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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: DAVID SPITERI THE PREZ. Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney, 2012 (500 pages).

David Spiteri, 63, grew up in western Sydney and was a founding member of one of Australia’s first outlaw motorcycle clubs in the late 1960s. In The Prez, a True Crime memoir, Spiteri fictionalizes his involvement and knowledge of bikie culture up until 1985. The writing is raw, but remarkably accessible and despite the massive size of this book, it is always geared to keep you reading, its throttle cracking wide open, taking you further into the depths of the writer's world. Spiteri is remarkably candid and offers his readers a wealth of credible and highly entertaining anecdotes about motorcycle club sub-culture in Australia.

Spiteri started writing the book about ten years ago while he was recovering in hospital from a serious motorcycle accident. His mates dropped off some books for him to read which were mostly about bikies. He found them exploitive, sensationalist and lacking in soul. He thought he could write better shit and had a good story within him to tell. It took him about seven years to write his book in long hand in big block letters in numerous exercise books. He eventually teamed up with editor Tim Harris who has done an outstanding job in humping into shape Spiteri’s sprawling recollections. As the blurb on the front cover states, Spiteri has had to change the real names of the people involved and to obscure the actual events, such as the 1984 Milperra Massacre, but he insists that ‘what is in the book is 100% true.’

The Prez is a third person narrative told largely from the perspective of Peter Winifred. It charts his beginnings as an eleven year-old in Fairfield, in Sydney’s west, selling horse shit door-to-door with the aim of saving to buy a neighbour’s 250 cc motorbike. When a local fails to pay-up for his shit he learns his first valuable lesson: ‘cash only, no credit.’ He takes a tomahawk to the woman’s prized rose bushes and donates them to the church and they are used as altar flowers.

What follows is a series of further lessons for Winnie and his close mates Brian Corrigan and Big Kev. They learn early that school is not for them and they ‘were not going straight.’ The blokes begin their petty-criminal careers as teenagers by stealing and selling rebirthed bikes. They soon lease a shop and service bikes and sell dope under the counter as a sideline. The club’s illegal activities gradually branch out to growing their own cannabis in greenhouses and later setting up their own meth lab and importing Afghani hash.

Speteri’s main intention is to write a social history about a highly guarded and intensely loyal sub-culture. Speteri says matter-of-factly, ‘Maybe we’re tough on people, but we aren’t bad people.’ This book is surprisingly well written and structured. He uses staunch, no bullshit prose to drive his story. I loved in particular his extensive use of Australian and club idiom which fills every page of this book. If the book is published in America it may require a glossary of terms if the puzzled reception of our films is any guide.

The Prez is written in the context of significant social and legislative change. The club and its members need to secure its operations in the flux of state and federal governments who are passing new laws to restrict or destroy their activities and confiscate their ill-gotten gains. We see the establishment of Strike Forces to investigate the criminal dealings of bikie gangs, new banking laws which make it increasingly difficult to hide assets as well as the introduction of progressive laws which legalize gaming machines and prostitution, previously controlled by criminal gangs.

In some respects, The Prez might be read in the future as a text book in Business Studies for aspirational capitalists. Peter Winifred expresses early in the book that he is a product of houseos in the western suburbs of Sydney and his ambition is to never return to that life. Winifred and his Vice-President Brian Corrigan play the system for all its worth. They extensively network with other clubs, they research their markets, diversify their investment portfolios, they edge out & sometimes take-over the businesses of competitors, they provide their customers’ with a superior and reliable product and they hire an array of accountants, financial advisers and solicitors to legitimize their dealings. When they need further help in consolidating their business interests, they solicit cops, bureaucrats and politicians on the take.

I was highly fascinated by Speteri’s descriptions of the club’s many interesting personalities, the punch-ups, motorcycle runs, drug operations, the club's inner politics and the 'gutting room'. He feeds the reader just enough material to allow us into his world and then leaves it to us to fill in the gaps. The most interesting chapters of the book are multi-stranded, that is, they advance the storyline through a complex series of sub-stories which unfold simultaneously and which sometimes foreshadow future events or link back to previous events. The conclusion of the book is shocking but well prepared for.

You really have to work hard to find weaknesses in The Prez. The section leading up to the book’s climax is overly long and comparatively weak. The depiction of Winifred’s domestic life is awkward and occasionally borders on sentimentality. The depiction of Winifred is perhaps its greatest flaw. For most of the book, he has an answer for everything and never seems to place a foot wrong. He seems incapable of expressing fear and has an intense seriousness which is largely devoid of humour. As a consequence, it is sometimes difficult to emotionally engage with Winifred.  But these are minor blemishes in the context of Speiteri's extraordinarily grand and compelling narrative.

One of the downsides for Spiteri in writing The Prez was that the book brought grief to certain members of his motorcycle club. After 31 years Spiteri chose to resign and donate his colours and custom-built Harley to the club.

 The Prez is a compulsory read for anyone interested in knowing more about rebel bikie culture in Australia. My interest in the genre dates back to the iconic films ‘Stone’ and ‘Easy Rider’ and Hunter S. Thompson’s classic book Hell’s Angels. As a comprehensive and authentic Australian bikie tome, Spiteri’s contribution is difficult to overtake.

The photo of David Speteri above was taken at one of his book launches for The Prez and is reproduced here with the author's  permission.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

TV REVIEW- Each Episode: Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms (2012) Six-part TV series starts on Channel 10 on 15 May 2012.

The excellent 1989 book Brothers in Arms by Sandra Harvey and Lindsay Simpson about the 1984 Milperra Massacre is soon to hit free-to-air tv. This six-part $6 million series fictionalizes the conflict between the Bandidos and Comancheros Motorcycle Clubs which lead to the deaths of seven people, including a fifteen year-old female by-stander. 

I wonder what bikies will make of this series?

 The Official Sneak Preview Trailer:

The best newspaper article about the series I have sourced can be found here:

UPDATE: 18 May 2012

EPISODE 1 introduces us to the key members of the Comancheros Motor Cycle Club, including the self-titled Supreme Commander Jock Ross (Matthew Nable) and the new, ex-naval recruit, Snoddy Spencer (Callan Mulvey).

In the opening sequences, there are a lot of bad wigs and choreographed debauchery- a couple bonking in the front passenger seat of a car, heavy skolling and toking- even a wet undie contest amongst the barrel-chested men.

Most of the focus in this episode is on establishing the relationship between the heavily Scotish-accented Jock (who migrated to Australia, aged 26) and Snoddy, who later split with the Comancheros to form an off-shoot of the American based Bandidos Motor Cycle Club.

In episode 1 we witness Snoddy's change from wide-eyed innocence to a sneering hardness. Jock makes a couple of stirring speeches about the need for club loyalty and the need to protect the club from the enemy out there. The two men are not given much of the humanity that is afforded in the original book BROTHERS IN ARMS: The Inside Story of Two Bikie Gangs by Harvey and Simpson. Instead they are largely reduced to hateful stares and slogans.

There are some fine scenes of eight or so of the men on runs with their sported up Harleys but episode 1 tends to milk every cliche about bikies and in many ways appears to be a Moron's Guide to 1%er m/c clubs.

Watch the series on-line on the Channel 10 official website here:

UPDATE: 24 May 2012

EPISODE 2: Once you get used to the schlongs and bikie shenanigans, this episode is emotionally credible in how it represents Jock's disintegrating hold over the Comancheros. Damian Walshe-Howling as the cheeky & dissident Chopper is particularly emblematic of the cultural shift in the club when it rents a house in Birchgrove.

The script writer Jo Martino invents new material to more effectively dramatise the divide between Jock and Snoddy for commercial reasons. Snoddy and others hate Jock's use of military tactics but dynamite is never considered. When Jock announces he is going to split the club into two chapters and return to Granville, twelve men decide to join him. Unlike the dramatic ending in episode 2 Snoddy doesn't offer to join Jock out west.

EPISODE 3 continues to focus on the growing divide between the two chapters of the Commancheros. At the end of the episode while Snoddy is fucking his missus he gets a phone call which confirms that he and his followers have been permitted to form the first American chapter of the Bandidos.

The portrayal of the divide between Jock and Snoddy is disappointingly cartoon like. Jock is represented as a ranting egotistical racist tyrant who instigates bad blood and violence against Snoddy's chapter without provocation on numerous occasions. On the otherhand, Snoddy is a voice of reason- calm, patient, tolerant.

There are plenty of piss-ups, fights and bonks but as in the original 1989 book, no mention of business interests. The conflict appears to be primarily about personalities, in particular about Jock's quest for power to enhance his over-inflated ego. Many of the incidents dramatised in this episode actually took place after the Bandidos were officially formed.

Channel 10 has invested $6 million into this drama but its tv ratings continue to plunge:

 Episode 4 is probably the best and most emotionally engaging of the series to date. It brings together many of the plot elements- the growing feud between the two clubs, the futile attempts at peace-making on both sides and the increased focus on the family lives of Jock and Snoddy which intensifies the personal tragedy of Milperra.

The escalation of violence is confronting to the viewer. The brief scuffle at the Bayview Tavern in which Dog and other Comancheros are bashed is senselessly brutal but is essential in graphically illustrating the uncontrollable rage between the two gangs. Jock is run off the road by a ute and is nearly killed and soon makes a Declaration of War against the Bandidos, who deny involvement in the incident. Both clubhouses are attacked and the bikies' code of silence ensures that police involvement is marginalized.

There is an amusing but historically accurate scene in which the Comancheros clubhouse is shot to pieces in the early hours but the members sleep through it after a big night. 

Snoddy is sickened by the violence but is not prepared to backdown, in part due to promises he has made to the American parent of the Bandidos.  In a club meeting he says, ‘If the Commos are there we will bash them and take their colours.’

The series is beautifully set up for the bikie swap meet at the Viking Tavern the following Saturday.

Episode 5 garishly continues to delay what we are all waiting for: the gang clash at Milperra which left 7 dead and 43 bikies charged with seven counts of murder. The dramatic irony of the impending fight is intensified as we get to know the club members more intimately on both sides. Elements of fate, chance and blind stupidity are layered in the conflict between the Comancheros and Bandidos which makes the event highly avoidable to us, but at the same time, tragically inevitable.

We meet Leanne Walters for the first time. She is the 15 year-old girl who is accidentally shot and killed in the cross-fire between the two gangs. Her step-dad Shifty was a Sergeant-At-Arms of the rival Rebels Motor Cycle Club.

Both clubs arm themselves heavily and express apprehension and doubt. A member asks Snoddy ‘What if they start firing?’ He tersely comments, ‘It’s not gonna happen.’ Even Jock has second thoughts, 'If they’re there it’s on. If you have to shoot. Shoot at the legs.’

If it wasn’t for the ads which appear every five minutes in blocks of three minutes, I might suggest this episode was enjoyable to watch. And as the scheduled viewing time was delayed by fifteen minutes, I was forced to watch snatches of the puerile 'Being Laura Bingle' about the model and her brain dead friends.

Find episode 5 here:

Episode 6 unapologetically strokes the pathos & the inevitable consequence of two motorcycle gangs of big blokes confronting each other with guns, baseball bats, machetes, iron bars and pick handles. There are late appeals to the Comancheros to put their guns down to crushingly remind the viewers that the slaughter may have been avoided. 

A gun is held to Caesar's chest but according to Harvey & Simpson in their book Brothers In Arms no shot is fired to start the 'combat'. It just happened suddenly, without a signal (p.100). The battle scene is short but full-on hectic. The violence is graphic but needs to be shown to illustrate the bestial level these otherwise decent family men have fallen to. 

The remainder of the episode examines the aftermath of the battle in which no one wins. In prison, Snoddy resigns as prez of the Bandidos but in real life his resignation is not generally accepted and he is reinstated five days later. Snoddy descends into despair & self loathing during his record-breaking remand and strangles himself in his cell by unheroically tying his longjohns around his neck and leaping off a toilet. 

Bikie Wars is an entertaining but deeply flawed series. It wants to remain true to the spirit of historical events but needs to embellish them for commercial reasons. It presents a cautionary tale in which the only lesson to be learnt by bikies is the need for increased stealth and secrecy. And besides, what do these guys do for an earn? This is an issue largely ignored by both the book and the tv series.

Update: 24 May 2016

The series is now available on Netflix Australia.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Book Recommendation: Daniel Okrent LAST CALL: The Rise And Fall Of Prohibition. New York, Scribner, 2010 (468 pages).

This is an excellent, detailed study of the Prohibition era in America. The book’s early focus is on the brilliant political tactics used by the Anti-Saloon League which resulted in the rewriting of the Constitution in 1919 to ban the manufacture, sale and transport of ‘intoxicating liquors’. It provides rich portraits of the key figures involved- both wet and dry.

More fascinating for me were the huge loopholes bored into the 18th Amendment- how effortless it was to get a drink, how various government’s scrimped on law enforcement and how rift corruption became on all levels. With the onset of the Great Depression it is interesting how decades of intense opposition to grog just fell away. Within months of the repeal,  hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the Treasury from the excise tax on alcohol (approximately 30% of total Federal government revenues) and organised crime immediately felt a sledge hammer to its influence.

There is an important lesson to be learnt here by Western democracies but Okrent makes only one passing reference to the decades old 'war' on illicit drugs.

A useful summary of the book’s contents can be found in this NY Times review:

Daniel Okrent is extensively interviewed (68 minutes) by EconTalk’s host Russ Roberts here: