THIS IS A LONG ONE. POUR YOURSELF A DRINK
In early 1991 I was eventually, and justifiably, arrested for drink-driving – an event long overdue.
My history of driving began when I was 14. We then lived on the dairy farm at Goolmangar, outside Lismore on the NSW far north coast. One day Dad suggested to Paul, my cousin, who worked for us, that he take me for a driving lesson in the old 1920s Dodge farm truck. So I learned to drive with the old double-declutch system (don’t even ask, you youngies) and pretty soon was ferrying the neighbouring schoolkids and brother Robert down the dusty dirt road to the junction where the local bus connected and took us to school in Lismore. This seemed to perturb no one, even my super-Catholic mother.
One day when I was around 16 or so, cousin Paul was returning from Sydney and needed to be picked up from the bus station in Lismore. To my surprise Dad suggested I take the FJ Holden and collect him. Quite illegal, but still not a murmur from Mum. Off I went and over the first hill I met a police car coming the other way. My blood froze, but I waved and drove on. So did they, to my relief. At the bus station I had a hard time convincing Paul that I was on my own. I let him drive back.
So by the time I went for my licence I was quite an experienced driver. I was 17 and it was New Year’s Eve, 1959. In those days you went to the police station for your driving test. The copper got in beside me and after a drive round the block, involving four right turns (with hand signals – no indicators in those days) I had my licence.
I had my first taste of alcohol, too, at 17. It was an extremely lethal and random mixture of leftovers at a dance party at the University of New England. I was the pianist with the Armidale Teachers’ College dance band when we played this gig.
The other lads (and the inevitable female vocalist) liked a drop or three, but I was still an OJ man. Someone in the group decided to liven things (and me) up, and one glass of orange juice can contain anything, really, and look much the same.
I was subsequently told that I went on to perform like a “latter-day Liszt” (I don’t remember) and said some particularly revealing – and quite untrue – things about my current girlfriend in the car on the way home. I also discovered, in retrospect, that one throws up in the toilet bowl, not the wash basin.
This introduction to the effects of alcohol, not surprisingly, didn’t encourage me in that direction. Indeed, years later, at my 21st birthday party in the Strathfield Scout Hall, the entire alcoholic provision was a case of long-necks (as they are now called) of Resch’s Dinner Ale, for those of the adults who cared for a beer. Most of my mates and myself were still on the OJ.
To step back for a moment, in 1961, when I was 18, I had my first teaching position. I was teacher-in-charge of Kelvin Public School, a one-teacher school 12 miles north of Gunnedah, in north-western NSW. I had a group of twelve pupils, ranging from kindy to sixth class – though fourth class was empty. I knew nothing about teaching.
The system thereabouts in those days was that the farming parents would billet the teacher, term about – not entirely satisfactory. My first term was spent with the Jeffries family. Jeff Jeffries, a rough-as-guts wheat farmer, had three sons: Pater and Paul, both my pupils, and a very handsome teenage Robert (nicknamed, most appropriately, I was led to understand, “Snake”) who worked the farm with his dad.
Jeff’s custom, at the end of the day, was to knock the top off a Tooheys or two, and this he now shared with me. I can remember my head spinning after two glasses, my vision blurring, telling myself to keep calm and focused. After all, I was the local school teacher.
Word got round that I played piano and I soon joined up with Bernie Foster (trumpet), George Speed (sax) and Les Fuller (drums) to form the Zodiacs dance band. We played all over the district – Narrabri, Baan Baa, Wee Waa – but mostly at the Gunnedah Golf Club. In those days, teachers were not permitted to take second jobs, but the local school inspector, Mr Johnson, despite being a demonic Mason and thus not very fond of little Catholic me, turned a blind eye – perhaps because Mrs Johnson enjoyed dancing at the Golf Club.
Often, after a gig, I would stay at Bernie’s place in town, innocently sleeping top-to-tail in his single bed. One night, the two of us stayed drinking after the gig was over, finally appropriating a couple of bicycles and riding around all nine holes of the course. Somehow, I got back to Bernie’s, blind drunk, before him – we were probably driving our own cars. I found Mrs Foster doing the ironing at four in the morning. She was not happy. She sent me straight to bed and had a few words with Bernie when he got in.
On another occasion, I was driving my brand new Triumph Herald back to Kelvin after a gig when I saw the local police car tailing me – police vehicles were unmarked in those days, but we all knew the green EK Holden. I knew I was drunk, but not speeding, so I kept going. He eventually pulled me over and I thought a fine young career was about to crumble.
“So, Hugh,” he said, “how was the dance tonight? I’ve been on duty and couldn’t get there.” I brought him up to date with the evening’s gossip and he sent me merrily (too merrily) on my way.
But those were isolated incidents – I was by no means a regular boozer – hence the small amount of alcohol at my 21st.
But gradually I got better at it. By the mid-60s I was back living in the family home at Strathfield. I now had a white Triumph Spitfire convertible, my pride and joy. In those days one frequently drove wherever, as pissed as a newt. I remember one particular Saturday night when I drove from Strathfield to a party at Mosman, then on to another at Coogee. At home the next morning I could remember being at both parties, but nothing of the driving between them. Surely one trip must have been over the Harbour Bridge? But none of this was any call for concern – we all did it, all the time.
In passing, whilst tooling around in my sporty sedan, top down, I found myself stopped at a red light in Blaxland Road, Ryde. I was daydreaming and didn’t notice the lights had changed until the old bloke in the ute behind me put his head out the window and drawled, “Any particular shade of green you’re waiting for?”
Another thing we did seemed perversely to be encouraged by the restrictive NSW drinking laws of the time. Pubs were closed on Sundays. You could not drink in a pub unless you were a bona-fide traveller. This was a hangover (sorry) from the Cobb & Co days when travelling salesmen and their ilk could legally claim a drink if they had travelled 20 miles or more that day.
Some pubs, especially in the outer suburbs, took advantage of this loophole. You could (and we did) drive to, for example, the Newport Arms on Sydney’s northern beaches, sign in the visitors’ book that you lived in Cronulla, a suburb over 20 miles away, (the only ID was your driver’s licence, and no one checked) and booze all day to your heart’s content.
The trouble came at 5.00pm when the Sunday pubs closed. A whole bunch of drunken yahoos left their chosen waterhole in the north and drove south. Meanwhile, those who had spent the day in the south drove north. No wonder the carnage on the roads in those days was so drastic. However, I can thankfully write that I don’t recall any of our gang ever being in serious trouble.
I spent the years 1968 to 1974 in London, without a car. In London a car is a liability, not an asset.
Back in Sydney in late 1974, I immediately needed a car and bought an old VW Beetle for $500. I was mobile again, but in my six-year absence things had changed.
In the past if the police thought you were intoxicated, they’d ask you to walk a straight line. Now they could ask you to breathe into a bag which calibrated your intake of alcohol. Fortunately, they could only pull you over if they suspected you of an offence. So we were back in lottery-land – take a chance and hope for the best. And for me, so far, so good.
All through the late 70s and the 80s I drove with impunity, showing little regard for the drinking laws. My attitude was somewhat fatalist – if they catch me, accept the consequences and so be it.
So I carried on blithely and luckily continued to escape the law. But then came the dreaded RBT – Random Breath Testing; the police could pull you over without any suspicion of drunkenness and breathalyse you at random. Big deal – I continued to drink, I continued to drive – though I usually stuck to the back roads.
The story of my encounters with and subsequent downfall due to RBT comprise the three following chapters:
After a night of Mick Jagger solo at the Entertainment Centre, I was driving my mate Wolf back to Bellevue Hill. The police had set up their Booze Bus in the notorious Rushcutters Bay stretch and they pulled us over.
“Well,” I said to Wolf, “this could mean trouble.”
But Huggy,” he said, “you only had a couple of drinks at interval, you’re OK.” (And one at the bar afterwards.)
“Yes,” I thought as the policeman approached.
“Good evening, sir – have you had a drink recently?”
“About 20 minutes ago,” I replied truthfully.
Apparently, this means you have to sit there for a while, before the breathalyser will take an accurate reading.
As we sat there, me apprehensive, they pulled in another car which took off at high speed in the direction of New Beach Road. As the cop’s partner waved frantically, mine said, “You can go now, sir,” as he and his mate set off in hot pursuit. I drove quietly home.
My second encounter with a breath test was a little more complicated. It occurred in the early evening of a Sunday in the mid-80s. I had been playing piano at a lesbian birthday party in Balmain. It was a lunchtime affair and around 6.00pm I was again driving home to Bellevue Hill. I was driving the worst car I’ve ever owned, a VW Golf. I had bought it for $3000 without a proper inspection and it was a lemon.
As I drove along Oxford St, Woollahra, I was waved over. As I pulled into the kerb, the Golf let out a series of appalling automotive grunts and groans.
The cop came over. “What was that?” he asked.
“I think it’s the clutch, officer. I’ve been having trouble with it.”
“Well, you can’t leave it here – this will be a clearway in the morning. Can you get it up on to the median strip?”
I turned the ignition and to my surprise and relief the engine started. I managed to get it off the roadway, grateful for this distraction. The car then coughed and died. I got out, looked under the bonnet and pretended I knew what I was doing.
Eventually the cop came over. “So what do you think?” he asked.
“Well, I guess I better call the NRMA,” I replied, planning to walk to the nearest phone box.
“I guess that’s the best idea, sir,” he said, “… but first, would you mind breathing into this.”
My heart sank. I thought I’d been doing rather well. I was sure I’d be over the limit, although I’d been playing piano most of the time and drinking moderately. Even I haven’t perfected the desirable skill of playing piano and drinking at the same time.
The cop looked at the gauge and said, “Hmmm…”. He called his mate over and said, “What do you make of this?” They wandered off to discuss things out of my earshot.
He came back and said, “Where were you heading, sir?”
“Just around to Queen St,” I lied, giving the address of two nearby friends. Then inspiration struck. “But, officer, I can’t drive anywhere now.”
“That’s true,” he said, “so I guess you had better be on your way.”
Phew. I locked the car, walked straight round to the Woollahra Hotel and ordered a double scotch on the rocks.
Now for the big one.
Early in 1991 I was again driving home to Bellevue Hill after a night of serious partying. Coincidentally, I was again chauffeuring my mate Wolf, who lived round the corner from me. I had learned by now to avoid the notorious stretch of Oxford St bordering Centennial Park, the scene of my former encounter. But, Hell’s bells, it was four o’clock in the morning – they wouldn’t be out at this hour!
Well, they were. As we came round the corner from Queen St, we were waved over. Wolfie still claims the young constable had to leap for the pavement as I screeched to a halt. “Well, I’m for it this time,” I said, and this time Wolfie didn’t disagree.
They left me to sit for some minutes and then it was bag-breathing time. I’d spent the time doing lung-clearing deep breaths, but I knew there was no hope.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you’re well over the limit and I’ll have to arrest you. Perhaps your passenger would care to drive the car home for you?”
“I choose not to, officer,” said Wolf wisely.
So Wolfie hailed a cab and I was bundled off in the paddy wagon
Now here’s a spooky thing. The back of the paddy wagon has two long metal benches and … no seat belts! Is this an OH&S issue? I was thrown around the cabin as we headed off for who knows where. We ended up at Maroubra police station (though I didn’t know that until I read the charge sheet the next morning) and I was processed. This involved being locked in a dock, finger-printed (very messy) and held for a while before being breathalysed again. I registered 0.145. I was impressed.
Then, for reasons known only to HM constabulary, I was bundled back into the paddy wagon and driven to Paddington police station. (I was rapidly sobering up now and managed to find the hand holds in the back of the vehicle, thus avoiding any more bruises.) At Paddington I was thrown into a cell, perhaps to cool off for a while and then released. (I can remember being extremely demure and polite all this while, even thanking the Paddo police for their kindness and attention.)
So, as the sun rose, I finally arrived home, unplugged the phone and fell into a deep and drunken sleep.
Late that Saturday afternoon I awoke, made coffee and reviewed my situation. I was not anxious to inform any of my friends as to my predicament until I’d come to terms with it myself.
Fat chance. Of course, good old Wolfie had gone from the scene of the crime to Julian McMahon, who was squatting in his mother’s as yet unrenovated new purchase in Bellevue Hill. After they got over the schadenfreude of my situation they phoned me but, of course, got no answer. They became concerned and began calling others of my friends. They found John Hughes on a weekend in Canberra with a bunch of mates, so by midday, while I slept on, the whole gang knew what had happened.
So while perversely proud of my new statistic (even my good mate Tim had only managed 0.10) I realised it was time for common sense to prevail.
My lawyer Warwick found me my barrister, Alison, and moves were made. It seemed that several factors would be taken into account: my driving record; character references from reputable friends; and circumstances leading up to the night in question, among others. My driving record was – and still is – clean (which simply means they hadn’t caught me until now). I got references from two very respectable female friends and, needing a third, nervously approached Sonia, Lady McMahon, mother of the aforementioned Julian. I knew Julian much better than his mother – he and I were good drinking mates, which wasn’t necessarily a plus on this occasion.
I made my tenuous approach via Julian (“Do you think your mother would mind…?”). Of course, I thought her name might carry some gravitas. She came up trumps.
As with the other referees, she asked me to draft a letter for her consideration. I sent it off to her and in return received the warmest, glowingest hand-written account on her letterhead making much reference to the positive effect I had had on her children and her subsequent gratitude. (It is, by the way, required by law that the reference acknowledges the specific offence.)
As to the circumstances leading up to the night in question, I put it to my barrister that I had heard that day of the sudden death of a very close friend and had taken, uncharacteristically, to drink. (This death had indeed occurred, but some six months earlier.)
So we would plead guilty and throw ourselves on the mercy of the court. There was in those days a provision that the judge could use at his/her discretion to take into account one’s previous good character and/or charitable works when sentencing.
But the hearing would be at Waverley Court, where, as everyone knew, both magistrates were hanging judges. No mercy was ever shown. No leniency was to be expected.
Judgment day arrived. Alison had managed to schedule the hearing for late morning, when we hoped no press would be present. Then we discovered, to our delight, that both presiding magistrates were absent. The visiting magistrate was named McMahon (coincidence?). We entered the courtroom, me in my greyest and drabbest suit and tie and I sat, as is custom, in the body of the court next to my barrister. Alison had advised me that the most likely outcome would be a conviction, perhaps a $500 fine and a six-month suspension of licence.
The police prosecutor outlined the nature of the charge and the circumstances relating to it. As Alison rose to submit my references and plead mitigating circumstances, I sat with my hands clasped between my knees, looking steadfastly at the floor, doing serious humility acting.
When she finished her speech, there was a short silence as the magistrate studied the references. He then looked at me and asked me to enter the witness box. Alison subsequently told me that she had never seen this happen before and had become extremely apprehensive.
His worship then addressed me:
“Mr O’Keefe, I have the power to convict you, I have the power to suspend your licence, I have the power to send you to prison.
“I intend to do none of those things as your references attest that you are a man of fine character and are highly regarded in the community. You also have an admirable driving record. As well, it would seem that the evening in question was in the nature of a wake.”
He went on to lecture me on the dangers of various alcoholic beverages – “White wine can be extremely deceptive…” – and finally announced that he was putting me on a 3-year good behaviour bond, with no fine, no loss of licence and no conviction recorded.
Alison and I put a great deal of distance between the courthouse and ourselves before we allowed ourselves to collapse into guffaws of relief and amazement.
Friends had arranged to have lunch at the Tilbury Hotel in Wooloomooloo with me (if I wasn’t in gaol). As I walked into the beer garden I met their apprehensive and collective gaze.
“There has been a major miscarriage of justice,” I announced. “I’m free!”
I sold the car.