I had fallen in with an Emirates flight crew—British, Irish, South African, Korean—sometime after eleven. A Swedish stewardess, the eldest among them at a mere thirty-something, watched her charges’ increasingly drunken antics with a wry smile and a half-concealed yawn before slipping off at around one o’clock into the clouds of cigarette smoke that hang over Hindley Street like a pall.
I had come to Adelaide to write an article about the city’s nascent laneway culture, the transformation of its alleys and side streets over the past three years, which had so impressed me on an earlier visit. This is not that article. While I was impressed by Leigh and Peel Streets’ numerous watering holes, I was also struck by the fact that the hipsterisation of these smaller side streets hadn’t entailed the neutralisation or dilution of Hindley Street’s traditional, invigorating harshness, or at least hadn’t entailed it yet. Gentrification is often a euphemism for class warfare and community displacement, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. I felt a second article coming on and ducked into the Woolshed on Hindley to do some research. This isn’t that article, either.
Their Swedish matriarch having retired, the flight crew were getting a little rowdy. My enlightening conversation with the South African flight attendant had been cut short when it began to look like his Ukrainian workmate, whom he had his eye on, was flirting with some local interloper. The article I’d had in mind consisted at this point of little more than an opening sentence about sticky carpets. The crew decided to head to the casino and I decided to see them out and head back to the Bank Street flophouse where I was staying.
Informed by the bouncer that it was past the point of no return, or at least of re-entry—Sydney’s lock-out laws have their precedents—I was just in time to see a burly fellow in a wife-beater coat-hanger the fellow he was talking to to the ground. A kind of awed silence descended for a moment as everyone standing on the footpath around them processed what had happened. They had apparently been talking quite amiably about how much each of them could bench-press or something when the man on the ground had called bullshit—or at least, his friends disingenuously insisted, had politely expressed doubts—on his interlocutor’s claims. The burly fellow, whom I was soon to learn was Kazakh, grabbed his female companion by the wrist—I was soon to learn that she was his Russian cousin—and struck out for Bank Street himself. He was pursued by jibes and threats and catcalls, expressed in hard, if slurred, local accents, and by me and the flight crew, who were going his way. I’d had enough to drink to call out a derogatory thing or two myself. I noted that the bouncers hadn’t done anything to stop him from leaving, even though he’d coat-hangered the man right in front of them.
What happened next was to thrust me squarely into his corner.
The Kazakh and the Russian girl were about halfway down Bank Street when the man who had been coat-hangered appeared out of nowhere, took a running jump, seemed to hang in the air a moment as though on a wire, and attempted to king-hit his assailant in the back of the head. Thankfully, he only attempted it: his aim was off and his fist glanced off the Kazakh’s shoulder and—not so thankfully—into his cousin, who was already struggling to totter along on stilettos and who now toppled forward like a dying fawn into the gutter.
As though ceding the moral high ground wasn’t enough, the author of the abortive king-hit proceeded to demonstrate why such a move is better off known as a coward’s punch. He turned and fled before the Russian girl had even hit the ground. If she hadn’t been there—hadn’t have been falling before our eyes—I would like to think that I might have turned and given chase, or at least turned and called out for someone back on Hindley Street to stop him, though that may well have incited a brawl.
In any case, the girl was there, and the nearest Emirates flight attendant and I rushed forward instinctively to her aid. The Kazakh, like George Costanza in the face of a fire, had bolted the moment he’d realised what was going on and left his cousin to her own devices. He was nowhere to be seen. I wouldn’t have put a coward’s punch beyond his capabilities, either.
Such punches continue to dominate the news. For years now, one-punch attacks have been killing people and destroying families with depressing regularity. Grainy CCTV footage, taken from outside some pub or another, has become a familiar component of the nightly news, airing in slow motion while the anchor intones about the latest attack and its effects. The footage is dutifully pored over and analysed (or fetishised) by the commentariat until the next attack happens, which it inevitably does. We have been urged not to call these punches ‘king-hits,’ which apparently sounds strong and impressive to people who are into that kind of thing, but rather “coward’s punches,” as though a twenty-something dickwad hepped up on booze and this nation’s ingrained idea of what it means to be a man gives two hoots what they’re called.
There has been resistance, both official and otherwise. In the lead-up to Australia Day this year, Brisbane man Nick Lawler, concerned that the national day was threatening to become little more than a festival of blokes punching other blokes, designed an anti-king-hit poster, which went viral on social media. The poster showed a map of Australia and the Australian flag on a blue background with the text: ‘This Australia Day. Try not to punch anyone in the head’. A few days later, South Australian rapper Josh Lynagh, who was king-hit on Australia Day two years ago, released a music video in which he rapped that: ‘You’re not a hero, you’re a weak piece of shit, and you need to know that kind of tough guy image just needs to go.’
Official responses, such as NSW Premier Mike Baird’s attempts to turn Sydney into a ghost town, have been more contentious, with many feeling that the cure is worse than the disease. (I can’t help but observe that what I witnessed in Adelaide took place after the lock-out had come into effect.) University of Sydney student Max Hardwick-Morris, who was king-hit on Australia Day this year—Lawler’s poster having proved unsuccessful—wrote in an open letter to Baird that ‘as a victim of Sydney’s violence, with full knowledge that my incident could have resulted in my death … I feel you’ve used the two unfortunate coward punches that resulted in deaths to further your political agenda.’
The conversation surrounding the king-hit seems somehow limited, unimaginative, to me. Yes, binge-drinking and booze play their role, as does having a penis. That traditional masculinity is in crisis, and finding increasingly malignant ways of expressing itself as a result, seems obvious. (One need only consider the rise of groups like the Return of Kings, whose ‘neomasculinist’ leader, Daryush Valizadeh, ignited controversy last month when he announced his plans to visit Australia. Or perhaps one needn’t consider them, but ignore them. Douchebags, after all, like fires, need oxygen to survive.)
But isn’t the coward’s punch, properly considered, also kind of the punch for our times? It seems to me only the latest, basest expression of our culture’s conflict resolution strategies and insidious anger management problems. What is the drone strike if not the king-hit of modern warfare? (I suppose I should be thankful that it was only the Russian girl—and not the Kazakh’s entire family, attending a wedding or birthday party or something—who was rendered ‘collateral damage’ on this occasion.) What are Australia’s refugee policies if not a clenched fist to the back of the head of the defenceless and unsuspecting? Our culture’s expressions of physical strength regularly reveal its moral cowardice. Facing the problems that face us directly, looking them in the eye with anything approaching dignity—and I am not denying that terrorism or irregular maritime arrivals or getting coat-hangered outside the Woolshed on Hindley are not real problems—is apparently beyond us.
Not much happened after that. I sat with the Russian girl on the curb until the Kazakh sheepishly resurfaced from his foxhole. The flight crew—quite callously, I thought, though they only had one night in the city and could perhaps have been forgiven for not wanting to spend it in the gutter—headed off to the casino. The excitement was over, or perhaps had moved elsewhere, to be played out again later on a different street with different actors in the leading roles. I asked the Russian girl if she wanted me to call the police or an ambulance and she said not to bother. We retired to our respective hotels and I lay awake until it was light outside.