Abroad thoughts from Home

As the three years in Australia have ended and I’m now back in the chilling embrace of winter and Brexit Britain it turns out there are all kinds of things I was meaning to talk about. Sadly the distraction of living there took its toll, hence this blog hasn’t exactly been prolific. So in no particular order here’s a variety of final thoughts and opinions about Australia and Melbourne based on my experiences.

Melbourne is obsessed by coffee and doughnuts.

There are a huge number of independent coffee shops and cafes in Melbourne. A huge number. The majority claim to make the best coffee ever. Most of them don’t. However the average is a lot higher than the UK. There are very few chains. Starbucks exists, currently in its 3rd attempt to penetrate the market, but there are only 4 outlets that I’ve spotted. There’s also Gloria Jeans; its awful, Melburnians don’t go there.

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The current favourite fast food is the doughnut. Not just KrispyKreem but  small chains, pop-ups, food trucks and independent shops selling nothing but doughnuts. Deep fried balls of sweet dough, covered in sugar, filled with all kinds of gloop, such as milkshake inspired custard or butterscotch & creamed banana, often with a syringe poking out the top. They’re everywhere, yet I’ve never felt the need to have one, just too over the top. And I’m not 11.

Australia doesn’t know how lucky it is

The “lucky country” is very good at putting itself down, however compared to Europe it seems to be pretty well off. There is no austerity. Roads are properly paved and forever being repaired, it is rare to see a pothole. Bin’s are emptied, streets are cleaned and even the barbecues, provided for free use in every public park everywhere around the nation, are cleaned on a daily basis. Local government, State Government and Central Government spend money on infrastructure, public spaces and the arts without anyone questioning it. For example my former local council, Stonnington in Melbourne is converting the car park behind the two supermarkets into a much bigger underground car park, then creating a park on top at a cost of $60million. Can you imagine such a project from your local council in the UK? The State Government is spending $11 billion on a new rail tunnel under the city, accompanied by 6 new stations. $11 billion!! And you know what? It’ll get built on time without the need for a public enquiry and everyone will agree its a good thing. This country has money to burn.

Footy is not football as we know it

What you might know as Australian Rules but everyone knows in Victoria as Footy is an obsession. You have to have a team. And you don’t support them you ‘barrack’ for them, it’s the first question you get asked; “who do you barrack for?” It fills the front and back

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This is Eddie Betts of the Adelaide Crows, you can tell he’s playing ‘footy’ because he’s about to bash the ball with his fist.

pages of newspapers and gets endless airtime on TV news. It’s good fun to watch too. However in Queensland this footy isn’t the same as Queensland footy, that footy is Rugby League. Don’t get me started on the State of Origin! Real footy, the one where players predominantly kick the ball with their foot is called soccer. Unless its World Cup time when its called Football. But only during the World Cup. Rugby Union can also be called footy, but it has such a low profile in Victoria that you can call it anything you want, they still won’t talk about it.

The “mullet” is still a thing

And not in an ironic way. Seriously, these people can be seen walking the streets every day in every Australian town.

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Australian TV

It’s dreadful. But the worst thing is the advertising. At any one time there are only 6 adverts on TV. There’ll be the one for the ‘ute’ (it’s a type of car), Bunnings (the B&Q of Oz, just failed badly in the UK), the gambling one (remember to bet responsibly), the ‘super’ ad, (Super Annuation is the pension plan everyone has to have), the Woolies or Coles ad (they’re the monopoly supermarkets that make  Morrisons look sophisticated) and the tyre or tiles ad with a voiceover and or appearance by the owner, never a good thing. These will be on every ad break and as ad breaks are incredibly long some will be on twice. Recently a new type of ad has emerged, the one telling you not to beat your wife/partner. In Australia some men still have to be told.

Melbourne loves the arts

Currently at the National Gallery of Victoria is a wonderful exhibition of works from MoMA New York. It’s a truly excellent exhibit, as were those preceding it for Van Gogh, Hockney and Degas. The permanent galleries are world class too. This is the major exhibition space but there are many others scattered around the city from Heide Museum of Modern Art, currently showing the photos of Diane Arbus to small galleries scattered throughout the city. Music, dance and theatre thrive too. In my opinion its a world class city for the arts and worth visiting for that reason alone.

Musical Theatre from previous decades

On the other hand mainstream theatre seems to perform nothing but aged musicals or tribute shows. Currently showing Disney’s Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical and Mamma Mia. Coming soon Oklahoma, School of Rock and Evita.

Phew Rock ‘n’ Roll

AC/DC, Inxs and Cold Chisel are the only bands that matter. If you don’t know who Cold Chisel are you’ve dodged a bullet.

Jimmy-Barnes
Jimmy Barnes, Scottish born lead singer of galumphing pub-rockers Cold Chisel. It’s un-Australian to dislike Jimmy or the Chisel

Radio its a sound salvation

Or then again….the two Melbourne community radio stations are brilliant in the eclecticism of their musical mix. 3RRR and PBS are, after BBC6Music, the best music radio stations I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. Soul, funk, country, hip-hop, world music, indy, metal, folk it’s all there. Mixed in with the most enlightened discussions, and on 3RRR on a Friday morning the only left wing host of a radio phone-in I’ve ever heard.

Commercial stations though are woeful, seemingly caught up in a never ending battle for listeners by playing middle of the road “classics” in formulaic formats stuck in the 1990’s zoo radio badlands.

The ABC is the national broadcaster, in the same way the BBC is for the UK. However it is funded directly by central government, a license fee would definitely be un-Australian. Funding in this way means it is held hostage by whichever party happens to be in power. Any perceived bias is quickly jumped on, funding is always under threat. The national perception is that the ABC is run by a cabal of communist, lefty, pinko, greeny, socialists trying to bring down the country. It isn’t, in fact it seems to me as an outsider to be scrupulously fair, giving equal air time to the right, left and centre. It does though make very dull radio, mostly due to underfunding and attempts to be unbiased. No one is a winner.

Apart from listeners to my wife’s favourite programme ‘Hoof on the Till’. What she now doesn’t know about Aussie horse racing, trainers, jockeys and courses, isn’t worth knowing. All I’m saying is put your money on Winx.

Anzac biscuits

Forget smashed avo on sourdough toast, the greatest contribution to global cuisine is without a doubt the ANZAC biccy. Fact.

Australian Politics

Egomaniacs stabbing each other in the front under the control of powerful business and union interests. Three Prime Ministers in my time there, not one with a significant achievement to his name. The opposition parties are no better. Sound familiar?

If you can’t dig it up put a cow on it

One of those powerful business interests is the mining lobby. All politicians apart from the few Greens are in thrall to the mining lobby. Australia’s recent wealth owes much to digging stuff out of the ground and selling it to China hence no politician will stand up and decry the systematic despoliation of a beautiful country. No National Park or Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 7.42.16 amIndigenous owned land is safe. Their next act is to introduce fracking to the lands above the largest underground aquifer in Australia on which many thousands of farms and their livestock depend. Which brings us to the other strand of Australia’s wealth, cattle. No matter how marginal the land Aussie’s will graze it. Once sheep were king, especially in Victoria but the cow now shits all over them and everything else. There are estimated to be 29 million cows in a country with a human population of only 25 million. Some parts of the country are in severe drought and farmers who have run cattle for generations on those marginal lands are in severe trouble. I have nothing but sympathy for those whose livelihoods are endangered, but what you never hear is anyone saying if you need 100 acres per head perhaps you shouldn’t be farming it. That is because farming is the other huge political lobby. It would be “un-Australian” to suggest such a thing. Worse you might be accused of being a “bloody greeny” and no ocker Aussie wants that.

Have a nice day

Britain seems to be slowly embracing the concept of customer service. It is noticeably better now in cafes and restaurants than it was 3 years ago, but it has nothing on Australian customer service. I would be genuinely cheered each day when buying my morning coffee, smashed avo on sourdough toast or artisan produced pale ale by the genuine warmth and cheerful demeanour of everyone who served me, from the smallest café to poshest restaurant. If I was in the catering business in the UK I’d be looking to employ Aussies.

In fact the majority of Australians you meet are warm and kind who will go out of their way to help you.

Rules, regulations, paperwork and bureaucracy

Don’t be fooled by the image of happy go lucky surf bums, cheerfully cracking open a tinny on the beach. It’s banned. No public consumption of alcohol. In fact the whole happy go lucky vibe is a myth. There is nothing Australians love more than regulations red tape and bureaucracy, their lives are governed by rules and ordinances, health and safety, restrictions and limits. There is a theory that it offers the comfort of the rules of their convict past, but I wouldn’t dare pass comment on that.

Speed isn’t king

Since returning to England I’ve noticed how fast everyone drives and how crowded the roads are. Australians rather like Americans don’t drive fast, they stick scrupulously to the speed limit. One reason for this is that fines are eye watering, while no one wants de-merit points on their license. The other reason is because of the above. Aussies stick to the rules.

I rather like everyone sticking to the speed limit, despite the incongruity of seeing super-

Melbourne motorway
The M1 Freeway from the airport and Essendon into the city

cars of various hues, of which Melbourne has many, trundling along at the same speed as the ubiquitous ute’s and hatchbacks. It’s actually quite democratising. The downside is that Melburnians are incapable of performing an effective overtaking manoeuvre especially on a multi lane road. Imagine 6 lanes, a speed limit of 100Km per hour with every single lane full of cars travelling at 98-100Km per hour. But you spy an opportunity to  reach your destination a few moments earlier, put your foot down to 101Km per hour and ever so slowly creep past the vehicle next to you, all the while hoping there are no cops or cameras watching you crawl ahead at your excessive speed. Its painful, however I received no end of ‘looks’ when I passed vehicles in the English fashion, foot down get on with it.

Coming from a land where speed is perceived as a right sticking to the limit is a shock, but once used to it really quite liberating.

Asia is important

Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union is being touted as an opportunity to rebuild trading relationships with the Commonwealth.. Alongside many other claims this one is built on spurious data. The Aussies aren’t interested, they have their trading partners in Asia who will buy as much meat, grain, fish, copper, aluminium, coal and financial services as the country can produce. Very simply, they don’t need little old Britain any more. China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and India are the most important trading partners for Australia and as the Chinese buy more Australian businesses in every sector Britain will become ever more marginal.

Dark underbelly

Not everything in the garden is rosy. Melbourne is still home to organised crime, shootings, stabbings, ram raids, rapes, murders and even acts of terror. There is also an epidemic of ‘Ice’ (crystal meth) addiction, homelessness, racism, domestic violence and the appalling treatment of refugees. Not to mention the ongoing horror of child abuse revelations from the Catholic Church. Worst of all is the indifference and hostility shown to native Australians, the victims for over 200 years of systematic displacement, murder, hatred and abuse, swept under the carpet and ignored by the mainstream.

There’s more to Aussie wine than Shiraz

Fortunately the shiraz grape doesn’t grow that well in Victoria which means winemakers get to make far more interesting and complex wines. Great wine regions abound in the state; Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Bellarine Peninsula, Rutherglen, Heathcote, Grampians, Pyrennees, Beechworth, Gippsland to name just a few. Home to amazing boutique wineries, some large producers and some great wine. Most of it isn’t available in the UK sadly, but you should be able to find Giant Steps Chardonnay and Ten Minutes by Tractor Pinot Noir. What you wont find are the interesting small parcel wines made by tiny producers creating interesting blends or stunning single varietals. 

We also have no equivalent of Dan Murphy’s, giant booze sheds where I could spend hours wandering the aisles marvelling at the variety of wine available. 

Great undiscovered frontier

It’s a big country. Most Aussies haven’t seen it, let alone visitors. I’ve been very lucky to have good friends to take me places you can only get to with 4WD cars. If you ever get the chance get away from the tourist route down the East coast, go inland, go North, explore. There are beautiful national parks with amazing waterfalls and crystal clear creeks; Huge forests full of birdlife; Delightful swimming holes down dusty tracks; Small towns with welcoming, quirky pubs; Secluded canyons; Snowy peaks; Pristine beaches and awe inspiring sunsets. 

Australia Collage

Everything has beauty but not everyone can see it

We used to call it a mural if it was good or graffiti if it was bad. It used to make our parents tut and then reflect on the waistrel nature of modern youth. Today in Melbourne it’s celebrated and encouraged, artists are recognised for their creativity, wit and talent and the tourists devour it. Street Art, its everywhere.

Shown here are just a few of the artworks I’ve enjoyed that grace the streets and lane ways of Melbourne.

I can’t wait to return to Henley and do my very own Kim Jong Un mural on the end of the Kings Road terrace!

Disjointed observations on Oz

This Brutal Paradise, Street Art Centre Place Melbourne

Swizzled at the servo

What is it with the price of petrol in Australia? Ten days ago I paid $1.06 per litre to fill up my car. Admittedly a darn sight cheaper than the UK. At todays exchange rate that tank of petrol would have cost 65p a litre. So not much to complain about if you’re a Pom. However if I was a local I would blow my top if the very next day I had to pay $1.35 (83p), an overnight price hike of 27%.

This isn’t a one off, public holidays, school holidays and the imminence of the weekend or sometimes the imminence of Thursday can prompt a huge increase. Two weeks later the price will reduce again, seemingly at random. There appears to be no rhyme or reason for this and certainly no explanation to the consumer. And its not just my local ‘servo’ (Aussie slang for Service Station, obviously) where this happens. They’re all at it Caltex, BP, United and the rest.

Allegedly the massive price rises are linked to the price of oil, transport costs blah, blah. However the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recently had this to say, “Patterns of pricing in capital cities see prices go steadily down followed by a sharp increase. This is the result of deliberate pricing policies of petrol retailers and is not directly related to changes in costs.”

So it’s just profiteering!

If such a regular, huge price hike happened in the UK there would be protests, blockades and public enquires. Here no one mentions it. Very strange.

Random acts of violence

Maybe its because in the UK absolutely every act of domestic violence, street fight, stolen car, shooting, stabbing, kidnapping or raid on organised crime doesn’t make national news, but sometimes it seems as though Australia is in the grip of a violence epidemic.

Here are just a few headlines from the last 24 hours:

  • Melbourne man guilty of murdering mate
  • Man found stabbed near Melb tennis centre
  • Elderly man charged after allegedly shooting at woman outside Brunswick brothel (my favourite!)
  • Metthew Leveson’s death: what we know
  • Killer stepdad denied bail ahead of appeal
  • Vic woman’s killer will never walk free
  • Gang assault on Qld man in his home  
  • Man stabbed in Melbourne home
  • Man kept ‘trophy pics’ of graphic murder
  • Young man gunned down outside home in targeted attack

Or it could be, as one of my mates likes to point out, that very little actually happens in Australia. It is in general safe and dull, therefore newspapers and TV news programmes look for anything sensational to fill the space.

On the other hand I have a theory that it’s still in parts an untamed frontier society, no matter how civilised everyday life seems in the city. Violence is therefore normalised and an accepted facet of existence for many Australians.

Happy ever after…..or maybe not

This is complicated. Many western countries in recent years have legalised same sex marriage. It seems to me that this is just about one of the most civilised things civil society can do. If two people are in love and wish to share that bond in marriage, well good for them. It’s certainly none of my business if thats what they wish to do and it shouldn’t be the business of the State.

Yet as recently as 2004 the Aussie government of the day passed an amendment to The Marriage Act stating, “Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. Certain unions are not marriages. A union solemnised in a foreign country between: a man and another man; or a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.” 2004!! Four years after the Sydney Olympics…..welcome to the 21st Century.

To put this in a little bit of context, in the very same year, in fact a few weeks earlier Britain legalised “civil partnerships”. 13 years on, much to the annoyance of the coalition government the debate has finally been raging about legalising same sex marriage. This  has led to the most bizarre outcome; a government led postal opinion poll, a national survey if you will, which will not be binding on any forthcoming legislation regarding the issue.

Even for Australia where political fudges are the norm this takes the biscuit. Perhaps a little background is in order.  The current government is a coalition, with a majority of 1, yes ONE. And even that might be in danger due to an ancient and bizarre section of the constitution, that someone has finally read, which bars duel nationals from serving as MP’s. It seems the Deputy Prime Minister might actually be a Pom and therefore will have to resign. You’d have thought in a country of migrants they might have thought this one through! Anyway the Liberal Party (Conservative) are propped up by the National Party (Very Conservative). So in order to avoid an embarrassing vote in parliament the Liberals, despite almost unanimously supporting same sex marriage, came up with the idea of having a plebiscite on the issue.

What’s a plebiscite I hear you ask? In this case it would have been a compulsory national vote on whether to change the law. However they’re not having a plebiscite, let alone a free ‘conscience’ vote in parliament. The plebiscite legislation was defeated by the opposition, the Labor Party (once a socialist party now very New Labour) and allies, all of whom are of course in favour of same sex marriage!

So to cut a ridiculous story short, survey forms are being sent out to every voter to indicate whether they agree that two people of the same sex should be allowed to marry. However its a “survey” not a vote. So even though the government has said it will not oppose a private members bill (not a government bill, thats never happening!) if there is a yes vote, this is Australian politics and doing a complete U-turn is par for the course.

Despite opinion polls which consistently show 65% support there is a loud opposition to the idea from the religious right and organisations such as the Marriage Alliance, which of course support marriage, just not for gay people. In fact the religious lobby from Anglican and Catholic churches is much louder here than anything heard in the UK when the same debate was happening. They are of course trotting out the same bigoted bollox that every other country who has legalised same sex marriage has heard over the past few years. Apparently allowing two people of the same sex to marry somehow impinges on religious believers freedom of speech. I just don’t get it.

Whatever happened to tolerance?

And of course the Prime Minister, his deputy, the Leader of the Opposition, the Green party leader and most mainstream politicians support same sex marriage. Even Murdoch’s papers support it. Oh, Tony Abbott doesn’t, he’s the most recent former Prime Minister, a man run entirely on ego, slime, bitterness and vitriol, despite the fact his own sister is gay and engaged to her partner!

Survey forms are due to be sent out in mid September, however there are currently two High Court case which could prevent this. If the vote, sorry, survey does go ahead results won’t be known until 15th November. It’s an absolute mess.

However the Aussie people will do the right thing, won’t they? And even though the survey isn’t binding, I have some faith the government will too. The ultimate outcome should be that by the end of the year same sex marriage will be recognised in law in Australia. That can only be a good thing.

A cynical part of me sees this whole thing as a deliberate distraction from some very real issues in Australian politics which everyone ignores; indigenous rights, the atrocious way refugees are dealt with, the fact every government is in hock to mining interests who are set on wrecking the environment and the fact that Rugby Union and the Wallabies in particular are in absolute chaos right now! But that’s all a blog for another day.

Next time its back to some pretty pictures!

Art Deco Melbourne

Sun Theatre Yarraville 1938

If you know Melbourne you’d most likely consider it a Victorian city. Imposing civic buildings, banks and commercial premises built on the prosperity brought first by sheep and then gold. Suburbs of brick or wood clad colonial villas with their zinc roofs, shaded balconies and facades dripping with decorative ironwork

Since the war there has been huge growth and in the last 20 years a building boom in the city and suburbs. The CBD has become dominated by tall glass towers of dubious architectural merit while many old buildings have been lost. The suburbs have expanded  with many older homes replaced by state of the art units.

Yet in amongst the imposing bluestone victoriana and developer driven horrors nestle some beautiful 1930’s Art Deco buildings. The Great Depression hit Melbourne as hard as anywhere in Australia, but the city’s centenary in 1934 inspired a boom influenced by civic pride and the desire to be seen as a modern city. Forward thinking businesses and architects influenced by new building methods and modernist designs in the US and Europe started imposing their vision on the city, resulting in a new vernacular for its streets.

A number of beautiful buildings of this era have recently been lost including Lonsdale House in the centre of the city, which was probably the finest Art Deco building in Victoria. Many remain however, so enjoy them while you can.

Click on an image to see the gallery and captions as a slide show.

 

Perhaps the most exalted of the Art Deco constructions from the period is the Manchester Unity Building by architect Marcus Barlow, built in just 9 months at the height of the depression in 1932.

Built by the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows, a mutual society for independent tradesmen and businessmen who had accumulated wealth for their members since 1840. The Oddfellows wanted to show Australians that they could weather the financial storm of the Great Depression. Their gesture employed many thousands of Melbournians, at a time when unemployment was running at 33%.

The building has been saved from developers and lovingly restored by the current owner in recent years, showing that dentistry really does pay!

It is beautiful inside and out with many of its original features retained, including one of the few remaining Art Deco Board Rooms anywhere in the world.

The large board room table had to be lowered into place prior to the roof going on to that  part of the building. It is covered in its original glass which was brought from France by ship suspended in molasses so that it wouldn’t be affected or shatter during storms.

Click on an image to see the gallery and captions as a slide show.