Archive for July, 2014

Holidays in the Sun, Part Three: a reasonable economy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on July 22, 2014 by martinbarden

Perhaps being here is partly about being an economic migrant. It’s not as though I was particularly suffering in London – far from it. As usual, the capital seemed immune from the impact of the recession triggered by the banking collapse of 2008. As a consultant, the service I was offering (in essence, helping arts organisations make some money) was keenly needed in face of the harsh realities of the Cameron/Osborne era. But in the back of my mind there was a notion to sit out the rest of this one and see how Donald Horne’s Lucky Country was faring.*

People in Sydney still speak of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) in hushed tones, as though it were the death of a near-relative from a sexually transmitted disease. Australia did not suffer in any meaningful way, partly because its banks appear not to have become casinos, unlike so many back home, and because the land is the gift that just keeps giving. The country has been turned into an enormous mine. You plant something, and like Jack’s Beanstalk, it grows and grows. The vegetables here practically glow, the fruit too. Unlike in the UK, you can’t get everything all year round, flown in from South America, Africa, the USA. The fish seem still to leap from the waters without more than a tickle. Most fresh produce is local and, well, fresh. The land is very giving; except to those from whom it was stolen.

Australia has enjoyed 22 years of unbroken economic growth. Working in the arts here pays considerably better than in the UK – ironic, given that Australia is often dismissed as having no culture whatsoever.

Immigration is an extremely dirty word in Australia these days, unless you arrive on a 747 with a job secured and proof of your financial wellbeing. The current federal government is coming very close indeed to violating international law as it turns away refugee boats from Asia – and implements a media black-out on reporting any such incidents. 1788 is clearly so long ago that the irony is lost, along with compassion and common decency.

To answer my questions, is it better? Did I lose anything? Well, yes and no, and yes. The quality of life is astonishing for the few, just like anywhere else, and not for the many, just like everywhere else. The difference is that there is no class system. There is a hierarchy informed by wealth, but no ‘old money’ in the way that we British understand it. Everyone with money is sort of equal – just as everyone without is equally poor. It’s not a revelation but perhaps a realisation that a better climate improves one’s sense of well-being. The sky is big and far above and almost always blue. There is space – even in a city seemingly obsessed with building upwards as well as outwards. It is said that Australians have the world’s largest homes. They are apparently the planet’s worst greenhouse-gas polluters per capita, as I can well believe, given the urge to cool down, warm up, drive everywhere and fly great distances just to get anywhere. Every freedom has its price. Indigenous people make up just 3% of the population at large but 30% of the population of Australia’s prisons.

And loss? I damaged the soul of my English-tailored suit, I disengaged from my roots. The revelation, or realisation, is that a career is a career, but the people you have known throughout your adult life, who know you for who you are, the ones you love, are the ones you can’t replace. The truth becomes apparent: what are we but our friends?

* Horne’s expression has been misunderstood and misused by many writers in the past 40 years, including this one.


Holidays in the Sun, Part Two: arrival

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on July 12, 2014 by martinbarden

On 10 July 2013 I arrived in Sydney for the third time in six months. My comings and goings coincided with frequent changes in Prime Minister. Julia Gillard was deposed by the returning Kevin Rudd at the end of June, Gillard having pushed him from the throne three years previously; he’d soon lose the general election to Liberal Tony Abbott. Three PMs in three months. Was this a banana republic after all?

My new employers – which in itself felt weird, having been self-employed for a while – had found me temporary accommodation in Darling Point, in what I soon came to understand to be the Eastern Suburbs. ‘Suburb’ in Sydney does not mean somewhere like Croydon or Mill Hill in London; it means anywhere which is more than 200 yards away from the city centre. The Eastern Suburbs is the posh end of town, and Darling Point is a particularly plush, harbour-hugging peninsula.

I was greeted at the door of the apartment – despite it being only about 6am – but the jolly Jono, who was as helpful as could be, without being intrusive. He set the tone for Sydneysiders as a whole – welcoming, accepting, polite, open. The sun rose over Double Bay, the boats bobbed about, birds tweeted and I went for a nap.

Over the next few weeks I grew accustomed to looking out from the terrace at the gorgeous bays all around, and travelling to and from work by ferry: an eight minute journey of such beauty I had to pinch myself to believe it was real. There is no point in staring at your iPhones and BlackBerries, ladies and gentlemen. Put them away and look out of the window. You are travelling along the most astonishingly beautiful waterway in the world. Drink it in. You are blessed. These are ancient waters with a million stories to tell. The sun is always shining. Wake up and listen!

I’ve done no end of travelling but other than being away from 1990-91 on my first mid-life crisis trip, there was always a return flight booked and I didn’t have to work. Culture, beach, wildlife, sunshine: usual recipe. Sydney had always been a holiday destination; now it had become something different.

The most beautiful harbour in the world is home to the most beautiful building in the world, and that rather impressive bridge; double top everything. The climate is near-perfect, the Botanic Gardens a divine, extraordinary sanctuary. The pace of life is calm and the quality exceptional. The lucky country, indeed. After a few months I moved to Woolloomooloo, not least of all because it has eight Os and scans well to the tune of Metal Guru. It’s just on the edge of the Gardens, through which I walk each morning to the museum on Circular Quay.

I’d not appreciated before the degree to which Sydney’s historic harbour is emblematic of the shocking legacy of European colonisation: the settlement was established from a base at Circular Quay and the first consistent contact between the British and indigenous people happened here. It is said that when the First Fleet made its way round the harbour and the Brits came ashore, the Gadigal people thought that they were just visitors, as others had visited before them. But they stayed, and so began the catastrophic collision between native and colonialist. To this day, the country which became known as Australia has not resolved this conflict. As recently as this month Prime Minister Abbott referred to Australia as having been ‘unsettled’ prior to 1788. In a stroke he forgot that Aboriginal Australians are the world’s oldest continual race, dating back perhaps 50,000 years. Other than the re-naming of the land upon which the Sydney Opera House sits as Bennelong Point, a visitor would have no idea whatsoever that this land had been inhabited by non-Europeans before 1788, that it belongs to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. The irony is that the original name for Bennelong Point was actually Warrang, meaning ‘scars in the back’. Bennelong was not a Gadigal, rather a Wangal. See more here. Aboriginal culture at Sydney Cove (formerly Warrane) has been reduced to a couple of men busking with didgeridoos. Are there any historical reminders, you wonder? The Quay’s pavements contain markers for the former shape of the shoreline in 1788 and 1844, and – absurdly – plaques to honour European Australian writers such as Clive James, but that, matey, is your lot. It is a scar upon us all.

I don’t know why but I am far more interested in local history than, say, the history of British Kings and Queens or the repeal of the Corn Laws. I’m eating my way through Australian history books, novels, non-fiction, pretty much anything which comes my way. Somehow the land has connected with me and despite living on the 14th floor I feel very close to it. Perhaps it is because I do not sense any true nationhood here; perhaps it’s because its European history is still so young and around here, at least, its ancient history is almost hidden. Perhaps it’s because it is so like being in England, albeit an England we don’t really have any more, and because so many people here are British or descended from the British, but have adapted to their adopted land. Suffice to say it fills my thoughts and I have become a slightly different person this past year.

More to follow in part III.

Holidays in the Sun, Part One: departure

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7, 2014 by martinbarden

On 8 July 2013 I left London, heading to Botany Bay, having decided to transport myself to Sydney (albeit courtesy of Qantas, rather than an eight month voyage in the bowels of a prison ship).

This journey had begun in 1990 when I arrived at Kingsford Smith for the first time, half way through a round-the-world adventure. I was in my 20s then. It continued over the following two decades. At first I was a frequent visitor, taking two or three weeks in Sydney every few years, usually when Christmas loomed and the thought of endless uninterrupted dark winters in London became too much. In the most recent decade, I had visited just once, thinking I was done with Australia.

I thought that I had scratched the Sydney itch, but then in February 2013 found myself back here, renting an apartment in the CBD for a three week holiday – into which I snuck several professional appointments. I had a notion to become a trans-continental cultural consultant, rather than one based in London with most clients not far beyond the end of my arm. Wouldn’t it be great to spend summers in Sydney and in London – maybe four months down under, eight months up top? Of course, it didn’t turn out quite like that.

My interest in Sydney had been reawakened, strangely, as a result of becoming bored in the declining days of my employment at Tate. I had dreamt up a side-line as a tour guide, deciding – correctly as it turned out – that Tate Members would be interested in the history of Tate Britain’s Millbank site and its little known role in the transportation of prisoners to Terra Australis during the mid-19th Century. The more tours I led – at £10 a head – the more research I did, the more fascinating I found the story.

What is now Tate Britain, formerly the Tate Gallery, was built on the site of Millbank Penitentiary. From approximately 1842 until 1857 this was the point of embarkation for thousands of petty crooks as they began the long, hard journey to the Land Beyond The Seas. Transportation was by then being downscaled as Australia became increasingly self-sufficient, free settlers were building the colony apace, and the gold-rush made the destination even more desirable. New South Wales was unwilling to take any further convicts and the final prison ship to reach Sydney docked in 1850; ships were by this time more likely to go directly to Perth or Van Diemen’s Land. Transportation ceased in 1868.

The entrance to the Tate gallery is pretty much where the front door of the prison stood, and some of the gallery’s foundations date from the earlier building. Moreover the local pub, favoured by Tate staff – the Morpeth Arms – was frequented by prison staff and, on occasion, housed felons in its cellars for their final night before leaving the putrid London air for all time. It is also thought that the Millbank Estate – public housing which sits behind the gallery – is partially built from brick recycled when the prison was demolished. There was, after all, no eBay in those days.

The vessels of the First Fleet (1787/88) initially dropped anchor at Botany Bay on 19 January 1788, the location recommended by Captain Cook after his voyage of 1770. Finding no fresh water supply, a week later they disembarked at what is now Circular Quay, Sydney. Upon its shore today sits the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, housed in the former Maritime Services Board building. During my February 2013 holiday, it was the MCA that showed most interest in my proposition. However, they weren’t looking for a consultant to have a cheap holiday at other people’s misery, more someone to take a new role directing their commercial and philanthropic offers.

When fate starts pulling you in a new direction, you really have to let it do its thing. As discussions with the MCA developed, I kept checking the fundamentals: what have I to lose, and could my life could be even better if I rolled the dice and hopped on the Sydney express? There was only one way to find the answers.

Once the decision was made, at the end of March – following a five day trip back to Sydney to present  my vision to the MCA Board – there was then the small matter of completing a load of client work and unpacking and re-packing my life. Inevitably things happened during the following three months which pulled very hard indeed in the opposite direction to the prevailing wind, but tickets were booked, boxes packed, parties held and tears shed as departure loomed. Somehow I also squeezed in a landmark birthday. It really did seem like the end of part one…

(to be continued in part two)