Illustration: Robin Cowcher.

Illustration: Robin Cowcher.

So many of us are angry commuters now it's hard to believe people used to ''go for a drive'' as a recreation - that the Sunday Drive was a known pastime.

A family would load into the car and meander the local roads without destination, while the parents made coded remarks, ''Hmmm … Clarry's VW outside the Thomson place again''. ''Oh, just look at the Higgins' lawn.'' (Adultery and drunkenness, if you knew what you were listening for.)

Poorer families would circumnavigate the better neighbourhoods and the well-fixed would crawl Fairlanes through housing commission estates and blackfella slums, each marvelling at how the other half lived.

Australians were an isolated people. The car and its Sunday journey was still our most explorative and expansive experience, rich with gossip, culture and landscape. No one flew anywhere. France was found in a book. Indonesia wasn't. The Sunday Drive was our Grand Tour.

''Righto, Sunday drive,'' Dad would call. We had a Galaxy 500 hauled by a five-litre V8 that rumbled hoonishly. Neighbourhood kids would pile in the car with us, because the Cameron Sunday Drive included a dark thrill that dare not speak its name. Mum and dad sat up front and we gathered on the back seat. Langy would often shoehorn his way in.

We would start by cruising the town, dad making provocatively banal observations, keeping us waiting, while we tried to be patient, to ride out the masquerade. Everyone knew where we were heading. And soon Langy, an inquisitive kid, full of ideas and innuendo, would burst out, ''Come on, Mister Cameron. What about the wogs' eagles?''

''Immigrants, Langy,'' Dad would correct him. ''Not 'wogs'.'' And he'd point the Galaxy towards the edge of town, to the orchards where the eagles and lions waited. Out there, in acres of fruit trees, monetarily emancipated Mediterraneans had built brick palaces and surrounded them with cement critters: vultures, stallions, lions atop gateposts, eagles perched on pillars …

Inside, every Italian was a Medici who, freed by pear money, became a patron to a Michelangelo working in cement and cliche. Thus each Varapodio or Villani was soon keeper of his own stone menagerie, a job-lot of noble beasts frozen in the act of defending a small orchard.

For us the payoff of an otherwise boring Sunday Drive was ogling and guffawing at this cut-rate Renaissance. We'd motor from one palace to the next as dad pointed out fresh affronts. ''Balboni's added two lions. He's got Nelson covered now.'' ''Good God. Is that a rug-rat mauling a mastiff, or Romulus having lunch?'' As with Picasso, this art brought more pleasure to its delighted detractors than its defenders.

We Cameron children were an amalgam of unpretentious peoples. Scot, Paddy and Pom, a cocktail of dour bloods and nothing in our world, nothing in our knowledge of the wider world and nothing in our imaginations was as racially hubristic, civically antagonistic, tastelessly ostentatious, or just plain un-Australian as a cement eagle with its wings unfurled and given a lick of gold paint. These Italians, these Greeks, these Albanians … what type of crazy people were they? (The Yorta Yorta must have asked the same question a century earlier as we built our houses.) If the statues symbolised rich histories, then we didn't know it.

We would roll about on the Galaxy's back seat in stitches, Langy's laughter flipping him like a landed carp. But as we drove back to town our jibes and hilarity died out into silence and a hollow mood. How could people be so wrong? Why would God persist with such eccentric folk? Why didn't he straighten them out?

We began to feel shame for these crazy immigrants, even sorry for them. Dad enjoyed our eventual confusion as much as our initial hilarity. He never wanted life's paradoxes cleared up.

''Mister Cameron …'' Langy would ask quietly, ''Why do they do it?''

''One man's meat is another man's poison, Langy.''

''But, no, Mister Cameron, the wogs …''

''Immigrants, Langy.''

''Them immigrants, Mister Cameron … is Walt Disney their King?''

Last year I visited the Uffizi. Langy died young, years ago, of drugs and prison. But in that gallery I laughed with him, still a boy, at the endless cast of chubby nobles and svelte gods ushered from marble by crazily gifted sculptors. You would think they'd released every god that was ever trapped in stone, these Medicis. Until you realise there are as many gods interred as there are sculptors trapped in day jobs.

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