Current Issue #488

Beer and Other Sins:
Judges, crooks and poets at the Semaphore Workers Club

Beer and Other Sins by Royce Kurmelovs

In the 1970s, Adelaide’s northern beaches were the site of a ‘bloodless’ socialist revolution that never made the front page. 50 years later, the Semaphore Workers Club remains a kind of paradise.

Under the verandah at the Semaphore Workers Club, a poet looks for a table where the wind won’t reach her.

She doesn’t normally smoke, she explains to the magistrate who introduces himself as she settles into a chair, but when the drinks flow freely as they do on this Saturday night, she still sometimes feels the urge to head out into the night for a cigarette.

After she finishes carefully rolling and sealing the paper with her tongue, she looks for her lighter. When she can’t find it, the magistrate who had been tending the spit all night offers her a ramekin with a hot coal. The poet touches the end of the cigarette to its surface and the woody smell of burning tobacco fills the air.

“Hold it in your hands, like this,” he says as the wind from the ocean picks up, demonstrating by cupping both his hands around the ceramic.

Both are here tonight because they have somehow entered the orbit of Geoff Goodfellow. The poet who once read on stage with Ken Kesey in California has booked the whole joint out for his 70th birthday.

Inside the crowd is about 100-strong and up on stage, the eight-person band Gumbo Ya Ya plays their New Orleans-inspired rhythms. All eyes are on the man at the centre, as he dances with someone else’s wife.

If a man is to be judged by the company he keeps, each chapter of Geoff Goodfellow’s life is reflected in the faces of those present.

Over in a booth, the former residents of Copley Street in Broadview, all children of military service homes, have gathered to celebrate one of their own.

Not far away stands a conference of crooks. Counted among them is a veteran safe cracker and a man who, in the 80s, saved the family farm by diversifying into cannabis.

Seated down the front, meanwhile, are a group of Federal and Supreme Court judges, joined by their partners. At their table sits a significant Adelaide property developer who looks uncomfortable in a room where the flag of nearly every union and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) adorns the walls.

Scattered between them are an assortment of poets, writers, publishers, and theatre people, some having flown in for the occasion.

Over by the bar, a man dressed like a sea captain leans back on his stool and rests both elbows against the timber. He is Ben Carslake, a founding member of this iteration of the Semaphore Workers Club and unofficial keeper of its history.

Ben is quick to claim the man responsible for bringing these people together as a personal friend of “The Commo Club”.

He says the club gave Geoff Goodfellow his first gig – a statement with a debatable basis in fact. A more accurate statement might be that Geoff Goodfellow was certainly the first poet to perform at the Semaphore Workers Club.

Before a coalition of the CFMEU, the CPA and the Waterside Workers Federation took it over, the Semaphore Workers Club was a haunt for judges, bankers, sea captains and those with money.

Back then the club served as The Adelaide Club by the sea, whose exclusive membership would gather to drink until 4am before liquor licensing regulations started keeping track of time.

When the 70s brought a raft of new rules, the old membership fell away until the remaining 15 members let the building fall into decline. Their plan was to eventually sell off the sea-front property, take the money and run.

“We saved it,” Ben says. “We took it over in a bloodless coup.”

How it happened was simple enough. What began with a slow trickle of new members eventually reached a critical mass that allowed them to seize control of the organisation.

“One day we took the Queen off the wall and put Lenin up, then the rest of them resigned too,” he says. “Didn’t like our politics. Lenin’s still there today but the Queen’s long gone.

“In fact those are the first judges we’ve had through the doors in 50 years. You got judges cooking the food, working class people, poets, writers, crooks – all drinking together and happy at the Workers Club.”

When word goes around that the speeches are about to begin, the band brings its music to a close and all eyes look towards the front.

Outside, the magistrate excuses himself from the table and heads into the warmth explaining he is expected to give a speech. The poet stays to finish off her cigarette before following.

“You know you’ve lived well when you have friends in both high and low places,” she says.

Royce Kurmelovs

Royce Kurmelovs

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Australian freelance journalist and author of The Death of Holden (2016), Rogue Nation (2017) and Boom and Bust (2018).

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