Archive for Sydney

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.