Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Family Reunion: Part 2

Wowee, it has been a long time between posts. But don't blame me, blame Mr Speedtouch, who must have cottoned onto the fact that the huge jump in his internet usage was a little infeasible. But then I went back to Australia for a few weeks and he must have figured that it was safe to come out again. Ha! Sorry Mr Speedtouch, but thank you for coming back and once again failing to secure your network.

Anyway, I have some important blogging business to finish. After leaving the merry land of Worcester, Mum and Dad and I ventured into new and unexplored lands... Wales. It's funny but I don't think a lot of Aussies make the distinction between the different nations in Britain, but it is much more obvious over here. 3 useful things to know about the Welsh are: 1) their language reads like gibberish unless you understand their alphabet, 2) they love their rugby with a passion and 3) they are all amazing singers. Apparently the Welsh crowds at a rugby match singing Land of My Fathers is quite a sight to see.

The little town we went to was just over the border, called Hay-on-Wye. It was one of my favourite towns as it was entirely dedicated to books. For a village of about two thousand people, there were a good 30 bookstores and a great many of them themed. There was the murder mystery bookshop, the music bookshop, the poetry bookshop, the travel bookshop and so on. All were second hand and I think would probably struggle to survive if the town did not have a quite famous accompanying book festival. We just missed the festival unfortunately but I was amazed at some of the big names who were appearing (Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Cherie Booth/Blair). This is a view of the outdoor bookshop near the derelict castle in the town centre:

I can think of a number of friends who would have been in Heaven in Hay (Audrey, Mtk).

Next it was back into England and Herefordshire, which is home to the beautiful Golden Valley, where the move Shadowlands was made. In the Golden Valley we stayed on a lovely little farm next to a medieval Abbey that had been converted into a parish church. We went for walks and drives rounds the country and ate God knows how many pub meals, but it was all lovely. This was a B & B, in the middle of nowhere:

The farmer and his wife who we stayed with were lovely, though I found it a little difficult to keep a straight face when he was complaining about the oft-spoken 'notorious' summer of 2006 when the place was 'practically a desert'. I found that a little hard to believe compared to the drought in Aus, but I did believe him when he was complaining about Tesco and the other big supermarket chains forcing all the small farms out of the market. Feckers.

The Golden Valley was absolutely beautiful. Everything was ridiculously green and lovely, and the buildings old and quaint, and all capped off by the Black Mountains in the background.

Here are my Mum and Dad out the front of the same church in a shot I like to call 'One foot in the Grave'. Hehe:

There was also a nice number of ruins, and ancient castles and battlegrounds from the many years of fighting between the English and the Welsh, as well as nice little novelties like the hill in the centre of the village where they used to conduct the hangings. Charming!

Lastly it was off to a town in the Cotswolds, Chipping Campden. The Cotswolds are one of the loveliest areas in England, in large part I think due to the presence in the area of a certain kind of limestone that all the little houses are built from. It is the kind of area where houses still have thatched roofs. Some of them were so small and so ancient, I felt like I was in Hobbiton. This isn't the best example but does get across how old the villages were:

After that, it was back to London, and a brief stay at our flat before my parents sensibly ditched it for the Novotel! Thanks for the trip Mum and Dad and here some some more happy snaps to remember it by. I like to put embarrassing photos of other family members as well as myself on this blog!!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Family Reunion: Part 1

Well this is a bit of a special post. In May, I got my first (and probably only) familial visit to London - though my dear Mum and Dad didn't need any excuse to visit their old stomping ground. And I got the distinct impression that they would have been quite happy to take my place here!

Their visit was wonderful for lots of reasons but especially given that it was a chance to retread some of the ye olde Chalke history, and to revisit some of the places I could remember from my childhood. First up was Worcester, where we went round to the house my Dad spent his teenage years, and where he got up to questionable, though I'm sure perfectly innocent, activities with girls at the school across the road, which he was about to elaborate on when Mum cut him off!

Here's Dad and I with Worcester's favourite son, Edward Elgar (Pomp and Circumstance, Land of Hope and Glory etc):

It is amazing what lies in the dark recesses of the memory. Walking down the high street, somehow I could remember where the Marks and Spencer was, and which corner Boots was on, when it had been 13 years since I had last been there.

We also did the tour of the old school, and the old Cathedral, and all those other mainstays of medium sized English towns. All of which Dad seemed to know the history of and have an accompanying story about (which I am hoping he will record someday - hint!)

We went to the little village Dad grew up in, Crowle, and saw his old house and schoolhouse, and the stream he used to swim in as a boy and the big house on the hill. We went to the Old Chequers Inn where Grandpa Jack used to drink and take to Dad (who was waiting out front) a bottle of Vimto and crisps. We saw the barn where Dad used to park his bicycle which was near the stop for his school bus. We saw the old town hall where my grandfather used to dress up as Father Christmas for all the village children (prompting my Dad to recall a horrible year, when he was little, when the nasty boy behind him yelled 'That's Chris Chalke's Daddy!' thus ruining my Dad's fastasy of Father Christmas. Little Chris fled the room in tears - poor duck). And this was the village church:

A highlight was when we drove out to the real life house where Guy Fawkes and cronies planned the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. It was the coolest house in the world, all Tudor and wonky, with huge chimneys and it's own moat and it's own church - which was what we pretended to visit when we really wanted to snoop about the house, which is still privately owned:

We also visited what we know as the bluebell forest, which I have a vivid memory of from my childhood visits, the memory in question being a forest of hundreds of bluebells and a little make shift cubby house that my Dad had played in as a kid. How times have changed. Now the bluebell forest is fenced off by barbed wire, and all the gates were locked. We hardly saw one lousy bluebell, but it did give us the chance to see the beautiful countryside. Even though I've seen quite a bit of it over here, I don't think anyone that grows up in Australia ever gets used to seeing a landscape that's so green:

There is more to come, this is only the first installment, but it is obvious that I loved being back with the fam and in a place where I felt I had heritage, which due to being a first generation Aussie, is not something that I've ever felt particularly strongly at home. Because of this, being able to walk down the street and see where different generations of my family lived seemed truly amazing. It was this stuff, I think, which was what originally made me what to come and live in England, rather than that whole cliched thing about spending a year getting pissed in London. Well, I'd like to think so, anyway.

Next up: Hay-on-Wye (a whole town dedicated to books! Heaven!), the Golden Valley and the Cotswolds.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

I'll have everything with extra feta

My I am behind on my blogging, and I'm sure my loyal readership (hi family!) are wondering what has happened to me. Lots has been going on, including planning a move, a parental visit, a pilgrimage to the family origins (well on Dad's side anyway), and being bloody busy at work.*

Anyway, though it was a while ago now, I wanted to include a blog about Crete. You know you've had a good holiday when you're looking in real estate agent's windows to check out house prices.

My top 10 things about Crete were:

1. They fed you everywhere! You ordered a drink, they bought you food. You bought a coffee, they bought you food. And yummy food too. Salty food, which incidentally made you feel like another drink. So the only logical thing to do was order another one (and so on and so forth...)

2. And continuing from this, the Food! the Food was amazing, the sea food was fresh, the feta plentiful, the Tsaziki creamy, the Pizza toppings varied (yes, there was loads of Italian Food, something about shared history and past Italian conquests - I was too busy relaxing to be historical).

3. The little churches you would see all over the place - so simple and lovely.

4. The people - the Greek people are the most hospitable and relaxed I have ever met. Nothing is too much trouble for them. They were so friendly. In restaurants the service was so good. I'm not used to these things anymore.

5. Waking up, going out onto our balcony and seeing the ocean with the mountains behind it. Spectacular.

6. In conjunction with that, the beach. Yep it was a little on the rocky side, and that sand was awfully hot, and the water was absolutely frickin freezing, but I'll take whatever I can get these days.

7. Our lovely little beach was also home to a number of cute little bars - all with big sofas outside, just opposite the beach, where they served you cocktails and free food (see point 1).

8. There were people around but nowhere was too busy. You could walk around the streets and no one would bother you. That said, the traffic was still pretty busy. There will also a fair number of lappers, broadcasting the latest on the Greek charts, which made me laugh and reminded me of Rundle Street!

9.The colour of the water:

10. A nasty (in a good way) little aperitif called raki, which tastes like aniseed. You're supposed to drink it in little sips but as it came in a shot glass and we didn't know that, we were drinking it like shots, much to the bemusement of the locals sitting near us. There was also a little bottle of it in our room that got refilled each day. Curses.

*Not something I'm used to anymore. What a public servant I've become!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Charming Sharm

After the madness of Cairo, a relax in Sharm el Skeikh (or 'Charming Sharm' as they called it) was definitely needed.

Sharm is a very strange place. Think of an endless desert with mountains and sand dunes and terrains and rocky bits, and then out of nowhere is the bluest sea you've ever seen, even from the plane, surrounded by reefs. Then add a couple of hundred (thousand?) white resort buildings in various formations with artificially cultivated bits of green, but still surrounded by an overwhelming desert at every point that hadn't been developed.

One of the most amazing things about being in Sharm was to take in the sight of the desert meeting the sea. I've been trying to dig out a pic that captures what an amazing contrast it was, but I don't have one, so try and imagine the one above and the one below combined together and you should just about have it!

The Patong Beach of Sharm was a place called Naama Bay, except obviously without the strip clubs! While it had enormous numbers of sheesa bars and lots to do, but it was a bit seedy for our liking and the Egyptian men that we had only just shaken off after Cairo were back in force. We ended up only going in there once and it didn't take much for us to get that drained feeling again and flee back to the resort.

In fact, in our effort to relax, we didn't get up to too much of anything. This was easy because our resort was all inclusive, including alcohol (although there wasn't much to it; it all seemed very watered down). The resort was nice enough although a little out of date - the singer in the bar was still churning out Backstreet Boys hits from the early 90's and things were falling apart a bit. But it had all the essentials so we couldn't complain.

One thing we did manage to get up to was a bit of snorkeling (Sharm is famous for its diving, but I was too wimpy/lazy for that). One day we went out on a lovely trip round various reefs, swam around in crystal blue water and feasted on a delicious food. Perfection!

So yes, a relaxing end to the madness of Cairo and Egypt in general. It was a lovely escape from it all, but it wasn't too hard to get back on the plane to somewhere more familiar...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Bright lights of Cairo

When people have been asking me about Cairo, I have found myself saying repeatedly that it was exhilarating, exhausting, intense, fascinating, and really exhausting. That pretty much sums it up! I'm not easily daunted by big cities, but Cairo was something else.

First off, we spent an hour driving through the city on the way to the hotel. In all honesty, that hour was one of the most enlightening of my life. I saw donkeys and carts on the road next to the most insane traffic I have ever seen, military police swarming every block and huge army murals everywhere, the river Nile, strangely green median strips next to the encroaching desert and thousands of apartment blocks. There were men in Western clothes, others in traditional robes, women in the hajib and women who could have easily been plucked out of parts of London.

The Nile and downtown Cairo

Most of Cairo looks only half built. Apparently, this is because people are able to avoid paying land tax if they do not finish the outside of their buildings. I loved imagining these palatial residences with marble floors on the inside (though probably not) that looked life half-built brick shells from the outside.

On our first night, we had an amazing experience when we were sitting by the pool at our hotel and heard this low hum break out, which grew louder, more distinct and varied and felt like it was coming from every corner of the city: prayers. It was a moment of realisation that we really were in the Middle East.

We only had one full day in Cairo, so we decided to hire a guy to drive us around for £20 each to take us everywhere we wanted to go. If you think that sounds like a slightly dodgy thing to do in the biggest city in Africa, you'd be right. It was an invitation to be scammed at every turn, as we got shunted from one 'museum' (shop) and 'school' (shop) to the next. But we got to do the good stuff too. Firstly, the pyramids at Saqqara:

Yep, there's me getting scammed. But its okay, he only wanted money for his donkey.

Then onto the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. Brenton was dying to go the whole hog with the Egyptian experience and approach the pyramids by camel. I was less keen, and my camel, whose name was Michael Jackson, obviously hated me and tried to throw me off every time he sat down.

We chose not to go inside the pyramids as I had a bit of a claustrophobic moment, but we were surprisingly given the option of climbing one of the smaller pyramids. Surprising as it's prohibited, but of course we didn't realise that. We both went up (well I gave up halfway but Brenton went up) only to be told on our descent that we had only been allowed to go up because our guide was friends with the policeman guarding that area, and now everyone needed to be paid off accordingly. We were cogs in a very well-oiled operation.

The corruption of the military police was incredibly blatant, so much so that we actually saw them dividing up their takings in the street. They were all over the place, at least a few for every corner in the city, swaggering around their patch, heavily armed and quite intimidating in their black uniforms and berets.

The final stop of the day was the Egyptian Museum, world renowned (as you'd expect) for its collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts and particularly the bounty from Tutankhamen's tomb. Their collection was amazing but unfortunately, a lot of it was very poorly lit and displayed.

A few other notables: being an Islamic country, you're told in all the guidebooks to dress modestly, i.e. trousers and long sleeves. Yes that's difficult in 35 degrees, but some tourists (and I can't assume as I normally would that they were American because there were none of them!) had a rather interesting interpretation of dressing modestly. For example, spaghetti straps were fine providing they're worn with a headscarf, and hotpantesque shorts also were fine providing they were worn with a long sleeve top. It was a wee bit baffling.

The traffic was seriously, seriously mad. There were thousands of ancient little tin cars on the roads that had been imported straight from the USSR. There were hardly any traffic lights and none of the ones I saw worked. And if you needed to overtake - not a problem! Just drive between two lanes of cars as fast as you can.

As a Western woman, you were also the object of a bit of dubious attention from the Egyptian men, who all refer to you as 'Princess' or 'Queen'. It wouldn't be a country I'd travel to without a guy. They all addressed Brenton about anything serious and I thought their politeness to me was feigned. But maybe that's my own preconceptions playing into it.

All of that amounted to this intense, crazy day that was fascinating and draining and overwhelming. I needed a break in more relaxing destination to recover (continued in the next post: the Red Sea and Sharm el Sheikh!)

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The professionals say it better than I can

Maybe because its been 13 months of straight winter, but I'm going through a bit of a phase of reading a lot of Australia oriented newspaper articles. Apart from the fact that they thought Ian 'Dicko' Dickson was an appropriate representative of all the British migrants in Australia, this is a good one.

I thought this article was unusually balanced for a British journalist assessing Australia. The first half is glowing; the second half sinks the boot in (a bit). Also, the psyche of Australia has changed a lot over the last 10 years, and this article sums it up well. It made me think that I am bit behind, being raised on the myth of the glorious motherland, which I think has sustained my excitement at being in London for much longer than might be considered usual. But then again, I don't want to be a strutting, boorish new-age Australian either.

Oh where oh where do I fit in!!!

Anyway, I'll stop harping on. This is the article.

From the Sunday Times 24/2/08

What a difference a G'Day makes

Adell Rees, a 39-year-old PA from Durham, recently became an Australian citizen and vowed never to return to Britain, except on holiday. The thing Adell loves most about her adopted country is its “tolerance”: “I can even wear flip-flops to work,” she says. The local attitude that lets her wear them in the office appeals: so laid-back, free, uniquely Australian, she believes.

Adell is a PA at Naked Communications, an advertising firm whose parent company is British and whose dress standards are tolerant even by Aussie standards. She has joined tens of thousands of poms who have become Australian citizens in record numbers in recent years. And thongs (Aussie for flip-flops) join the list of other Aussie icons Adell loves: the sun and sand, the perfect blue skies, the BBQ, the lack of “class” – “In England everyone’s always in their box,” she says – and the bronzed male torsos. “What else do you need in a man?” she laughs, as we down schooners in a pub in Sydney.

Adell, who answers the phone, “Naked, Adell speaking,” has gone native. She has a mane of sun-bleached hair, her skin is nut-brown, she loves the beach and, but for traces of a northern accent, she seems a true-blue Aussie “sheila” (not that the term is used any more; younger Australian women tend to be referred to as babes or chicks). The only thing missing is her bloke (or “bruce”, as Aussie men used to be called). Adell is single. One reason is her chronic restlessness: until recently, she was a “boomerang pom”, having gone home and returned to Australia many times in the past 20 years. Yet last month, after a seven-month recce in England to see if the old country held any vestigial allure, Adell declared Australia “home”.

“This time, when I got back to Sydney, I felt I was at home at last. I love Australia! I love Sydney. I’m so happy to be here. I walk down the street and say to myself, ‘How lucky am I!’ This time I feel more settled than ever. I’m home.”

Indeed, if it came to a choice, Adell says she would happily discard her British passport in favour of an Australian one (she retains dual citizenship). So would Penny Hillier, an Essex-born nurse who is about to apply for Australian citizenship. She and her husband arrived in 1978, but only just applied for an Australian passport: “We love it here. When my mum dies, I won’t be going back to the UK,” Penny says.

Similarly, Birmingham-born Ian “Dicko” Dickson (a household name in Australia as a judge of Australian Idol), who swoons about being an Aussie. “The second we moved here, I knew this was the place I wanted to watch my family chase their dreams.”

His family – wife and two daughters – became Australian citizens on Australia Day, January 26, 2007. Known for his abrasive Brummie wit and savage dispatch of aspiring local stars, Dicko got the Australian Idol job because the producers needed “a venomous British man” on the judging panel. The celebrity aimed his most controversial remark at a scantily clad contestant of voluptuous proportions: “Choose more appropriate clothes or shed some pounds!” Dicko told her with bruising honesty – to the horror of the local press and that rather surly new breed of politically correct Australians.

Yet Dicko has been well received Down Under, which has fulfilled “the passionate love affair I’ve had with this country”, he says. “It feels like my wife and I are committing marriage-style to the nation. We’re making an honest woman of Australia. We’re doing the decent thing.”

Adell and Dicko are in good company. More British people are moving to Australia than ever. For the first time, Australia is the preferred destination for British emigrants, more popular than America and the Med. In 2006-7, 23,223 British people emigrated to Australia, according to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship; of the total, 3,837 were members of families who had uprooted, and 18,115 were “skilled migrants” granted resident visas under the more relaxed residential points system. The figure is double that of a decade ago, and compares with 18,000 in 2004.

British people make up almost a quarter of foreigners applying for Australian citizenship: in 2005-6, Australian citizenship was conferred on 103,350 people from over 175 different countries. Of those, people of British origin numbered 22,143, or 21.4% of the total.

Hundreds of thousands of British people go to Australia every year – for a holiday, a long-term stay, or to test the waters prior to emigrating. In the 12 months to July 2007, nearly 200,000 native British citizens packed their bags for Australia, the highest number to leave since the heavily subsidised mass emigration Down Under in the 1960s (1 in 12 Britons now lives abroad, a total of about 5.5m, according to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research).

And the British easily top the census lists of foreigners resident in Australia and eligible to apply for citizenship. In 2001 they numbered 346,000, or 36.9% of the total ahead of the New Zealanders with 204,900 and Italians with 44,200. In fact, a quarter of a million British people (245,311) living in Australia claimed a British pension in 2006.

Many young arrivals have made a great success of Australia. Emma-Jane Granleese, 35, of Kew, London, came here almost a decade ago as a traveller and has recently obtained citizenship. She is now the managing director of the PR firm Weber Shandwick Australia. This year she plans to marry an Australian, Matthew Griffin, who runs a web-design firm, and with whom she lives in Bondi Beach. Her future husband is adamant that Emma-Jane fits in. Believing the new immigration test too lenient, he grills her on Aussie culture: “Matt asks me about cricket, history and books. I even had to know the author of something called Snugglepot and Cuddlepie” – a well-known Australian children’s book about two “gum-nut babies” who live in a eucalyptus tree. Oddly, he didn’t ask her whether she’d heard of Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel laureate for literature, Robert Hughes, the acclaimed art critic, Germaine Greer or Clive James.

British public servants, too, have come Down Under in their tens of thousands, drawn by better relative salaries and living conditions (see panel, left). The state of South Australia has appealed in particular for British bobbies; and all states need British nurses and health workers.

Of the 8,000 nurses and midwives who left Britain in 2006, 3,000 opted for Australia, double the number that moved here a decade ago.

Constable Ian Crossland, 42, from South Yorkshire, arrived in South Australia as part of the first intake of UK police officers in March 2005. He left the joint Crime and Disorder Reduction Team in Westminster Council, where he was detective sergeant in charge of intelligence, to be an Australian policeman, starting again as a probationary officer. In August, his wife, Joanne, and their sons, Samuel, 12, and James, 9, became Australian citizens.

Other citizens landed in Australia by accident. Ruth Weeks, 40, from London, and her husband, Josef Dabbs, 42, from Lincolnshire, decided to settle in Australia in the late 1990s. “We decided we’d travel till we found somewhere we wanted to live,” said Ruth. The couple have two children, Maya, 6, and Dominic, 2, and live in the inner Sydney suburb of Newtown (a little like Islington). They love it here, but their chief complaint is the cost of childcare: “It’s hideously expensive,” Ruth said. Their daughter already corrects Ruth’s English pronunciation.

Local trades, too, such as plumbing, electrical services, building and bricklaying, are in need of skilled labour, and often advertise in Britain. While the salaries are about the same as in the UK, their purchasing power is greater because the cost of living in Australia is lower. Others go in search of love, or the promise of it. Australia’s outback regions are severely short of women, especially “young wife fodder”, said one farmer.

Many recent newcomers are middle-class professionals with young families, drawn by an immigration policy that appeals to the highly skilled. Australian cities fiercely compete for the most talented. Among last year’s British émigrés were a Sikh family – the father an investment banker, the mother a dentist – who settled here, their third country of residence, to enjoy better prospects and a more child-friendly environment.

And consider Andrew Woodmansey of Portsmouth, a former investment banker who met his wife, Christine, at Cambridge, where they studied languages. They moved to Australia in 2000 and have recently obtained citizenship. Andrew, 49, is now the business development director at Sydney’s Harbour Trust, a federal government agency responsible for developing the harbour for public use. The couple have a teenage son who attends Sydney grammar school, one of eight “great public schools”, as some of the city’s elite private schools are called, and which cost about $21,000 (£8,000) a year.

Andrew worked at several international banks before settling down in Australia. “Each time we went back to the UK, we felt we were becoming less and less English,” he said. “One of the great things is, you’re taken at face value. You’re treated the same as everyone else – whether you’ve been here for a few weeks or for 30 years. You’re not judged by your background or your accent. You’re judged by what you can do for Australia."

They advise others to enjoy the unique attributes of their new home, and not to compare Australia with Britain: “If you’re just running away from something – costs, crowds, traffic – you’ll be disappointed. There’ll always be something to whinge about.”

But not all emigrants are happy; even some long-standing ones have not adapted to Australia’s coarseness, freewheeling society and the dislocating lack of a recognisable class system.

Take Maisie McDonald, from Bristol, who went there as a child, aged nine, in the 1960s, with her parents and two sisters. They were 10-pound poms (Brits who migrated to Australia under an assisted-passage scheme) and she loathed her new home – as she told the recent Australian-made documentary Ten Pound Poms, shown on BBC2. Her father lacked the money to return to Britain, so Maisie grew up in her new home and married an Australian. Yet she seems to hate her “home” more intensely with every passing year: “When people say, ‘How do you like Australia?’ you don’t say, ‘I can’t stand the place, it’s horrible.’ You just learn to live a big lie: ‘Oh, yeah, it’s great, you know. I love living in Australia’… I always learnt to bite my tongue.

“In England, I’m allowed to complain and run it down, but if you run down Australia, Australians get nasty because they think their country is the best place in the world… but not everything about Australia is perfect. But they won’t always admit to that…

“The thing I love about England is the country, the greenery, the soft rolling hills… When I compare it with Australia, Australia is so stark, it’s barren, it’s harsh. There is nothing soft and gentle or even genteel about Australia. In England birds twitter; in Australia they squawk.”

There are many factors driving people out of Britain, despite Maisie’s twittering birds. Emigrants cite obvious factors such as the weather, hospital queues, crime rate and cost of living – variations of which exist in Australian cities, of course. And many émigrés seem shocked by what they find when they go “home” to Britain: a brutally self-confident chav culture, where good education and quality medical care are unavailable or unaffordable. The words “heartless” and “selfish” leap to mind, they say: “Everyone was looking after No 1,” Adell Rees said of her most recent trip to Britain.

Why Australia, though? Why not America? One obvious reason is the lighter residency conditions introduced last year. Britain’s love affair with Australia is, after all, a very recent phenomenon. But there are deep historical links. Not so long ago the British and Irish were forced or bribed to go there. From the day the first white settlers landed in what became Sydney in 1788, through to the early 19th century, Australia was a huge prison, the bloody and terrible terminus for thousands of British and Irish convicts, most transported for petty crimes, such as theft and prostitution.

News of Australia’s rare riches – vast fertile lands and enormous mineral wealth – spread to parts of Europe and Asia in the 19th century, culminating in the gold rush of the 1850s, which drew tens of thousands of Irish, British, Chinese and American settlers. Yet the distance and rapid exhaustion of the superficial gold fields soon pushed Australia well down the priority list for European emigrants. In fact, 100 years later, Australia was so desperate for labour it had to pay workers to come. The nation must “populate or perish”, insisted the prime minister Robert Menzies’s Liberal government in the 1950s, after two world wars in which Australia lost more young men per capita than any other nation fighting for the mother country. But populate with whom? Asians? Definitely not. The White Australia Policy, the first law enacted after federation in 1901, and in force until 1973, determined that all new arrivals be white, and preferably British.

In the 1950s, over 90% of Australians saw themselves as proudly British or Irish, regardless of whether they traced their lineage to a Georgian pickpocket, an East End prostitute, a déclassé aristocrat, a potato-famine refugee or a family of graziers (cattle herders) and squatters.

Today’s influx has subtly different motives for emigrating: they tend to be pursuing a realisable dream, rather than escaping a nightmare. Asked why they emigrated, most cite: sun and coastal living, lots of space, affordable housing (outside city centres), a generally reliable public health system, good, cheap schools, many jobs and relative security. They are also drawn by some of the world’s last unspoilt natural wildernesses, ie, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Tasmania, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef. Holidays to exotic South Pacific islands – Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia – are relatively cheap and a few hours away.

But the latest wave of emigrants are motivated by deeper social and economic impulses. Christopher Wade, the director of British Council Australia, said: “Australia has a great work ethic, but a very good after-work ethic too.” He especially admires the “fair go” and egalitarian spirit. This is best expressed, he said, in the culture of “volunteerism”: for example, many parents commonly coach their children’s sports teams. There is such a thing as a community here, Wade insists.

Of course, it is Wade’s job to talk up the Australian-British relationship. But the nation’s rude economic success and political stability are strong magnets. During the past 15 years, Australia’s standard of living has risen constantly and in 2006 it surpassed that of all Group of Eight countries except the US, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Since 1990, Australia’s real economy grew by an average of around 3.3% a year, coupled with low inflation averaging around 2.5% (however, it recently exceeded the Reserve Bank’s threshold, driving up variable interest rates to a mortgage-busting 8.97%, and rendering the cost of inner-city homes, as a multiple of income, less affordable than that of any other developed nation). There are jobs aplenty, however: the rate of unemployment fell from a peak of nearly 11% in 1992 to below 5% last year – its lowest level since the early 1970s.

The unprecedented Asian, chiefly Chinese, demand for Australia’s mineral resources is behind this boom. Australia has some of the world’s largest coal, iron ore and uranium reserves, and is one of the biggest gold and diamond producers. Western Australia, lavishly endowed with natural gas and minerals, is enjoying the biggest mining-led surge in its history, and Perth is one of the most expensive cities.

Buttressing that success is the world’s oldest continuous democracy. At first glance, Australian standards of public debate suggest an Anglo-Celtic version of Italy’s saloon-bar atmosphere. Yet the nation’s raucous politicians – witness the Welsh-born deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, herself the daughter of 10-pound poms, who last year called an opponent “a snivelling little grub”, and the former prime minister Paul Keating, who regularly emerges from retirement to toss in a little more rebarbative Aussie wit (the former treasurer Paul Costello, he said last year, was “all tip and no iceberg”) – are constrained by a parliamentary system that draws on the best of the Westminster tradition and the English and Scots enlightenment. The November 2007 general election was a sublime example of Australian democracy. When the incumbent prime minister, John Howard, lost the election – and his seat – after 11 years in power, the leadership shifted seamlessly to Labor’s Kevin Rudd. Thanks to the compulsory system of preferential voting, the transition was gracious, popular, representative and bloodless.

Australians may dislike outside criticism but they’re practised at self-criticism. Many older, better-educated Aussies are quietly appalled at the new breed of thuggish Australian chauvinists, who appear unsportsmanlike, sneering and ugly. The boorish chant of “Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi” at sporting events suggests a lack of imagination, wit or self-confidence.

New Australia seems to have sidelined the supposedly traditional Aussie values of mateship, the fair go and self-sacrifice. Asked to nominate “true Australian values”, almost 40% cited “mateship” or “loyalty” in a survey last month in The Bulletin (itself snuffed out last month by private-equity investors who showed no loyalty to the magazine’s 128-year tradition). Yet the same proportion said Australia was no longer the land of the fair go; more than 80% said the gap between Australia’s rich and poor is increasing, and 70% said Australia was too close to America.

Asked to state what appealed to them most about their country, they replied, in no apparent order: “The Australian Rules football grand final. Mateship. The beach. Multiculturalism. The fair go. The Great Barrier Reef. The Boxing Day cricket test match. The spirit of adventure. Surfing. The Opera House. Indigenous heritage.” Not a single scientist, artist or national leader; not a single charity or cause, invention, social reform or business success.

Yet despite this vacuous ideal, a “cultural strut” seems to have replaced the old Australian “cultural cringe”, as the art critic Robert Hughes has observed. The cringe at least suggested modesty and self-effacement.

Humour is perhaps the best mirror of a nation’s psyche, and by this measure, New Australia is unrecognisable from the nation that gave us Barry Humphries and Paul Hogan. Today’s Australians are tickled pink by the silliest home videos, The Chaser (young men pulling stunts at other people’s expense), Summer Heights High (a clever mockumentary about a suburban state school) and, of course, Kath & Kim (a mother-and-daughter sitcom set in suburbia). With the exception of the silliest home videos, the new comedies tend to push a shared political view of Australia as coarse and class-ridden (along brutish materialistic lines). One Australian expatriate remarked on a website recently: “We laugh at Kath & Kim, but don’t really realise that we are Kath & Kim.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find them.

The bacchic orgy that is the Melbourne Cup – the nation’s premier horse race – fetches up images that routinely fail to edify the human race. The crowning image of last November’s event was a drunken, thickset blonde who appeared on the front pages pouring champagne from a great height into the mouth of an alcohol-engorged man lying dishevelled on the grass. And that was before the race began.

Christopher Wade saw a positive side to this behaviour: “One of the challenges for Australia in the 21st century is to adopt a more confident sense of itself, and not be so hidebound about its origins. That may play itself out in terms of boorish behaviour. But yobs are everywhere.”

By this argument, New Australia’s boorishness, beach-side ostentation, loud new money, aggressive republicanism, impatient energy and killer instincts are healthy expressions of youthful self-confidence embodied by the first lines of the national anthem: “Australians all let us rejoice/For we are young and free…”

It also signals the end of Old Australia, a land of irreverence and iconoclasm, charm and humility, dung heaps and dead ground, booze and boobs and hard, leathery men and women who survived the Depression and two world wars to build in their own good time the most durable of democracies.

The country is lavish in contradictions, of course: a monarchist nation that must slowly yield to a republic, yet with large numbers still clinging to the coat-tails of the Queen of Australia; a nation of young people who, unlike their parents, worship the Anzac tradition; and a “classless” Australia seeded with expensive private schools and controlled by powerful business and political elites. The racism – always denied – of white Australia seems most troubling for many new emigrants. It has had many disquieting manifestations. During the cold war, politicians stoked the hysterical fear of China – the “red-yellow peril” – in justifying the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam war.

In recent years the Muslim community has felt the sharp end of white Australian hostility. Consider the leafy commuter town of Camden, near Sydney, one of Australia’s oldest pastoral communities. In December, locals impaled bleeding pigs’ heads on stakes, draped them in the Australian flag and rammed them into the site of a proposed Islamic school.

The most damaging expression of racism is to be found in the whites’ treatment of the Aboriginals. An unofficial apartheid has always divided whites and blacks, as the former conservative politician Mal Brough observed last year when justifying his draconian intervention in Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory, whose members were accused of rampant child sexual abuse. While some blacks, chiefly mothers living with alcoholic husbands, applauded the measures, others saw the intervention as another doomed attempt to legislate away social problems whose roots lie much deeper. Blacks were not even recognised as citizens until 1967, when they were granted the right to vote. Until then they were treated as a dying race, abused and forgotten. Unlike heads of cattle, they were not even counted on the census forms. Many blacks refer to Australia Day, which commemorates the arrival of the first white settlers, as “Invasion Day”.

The dismal history of white-black relations is alive in the minds of indigenous leaders. They relate many accounts of white drovers passing through their communities and raping their women; of the missionaries and government officials who took children, many of them mixed-race, from black families. The whites who ran the foster homes and mission schools that housed this “stolen generation” allegedly sexually abused 1 in 10 Aboriginal boys and up to 3 in 10 Aboriginal girls, according to testimonies given to the 1997 Bringing Them Home report on the stolen generation.

Can white Australia redeem the past? A starting point was perhaps Paul Keating’s famous speech in Redfern Park on December 10, 1992, when he said: “We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice… We failed to ask, ‘How would I feel if this were done to me?’”

Hope rests with the will of the people to acknowledge rather than deny their past. White Australians tried to do this on February 13, when the government apologised for the first time to the black people for past injustices. It will also depend on the young and newcomers to forge a constructive future with the original inhabitants. Gratitude is never far away, either. More Australians seem to realise how good they’ve got it, and how hard won. Every year more than 10,000 young Australians gather on the shores of Gallipoli on Anzac Day to commemorate the fallen Australian troops. The Kokoda Track and Milne Bay in Papua – the battleground on which Australian forces, many of them untrained militia, first defeated the imperial Japanese army on land – is now considered to be hallowed turf.

And as I watched younger Australians and British backpackers dance in the New Year and partying on the beaches of Sydney, it occurred to me that perhaps Britain had made a terrible mistake – surely they should have left the convicts at home and emigrated?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Picture Perfect

You know, I just can't understand why people would bother buying a beach house at Carrickalinga etc. For the same price, you could have your holiday home here, in South-West France. Seriously, it doesn't have a beach, but it's too beautiful for words.

It was a mega-relaxing little break. Some days we just rose at 11, wandered (waddled?) down to the patisserie, picked up some croissants and a baguette, mosied back to the cottage, ate and read books, pestered Brenton to start a fire in the fireplace, and then snuggled in front of it. Then, more eating, reading, sleeping, in whatever order you like. It was all very easy, but you had to time it carefully, as there was no guarantee that shops would be open when they said they would. Basically, they opened in the morning, closed from 12 to 2, and then depending on whether the shop person could be bothered, reopened for a few hours in the afternoon. Good ol' French work ethic!

It was like staying in the village in Chocolat. Everything was old and cobblestoned and authentic. As it was Winter there were also hardly any tourists around (though I managed to detect an Aussie accent even on the first day. How does that happen everywhere?) and we practically had the village, and all of the surrounding sights, to ourselves. This was our street, and Brenton in our backyard being very manly and chopping the wood:

Other days we would wander a little further afield, but as I was tasked with driving the hire car we didn't try and go too far. When we did we visited various villages in Perigord and just generally admired the quaintness of them all. Everywhere you looked there was something beautiful to see, some tiny alley or little cafe or tree lined street. They were also very into their markets...

...which leads me to the food! Oh, it was magical. We didn't have a bad meal the whole time we were there (well, except for the night we went to the English pub because it was the only thing open). So much good cheese, fresh bread, little cakes (I'm sure there's a better name for them and that), coffee, poulet and canard, soups, roquefort and jambon crepes, hazelnut honey, icing sugar and chocolate covered walnuts. I'm hungry just reminiscing about it all.

On other days, we went castle hunting, as we called it. Perigord had a castle for practically every hill top, of which there were many. Chateau Baynac was on a cliff overlooking the Dordogne river. It was so authentic, it was like all the knights had just got up and left sometime in the 14th century and the place hadn't been touched since. Brenton has done a great account of it here.

The gardens at Marqueyssac were also a highlight. They snaked around the place in this incredible intricate fashion. Apparently, they were designed by the same person who had done the gardens at Versailles (though obviously I haven't fact checked what I was told!) I can imagine during summer it was be absolutely lovely, though it was still pretty spectacular.

The hire car deserves a special mention. To be honest I did get used to it but the French drivers terrified me. They haven't heard of things like speed limits or indicating. They also assume that you know the roads as well as them, and loathe foreign, left hand side drivers such as me, which is fair enough I suppose. The week's driving culminated in a hideous experience of driving back to Bordeaux in pitch black darkness, on tiny, twisty roads, with semi-trailers coming towards me and impatient locals trying to pass. It was horrible.

But, that aside, it was a lovely little break. We got back to London feeling very well-rested and felt a bit overwhelmed by all the people, which says something about how secluded we were. When I have a little money, I am going to buy a house round there (well I can dream), and come back in summer to enjoy the festivals, communal village meals, outdoor Shakespeare. They really know how to live in that little part of the world.