Archives for category: cultural comments

It’s six months since I left Australia – though Australia hasn’t left me, and probably won’t. Haven’t written any entries since Dubai. Too shellshocked by hemispheric upheaval/new job/old house full of other people’s debris/living out of suitcases for two months then blocked in by boxes when everything arrived in Leeds. But it’s probably time to wrap up this blog. I wanted to share the experiences – good and bad – of relocating across the planet when not in first flush of youth.

The following are notes on returning to previous location but not previous life (The Shock of the Old?). Some are captured before Brexit vote, some after (e.g. What have I DONE???).

  • I’m driving up the M1 in my hired car and I can’t remember the speed limit.
  • Got lost twice today in Leeds visiting old friend – roads are familiar so I stay on them, but expected roundabouts fail to materialise.
  • After some years of ‘fancy a coffee/movie/meal today?’, it’s back to ‘ are you free in a fortnight’s time?’
  • Newscasters and reporters have aged – men more than women probably because they wear less make up.
  • Nicholas Parsons is STILL on radio 4  – but I can’t remember the schedule any more, so don’t know how to avoid him.
  • All the shops are part of chains & franchises – only independent retail seen today in Leeds far was the great Jumbo records, still going
  • But Huddersfield has cool indie coffee shops (#northernteahouse) and Sowerby Bridge has good food. I go for drives and am happy to eat alone – another legacy.

Everything looks strange – my anthropological eye is now cast homewards. This is exhausting so I spend  lot of time in my hotel room, asleep.

Then I move back into my old and much missed home, but it isn’t mine. Every cupboard is full of tenants toothbrushes, discarded duvets, old cutlery.There’s a gnome in the garden. I remember another life in that house, but it is a long time ago and I seem to be haunting it. Things improve when the stuff I shipped back arrives – nice pieces from the Blue Mountains – and I start fitting the Australian and Yorkshire parts of the jigsaw together.Six months on and there are still a lot of boxes to unpack, but no rush. Things also get better when friends come to stay and I recall that home consists of people not things.

The UK I have returned to is changed – 5 years of Coalition then Tory Government – creating a particularly cruel, vindictive use of benefits system to punish the poorest and most needy.  I don’t think Australians would allow this to happen (to non-Aboriginals anyway). They still have a public sector, and trade unions. UK has voted to leave Europe, having already sold its heritage to corporate speculators and hedge fund bankers. The place is full of toxic fantasies. Back to Blighted.

But I do like the bustle, the full trains, the coffee shops at every corner, the new M&S food hall at the bottom of my road. And I like the variety of human beings that surround me, in shops, trains and – a real contrast – work. So many non-white faces at last. It’s also brilliant that London is a train ride away, Spain a short haul flight. I can pop round for tea with my dad, find my place in the family again, while I slowly reconnect with old friends, whose lives have also changed in the past five years. There have been births, deaths, divorces, moves of all kinds. Lots of catching up to do.

The main thing, though, has been getting to grips with the new job. As usual when life feels chaotic, I turn to work as my anchor. Six months on, this has been a good call – my ideas and contribution are valued and I work with several talented senior women at Huddersfield Uni. There have been some teething problems with rooms and so on but I haven’t felt gender-conscious since I got back to UK. It’s a bigger relief than I expected. Seriously, Australia, you really need to make better use of your very fine females. Even the nice guys are in the way. I miss my lovely women friends, Bernadette, Jo-Anne, Michelle, Jane….

I miss the sounds ALL the time – the kookaburra dawn chorus, possums on the roof, the magpie arpeggios. I notice every gum tree (one, rather forlorn, at the back of my Leeds house and a beauty in Spain). I corner Antipodean friends and colleagues at conferences, parties, anywhere, to talk about the place. No-one here knows or cares that much. One person sneered that Australia didn’t even have a decent mountain range; I pointed out that it was so old a land mass, they had been eroded.

But then I didn’t know how old the land was until I got there and it told me. You feel it all the time, this ancient presence, just waiting, sometimes welcoming, sometimes shrugging us off. You can feel your feet sinking in – if you want to.  I have left but not forgotten. Australia introduced me to geological time.

Now Europe looks so young, with all its pointy bits still sharp and edgy. All the workable land is worked and has been for thousands of years, unlike the vast emptiness of Australia. Took a visiting prof with a farming background over the Yorkshire moors and he could see how many farms there were occupying space that would have been one maybe two stations back home. The land here tells of lords and peasants, strip farming, inheritance law and people striving to feed themselves over millennia. It’s just a different story.

I guess that’s my conclusion – everything is altered by the experience of living in Australia. What was familiar is no longer, but then its new strangeness has a new wonder. At first I wasn’t sure about going back, it’s not something I do much. Now I can see I haven’t gone back, but forward.



Started this two weeks ago, feels inadequate already, as deeper feelings about leaving Oz surface, but, for the record (and with more pix to come) …….


Sitting in Dubai airport cum space station, digesting the fact that, after four and half years, I no longer live in Australia. Fewer than five years, but this time has had such an impact. Will take me more time, more words to understand how much it has changed me, but here’s a first stab at what I will miss, in no particular order

Coffee – flat white here is quite different from its pale, late imitations. On a trip to New Zealand recently, I learned that NZ is home of the FW – or so they claim. The cafe at Sydney airport where I would gasp for real coffee after 30 hours of airline chemicals….  Luckily, I plan to spend time in Spain whose café con leche rules supreme.


Sydney festivals – I didn’t make Mardi Gras, but went to Sydney Vivid several times – the best illuminated buiildings I’ve ever seen. The exuberance and playfulness seemed to sum up something very Sydney-ish. Loved the Writers Festival too, great setting on the harbour, interesting speakers, large literary crowds. Talking of harbour faves – Grilled

Barra and chips sitting looking out  at the sun setting across the Harbour. Watching La Traviata performed on a pontoon on the Harbour, with fireworks and flying foxes accompanying the arias in the dusk



Australian journalism – the ABC broadcasts current affairs, investigations, media analysis and Any Questions discussion panel across prime time Monday nights. Puts BBC shoving journalism out of the way in favour of Come dancing or whatever to shame. SBS broadcasts a range of shows to engage and reflect the range of cultures in contemporary Australia – reminds me a little of early channel 4. Both channels are largely in public ownership.

Public ownership – as are the trains (about a fiver for 200 kms from regional NSW to Sydney); utilities (not all), roads, and much more. This leads to a mix of low costs and irritating obstacles (imposisble to access outside working hours). Trade unions still determine conditions for most workers. Pensions funds are obligatory and employers make substantial contributions (17% in my own experience!!)

Language – finally realised that Australians speak Tabloidese – fitting as Murdoch’s birthplace. – love the Rego/servo/arvo/doco compressions. Also everyday use of more arcane language, so that rort is a common verb for scam or fraud, as in ‘pollies rorting expenses’.

Now the big ones: living quite differently in and on the land, and making friends far from home.

I want to write something substantial about how the Australian land has changed me, so will not say much here, except that the wildness of this continent generates an inner freedom to which I have responded deeply. Two years in the Blue Mountains have given me audio memories of the Kookaburra dawn chorus. Night skies that reach down to the rooftops in regional cities. The unfamiliar language of trees, not symmetrical, not shapely, the magnificent scruffy gum trees that scent the world. The light, shooting everything in HD, each leaf visible across distances.



Nothing is impossible but it seems unlikely I will work again with such a creative bunch of colleagues – the location of my discipline (public or organisational communication) in a creative rather than business school meant I shared corridors with performers, writers and directors. People interested in bodies as well as brains, like the lovely Dan Aubin,  handstanding past my office door, an image that sums up SCCI at its best (pic to follow).


Apologies to Robin Williams fans but while I was sad at his death I did not feel remotely caught up in the grief wave. Admittedly, I did weep through Diana’s funeral service so I’m not immune to these things. On the whole, I think of myself as pretty cool with mortality – it goes with the territory. But Bowie’s death has reordered my landscape in ways I do not understand – hence this exploration.

So much has been written by others – including some rather nasty sneering at grievers. As if those who are sad are comparing themselves to Bowie’s family and friends! Of course fans engage with the image not the reality of the person – and no one plays as profoundly with the performed self as Ziggy/Thin White Duke etc. I love Suzanne Moore’s comment that she pretended not to recognise the actual man when she met him, to preserve the internal icon (

I am not in the UK and have not been trawling the comments sections of such articles, though I note I am still reading one or two pieces about Bowie’s ‘meaning’ each day. Perhaps to help explain the continued heaviness of his sudden absence. After this week’s reflection, I suspect that it is his exploration of the constructed self that moves me so strongly and has since I first saw him, still David Jones, miming at the London Arts Lab. And of course he is part of my young life: those summer student days in Whitstable rolling endless spliffs on the cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy and the Spider from Mars, while the vinyl wore thin on the turntable; the countless viewings of Roeg’s The Man who fell to Earth; my thin body in its big linen suit rejoicing to Let’s Dance. In my teens, twenties and thirties, I too was torn between alien and human, trying to find a place on the planet.

I have to eliminate other allures, which I know have influenced friends – I was not a young gay man on a culture-free housing estate to whom Bowie offered the artist’s way. I grew up with painters, actors and jazz musicians – ours was a bohemian hothouse, so it was obvious I would be a writer or some kind of artist. It took time to realise that posing and treating existential angst with alcohol was not the same as actually writing, painting or playing something. I was better playing than being an artist.

Bowie was the real thing and this is what he means to me – he let himself blaze into his full potential, though his lyrics show the doubt never left him. His vision of himself, an always changing, ever-evolving musician and visual artist, was stronger than disapproval, ridicule or even years of substance abuse. He kept trying out different versions of himself until he found something which felt comfortable. This is my connection. This week his departure reminds me of the selves I have – and, crucially, haven’t – occupied, the struggle to disappear so that the not-self can simply be. His death day was also my 64th birthday – five years!

I love the recent albums now, and listen to Heathen, The Next Day and others all the time, hearing the maturity, love and gentleness expand without any loss of curiosity or daring. And now we have Blackstar, an exquisite, heartbreaking, leave-taking. At the end of his bold life, he creates a bolder death.

The opinion columns accuse people who express their grief publicly of narcissism and I accept the charge – though I also believe that artists find the universal through exploration of their own experience, seeking just such resonance. Bowie’s music, his self-creations and now his elegant death resonate with me, along with millions and millions of others. As Annie Lennox says, “Our personal and collective landscape has changed and we’re trying to come to terms with it”.





Loving my London break: in last couple of days I’ve been to one of the most important exhibitions ever, the Royal Academy retrospective of Ai Wei Wei’s work, which combines ancient Chinese craft work, such as joinery, metal work and hand carved marble with powerful political comment, making works that are both beautiful and angry.


I’ve also satisfied a long held wish to see Simon Russell Beale on the stage, in a thoughtful funny play about the creation of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, in which we watched it:

Tonight, did the full red carpet trip for European premiere of Quentin Tarantino ‘s Hateful Eight at Leicester Square Odeon, followed by Q&A with man himself and cast. Operatically bloody and magnificent. 


I moved out of London in 1993, first on an experimental basis, to do an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, then permanently, a year later,  to take up a position at the university of Central Lancashire. So I’ve been a visitor to my home town for the past 21 years. But until moving to Australia in 2011, such visits to family and friend were pretty regular, only a few hours drive or train journey.

Now it’s an annual event and I’m finding that place has usurped chronology in my personal story-telling. Having been struck by the Indigenous emphasis on land not time as the main unifying narrative, a recent trip to London has illustrated how this works for me.  Every bus journey takes me through a jumble of pasts: that supermarket was the swimming pool where I learned to swim; I kissed a boy there, broke my heart here; saw Hendrix there; got drunk, got sober, worked, organised, lived, here, there, then.

None of my memories of Australia are more than two and half years old; London is scored through four decades.

Watching cop shows on the ABC here, I know from the colour of the house bricks exactly where the body is buried; can still tell north from south London accents (and loved it when the recorded announcement at Waterloo, in contrast to the usual posh advice to mind the gap, told us the next platform was dahn the escalators). This knowledge carries a poignancy, as it’s quite redundant in a new country. Who cares?

Then, walking through Regent’s Park with a friend one summer evening last week, describing the loss of this personal history, she laughed and said ‘how liberating’ and I realised she was right. I see people living in mausoleums to their own histories, defined by what they’ve been, not what they are. (And I am not immune to this – with 5 boxes of memorabilia in transit as I write.) I need to go home at least once a year to be with people who know me in the way only family and ancient friends can know you (my father recalled a childhood scene at the (long gone) Primrose Hill swings where my oppressed little sister surrendered her place to me& waited her turn –  only to be grandly informed  that ‘we don’t do turns any more’ ).

But it’s rather marvellous to come back to somewhere that tastes of the future.


Since I first arrived in later 2011, I’ve been meaning to compile a list of everyday words from conversation and media previously unfamiliar to me. If I don’t start now, I’ll forget …. Haven’t looked up their origins, so this is my translation, may correct and update later.

  • Stoush – stand off, argument (usually political)
  • Spruik – promote, somewhat shamelessly
  • A stand-over guy – thug, heavy
  • peak body – professional association
  • Eskie – coolbox ( for beers, natch)
  • pollies – politicians

General rule – take first syllable and add ‘o’ to form new word, as in rego (registration), servo (service station), arvo (afternoon) etc.

or ‘ie’, as in pollies (politicians), rellies (relatives), schoolies (end of school year holidays)



  • bludger – as in dole bludger
  • furfy – not sure, some kind of fraud


And today,  the lovely Jane Mills sent me this link to a wonderful guide to Strine, which answers everything.


Went to see John Pilger’s documentary Utopia yesterday, which  argues that nothing has changed in the apartheid treatment of First peoples since his 1985 book and film, The Secret Country,  and been reflecting on it ever since. At the end of the film, which was applauded by the audience at Mount Vic Flicks, a woman stood up and suggested we sign up to ‘do something’. I put down my name and joined some of the discussion on the street outside, all of us shamed and enraged.

But overnight, unease has crept into my response.

Reading The Secret Country  was part of my preparation for coming to Australia, so the content wasn’t entirely new. Since then I’ve seen much better, more forensic journalism on issues such as deaths in custody, like The Tall Man, a shocking case mentioned in passing by Pilger but not examined.  On the other hand, I had never seen the interview with Lang Hancock, mining magnate and father of Gina Rhinehart, Australia’s richest person, in which he advocates sterilising the water in Indigenous communities so they would ‘breed out’ – a tactic practised by early settlers who poisoned wells to clear land for their own use – but shocking to see in colour TV.

Nor was I aware of the role of the ABC news programme, Lateline, in generating the panic about abused children in Aboriginal communities that triggered the armed Intervention in the Northern Territory – an issue I would like to know much more about as one problem with this film is you can’t quite trust Pilger as a reliable source.  He does take a position and then gather interviews and footage that support him – and yet, and yet, I don’t want to join the ranks of those accusing him of failure to be objective, the sin of partisan journalism, as in this piece from the Sydney Morning Herald,

Partisan or advocate journalism has an important role in exposing the horrors Pilger finds in neglected communities, lacking electricity, water and basic amenities in the heart of one of the world’s richest countries. And because he seeks them out, he finds wonderful people with moving stories to tell, like Arthur Murray and his wife who spent their lives seeking explanation for the death of their young son decades ago. These stories are not on Australian TV and they should be – indeed it will be interesting to see what happens when – if? – Utopia is broadcast here. I know it created shock waves when shown in the UK, as everyone I spoke to in the following week or so mentioned it. Clearly the plight of many Aboriginal communities was news to those whose views of Australia are grounded in posters of beaches and Neighbours (just as many Aussies would be horrified at life on Britain’s sink estates, after gorging on a diet of Downton Abbey).

But, but, but. Another part of me thinks First Australians deserve better coverage than this. Instead of the generalised overview of Aboriginal-European relations since 1788, closer investigation of particular incidents might have shed more light. A minister, Warren Snowden, is harangued not interviewed, so his points regarding policy impacts for the future are lost not refuted. The SBS series, Dirty Money, Inside Australia’s mining business spells out much more clearly than Pilger does how government and industry contrived to evict peoples from mineral-rich lands over the past century and into the present, using interview, archival film and high research standards. It also documents the courageous resistance which actually led to the reversal of some of these land grabs. This voice of Aboriginal agency seems underplayed in Utopia. The documentary on Aboriginal history which moved me most was 88, which records activism and collectivity, including solidarity from white workers and other supporters.

One remark which hit home was the scathing comment about a Bradford woman who thought her experience with Pakistani communities would be relevant in the Western Australian prison system ( an enormous holding operation for Aboriginals) – at which the local movie audience laughed. It was assumed this meant she thought people of Pakistani origin shared cultural issues with First Australians –  but what if she meant that any public servant in the UK has to deal with institutional racism in its structure and processes and that this experience had made her more aware of her own prejudices and those of the systems she was operating in? The point is not about similarities between oppressed minorities but similarities among the systems of oppression and those that operate them. Now that’s a debate that’s barely started.