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