Archives for posts with tag: culture

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).



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. 


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.

I’ve been surprised at how the death of Margaret Thatcher has triggered old responses and as her funeral fills the airways, might as well as note these reactions.

One of the things that struck me on arrival in Australia was that some aspects have a parallel universe feel but without Thatcher or the EU. The absence of the latter accounts for garish ice cream colours, inadequate food labelling and widespread use of pesticides; the former means that unions are still plentiful, have full negotiating rights throughout the public sector (with actual pay rises!), most services are in public hands and the cuts currently falling on UK are unthinkable here (though likely change of govt in September will test that hypothesis). That’s the good news. The bad news is the resemblance between current Labour party and the pre-Thatcher UK version. People often forget that activists like me joined to disrupt the cosy, corrupt union leader-councillor-developer nexus of the kind splashed across the front pages each day here. I guess the big difference is that now UK corruption is all on Tory side of the fence, with contracts being written by beneficiaries as everything passes into private ownership.  I also had some reflections on the fact that many institutions in Australia are run for employees not service users – impossible to access outside standard working hours, for example. I’d have defended that in the 80s, now not so sure.

Then Thatcher died and UK reverted to the kind of blanket triumphalism that was her hallmark, the sense that dissent must be deviant & that deviants must be excluded, punished and criminalised. Reminding me of the police forces stretched across the M1 to prevent miners or their supporters joining picket lines, the fear that filled the room in 1987 when she won again and all the black, lesbian, disabled and otherwise Othered friends watching knew they were in trouble. That was the watershed for me, the election that utterly destroyed local government, completing the transformation of that sector from active campaigners for local people to a small committee handing out contracts. We were at the Nalgo (now Unison) national conference in Blackpool, still fighting for workers’ rights, but somewhere knowing that the tide that kept us aloft through 1984-6 was ebbing, the moment gone. The libraries, nurseries, parks, small spaces that made big differences, gone. I remember arriving back to my flat in London and being surprised that there were still flowers growing in my garden; so profound was the sense of blight.

And looking back it seems we were right in our doom laden messages. The shift from collective to individual was fixed in that decade and has only deepened since, as is evidenced by the reframing of tax as theft, of education as a private advantage rather than a social good,   and personal satisfaction as the only respectable goal in life. And even though I chose to have politics rather than children, and even though I know there’s a price for that, I always consider one of my life’s great experiences has been involvement in collective action. I have walked many streets with people standing up for beliefs, giving up their wages to be heard, at a time when it took tens of thousands of such voices to break through the mainstream deafness. Or women gathering to oppose Cruise missiles at Greenham. Or on a smaller scale, low paid women going on strike in protest at the unfair dismissal of a colleague – and staying out in real hardship until it was resolved. You get to see such bravery. A couple of years ago, at the retirement party for the Nalgo branch secretary David Eggmore, I spent a wonderful evening with other activists from those heady times and realised how deeply I cared for the community we built then, and for each other.

At the end of the 80s I found meditation and moved away from the polarization of those years – the absolute right/wrongness of those politics – seeing them increasingly as aspects of the whole and letting go of my own rage, learning to accept the complexity and contradiction of contemporary life. Today, watching £10m cut from UK arts budget and spent on Thatcher’s funeral, that seems a cop out. No, let me re phrase: inequality has worsened, wealth has passed from the poor to the rich, power likewise;  the planet as well as the country has been corrupted (not due to her personally, just the movement she represented and which is being celebrated today). The younger me would have organised – not a protest at the funeral but some event drawing attention to the victims of those years. Now I see the futility of meeting noise with noise, and try to hold a space for reflection instead. It all unfolded as it did and is what it is. There is a loss, a continuing damage that can’t be repaired; I’m glad that when the lines were drawn I took sides; but I guess for me, too, the fight is over.

Third visit to Wiseman’s Ferry on the beautiful Hawkesbury River.


First drawn to the place by Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, a novel based on the life of her ancestor Solomon Wiseman who settled the place, having arrived at the Sydney penal colony in chains.

Secret River

Then read Sarah Thornhill, the daughter’s story and now the History of the Secret River, about researching both novels. I get the sense of the immediacy of this history – the house that Wiseman built in 1826 is still the main pub, the chain ferry still runs all day, the landscape is unchanged since settlement. But, as she makes clear, it was utterly changed by the settlers who simply took the native lands, treated Darug people’s crops as weeds and planted their own European plants, using violence – including legal murder – to protect their takings. Grenville is aghast as she discovers for the first time in 2000 that the aboriginal people hadn’t all gone  by the time of settlement, the same story another friend learned at school.

At lunchtime I went to the regional museum in Windsor which has a collection of leg irons, farming and boating implements from the early 19thC and other artefacts from settler life, including a pamphlet called Marriage and Sex for Brides which I thought was very progressive until I noticed the publication date – 1966! But there were only two passing mentions of the people whose land this was/is – they are just not present in this version of history.

I seem to be more conscious of history here than in my own much older home, not sure why. Maybe the contrast between this very recent European presence and the tens of thousands of years of indigenous culture and the even older rocks before that – the land in Australia is the oldest on the planet, that is rocks formed millenia ago are abundant as I understand it – need to learn more.

Right now I’m at this funny hotel called Australis Retreat which is really a golf place but actually is a retreat too – I’m finishing the first half of my book and refreshing my reading on Jungian matters before starting into the second half. A perfect place to work – v peaceful setting & a beautiful saltwater pool for sunset swims at the end of the day. A good way to spend my birthday today – so good I’ve decided to stay on a couple of nights and hope the fires that closed the main road after I arrived here will be settled by the time I return. It’s safe here, but the fires are pretty scary on TV. Hope to avoid  closer contact.

Failed to upload footage from Queensland trip, so they ended up on Facebook – see my page ( for links.

But I do have some snaps from the Raintree Forest and Cape Tribulation Beach (where James Cook ran aground on the coral reef, limped to shore and claimed Oz for Blighty). One of them shows a huge spider, but completely unscary as it’s in its own home, might be jumpier if it were in mine.


Being the only sole traveller, I sat up front with the driver on the day tour to the rainforest. At one point he mentioned that he’s visited northern Europe as his wife is Danish, but couldn’t get overt the amount of clothing everyone had to wear. “They kept having to put stuff on then take it off” he said in the incredulous tones of one who spends all year in shorts and T.

I’m getting the hang of winter here – which means more layering and unlayering even than Denmark as it’s bloody freezing (1-5 below 0) for the first few hours and again the moment the sun drops. But @ midday the sun is warm, even if not enough to warm the air, like a taste of spring. And given the miserable summer the UK is having I’ve been grateful for the amount of sunshine I see, even through iced windows.

As I may have mentioned earlier, I’m not complaining about the cold but about the local refusal to accept it. It’;s as if the collective myth of the good life is incompatible with the reality of long cold winters, so the houses are built for the tropics. Everyone knows Australia is a hot country, don’t they? I could see my breath the other morning as I woke up and reaching for my glasses to check the time, they fogged when I put them on. Leeds is hardly sultry but I’ve never been this cold indoors. But am learning local skills and am now fully equipped with at least one heater in every room, electric blanket on the bed and  flanellette pyjamas and sheets – my grandma would approve.

This disjuncture between myth and reality is part of the imposition of a European mind set on a non-European continent. All the imported trees and flowers, all the place names (you get to Sydney via Liverpool, Camden Town, and Parramatta) and the custom of ‘Christmas in July’ because Christmas should be in winter…. I understand holding on to what you know, I’m the same, downloading BBC Radio 4 arts, politics and comedy podcasts, trying to keep up with Olympic shambles there and Labour factionalism here. I keep thinking of Ray Bradbury’s astonishing short story, Dark they were and Golden Eyed, which I re read last week for the first time since I was about 15. It’s even better than I remembered – but how remarkable that it should haunt me so vividly over so many decades. Read it and see what you think – to me it’s a study in colonialism, nostalgia and the futility of trying to tame nature.


Been quiet for a while (sorry Steve) – mixture of lurching to the end of term and recovery thereof and a sort of unsettled period around the 6 month mark of the ‘what am I doing here’ variety. As such questions are essentially unanswerable, it’s probably as futile a query here as anywhere but the distance from loved ones makes it poignant.

Anyway, emerging from that phase into something else – I resolved in a previous post to have more fun and last weekend’s trip to Sydney was just that: a play, a concert, two films and three meals with different friends – oh yeah and a quick race round the Museum of Contemporary Art. Came back completely invigorated.

It’s not that I don’t like Bathurst; it’s extremely friendly, got plenty of good coffee houses and recently the cinema has been showing some decent stuff (including the brilliant and very un-Bathurst Shame). On Saturday I saw a decent one-man life and songs show about John Lennon and sat up talking til midnight with friends. The nights may be freezing (4-5 below zero most nights) but the days are blue sunny and warm. I have nice colleagues doing interesting things mostly. Nor is that my status as a single older childless woman invites hostility or rejection; it’s just that I’m the only one in town. I’ve never lived anywhere so domestic and I feel like an ungrateful teenager surrounded by warmth and affection… like throwing something. Not sorry I don’t drink or smoke these days but I feel the need for some kind of bad behaviour.

There is also something odd (to me) about the construction of femininity here: lots of smart, warm women around, no problem, but most of the clothes and’ look’ (including v long hair for most older women) are very girly, the sort of frilly layering that brings out my tomboy, and there’s a powerful focus on recipes as the main discourse. Normally I like cooking but here I’m on strike. It’s shop bought cookies for me. I actually didn’t go to one bring a dish event because my lentil bake looked so awful. I know, I know, says more about me… but I’m more used to women talking politics than dishes. Interestingly the book launch for Charlotte Wood’s new book made it clear she’s writing about food as love not competition (must remember that). It was also heartening to listen to a woman trade union leader  at a friend’s the other night talking about the struggles she’s facing – very reminiscent of my 80s experience (made vivid by finally watching Iron Lady which I thought was way too soft on the gorgon and the havoc she wreaked). And the media political analysis is really lively – esp. critiquing the way the opposition leader Tony Abbott talks the economy down so as to justify the cuts he can’t wait to make when, as seems drearily inevitable, he wins the next election.

Anyway, spleen vented, I have decided to channel my inner adult and be grateful for the opportunities I am given here. I have a nice circle of friends to see films with or pop over and see; but not so many that I can’t get a night in. Yes the culture is less stimulating than Sydney and I am clearly a city person, but this is just perfect for someone who’s actually supposed to be writing a book (already overdue) not partying.

But before I get on with that – next week I’m taking a few days off to visit the Tropical North of Queensland – getta load of this: