CRIME CULTURE: With Byron Bay back in the headlines as a playground for wealthy ‘Instamummies’, former parole officer, Gary Johnston, remembers his time and some of the crimes in the beachside party town in this excerpt from his memoir No Previous Conviction.
Byron Bay is – and probably always was – a town you’d wished you’d discovered 20 or 30 years ago.
It must be.
All the people who claim to have discovered it back then – grizzled old blokes who call themselves Reiki Masters and women in rainbow coloured fairy skirts who believe in the power of the crystal – never tire of telling you so.
Back then, they proclaim, the number of years entirely dependant on when they’d arrived, the hippy/surfy/arty vibe for which Byron was renowned was a reality, as opposed to the cynical act of Tourist Board sleight-of-hand they consider it to be now.
‘You should have been here twenty years ago, mate. Place’s fucked now.
Not that Byron isn’t beautiful. It is. Fantastic weather guaranteed, mile after mile of white sandy beach, multifarious music, comedy, restaurants, art, peace and love.
It might be fucked but it’s definitely not a shit hole. The amazing thing though is, once upon a time, it actually was. A shit hole, that is.
Up until the late 70’s Byron Bay was a small, dying, rough and ready whaling town that tourists actively avoided on account of the lack of facilities, downmarket reputation and decidedly hill-billy ambience.
On the other hand, twenty years ago, the veterans would tell you as they massaged your gluteus maximus or crystallised your chakra, (vice versa, on request), accommodation was dirt cheap, the beach was even more magnificent than it is now and though the overall tenor of the town was humdrum and inert, there was no great animosity amongst the locals toward outsiders.
It was the perfect place to discover, simply because it was such a perfect place.
But, on the endless sun drenched east coast of Australia, perfection is ubiquitous; there are loads of beautiful sun-soaked beaches – New South Wales alone has over a thousand miles of coastline. What made Byron famous was its image, created, promoted and some would say studiously exploited, by the tourism people. When the hippies, a handle the early pioneers actually insisted on, arrived, surfers and party goers, musos and artists, or at least young, energetic people who wanted to be musos and artists, they unconsciously helped to re-invent the town.
Suddenly, Byron Bay was cool, hippy-trippy, slightly left-field, a bit quirky, maybe even slightly naughty. Live on the beach man, just chill out. Surfing, drawing, strumming the guitar and playing the bongos. Having fun. The dream. Join us, you’ll come for a holiday and never want to leave.
In avaricious cahoots with the Tourist Board, sundry investors, developers and builders quickly worked out the bottom line. Land right on the beach was cheap but you didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that with a few apartment blocks and weatherboard shacks hastily thrown up, the bottom line would accelerate upwards.
More people, more rent, more profit – big smiles all round.
And not just for the speculators. Any town undergoing such an exponential growth requires people. Shop assistants, tradies, hospitality workers, school teachers, public servants, probation and parole officers and all the rest. Suddenly – and Byron Bay experienced this massive expansion in less than a decade – the entire fabric of the place was irrevocably changed. Byron had everything you could ever want, including the easy availability and excellent quality of locally grown marijuana.
Byron Bay’s world famous beach (Image: Wiki Commons)
It was cool, it was idiosyncratic, it was Byron and ipso facto – it was wild, crazy, unconventional fun, though naturally, as the salt-and-pepper hippy trailblazers continually reminded you, not as much fun as it used to be.
The problem – and there always is a problem – lay in the fact that, in some ways, Byron Bay was just too perfect. Good art – good music, drama and literature – generally comes as a result of hard work and no little suffering.
It doesn’t just emerge, it takes commitment, graft and dedication.
There wasn’t much suffering in Byron Bay and, or at any rate, not enough of the type of suffering that produces genuine creativity. Most of the writers, artists and musicians talked a lot about the extent and quality of the work they were likely to produce, however in all too many cases, it never seemed to emerge. Perhaps life was too comfortable, the surroundings too perfect and the marijuana too plentiful but most of the artistic types seemed to spend a lot more time boasting about their various oeuvres than actually developing and refining them.
That there was crime in Byron Bay then, is only to be expected. Every town has a criminal underbelly, seaside ones in particular. You don’t have to dig deep to find it and I dug shallower than most; it was my job.
There was no identikit Byron Bay probation client. There were some predictable images that fitted the stereotype – bleached blond, care-free surfy dudes who’d got pissed and been caught driving along the coast, scoping the surf in the old beat up station wagon they ate, drank, shagged and slept in, but there were many other less typical miscreants.
All sorts, all styles.
The major, prevalent crime was, however and by no small margin, DUI, Driving Under the Influence, aka Drink Driving. Byron had one road coming in and another leading out so any police random breath testing patrol was a guaranteed winner, shooting pissed-up fish in a beer-soaked barrel. Driving around over the 0.05 limit in a town with only two main drags was like constantly betting against the bookie and it wasn’t unusual to come across seemingly quite sensible people who been pinched for the same offence two, three or even more, times.
DUI was becoming something of a local epidemic.
There were concerted calls – in the press and then from the politicians – for action. And quite quickly, given the high profile Byron had, completely out of kilter with its size, those calls were answered.
Byron Bay became the venue for the first local court mandated Drink Driving Education Course. Six Thursday afternoons at the local Community Centre, 100% attendance required, and a maximum of 12 participants.
I ran it. Facilitated it, I should say. Me and a colleague of mine called Bruce. And nearly 30 local people who’d been charged with DUI and – with the worst possible grace imaginable – had agreed to attend.
On the first day, Bruce and I received a reception not unlike that endured by Mike and Bernie Winters at the infamous Glasgow Empire Theatre.
‘Oh for Christ’s sake,’ I could almost see the thought bubbles rising from each participant’s head, ‘There’s fuckin’ two of them’.