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.