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.

A very Melbourne weekend

Mr Andrew Nolte and his Big Band

For an English country boy moving to a cosmopolitan city on the other side of the world has been an eye opener. Was London ever like this, or did I just not make the most of it? For example my weekend has dragged me north and south to tiny bars, freezing festivals, 1920’s big bands and wine filled former markets.

Melbourne is very much like London in that those born south of the river, rarely venture north of it and vice verse. If they do they’ll complain about it. It takes the foreigner or the migrant to ignore the riparian boundary and make the most of the whole of the city.

Happy to venture north of the river from my inner south suburb, I had discovered the Leaps and Bounds Music Festival, a small festival of local acts performing in venues around the northern suburbs. Now you either like the music of David Bowie played on ukulele or you don’t! I happen to love a 3 piece known as The Thin White Ukes who played at the fantastically named Some Velvet Morning (if you don’t know the song, look it up on You Tube) in a suburb called Clifton Hill on Thursday evening.

The bar itself is probably the smallest I’ve visited in Melbourne and all the better for it. In my experience Aussie pubs and bars tend towards the huge and impersonal, vast caverns with no atmosphere. Some Velvet Morning is the opposite with friendly, cheerful bar staff, a simple greek based menu, short well chosen wine list and an interesting selection of beer. It is tiny, but it has a shuffle board table upstairs (which you don’t see every day), plus a band room which accommodates all of 30 people, making it an intimate, cosy space, especially on a cold winter’s evening.

The band were both great fun and highly talented, making me blush when I think about my own attempts at the ukulele, giving a new take on both Bowie classics and a few lesser known numbers. If you get the chance go and see them. I was lucky enough to talk to them afterwards and hope I was able to help with some contacts for gigs in the UK.

The following night I was back south of the river at the Map 57 Festival in St. Kilda. For those who don’t know the city St. Kilda is Melbourne’s seaside playground, especially if you’re a non-native; Melburnuians wouldn’t be seen dead there, unless of course there’s a festival on.

Map 57 refers to the page in Melways where St. Kilda falls, it also falls in greater clarity on page 2N, but I guess Map 57 sounds like a better name than the Map 2N Festival. Oh, you don’t know what Melways is, well its the ludicrously large map book that every Melbourne car has tucked into a seat pocket and these days is never referred to, a local A-Z guidebook with way too many pages.

The festival occupies a small corner of parkland adjacent to the splendid Palais Theatre,  where incidentally the very latest chart topping pop combos Boney M and Adam Ant are due to play soon. The small festival site boasts an ice rink and a big wheel alongside, a bar in a tram carriage, street food stalls, much needed fire pits on a freezing evening and two performance spaces including The Box, a welcomingly warm temporary theatre.

Gin is having a moment, no Melbourne bar would dream of stocking less than 10 varieties, in fact the town has not one but two festivals devoted to the spirit. Indeed gin is having a moment everywhere, on my recent visit back to the UK even rural Norfolk pubs had a gin of the week, and if you’ve been to Norfolk you’ll know how remarkable that is! Somehow my home town has its own gin brand too courtesy of the local boat yard. Therefore it’s no great surprise that it has become a suitable subject for cabaret.

Two ladies in cocktail dresses, a bearded gent at the upright piano, harmonies and giggles as we are taken through history by Mothers Ruin A Cabaret About Gin, puns abound as do stories from Gin Lane to Prohibition accompanied by well known and original songs sung beautifully. Gin is swilled while the best is saved to last with a song entitled I’ve Drunk Every Gin. The cabaret is due in the UK very soon including stops in London and the Edinburgh Festival, check it out if you can.

Luckily the gin hadn’t got the better of me as I headed the following day to North Melbourne and the old Meat Market for Barossa Be Consumed, 44 wineries, offering a massive 220 wines to taste and no matter how small the sample and how much you spit that is potentially mind numbing.

This was an incredibly popular event, hardly surprising given that the Barossa is one of Australia’s great wine regions, boasting well known names such as Yalumba, Jacobs Creek, Peter Lehman, St. Hallett and Henshke. It’s always great to meet the people who actually make the wine and hear their stories, they’re always passionate and this was one of those tastings where the winemakers were in abundance, especially amongst the smaller producers such as Sons of Eden, Bethany and Teusner. Avoiding the big names then, my increasingly shaky notes indicate I still managed to sample 66 different wines. Ouch.

So what was good, well most of it, despite the preponderance of Australia’s favourite wine, Shiraz, which always seems to be drunk when its far too young in this country, so the flavours never get to develop. However there were some real winners for me, here’s five of them:

  • Spinifex Eden Vally Reisling 2016 – subtle and complex
  • Bethany Chardonnay 2015 – very little oak, peach & melon, so subtle its almost un-Australian
  • Tim Smith Wines Reserve Mataro 2015 – spicy palate with dark berry flavours
  • Saltram Mamre Brook Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – rich and beautifully fruity
  • Kaesler The Bogan Shiraz 2014 – anyone who’s prepared to call their wine Bogan is alright in my book, but it also has lots of length, the right amount of spice and ripe plum, above all it has flavour, give it 10 years and it’ll be ready to really enjoy.

Recovered from all that wine there was just time on Sunday for a quick visit to Prahran Market before returning to one of my favourite Melbourne discoveries where one of its quirkiest bands was playing. The Spotted Mallard in Brunswick has enjoyed a Sunday afternoon residency all month from Andrew Nolte and His Orchestra. Mr. Nolte is one of Melbourne’s great eccentrics, a man who has based his musical career on recreating the big band sounds of the 1920’s complete with vintage microphone, brylcreemed hair and pencil moustache.

Inspired by the orchestra’s syncopated sounds the Mallard’s dance floor fills quickly with astonishingly accomplished dancers while small children shake and sway in the background as those of us with two left feet tap both of them, there is a truly joyous relaxed, friendly vibe.  You may not know the tunes but the sound of a good big band always makes you smile. And this must be the only big band in the last 6 decades to launch their new recording as a 78rpm vinyl record!

The Spotted Mallard is basically one large upstairs ballroom making it ideal for live music, it has a great beer list including the very good Stockade Brew Rare Ink Stout, which in this land of fizz and chills is neither too gassy or too cold for a winters day.  Some days it has mulled wine too, which is how my wife and I stumbled upon it in the first place.

It may be winter in Melbourne where it can be cold, grey and wet, where houses have no heating or insulation, where roads flood with just the smallest drop of rain and where roadworks are absolutely everywhere but it is still a great place to discover with some wonderful events for a very Melbourne weekend. In the words of Mr. Nolte “May it please you”.

 

 

A fishy business

On moving to Australia it was a requirement to gaining a visa to take out private health cover. As a result we ended up paying a small fortune to our chosen provider for cover it seems we didn’t and don’t necessarily need. For example my wife, discovered after a while that we were automatically covered for maternity but not for an ambulance. I can tell you maternity cover is surplus to requirements.

Why would we need to be covered for an ambulance you ask, especially if you are British? It seems that in some states, of which Victoria is one, you will be charged for an ambulance call-out, emergency or not. The current fee is $1,146, approx £700. This is one of the many features that Australian health care shares with the USA, the fact that nothing comes for free.

Or at least thats how it seems on the surface. Yet there is also the government run scheme called Medicare, which entitles permanent residents and some visitors such as me to subsidised treatment from various practitioners – including midwives, though as mentioned previously we really don’t need that cover – and also it seems free hospital treatment in public hospitals.

And that is what this blog is actually about. Not how shocking it is for a Pom to pay for anything other than a prescription but just how good the public system has been to me, without a cent changing hands (despite my best efforts). As friends on Facebook will know I was attacked by a fish while on holiday over Christmas. Not a shark, which really would have needed that ambulance cover, but a Stingray. As many people have reminded me one of those killed Aussie croc wrangling hero and TV superstar Steve Irwin. Fortunately the one I accidentally stood on didn’t strike me in the heart but the ankle.

As I learned later a Stingray barb is poisonous, while it seems wounds received in seawater are prone to infection. Australians know this stuff, not so Poms. Hence after the pain died down and the wound stopped bleeding I didn’t think much more of it, despite my wife’s suggestion I visit the local ER. She had a point. A week or so later while at a friends cabin in the northern NSW rain forest the ankle in question started to balloon and some really nasty looking stuff began oozing out. The previous week had been spent camping in various beautiful but dusty locations, swimming in creeks and generally getting grubby, like you do when camping. This may have been a mistake.

Now, I try and stay out of hospital as much as I can but for someone brought up with the emergency waiting rooms of the NHS, full of bleeding, drunk, wailing people the Kyogle Memorial Hospital was an unbelievable experience.

There was no one there, in their brand new hospital. It was a ghost hospital, quite surreal in its emptiness. Literally the only people I saw were medical or admin staff. There were doctors, nurses, orderlies, a phlebotomist and a receptionist but no patients, not in Emergency or any where else as far as I could ascertain. No wonder they looked so pleased when I walked in, they were looking for someone new to talk to!

Seen within 5 minutes of registering by unfailingly friendly and helpful staff I was thoroughly assessed, given a tetanus shot a script for antibiotics the size of horse pills and sent on my way 35 minutes later. No money changed hands. Medical cover was not needed apart from reclaiming 50% of the cost of the prescription. If you read the story in the Henley Herald you will realise by now that some journalistic license was used in the retelling of this part of the tale.

Horse pills all popped life returned to normal back in Melbourne…that is until one fateful day a month after the original fish strike. Following a morning yelling at schoolboy rowers in Albert Park the ooze had returned, the ankle was ballooning, this time accompanied by a hard lump on my achilles tendon. There had been some weird squeaking in my ankle earlier in the week but I’d chosen to ignore it. This may have been another mistake.

Limping my way to the GP I reflected that perhaps I should have gone to the doctor when it first happened, perhaps my wife really did have a point. However here I was with a now frowning GP who didn’t like the look of it, not one bit. I’d share a photo of the swollen, puss filled leg but really don’t want to put you off your dinner, needless to say it didn’t look good.

My GP, a young man barely old enough to shave gave me the specified 10 minute consultation as they always do here, accompanied by some prodding and poking and extended bouts of frowning. Yes he was excited to have a patient who’d been struck by a Stingray which isn’t something that happens much in Port Phillip Bay, but he really didn’t want pus all over his nice surgery.

Back under the NHS I would have been given more antibiotics and a referral for a specialist, but my Aussie GP made some phone calls and packed me off to the emergency room at the local hospital. In this case, at the surgery, money did change hands but then half of it was refunded again under Medicare. Non-billing doctors are available under a system called bulk-billing, there’s just not many where we live.

The Alfred is I’m told Victoria’s premier trauma centre, so I was expecting a long wait. But again the waiting room was virtually empty. 15 minutes after arriving I was sitting on a bed waiting for a doctor. 30 minutes later the emergency doctor had seen me, as had the plastics specialist. An hour after entering the hospital I was told a bed was available. Its only because I pleaded to pop home to get some stuff that I wasn’t in that bed within another 30 minutes. In all, between entering the GP’s surgery and being admitted to the ward, hooked up to machines, drip in my arm, listening to the complaints of the bloke beside me, had taken 3 1/2 hours.

Thirty six hours later the surgeon removed a cyst from my achilles tendon and I would have been able to go home within 48 hours, if I hadn’t had a reaction to one of the antibiotics. However I stayed for 4 days with no rush to get me out of the bed. Within 24 hours of leaving The Alfred I had a home visit from a district nurse, in the following six weeks I had 4 clinic appointments and 6 physio appointments, all of which happened within 15 minutes of their appointed times.

My treatment at The Alfred was unfailingly fantastic and friendly, all covered by Medicare and I’d like to thank everyone there who cared for me. My Australian friends tell me that health care is expensive and slow yet my experience was phenomenal, without costing a cent, save the prescriptions.

For me there has been no downside, apart from not actually being able to pay back the hospital for the care I received through the expensive health insurance which would cover the cost. The hospital has no mechanism for my insurance provider to pay them, despite being covered for in-patient treatment. I’ve tried, even speaking to the hospital’s finance team from the ward, but they just don’t have a method for accepting insurance payments once you’re in the system in a public hospital and covered by Medicare.

I’m sure i could have had a very different experience and maybe if I’d been in a real emergency, requiring an ambulance and real trauma my experience would have been different. But why, I have been left asking, do the Australian government insist on health insurance for foreigners on working visas when reciprocal Medicare will cover the cost?

One last thing, when walking out of shallow water on the beach shuffle your feet, it disturbs the Stingrays!

 

Buildings and moves

7 Yarra St. the block on the left, the blogger's former residence.

Over a year into the Aussie way of life and we’ve moved home.  The suburb of South Yarra, in which this pommie formerly resided is thought to be the Fulham or Chelsea of Melbourne, one of the more fashionable ends of town, (though in fact if anything it resembles a Putney with better restaurants) which means there is a huge amount of investment property for sale. One of these properties turned out to be our apartment, so the time came to move on.

South Yarra is experiencing a building boom consisting entirely of apartment blocks. By my back of an envelope calculation there will be over 1,000 new apartments within a 500m radius of our former home within the next two years. In the 13 months we lived there we saw 3 buildings completed and another two started, just from the balcony window.

However the architecture is of the dull, unimaginative glass and concrete tower variety. Great to live in but dreary to look at and when constructed as close together as these are no views, plus the creation of huge wind tunnels. Melbourne doesn’t need any more wind! Actually the apartments aren’t always great to live in, a lot of space is given over to gyms, swimming pools and parking but some of the actual apartments are tiny with barely room to swing a wombat and with pretty poor finishes. At the same time some lovely buildings from a previous era have been destroyed to create these priapic glasshouses.

For example on the corner of Toorak Road and Chapel Street, the Capitol Grand is being built. They do like a grandiose name in these parts but they don’t always love their heritage. Alongside the many old warehouse buildings recently demolished was a beautiful 1930’s milk bar, with subtle and unique plasterwork above the door. Nothing particularly special in terms of Australian architecture, but the last remaining example in the suburb of a particular type of building representing a lost era that helped to give the area its character.

Its a paradox that in creating new buildings in a  desirable area, the older buildings that made it an interesting, liveable, desirable area are sacrificed, thus making it less desirable, interesting and liveable. This of course is not an argument that developers or indeed local councillors here or any where else understand. Widespread corruption in local government is an argument for another day, but it is still common practice around these parts…allegedly.

On the other hand the remaining legacy of historic architectural styles across the city is truly stunning. One of the things that makes Melbourne such a liveable city is its fascinating, mixture of colonial, Victorian, Art Deco, Italianate, Georgian, neo-Gothic, Tudorbethan, suburban, modernist and uber-modern styles. Indeed you can often see all of them in the same street.

Melbourne’s victorian gold rush years saw a massive building boom. The rich put up Italiante mansions complete with cupola’s, columns and towers the middle classes large villas with filigree balconies (Melbourne apparently has more architectural ironwork than any other city in the world) and the poor had tiny one story houses built by speculative developers. These are now of course incredibly desirable with their wooden veranda’s, tin roofs and opportunities to renovate.

 

I don’t know if this is true of all Australian cities and towns, but suspect it might be; everyone will build whatever they fancy on their chunk of land. It is certainly an inalienable right to buy what is known as a block. Hence most residential streets lack any uniformity, with houses of wildly differing styles crammed together cheek by jowl.

As far as I can tell there is nothing similar to the streets of red brick terraces seen in most English towns. Occasionally you’ll come across a street of uniform terraces, there’s a couple in Carlton that spring to mind, but they’re few and far between. The higgledy-piggledy mishmash of styles can be seen in the street we’ve just moved to, at one end a wooden shack, next to a victorian villa, followed by a brand new concrete house then a 1930’s bungalow, more victorians, a small square apartment block, more bungalows of various ages, a couple of developer built modern houses and an empty plot. This is pretty typical.

As an aside, it’s odd to English eyes how rather than get a pair of net curtains most Melburnians would rather build a large fence or wall at the front of their house with the dual effect of stopping any light reaching the front windows while ensuring the tiny garden is permanently dank.

My quest to find an apartment similar to the one we had in South Yarra failed miserably. Given the number of apartments available it was surprisingly hard to find one to suit the ex-pats from Henley. It seems we struck lucky first time out with one of the biggest modern 2-beds that anyone has seen and it proved impossible to find anything in the least bit similar.

Not that the unit in South Yarra was huge, in fact it was pretty small but it seems there is nowhere like it. So our new home is a little town house with a mini back yard built about 10 years ago in the suburb of Prahran. To avoid confusion try saying pram, but substitute the “m” for an “n”.

The range of architectural styles does give the city an immense amount of character, thats without the fascinating streetscape of the CBD which shows just as much variety. I’ll talk about some of the modern architectural disasters in that another day, but in terms of residential architecture the large legacy blot are the 1970’s Corbusier style social housing blocks looming over most of the inner suburbs. There’s one in Prahran, one in South Melbourne, one in Carlton, lots in Fitzroy and so on. They truly are ugly casting a  brooding shadow over their neighbouring streets. And like 70’s social housing everywhere they are damp and deteriorating at a rapid rate. Interestingly no matter where they’re located they’re all exactly the same; one developer must have made a fortune.

Despite my various criticisms Melbourne is still a great place to live with its large variety of buildings, the chance every so often to come across a gem, just one of the many aspects that make every day interesting.


I have just been sent an estate agents email advertising our old apartment at $130 a week more than we paid. No wonder they wanted us out!!!!!