d been there for six weeks and I was shocked but looking back I’m surprised I lasted as long as I did. The hotel manager told me to leave the same day but as I didn’t have transport, I was allowed to stay overnight to catch the Greyhound bus to Port Hedland the next morning. The girls said little to me, I guess because they were fearful that getting the boot could be contagious.
I got the bus, decided to go on to Broome and managed to get a seat on the midnight mail plane that serviced towns in the North West. We landed at Broome at 2am. I hid in the single loo in the terminal that was little more than a tin shed and waited. The plane took off, the man on duty locked up and left, and I came out. I dumped my sleeping bag and went to sleep on the floor. The next I knew, it was 6am and two women who had come in to clean were looking down at me in astonishment.
Seeing Red Dog, thinking about the film … maybe the characters represented the 20% of nice guys that Linnet talked about. Maybe I didn’t give them a chance. Maybe I didn’t give myself a chance.
Sigh. All those gorgeous men. And I missed out …