So, I’m back from the all-stops tour of Oz for a week, and just as I’m sorting through my photos and thoughts to write a few words about it here, the place hits the news in an extremely ugly way. (How’s my timing? When I was getting my thoughts on Spain together in 2004, the Madrid bombs went off; now this.)
I’d like to say that this display of racist thuggery was a surprise, but actually... no, it wasn’t really. Australia has always had its share of resentful bigots, as much as the larger culture would like to ignore them, and in the right (wrong) conditions they try their hand. And Oz has had the wrong conditions for a decade now.
When I was over there, people asked me what changes I’d noticed. Besides the physical changes you see in cities anywhere over time, what I most noticed was the hysterical mood of the media and the way it had hijacked the national debate. The newspaper headlines were full of Van Nguyen’s impending execution, the “inevitability” of a terrorist attack on Australia, and the Howard government’s draconian new industrial relations and sedition laws.
It’s not as if it’s five years since I was last there; the mood didn’t seem this grim in 2003. But the government have embraced their unfettered control of parliament to bring in every last item on their 1996 wishlist and then some, and their total dominance of national politics after ten years in power has given voice to every simmering grievance of the right. Feeling comfortable and relaxed, are we?
The frustrating thing is that I know, just as many Americans know of the Bush government and its supporters, that these guys absolutely don’t represent half or more of the country, and yet the world sees all Australians through their twisted night vision.
And, just at the moment, the world sees Australians as five thousand screaming louts hankering after the White Australia policy. But look at it this way: the specific details of last Sunday’s Romper Stomper reenactment were publicised on national television days beforehand, yet only 0.1% of the nation’s biggest city turned up. The margin of error in a statistical sample of our country’s racist pricks.
The violence isn’t one-way, and it’s not all down to the national mood; this comment in a meandering Metafilter thread provides some useful context. But the atmosphere of fear and suspicion promoted by the Howard government and by journalists keen for a spot of drama sure haven’t helped.
Other things I noticed. The sun, obviously, but you always notice that when you step off the plane in Sydney, especially when going from northern winter to the start of a southern summer. I still managed to forget where I was, and to get sunburnt after walking from Central to the Rocks and back again. After that it was SPF30+ every day, bugger the tan.
The accents, obviously, but you always notice those when you step off the plane in Sydney, which has one of the strongest in the country. Actually, they were less noticeable on this trip than on some, because I spent the whole time with family and friends, and they just sounded like themselves. There was one moment, though, when I checked my voicemail and heard the voice of an old friend, when I slipped out of thinking of it as his voice and started to notice the Tasmanian inflections written all over it; and, for a moment, written over my own. Back home in Oz, I slough off the stiff shirt of careful speech that I use overseas to be better understood, and slide into the warm bath of my own voice.
The birds. Seagulls in Sydney, half the size and sounding totally different from the ones in Britain; and the plethora of parrots and galahs and cockatoos in Canberra, which always looked so exotic to the kid from comparatively birdless Tasmania. Magpies, cockatoos, plovers, native hens, mynahs, pelicans, ibises. And pigeons—they’re the same, at least.
The insects. A few more flies than usual, but smaller fruitflies rather than the big blowies of the past (which were brought under control by dung beetles; Australia’s cafe culture was one welcome result). Cockroaches. Ants. There are hardly any ants in Britain, and more kinds of ant in Oz than anywhere else.
The way everyone has started saying “it’s all good”. It’s the “not a problem” of 2005. “That’ll be ten dollars thirty-seven.” “Sorry, I’ve only got a fifty...” “It’s all good!” Um, yeah. Right. We’ve never had it so all good.
New buildings. It’s five or more years since I was last in Sydney, so that had changed a fair bit. World Square, which was a big hole in the ground the whole time I knew the place, is finally complete, and the changing nature of the area has driven away half of the second-hand record shops I used to visit. There are new tunnels, new residential blocks on the outskirts, and a new train line from Kingsford-Smith into the city. In Melbourne, the Daimaru pyramid is now wrapped in wooden walls, and there are new residential blocks all up Swanston Street, only two years since I was last there. Brisbane I never knew that well, but it also has a dynamic feel to it. I stayed in a hotel near the racecourse, and caught the City Cat into town and back. Most of my time in Queensland was on the Gold Coast, though, which is a constantly changing strip of highrise hotels.
Tasmania is changing after the influx of mainlanders in recent years, but it seems to be settling down again. Canberra was the most noticeably different of all. Civic is a mix of the old (Garema place is now looking noticeably sun-faded and worn out) and the brand new (the Griffin Centre is gone, and the neighbouring carpark is a building site; the Canberra Centre has been extended across the road to join up with Target; ANU Graduate House on Barry Drive has been replaced). Woden has sprouted a prominent Soviet-style block of flats. ANU has a bunch of new buildings.
I went for a drive with a friend down to the Cotter and Tidbinbilla to see the results of the 2003 bushfires. They were shadows of their former selves—patches of regrowth where there had been miles of bush—but at least there were new leaves on all those blackened trunks.
The sightseeing was secondary, though, to the main business of visiting people. Over seventeen days, I saw: Rhys; Grahame & Sou; Dean & Karu; Amos; Stephan; Colleen, Michael, Warwick & Francesca; Toby, Anna; Stephen; Paul, Nicole; Paul, Cathi, Charlotte & Reuben; Stuart; Lisa; Gavin; Ben, Andrea, Madison & Phoebe; Bev, Allison; Chris; Michelle; Rohan; Christine, Duncan & Felix; Jim & Peta; Bev, Bet & John, Gabrielle; Rod & Bev; Greg; Marcus, Rob; Tim; Ron & Lorraine; and Kim.
All of my immediate family, a good chunk of my extended family, all my in-laws, a lot of my friends, their kids and their cats, a bunch of my brother’s and parents’ friends, some former colleagues, and various new people as well. A few people I’d hoped to see were away or had moved, but oh well. It was good to spend time with people I care about, even if it was all too short.
KLM lost my luggage. Or Malaysian did—it was stuck at Kuala Lumpur airport, so it could have been either of them. Took two days for it to turn up. That’s the second time I’ve waited at the carousel in Edinburgh for a bag that never came. Naturally, it was chocka with Australian DVDs, books, and food, all of which it would have been a pain to replace.
Not as bad as the trip over, though. I came down with a cold before I left, and wondered whether I should even be getting on the plane. I tried self-medicating with sinus spray, but the descent into Amsterdam was blocked-up skull-crushing hell, and when I got off the plane I could hear swooshing noises in my right ear every time I took a step. Oh no, I thought, I’ve permanently damaged my hearing. I could still hear things through both earphones, though, and it stopped whenever I sat still; maybe I’d only permanently damaged my inner ear? I went looking for the first-aid room, but it was shut. Then, just as I was wondering whether I should get on the next flight and risk making things worse, it went away. So, only two hours of imagining a lifetime with an imaginary seashell strapped to my ear. After that I was gobbling pseudoephedrine like tic-tacs.
Some teenager tried to mug me on my last night in Sydney. I saw him peel away from his friend and veer across the empty street towards me and thought, here we go. But somehow it was hard to feel too threatened: he was obviously drunk, or stoned, and his arm was in a sling.
“Giveusallyermoney,” he growled.
“I haven’t got any money,” I answered, seconds before he swung his leg into a kung fu kick and caught me just above the knee. You prick, that hurt.
“Fuck off,” I said.
And he did, mumbling something about how I musta had at least a hundred bucks.
Of course, if he’d had a knife, or his friend had given him any back-up, or I’d taken fright rather than calmly walking away, I might have been in trouble. But for some reason my bullshit detector was working, and I knew he was just trying it on. Possibly because his arm was in a sling. Giveusallyermoney, or I’ll plaster you.
I went a bit berserk with the camera I bought a week before the trip. At first I wondered if the pics would be that good, because they looked a bit grainy on the preview screen; but when I saw them on Dad’s new 20-inch iMac I couldn’t believe the results. How I lived without a 12x optical zoom with built-in anti-shake, I’ll never know. Trouble is, now I want a new 20-inch iMac.
Anyway, once I sort through them I’ll have a new gallery or two of Australiana for the site. Whether they’ll appear before Christmas, though, is anyone’s guess.
As an expat Aussie I so identify with what you say. And I thankyou for your honesty on what really goes on there in terms of "white Australia" versus "Multicultural Australia". You have summed it up as I only wish I could (and didn't have to).
I love where I am from and will return (if only for extended visits) but this whole Cronulla thing has made me feel really sad.
Great post and I'm glad I stopped by. I'll be back.
Added by Nic on 20 December 2005.
Glad you found the place, Nic—thanks for your comment.
Added by Rory on 20 December 2005.