June

[Best read in David Attenborough style]: As the temperature cools in the southern part of the Australian land mass, the first signs of an incredible migration start to appear. Senior males of the species are spotted in pockets along the coast, struggling to grasp with the multiple tasks and devices which will propel them north. Reserves are gathered to a state of surplus, and a battle for alpha male superiority subtly ensues, a contest which will last across the season.

But here, it is the female that rules. Freshly groomed and adorned for the long journey, small numbers congregate. While not always harmonious, they band together for the greater good, bound by a common aim: maintaining survival, comfort, and subjugation over their once proud male partners. Hunting out and often gathering the food, directing the placement of shelters, maintaining the hygiene and lustre of their coats. In groups characterised by auburn dyed hair and expensive designer spectacles funded by generous tax breaks, these females underpin the mass migration that takes place.

And so, in June, across the more northerly coasts of this great continent, the grey nomads begin to cluster. They flock in their thousands to known waterholes. Sites like Carnarvon are almost overwhelmed by the influx, its banana-rich pastures transformed into shanty towns and its pharmacy inundated. The males continue to display in a parade of sandals, white socks and short shorts but, predictably, with little impact. After a while they retreat to seek out fish and engage in ablutions, but there is still competitiveness over the size and strength of their equipment. Some will settle here, and see another winter through with their mate. But others, with stronger torque and deeper reserves, will head on, north to the next great gathering place.

[Back to normal voice in your head]: My first significant encounter with a mass gathering of grey nomads was back down in southern Australia, in a pleasantly ambient March. It was apparent that Mudgee – a NSW country town standing out from many of the others thanks to pastoral affluence and providores – was an alluring spot for ripening baby boomers to hook up their motor homes. A caravan park beside the river, close to town, with excellent ablutions that may have won an award for hottest power showers in the west was always going to prove popular. And so it was that the mini street blocks dumped onto a meadow were crammed with a veritable mix of shiny white coaches and ramshackle fibros, often adorned with an auburn-topped lady in a folding chair reading through her expensive spectacles while a rangy male figure stumbled around trying to figure out how to empty the septic tank.

June01Campers, as so often, were an afterthought. Allocation to a small patch of grass that possibly classifies as a verge. Sited next to the river, but with the downsides of an adjacent public right of way and numerous biting insects. As ever, placed in the most open and prominent position so that all can look on in bemusement at the canvas contraptions that somehow you and your companion manage to be sleeping quite comfortably in. Swags were always a source of much fascination and eternal debate amongst the nomads, with lively discussions around one’s own ability to survive in such a thing and – on occasions lubricated by grape juice and a great Aussie irreverence – the possibility of sexual intercourse in such a structure [i].

Deflecting much of this attention and offering comradeship against the rows of Grand Adventurer 3000s and solar-panelled satellite dishes tuned into Today Tonight, one other person was braving the use of canvas in Mudgee. And quite amazingly it was one of the greyest of the grey nomads, a dear old lady cycling all over Australia towing her belongings, one of which was a stuffed dog [ii]. There is always someone or something to ruin your sweeping generalisations and lazy stereotypes, darn it. Anyway, being one of the few persons on site to actually need the kitchen facilities (I say kitchen, but think sink and a few tables under a picnic shelter), it was discovered over breakfast that she was in need of a cataract operation, possibly because she hadn’t invested in a pair of those expensive designer spectacles. And with a few delightfully cutting comments about the extravagance of $100,000 motor homes, she loaded up and wobbled on to the next stop down what I hope she knew was the main road.

We never did come across this cycling legend again, something I am pleased about in one sense because I had horror images of finding her happily peddling down the wrong way of the M5, the stuffed dog the only one alert to the situation, a terrified expression on its face. But it is quite possible – indeed highly likely – that you will encounter the same nomads, recognise the same Grand Adventurer 3000s, bump into the same old guy off to the ablutions for his dump, during the migration season.

June02Rob and Sue – well we think they were called Rob and Sue so that is how they became known – spotted us first. Apparently I had overtaken their car and trailer about ten times that day on the most boring stretch of road to cross the Nullarbor. I can’t say I noticed, because that boring stretch of road was so soporific that senses became dulled, and the caravans and trailers all took on a likeness and started talking to me and whispering sweet nothings as I hazily overtook them at 140kph, all entirely safely as pink elephants blew champagne bubbles through their trunks and out into the endless sky. But over a roast lamb fiesta in the quite delightful Fraser Range Station that night, they recognised us. I suspect a shiny blue Outback with a roof box and what were relatively young people inside (it’s all relative) were a more distinctive site. And as Rob recounted being overtaken ten times that day by some young hoons in a Subaru, my mind tried to recall whether any of those manoeuvres were in any way dodgy [iii].

Rob and Sue were quite lovely, in that quite lovely way where everything is quite lovely. Kind of like the quite lovely aunt and uncle who would have a quite lovely lovingly kept home and would happily let you stay for a lovely dinner and sleep in their quite lovely spare room. They were younger nomads; indeed there was a chance that Rob might still go back to work after their little test of the waters. They didn’t even have a proper motor home, just one of those plain trailers that somehow transforms itself into a suite at The Ritz. I’m sure they didn’t quite see themselves in the same mould as the wildebeestian hordes of socks and sandals and designer spectacles, and were glad to speak to some youth for a change [iv].

Anyway, the next day as the end of the Nullarbor beckoned, we passed Rob and Sue a few more times as part of that drive-rest-stop-drive tango, but now always with a friendly flash of lights and gesture to the pink elephants blowing bubbles in the sky. We marginally missed each other down in Cape Le Grand National Park near Esperance, a fact I discovered when we came from opposite directions to cross in the quite amazing Fitzgerald River National Park [v]. Later, I think they may have been a few vehicles in front of us at some lights in Denmark. And we fully expected to bump into each other once more, migrating north up the west coast of WA. So it was with some disappointment that Rob and Sue vanished into the great tarmac ribbon on red dirt, never to be seen or considered to possibly be stalking us again.

I reckon they were always a few days ahead, due to us lingering around in some backwater like Perth, finally drinking good coffee and wasting time in its breweries and beachside cafes. They were not there among the few souls braving the annoyingly icy waters of Shark Bay to see dolphins being fed; neither did they emerge from the masses crammed into the favelas of Carnarvon, a site which appeared to be only one step removed from a season finale of The Walking Dead; perhaps they weren’t brave enough to stop at the the very rustic setting of Quobba Station or enjoy the jackaroo appeal of Bullara Station, even though a few alternative, non-stereotypical nomads could.

June03

[And so, back to Attenborough]: In the northwest corner of Western Australia, Exmouth is the next staging post for the nomads. Here though, they come up against some younger bucks who could represent a threat to their existence: outsiders from France and other wild lands with extravagant plaits and body features that are proudly displayed, yet to sag. Competing for prime locations next to the ocean from which to alternately strum guitars and read books, there is an uneasy peace between the two groups. As the fine weather holds, an air of acceptance persists and the species cohabit side by side, with Derek very friendly towards young Amelie much to the disapproving over-the-spectacles glare of Margaret.

[Cue crack of lighting and thunder rumble scene, signifying, uh-oh, trouble]: But an unseasonal low pressure storm approaches. Some hunker down, others retreat to the cheapest motel to make the most of the downtime and look at some research publications and transfer the content into an excel spreadsheet in order to save the world. Trouble and coffee brews.

As the rains continue, the wily nomads now sense their opportunity. Secretly unhitching the power and emptying septic tanks in the quiet of dawn, a convoy gathers on the one and only main road of Exmouth. Emboldened by their superior torque and sixteen speed automatic military-spec drive, the nomads traverse the flood plains to settle in drier and warmer climes. Basking in Broome in tinted designer spectacles, they leave behind a melee of Wicked campervans bedecked with misogyny and potentially fatal odours. The grand migration of the common grey nomad carries on unstoppable, and we leave them on their endless roaming and return south.

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[i] Important interpretative note: by ‘possibility’ I refer to consideration of the practicalities of such actions being feasible in such a structure, rather than a request to give it a try!

[ii] Now, I am no Lance Armstrong, but I would imagine that you would do everything possible to minimise weight when cycling across Australia. Apart from those important coke cans for transporting syringes of unicorn blood.

[iii] I mean, we could have been singing out loud to songs from Eurovision 2012 or something. For instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_9QaVC-NKw or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrIaxnjeJ58

[iv] If there is one thing to be said for surrounding yourself with grey nomads it is that wonderful feeling of being made to feel a youngster again. Having said that, typically we were the first to bed and departed the site the next morning before many of the older ones had stirred!

[v] If ever you have chance, go there.

12 Months Australia Driving Society & Culture

May

Recently I saw the first mention of Britain being warmer than Spain. It was on the Yahoo homepage, somewhere between top ten tips to pout like a trout and a twitter post from Taylor Swift that you would, apparently, never believe. Somewhere or someone called Yahoo is not a place I would naturally go for in-depth analysis of the factors underpinning the fragmentation of the Middle East or the precise dimensions of Kim Kardashian’s behind, both of which may be somehow inextricably linked. But a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I created an email address there and occasionally get distracted by evil click-baiters now preying on people who are slightly bored enough to be checking their email.

Anyway, today, Britain was warmer than Spain, and adorned with attractive young ladies baring skin on a strip of pebbles next to some murky water. The pronouncement of this statement is, of course, as much a feature of British summertime as Wimbledon and a plate of Cumberland sausages infused with burnt charcoal. It blares out why go overseas when you can roast yourself red here? Given a clear pathway towards Brexit forged in the desperate need for a PM to save his shiny, pampered skin, and what with the incredulous love-in for UKIP and Nigel Farage (whose own skin is tanned to the extent that it can only have been achieved with European influence), it is a statement that is arguably as popular as ever [i]. Yeah, who needs Spain anyway, what with its nasty weather and cheap prescriptions and high-speed trains and bargain-basement villas and welfare and services readily available to millions of British expatriates?

Back to this article…I am not sure where in Spain somewhere in Britain was warmer than. It could have been the top of the Picos de Europa being compared with a 1980s British Railway carriage in which the heating has always been on. I suspect it was more likely a temperate resort – usually a Malaga or a Benidorm, or perhaps a more northerly Costa Brava – being compared with an equally delightful place like Gravesend or Hastings. Regardless of its pitfalls, the story was clear: the weather was actually quite nice for the first time in ages.

It may be this that I most miss about Britain. When I see numerous Facebook posts like “Loving this sunny weather” and “Baking in the garden” and even – god forbid – “Sitting in the shade because it’s too hot”, I want to be a part of it, there in my jumper, wondering what all the fuss is about. No, seriously, with acclimatisation still pretty instantaneous I’d be there in my shorts and chomping on a plate of burnt Cumberland sausages with the rest of them.

It really is true how eighteen degrees feels much warmer in Britain than it does in Australia. And in May, equilibrium strikes: Plymouth and Canberra will likely attain similar maximum temperatures. But while one is on the rise (or at least fairly steady), the other is quickly descending into Arctic despair, judging by the attire of locals and their desperate protestations of hypothermia. Thus, despite the same temperatures it is not unusual to come across adjacent posts on Facebook informing me that it is too hot to sit in the sun and that I should be wrapped up in a Merino wool thermal Snuggie with accompanying solar-warmed Ugg boots.

Notwithstanding such distorted equilibrium, and a withering autumnal beauty stretching across Canberra, I’d still rather be in Britain in May. Which is a tad ironic when I think I have only been back to Britain in May once, and then propelled primarily by a wedding. I suspect a big reason for this absence is the level of work sprouting from every orifice of the Government, in a crazy cash splurge that could rival a Channel Seven teatime quiz. Spending is temporarily back in fashion in order to receive the same budget funding, the leftovers of which can be spent frantically again this time next year. Thus Mad May, as I quickly discovered it to be known, is a perennial – but welcome travel-funding – feature of my life.

And so it is that my European trips usually take place from July at the earliest, once the financial year has wrapped up. But, as I say, I did manage a May trip once without the Government here collapsing, and it was truly a beauty. Okay, there was some rain – you expect that – and I may have needed a jumper once or twice, but there were also barbecued Cumberland sausages, early season strawberries so much better than any from down under, and one or two days in which it was okay to wear shorts. Add the inevitable industrial doses of clotted cream to a backdrop of pure green fields and wooded river valleys, and you have the recipe for success (and possibly a heart attack).

may01I remember the green most of all. Catching a suburban rattler from London Waterloo through the Surrey heath and into Hampshire, the rail line part tunnel of branch and leaf, the hedgerows maintained by the clipping blade that is the express to Southampton. The woodlands glowing chartreuse, as a gentle sun dapples its light onto sweeping clusters of bluebells. The cocoon of light and leaves offering a greenhouse in which sweaters can be comfortably removed. In the open, fields of yellow canola interspersed with succulent pasture for cows and hilly outcrops for sheep stretch south and west. Despite intrusions of modernity, there is a timelessness to it.

In Devon, the county may have been made for May. Here, the whole landscape is the epitome of the Ambrosia custard can. There is a sense of new endeavour in the rolling hills, a scene of rapid natural productivity in the woodlands, and an audible tinkling of rivers and streams as they make their way towards the estuaries and inlets of the coast. The city of Plymouth is something of a black spot amongst this utopia, but even here you cannot ignore the sweeping green grass of the Hoe, the headlands plunging into the glittering waters of the Sound, and the grasses, flowers, and weeds flourishing in the cracks of the pavements and the neglected council estate gardens.

Not far from Plymouth, largely tucked away from civilisation, Noss Mayo exudes a loveliness that is probably repeated up and down the south coast of Devon.  Here, I could brave shorts, chomp on fresh strawberries, feel the warmth reflecting off the blue seas, and cool down again through the shadowy banks of the Yealm. I could hike up to the church and wallow in more bluebells and daffodils and buttercups and daisies. I could let gravity take me back down to the creek for a cold cider or warm beer beside the water, as boats of red and blue sit in the tidal mud, and the sporadic appearance of a bus may or may not feature. Sitting waiting without a care, floating butterflies will make friends and transform into wasps and shake me from my rose-tinted moment of paradise.  Like impending Atlantic weather fronts, wasps are wont to do that [ii].

may05

And so back in the real world, the British May may be heaven one day and a drearier version of hell the next. But at least it is not winter anymore and the prospects for a good day again soon appear credible. As the rain plummets onto the broken concrete Plymouth streets and buses of damp people in damp coats on damp seats grind their way up the hills, I have a vision of beautiful people in Canberra drinking flat whites, wrapped up against the perishing eighteen degree days, thinking about what dubious investments they can make before the end of the financial year. Mums sup lattes as their kids crunch amongst the oak leaves, hipsters go about perfecting their hair, beard, and top button arrangements, and tradies roll around in the lucre of non-stop apartment-building. I may long for the colour, the coffee, the air. But there are no bluebell glades, and only the prospect of several frosty months and a period of intense labour for companionship.

In Canberra, in May, there will be no headlines jubilantly celebrating temperatures warmer than the Costa del Sol. And that is surely reason enough to turn minds back to the north.

 

[i] Of course, the very recent 2015 UK General Election demonstrated Little England was still going strong, sticking two fingers up to those pesky Scots what with their crazy ideas of equity and – well – caring and compassion for the less rich, and cementing an in-out-shake it all about referendum on participation in the EU. As for UKIP, well, 3,881,129 people must see something, I’m just not sure what, and whether this something is really the panacea to solving all their woes. Nonetheless, Mr. Farage can at least now go work on his tan.

[ii] Indeed, the European wasp is fast becoming a scourge of Australian suburban idylls. Bloody Europeans, coming over here, taking our native flora and fauna. See http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/european-wasps-in-canberra-at-record-numbers-20150427-1muobh.html

 

12 Months Europe Walking

April

Upon the outside steps, schoolchildren gather in awkwardness and relief, escaping the restrictive solemnity and required reverence of a place venerating death. The air is filled with youthful chatter, indecipherable in a squawkish flurry of hopes, dreams and no-good insolence. It is another age, in which hashtags were yesterday’s news and that which came before unfathomably remote. Yet still the human condition presupposes that one of their names may just, despairingly, return to this spot.

apr01In a gathering gloaming, reassembly occurs along the arches and steps, their backs to the names of the fallen. Arms dangling from the tedium of patience drift over the letters spelling out Korea and Timor and Gallipoli. A man speaks; a bagpipe plays in mournful strangulation. A story is told of one person’s life, the end of which is predictable only in the all too early and violent a termination. Finally, a man in uniform blares out The Last Post and one begins to wonder whether the humble bugle is ever used for anything else. As the concluding brassy notes fade into the cockatoo skies, the rumble of coach engines spark up, seemingly anxious to return their hormonal payload to Sydney and Wagga and Bairnsdale as soon as they can.

A scene like this takes place practically every day at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, just before closing. In addition to the several hundred present – composed of tourists, locals, and a scattering of uniformed dignitaries, as well as the bundles of schoolkids fulfilling a rite of passage – the ceremony is now live streamed on the memorial’s website. Like the moment’s silence each evening at RSL clubs, it is a physical act aiming to encapsulate those immortal three words: Lest We Forget. And at the going down of the sun, after a visit loosely planned as research for this piece, I was moved, somewhat surprisingly given the desensitisation that comes with distance and time.

War commemoration is awkward. It makes us feel awkward, conflicted even. It is a world of contradictions and hypocrisy. A multi-million dollar industry in which battle sites and memorials can become numbers on a bucket list, stops on a coach tour [i]. We publicly lament the sacrifice, the loss, the needlessness, yet people are still in conflict, losing their lives as we do this. We celebrate victories and make heroes of some, of us, and villains of others, of them. We may question the purpose of daily services such as those at the War Memorial, wondering if they are put on for the tourist experience, a kind of ‘dawn-service-lite’, to ensure visitor number KPIs and funding requirements are met. We are right to question, for blind faith may lead us down the path of ignorance and subservience that has led to past wrongs. Yet it can be uncomfortable to do so, in the context of – quite justifiably – a reverence and respect for many millions of individuals who died because of war.

April in Australia (and, one assumes, New Zealand) heralds the annual peak in our fascination with war commemoration. ANZAC Day is an annual fixture in the antipodean calendar, unmoving and unstinting on the 25th April, reflecting the anniversary of the first mass landing of allied troops from down under onto the rocky shores of Gallipoli in 1915. And because we venerate the reaching of a century – from Steve Smith to the Queen Mother to a national capital – ANZAC Day 2015 is set to be more of a blockbuster event than ever.

Like Easter, one wonders if ANZAC Day has become somewhat diluted and fragmented with meaning over time: it’s a day off work, a chance to go to Bunnings or be a part of the Harvey Norman ANZAC Day price-busting sale, lest we forget. An opportunity to mow the lawn, gather the leaf litter, or watch the annual AFL match as the slow-cooked lamb melts succulently in the oven and The Last Post rings out again at the G. We may drink to excess and legally gamble on two-up, justifying this as being what the diggers would have wanted (whether they would have wanted the increase in injuries, violence and domestic abuse that this may lead to is doubtful). Nonetheless, we still do remember, and millions of us rise early in the dark or attend mid-morning parades, or even visit overseas sites that would be totally anonymous if it were not for their place as a graveyard of war.

As a sometimes alien sometimes looking in, I do not feel as connected to ANZAC Day as sometimes I feel I am supposed to be. It is not a part of my history; I was not exposed to the ANZAC legend growing up. Despite some semi-studious First World War lessons in secondary school, the Gallipoli campaign was a brief mention somewhere in a text book. From what I know, it strikes me as an absolute shambolic disaster. That this – a sorry slaughter bungled by British commanders and with no far-reaching impact on the wider war effort – is widely considered as the birthplace of modern Australia is, on paper, bewildering. Forget that this negates the presence of one of the oldest continuous cultures on earth, or the development of affluent cities and the taming [ii] of a harsh landscape, or the achievement – in 1901 – of Federation that came with white settlement. Gallipoli also bore all the hallmarks of old empire, in which young Australians (and, incidentally, many more British and Turkish men) were sacrificed in unfailing service to the motherland. A defeat; a wasteful, pointless loss in which Australians blindly followed the orders of a bunch of crusty British superiors. It does not smack strongly of independent nationhood.

It was here though that the ANZAC legend was born and this has since become institutionalised as a turning point in Australia’s view of itself and relationship with the old world. In the run up to the centenary, a surge in earnest documentaries and debates, confected dramatisations, and obscure blog entries by half-wits like me will regurgitate and nuance such arguments, questioning the role of ANZAC Day and what it means to the nation in the twenty-first century [iii]. While the bravery and actions of those in Gallipoli will not be diminished, it is pleasing – if that is the right word in such a context – to see a stronger emphasis shifting towards remembering many more Australians lost on the Western Front, in Asia and across other conflicts. ANZAC Day may well be becoming less about Gallipoli and more about everyone and everything touched by the ruinous proclivities of humankind.

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apr02

There are approximately 102,000 names embossed upon the roll of honour in the Australian War Memorial. The western colonnade contains those who were killed in the First World War (62,000), while the opposite wall of bronze tablets mark those lost in the Second World War, followed by the post-war wars in Asia and the Middle East. Some, such as Afghanistan, forlornly remain open ended. There is little space remaining for further names to be added, which at least might signify some optimism that never will a mass conflict cause so much loss of life again [iv]. The scale can be overwhelming, so much so that it can distort one’s sense of comprehension, much in the same way that it can be too much for us to conceptualise the number of stars in the universe or the number of Olympic-sized swimming pools in Sydney harbour.

Should it somehow transpire that no more Australians are killed in battle from this day forward, it would still take around 280 years for the Memorial’s daily service (assuming this continues) to tell the individual story of each one of the names on its roll of honour. Against the almost unfathomable mass of loss and sacrifice, it is perhaps the individual stories that are the most telling, the most poignant, and maybe even the most relatable. In more recent visits to the Memorial I have found myself seeking someone with my surname on the wall, placing a poppy nearby to join the clusters of red springing from all available gaps and crevices between panels. To none of these Staffords am I related (as far as I am aware), but it makes me feel slightly less guilt-ridden at being a tourist, and somehow more connected as an outsider. Reflecting on the one may resonate stronger than one hundred thousand.

 

All that connects us is a name:

Stafford, J.G., 22nd Battalion.

I saw you today upon that wall,

With hundreds of thousands of others to fall

In battle, in war, often in vain,

Sent far from home, you’ll always remain.

 

You died 59 years before I was born:

The 4th of October, 1917.

Upon Flander’s fields, dispatched in battle,

Sent up to be killed, slaughtered like cattle.

Lain down in Ypres, beyond Menin Gate,

Marked by a white cross, as all with this fate.

 

Your life in Australia was spent in the country:

Colac, Victoria before moving to Ouyen.

A labourer is all, constructing a wall,

Sweating with toil, tilling the soil,

Getting the call,

To fight a great war.

 

You were 27 years when leaving Port Melbourne:

Upon the HMAT Hororato.

A girl left in port, named Ivy Jane,

A niece or friend, or once secret flame.

When I was your age, in Australia as well,

I’d discovered a heaven, while you left for hell.

 

I do not know you, nor do we share blood:

But today you were there, and there I stood.

Thoughtful and thankful, looking for meaning,

You sent me away, stronger belief in,

My fortune and hope, my freedom and joy,

Your name etched a man, and I still a boy.

 

And, fittingly for such bad First World War poetry, an addendum courtesy of Baldrick:

Boom, boom, boom, boom,

Boom, boom, boom. [v]

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apr03

My own experience of ANZAC Day has, thus far, embraced a range of experiences one is expected to engage in. Though I am yet to get inebriated and lose hundreds of dollars gambling, I did once add a shot or two of whiskey to a flask of hot coffee for the dawn service, justifying this as being what the diggers would have wanted of course. Plus it was treacherously cold at that time of day at that time of year, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one with a hip flask handy.

The dawn service is a memorable and genuinely moving experience. Pitch black with icy winds streaming down from the hills, there is sleepy-headed confusion at encountering hundreds of buses and thousands of people, barely visible ants streaming towards the dimly-lit dome of the Australian War Memorial. Candles flicker, readings are aired, silences are held, bugles are played. The singing of Abide With Me is drawn out with such sombreness as to lead to total gut-wrenching despondency. There is no sense of jubilation, no air of celebration. Arguments are forgotten, debates paused; for now, all that matters is remembrance and despair.

Almost imperceptibly the black of night softens and, as Advance Australia Fair concludes the service, a thin, indigo line is visible above Mount Ainslie. Cockatoos shriek in suitable reprise to the final chimes of the national anthem, pursuing the fruits of the gently flaming and fading oaks nearby. The faces of others take form – young, old, white, black, Asian. Top brass military regaled in finery mingle alongside youths still in their bedtime onesies. There is much of beauty in what modern Australia has become, and the debt of gratitude is never more apparent.

As the Australian capital glows in its autumnal splendour, its citizens and visitors are free to go back to bed, go buy a flat white, go to the pub. They may well go to the later morning ceremony, which includes a parade past various dignitaries with their own entry theme tunes [vi] and the thunderous excitement of a jet flypast. The citizens can now, officially, put on their heating (there was nothing stopping them before apart from a long-held Canberra convention that is regularly flouted). It can be pretty handy, particularly as snow is not unheard of up in the hills and mountains by the end of April. Indeed, one of the most memorable – and surprising – ANZAC Day long weekends I experienced was waking to snow in Thredbo, and enjoying a day of tramping through snowy Eucalyptus forests and warming up with hot chocolates.

All of these freedoms, all of these wonders, all of these hot chocolates are derived from the lottery-winning ticket of life that is being born in or coming to live in Australia. It was not always this easy, neither was it always just or pure or peaceful. But it is what it is, born from an ancient sea and moulded by rainbow serpents, shaped by the ANZACS, the first fleet, the pastoralists and gold diggers, the builders and scientists and mothers and cricketers, the Aborigines, the Dutch, the French, the British, the Chinese, the German. It was, and still is, and long may it continue through a journey of acceptance and evolution, something that would be worth fighting for.

 

[i] There have been several recent features regarding the (sometimes crass) commercialisation of ANZAC Day. For instance, see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-16/green-anzacs-lest-we-forget-to-turn-a-buck/6396176?section=ww1 and http://www.themonthly.com.au/blog/james-brown/2014/02/17/1392601420/anzacs-long-shadow-cost-our-national-obsession. Also, check out much of the profiteering here at http://anzacprofit.tumblr.com/

[ii] ‘Taming’ is far too simplistic (and restrictive) to describe white settlement of the land in Australia, but I only have one sentence to play with. One may also consider cultivating, irrigating, clearing, destroying, pillaging, ruining etc etc. I found Don Watson’s The Bush to provide a highly readable synopsis of some of the failings and achievements of settlement, with a detailed understanding of weeds to boot!

[iii] For its part, the state broadcaster – the ABC – has produced a vast resource of ANZAC related content, including much navel-gazing and probably far better researched and written analysis than that included here. See http://www.abc.net.au/news/first-world-war-centenary/

[iv] Alas there is always scope for expansion upon the current site.

[v] The German Guns, by Pte S O Baldrick. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UKpZxM-c9w

[vi] From memory, the PM gets a quirky little ditty of Waltzing Matilda, the Governor General Advance Australia Fair (or possibly Song of Australia?), any visiting royals hear God Save my mother / grandmother / aunt etc, and a New Zealand representative any song by the Finn brothers.

12 Months Australia Society & Culture

March

March strikes me as a celebratory month. Events include the wedding anniversary of my mum and stepdad, for instance, which tends to slip my mind without fail every year. Likewise, Mother’s Day, which may or may not happen at some point in certain countries. With similar vagueness, Easter might eventuate in March, but this is contingent on some advanced algebraic calculation based on a factor of the day when Jesus rose up to make pancakes on the moon or something. Elsewhere, at the start of the month in Wales, people get all excited about leeks on cheese on toast, drink Brains, and break out in hearty song about Saint Dafydd. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the rest of Australia (and thus of course the world), the natives of its capital gather to commemorate the city’s founding by promptly and unapologetically fleeing to the coast. There is clearly much to celebrate.

Mar01The biggest cause for chirpiness however – specifically in the northern hemisphere – is the symbolic termination of winter. Sure, it may still rain curtains of icy drizzle from time to time, but it can do so safe in the knowledge that the worse is behind us. Evenings suddenly seem to stretch for longer; the sun, when it can be persuaded to appear, resonates a faint whiff of warmth; daffodils – that most blessed portent of a new season – glow as proudly as a Welshman once did at Cardiff Arms Park. Promise pervades the air.

There is a particular day in March – let’s say the 19th – in which seasonality gets a little carried away with itself. The temperature might reach something freakish like 18°C. The wind temporarily vanishes, leaving the rays of the sun untempered to shower upon beaming faces. A national mood change is palpable as families picnic in parks, people spill out of London pubs short-sleeved, and the first whimpers of charcoal smoke rise from over the neighbour’s fence, ruining the washing on the line that can finally dry properly for the first time since September.

There is ,of course, a wickedness to this day. It is as though a dose of paradise has been granted that will not appear again until at least May, if not July. The irresistible inclemency of an Atlantic front is never too far away and the return to what passes for normalcy leaves you wondering whether yesterday was a dream. Instead, the season builds more subtly, like a light’s dimmer switch being incrementally dialled up as opposed to the classical on and off again manner. But at least March represents a time when someone’s hand is on that dimmer switch, and anticipation about whether the bulb will eventually glow at sixty or a hundred watts is almost as overwhelming as a confused metaphor about electrical illumination.

I would struggle without seasonality. I may be in a minority, given the population growth of the Gold Coast and the increase in beachside Pilates taking place during southern Spanish winters. Here, a quite remarkable assortment of fossils can be spotted, bedecked in sun visors, creaking and contorting in slow motion like a troupe of jaded CP3Os, as if worn down from another hackneyed yet money-spinning outing. Leathery limbs reach tentatively to the skies, embracing the sun that seems forever warm and almost always present. The people here may never wear trousers, or coats, or enclosed shoes ever again. And while it may seem like some fanciful paradise to wake up to blue skies every day, to never feel cold, would it not also eventually feel remorsefully dull, remarkably uneventful, entirely, tediously predictable?

This, I believe, is one of the more common complaints from UK migrants to certain parts of Australia. I’ve seen it on those daytime TV shows – Get a Life Down Under, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Escape to the Country (Just Don’t Come by Boat or You Will End Up in a Concentration Camp on an Impoverished, Mosquito-Infested Island), etc, etc. To some of the locals, such comments just seem to reinforce a lovingly-embraced stereotype related to whinging. But I get it, even though I would try to make the most of endless days of fair weather myself. There is glumness in Britishness – fostered over millennia, permeated by the weather, resolute in the character – that cannot easily be discarded. It is not a bad thing, predominantly because we are skilled at making light of it (indeed, this is something to be celebrated). And, I think, it nurtures appreciation and satisfaction in the simplest of things, such as the emergence of a snowdrop from the earth in early spring [i].

I guess what I am saying, what I am typing, is that March can be so exhilarating in Britain because of what you have been through to get there. Yes, much like the proverbial rollercoaster or, more aptly, the Northern Line, dawdling through what seems an endless toxic darkness to finally emerge into the light and airy park-side setting of East Finchley. Spring and summer, or Woodside Park and High Barnet, lay ahead. And while these will often end up being more disappointing than hoped-for, in March the anticipation is still there, yet to be dashed by John Ketley.

Australia is in many ways a different proposition. The sheer size and variability in the weather means that March could herald heatwaves, cyclones, snowfalls, floods, dust storms, mist patches, and cascades of quokkas and numbats. In small pockets – such as the south east corner with which I am most familiar – there is a parallel cooling and drawing in of nights, and the first vestiges of a prolonged autumn appear. Though there may be some sombreness that summer is on the wane, there is little of the dread associated with a forthcoming northern winter. Partly that’s a result of days that can still exceed thirty degrees but mostly milder, more amiable conditions as a whole. This is the start of a golden period, when pleasant, blue-sky days and refreshing nights stack up one after the other and seem to stretch on into May.

Of course, I write this safe in the knowledge (or 97% confident) that climate change could totally wreck everything I am going on about. Stormy Marches and hot Marches and cyclonic Marches or even snowy Marches could become the new norm. Do I have evidence for this? Well, no, but that doesn’t stop climate sceptics receiving a sycophantic front page diatribe in certain national media, so no harm in including a few words on an obscure blog. While we may (only part) jokingly embrace climate change if it means we can wear union jack shorts in Southend in March, it would be a shame to lose that which is special about the seasonality it offers. Otherwise we’ll just be as bad as the Gold Coast.

I can accept hot days in early March, but it was nearing month’s end in 2013 when myself and a friend decided to persevere with the preparation of bangers and mash during a 38 degree northerly on the southern extremity of the Australian mainland. It is probably one of the biggest collective regrets we have from a three month trip across Australia. Just what were we thinking?! I guess in the joy of food planning and supermarket shopping a few days in advance we didn’t anticipate such furnace-like conditions. Plus we had packed a potato masher as something of a luxury item, so were eager to use it on any possible occasion.

Mar02

The setting was Tidal River, a sprawling campground complex within Wilsons Promontory National Park. It’s popular with Melburnians and wombats, both of whom were in profusion. The wombats were engaged in a faux cultural conversation about the ethics of rainforest regurgitated coffee beans, while the Melburnians contentedly chomped away on the grass and shitted square bricks. The day had passed with the sight and smell of smoke from the lower Strzelecki Ranges, and a coming-close-to-mild-dehydration tramp up to Vereker Outlook. Relief of a kind came from the beautiful white bays and clear waters of the coastline, though even here the brilliance of the sand glared with a resonant heat. General fatigue was high, and the struggle to boil potatoes on a portable gas stove in a strong northerly beside the sea was only made more pleasurable by the numerous flies clearly determined to explore the nasal cavity. This was not quite the idyllic March that I had come to know and love.

Mar03Needless to say, a week later I was freezing my butt off in another Victorian national park, desperately lighting a pile of twigs to ward off the chance of hypothermia. In the golden goldfields around Castlemaine and Bendigo, Creswick and Ballarat, the effect of March was bearing fruit. Planted to gentrify the antiquated avenues and make Englanders feel partly at home, the oaks and elms, beech and poplars, were busy transitioning into autumn shades. The spa town of Daylesford was made for this time of year, its lake happily reflective and the Victorian Victorian streets lined with large-leaved trees that seem to be excited by the end of summer. A refuge for Masterchef cast-offs, there was no doubting that the pork roasted to succulence in a charming old pub was several hundred times better, and a thousand more fitting, than the bangers and mash of past.

Thus, climate change pending, there is much to celebrate about March whether north or south. I am pleased to say that as I write this in Canberra, the sun is shining, it is a predictable 25 degrees and the forecast is set fair. Spring may be yet to truly spring in the UK, but there is an inevitability that it will come. Soon. Two weeks and there may be a freak warm day coming up, so stock up on charcoal before the supermarkets sell out, and beware of white van man with his top inexplicably off. Above all, cherish this most pivotal of months which signifies the start of something new. Love the seasons, and all the incremental change that they deliver. Otherwise, head to the Gold Coast or Lanzarote and dwell in temperate predictability, never to wear long pants ever, ever again.


[i] In making a sweeping generalisation about national character I should caveat: there will still inevitably be a handful of tiresome, grouchy narks who hate the sound of children’s laughter and lament the daffodils emerging on the median strip because they might provide a place for immigrant burglars to hide and spread Ebola. The good thing is everyone else will take the piss out of them. Apart from desperate politicians who seem to focus endlessly on wooing their vote.

12 Months Australia Europe

February

The chill embrace of water was invasive. A pond stretching out in smooth monotone reflected only the dead black trees, clutching and distorting like lost souls grasping for salvation. In places a mist danced, swirls of vapour disappearing and re-emerging within the blink of an eye; drifting towards the pond’s banks and adding burden to the dense brambles and thickets of weed. Here, a lonely black crow occasionally paced, agitating water from the undergrowth and sending it downwards to disturb the silvery veneer. The grass sweeping up to where he stood was sopping, congested with dewdrops longing to be transformed into jewels by an absent sun.  And into this reservoir one more droplet formed, trickling down his scarred cheek and stolen by the air.

The mist on that day one year ago was somehow more startling. It hovered fleetingly down in the small gully at the back of his plot, barely distinguishable in the first light, twisting through the remaining tree ferns like some ghostly serpent of the dreamtime.  He was always up at this hour, surveying the daybreak from the back of his veranda, but not once could he recall mist down there at this time of year. He found the pre-dawn a beautiful, peaceful period, becalmed before the summer sun gathered in ferocity and the winds became energised. It was his time, a secret hour of solace before the industry of human activity discovered the world again and disrupted its placidity.

The first sounds, apart from those of the creaking deck upon which he paced, came from the birds. Usually a lone wattlebird set everything off, calling to its mate and waiting – sometimes forlornly – for a distant reply. Without a response its cry would intensify towards panic, only subdued when an echo rebounded from somewhere amongst the trees lining the road. As the black of night faded indigo and navy blue, the kookaburras stirred; first a guttural warm-up from the lead voice, like that of a car’s ignition struggling to get going on the first attempt. Upon finally starting this lone cackle would act as an alarm call for the others to burst into a cacophony. This seemed to peeve the sulphur-crested cockatoos, shrieking in retort to being rudely awaken. The shrill flits of galahs and rosellas followed, while the currawongs and magpies struggled to be heard in the melee. By time the first red rays of sun glowed upon the upper reaches of the big cabbage gum to his right, an uninterrupted wall of sound flowed through the air and the world was awake again.

A wall of sound greeted him now, walking up Highgate Hill, though little of it emanated from anything other than what man had done. Red double deckers played tag, rumbling up the hill from Archway and swapping places at alternate stops. Occasionally a black cab spirited its way towards the city and fluoro cyclists diced with death on a mad downhill descent. But mostly there were Range Rovers and Landcruisers and a variety of precision-made German-engineered supersized cars perfectly suitable for the rough terrain of north London. Inside, almost unequivocally, a well-groomed mother was returning from the school run, bedecked in a smart-fitting pastel blazer and adorned with large sunglasses.

Overhead, a few pigeons scattered in the skies, continually eclipsed by the roar of jets ascending from Heathrow, veering left as they rose on a repetitive north-easterly track. Many destined to escape the chill. It was perhaps only around four degrees – already incrementally warmer than overnight – but the cold was bitter enough to cause him to be jolted by the heat encased within Sam’s Cafe as he opened the door.

It was only ten in the morning when he had been hit like this last year. Protected by the settler’s schizophrenic garden of apple tree and acacia, fuchsia and grevillea, his blue weatherboard home escaped the worst excesses of summer. Unlatching the back door and opening out its fly screen onto the veranda, he was immediately confronted by a burst of heat; like that of an airplane door closed at Aberdeen and opened again at Alicante. Over the creek he could see his neighbour’s Friesians clustered under the shade of a eucalypt. Their complaining bellows had replaced the melodies of dawn long since passed, with only the intermittent clucking of his chooks competing for attention. As he made his way across to their pen to collect the morning’s yield, a waft of wind stirred in the cabbage gum. This was replicated a minute later by the trees upon the ridge, whipped up in greater fury for ten seconds before dying completely. Gathering up just two eggs – fewer than normal – his throat had dried and any relief from his own saliva was fleeting.

On days like this there was little he could do. Tending to the chooks, clearing the yard of clutter, and undertaking perfunctory checks on the water tank, roof and gutters was about the sum of it. There was nothing for it other than to close all the blinds, reach for the fridge, crack open a beer, and wait for the day to pass. The beer was the medicinal part. The contours of the glass, coated in icy beads of water, were balsam to his ruddy hands. In one fluid gesture he passed the bottle across his forehead, twisted off the cap to release a short, sweet spurt of gas, and brought the rim up to his lips for an indulgent gulp.

Soothed and mellowed, he reached up to the shelf and flicked on the radio, before settling down in a wooden chair that had seen better days. Set to the ABC – as it had been for umpteen years – a young bloke was talking about his experimentations in crop diversification. Several varieties of something called keynwah, he thought they had said. Apparently, he got some of this keynwah sent over from South America and one of its party was delivering promise here in Gippsland. There was good money in it, apparently, and as the talk meandered into yield per hectare, cost inputs and market pricing, he found his eyelids dropping and head becoming heavy, dragged down by a tonne of exotic wholegrain…

…a young Peter Hollingsworth was walking alongside the Thames once again. The brown river was languid, a juxtaposition to the barges and cruisers bustling up and downstream with purpose. It was sunny, though crisp, with a gusty easterly wind whipping under the railway bridges and backstreet arches of Bankside. Next he saw a pint of chocolaty brown ale in front of him, topped off with creamy white foam. It was called something like Black Boar, and was a fine sight to behold. But more striking, more achingly beautiful, more lustfully alluring was the vision of Emily Coniston, animated across the table in delivering a rebuttal to some dandy twerp who dared to suggest she should stick to becoming a housewife and mother. Making out her argument was tough – the crackle of the open fire incessant – but you could tell she was having the better of things, and looked all the finer for it.

The crackling intensified, and slowly the image blurred and vanished. The talk of keynwah had ceased and the radio had lost signal altogether. Slowly rising, Peter switched it off, and went back out to the veranda to check up on what the world was doing. By now, the midday sun was searing and he lingered sparingly in it. Everything was eerily still and quiet. The cows had gone, probably offered refuge in one of the big tin sheds up on the hill. Even the cicadas were subdued, no doubt wallowing amongst the more succulent clumps of grass and weed next to the boundary fence. The chooks were silent too, but faring okay as he ambled down to their pen with extra water. Inside the small shed attached to their run, he noticed four hens snoozing away in the shade, as if the heat was today’s excuse for a typically elongated siesta.

Turning back to the house was when he first noticed a narrow plume of smoke, rising vertically many kilometres distant, up somewhere in the ranges west of Buchan. This was nothing new, the whole country up there so rugged and devoid of human habitation that fires could burn away for months on end.  Twelve years previously he remembered it coming down from the mountains and torching a few sheds and accounting for six cattle and a cat in one of the scattered settlements in the valley. The fire had ravaged an area the size of Belgium, but its damage was mostly temporary, the bush regenerating, as it does, to take on its latest iteration. Even the old couple who lost their cat easily got a new one from the dozens offered by well-meaning do-gooders.

Heading to the back door he looked once more at the smoke, but did not see that of a bushfire simultaneously destroying and rejuvenating a tangled patch of far off high country; instead it was that rising from Battersea Power Station to his west, adding another smoky texture to the otherwise blanket grey sky. Emily was gliding on the ice, reaching out for his hand and guiding him with both a tenderness and passion that was as much about a journey into his heart as it was a helping hand to an Australian unaccustomed to such wintry escapades. His tentativeness and clumsiness eased, so much so that he could finally avert his gaze up from his feet and dwell longer in that carefree smile and the large, brown eyes brimming with life. Only when those eyes reached into his did he stutter once more, crashing to the ground accompanied by the sounds of unbridled, joyous laughter.

A small gust of wind rattled through the cabbage gum, and briefly diverted his attention back to the present. But his mind was now deeply focused on the past. It may have been nearing forty degrees in a rural homestead in the middle of not much at all, but Peter was now transfixed on one magical winter many years ago in a huge, sprawling city on the other side of the world. Retreating inside, he sought out one of those shoeboxes that contain life’s memories. It was buried in a bigger box under souvenir stubby holders and a dream catcher and several bits of key chain and magazines about photography and newspaper pullouts about walking trails and places in South America and recipes for Malaysian curries. Inside, the smell was of an old bookshop in Melbourne, as letters and postcards, photos and train tickets, spilled out onto the kitchen table.

The afternoon passed in a blur of words and images. Three cherished letters, two photo booth pictures, a program from the Old Vic, and a return train ticket from Waterloo to Winchester were the only physical representations Peter retained of his time with Emily Coniston. He read and re-read every sentence in the letters; the first was full of sparkle and suggestion, of hopes and dreams of a life to come. The second, composed a few years later, was more formal, though he detected an occasional playfulness in between lines of her impending marriage to Will Barlow. The third was more recent – sent upon the turn of the millennium – in which fondness for their collective past was painted in such a vividly romantic hue that it was impossible not to rue what might have been.

The train tickets did little justice in capturing the memories of that day. It was a sunny Sunday in early February. The train carriage had been stationed at Waterloo overnight and so, first thing, it was like entering a cold store full of legs of ham hanging from the ceiling. Things warmed a touch as the sun penetrated the carriage, and the white frost-capped roofs of the suburbs slowly began to drip as they passed by. In Winchester, the lawns in front of the cathedral were pocketed white and dewy green, the harsh frostiness lingering where the spire had shadowed the sun. Walking together alongside the old stone walls of the college, they joined arms, offering internal warmth more than sufficient to counter that of the ice layered across the waterway to their right. Warmer still, the hot chocolate shared in a cafe beside the bridge, and the contentedness of being in that place at that time with that person.

A sudden and strong gust rattled the house, causing the shoebox to drop to the floor much in the same way as past memories rapidly evaporated back to the present. For the first time that day, Peter felt a shiver, as if he had been briefly relocated through space and time into that railway carriage on the platform of Waterloo station. The wind whistled again, becoming more persistent and sustained. He could hear the leaves in the gum tree in perpetual motion, the sound as if it were that of a waterfall plunging over the rim of a sandstone cliff. The noises were troublesome, the shrieks and hollers of spirits risen up from the earth, come down from the mountains, and returning from the past.

Outside the situation transformed rapidly, but somehow – and it is hard for him to describe – the next hour passed to Peter in slow motion, in discrete and deliberative moments of time, stitched together like acts from Richard III; a past winter of content soothing what was now becoming a summer of alarm. Before too long, embers began appearing from the west, blazing leaves of eucalyptus oil floating on the sky and whirling downwards to rain on the front porch.  Like the snowflakes floating onto their faces atop Parliament Hill. Each one extinguished before it took hold, as if coming into contact with a rosy cheek reddened all the more with wine. Peter glided calm and assured, as if he had finally perfected the art of ice skating, only on the grass and thistle and weed of the Australian bush. His skates from R.M. Williams and his support, his companionship coming this time from the hosepipe gripped in his hands.

A couple of kilometres out, a wall of flame was now visible upon a ridgeline. Trees in the near distance were touched by the smallest ember and immediately ignited into a fiery vaporous mass. Cockatoos shrieked and fled, their usual brilliance dulled by the smoky air. A kangaroo, eyes panicked and bewildered, clattered into the fence by the road at full force. The cows up in the shed wailed in a desperate high-pitched tone that was marginally more terrifying than that of the wind, or the shriek of the Bakerloo line train coming into the curved platform at Paddington. In an inevitability that was only a matter of time, the cabbage gum caught and Peter found that he was being overwhelmed.

Emily was with him again, grasping the hand that had dropped the hose in panic, and leading him away. Cloaking him in the February of London, guiding him down to the ponds on the Heath. Pausing only to unlatch the chook’s pen, and hearing the birds follow in terror as they fled down the hill. Stripping off in a fit of bravado and alcohol-induced daring to plunge into the icy cold waters of the pond. Laying there in the shallow waters of the creek and being kissed once more, treasuring the feel of her cold, smooth skin upon his. Together in the freezing water as the flames licked overhead, as if in the dead heart of the fire in the pub. Passing through the inferno of hell in the recollection of a heaven. And shedding a tear of happiness into the creek that would eventually run into the sea and cross oceans and find its way back to that pond one year later.

Feb

12 Months Australia Great Britain

January

Ingrained in the deepest reaches of my mind sits recollection of a January. Far beyond yesterday’s shopping list is a picture of a crisp clear day on high moorland. Icy cracks and crevices, like fissures of diamond, bond the huge granite boulders thrust up from the core of the Earth. Shallow pools of water are sealed with glass, only splintered with a daring footstep as satisfying as a spoon piercing a Crème Brûlée. Encased in a padding of jumpers and scarves and jackets and gloves, the wind nonetheless manages to lash the face and penetrate the body. Feet lose feeling, yet the rest of the body is invigorated. And as rosiness returns in front of an open fire, like the cold the memories fade, lost again, floating around somewhere amongst the numerous pithy sentences that would undoubtedly make a great book if somehow I could wed them to a narrative.

On the other side of the world, below the equator and quite a bit east, the tilt of the Earth has conspired to produce utopian conditions for flies, ants and mosquitoes. All seem rather attracted to me. As a quest to receive more invites to fancy barbecues and opulent garden parties I may well advertise as a portable insect attractor. Like one of those electric zappers, but with the added bonus of being able to serve drinks, cook meats and deliver witty anecdotes and sarcastic put-downs disguised as sarcasm but quite possibly not. I may well call this emerging enterprise that has literally emerged in the last few minutes, Aussie Mozzie Boy. He takes the angst out of ants.

Here in January a heat hovers and the thought of wearing anything other than shorts ever again seems quite ludicrous. It actually becomes too hot, and the parade of once-sturdy Agapanthus begins to wither, much like a Scotsman on a Melbourne tennis court awarded a succession of daytime matches in the hope of providing another sporting spectacle; that of reddening skin and dehydrated muttering, and a pile of towels so soaked in sweat they could water the vines in the Yarra Valley for the remainder of the year.

The concept of being too hot seems alien, even though it is a frequent ill-informed complaint of an Englishman in an English summer. I once heard a particularly toasty day – the kind accompanied by a generous north-westerly transporting dust and ash and smoke and flies – described in charming vernacular as a “stinker”.  And too bloody right mate. But this idea, that a hot sunny day can really suck, is perverse to an English soul. Now, if it was gloomy and dank and dreary and accompanied by drizzle at around three degrees Celsius, then I would expect that to qualify as a stinker, and I would have probably revelled in as much. Once. But now I am a soft-skinned insect allurer who may start to feel a little chilly in the legs at a garden party once the sun has set and the blood extraction procedure ramps up.

And so we note the theme of contrasts, which is not in the least bit surprising and not at all likely to be recurrent in the context of Australia and England. You say tamaaarhda, I say towmartoe, innit. Seasonality has produced an affectation of difference in January north and south, but what of that which ties us together?  A new calendar, a new year; a clean slate, a fresh page; a resolve to set goals and stride into the year with purpose; and an inevitability that most of us will – at best – be only partially successful. Rated emerging or promising, but never strongly supported.

January is the month of resolutions, from revolutions to evolutions and aspirations about dedications to somehow become superlative. As if you weren’t pretty damn fine in the first place, you endeavour to eat less cake, drink less beer, replace a cigarette with some Lycra and set some vague but worthy ‘life goals’. Inspired but daunted you cope with such change by eating more chocolate, drinking more wine, slowly jogging past the dodgy youth to inhale some suspicious-smelling haze hovering overhead, and revel in the ambiguity of those vague aims for life which can be almost unendingly put off for another time. I say you, but I could easily mean I.

I have nothing against New Year’s resolutions and annual goals, despite being someone who displays a comfortable inadequacy over such gestures. I make them, but in a very hazy manner. Yeah, I intend this year to you know just go with the flow and take opportunities as they come and, yeah, maybe go on a trip somewhere, depending on what the work situation is like, and hinging on some other stuff and things that pan out.

My goals are, in business parlance, far from SMART. But how many of us, unless in the industry of setting crude financial objectives which involve fleecing $200 million out of customers’ superannuation funds by October 2015, are able to set genuine SMART goals? I always struggled with this goal-setting process in the corporate world. I think my main problem was that if I was to be honest and list my genuine goals for work it would be somewhat out of sync with that expected: This year, I would like to make enough money to live comfortably for doing as little work as possible and avoid any responsibility or decision-making unless it enhances my long-term objective of sitting by a pool being fanned with palm fronds by statuesque goddesses immodestly attired. What should of course be spouting out of my mouth in such situations is something about client-centric fulfilment, strategic interactive opportunities for streamlined co-delivery, and some gigantic revenue target to make the overseas shareholders one hundred times richer than they already are. This last one would be implicit across everything if not always overtly stated as such.

Anyway, this has little to do with January as most work goal-setting episodes tend to take place one month before you have to achieve them…so something like November. But we do have our personal resolutions to uphold, made in an alcohol-induced glow in the wee hours of the first day of the year and foolishly blurted out to bystanders in an attempt to make it look like you do have some appetite for self-improvement. Unfortunately, we also choose to do this in January.

In cooling, northern hemispheres, this is akin to climbing a very steep mountain in a blizzard while wearing flip flops and nursing a humungous hangover. Picture the eighth of January for example. The coloured lights of Christmas are but a distant blur and all that remains from the festivities are the dregs of Aunt Agatha’s sherry and a box of those Danish butter biscuits, destined to be re-gifted. You left for work and came home in the dark. In between, the darkness cheerily lifted to a dense drizzly grey. Despite looking innocuous this soaked your new jacket as you popped out from staring at spreadsheets to get a forlorn-looking cheese and onion sandwich from Tesco. Still damp in the evening, it takes you two hours to get home on a congested train because even the points don’t see the point anymore. And for dinner: half a lettuce and a rice cake, followed by a run in the graveyard. All because you made those resolutions.

So unless your aim is to get as depressed as quickly as possible and accumulate a colony of a new species of mould on your clothes, there is a high likelihood that, come February, you’ll be back chuffing away on 40 a day and eating KFC for breakfast. Because how else are you going to make it though this? In Australia, by contrast, again, there is at least some logic to attempting self-improvement in January. The weather is good, fresh fruit and salads are de rigueur, and practically everyone else you see is glowing in an unbelievably self-contented halo of white teeth and good skin. But here, the slippage into obesity and alcoholism that commenced with Christmas lingers through January and into the next month as a constant companion. It is a protracted holiday season, a period in which it is too hot to exercise with any conviction and the beer is too cold to avoid. Resolutions are easily swayed and as enthusiastically broken as the heads of the succulent tiger prawns drawn en masse from The Pacific.

So, in semi-conclusion, is January really the best time to start afresh, a clean slate for setting aspirations and committing to arduous goals? I’d say no, but you would be justified in hypothesising that I would say this for any month of any year. You’d also be justified in accusing me of downright hypocrisy if you take into account the context in which all the above words have been written. I’d call it poetic licence, but lacking much in the way of anything poetic.

So, in an attempt to address this deficiency let me transport you to the Australian high country. January is still in its infancy and here the skies are a deeper blue, the air more comfortable in which to linger. The clear waters of the Snowy River meander in shallow pools and trickling cascades, bridged by a chain of irregular stepping stones. The walk to Australia’s highest point is well-frequented, but the expanse of open moorland and unending skies projects an excess of space. Leftover Christmas food can still be embraced overlooking a small, still tarn. Winding up to the summit, like the coiling of a Swiss railway conquering a pass, countless ridges and folds of land concertina their way toward the horizon. At 2,288 metres, you reach the top of Australia, Mount Kosciuszko. A new year, commenced on a high.

Jan

The cynics amongst you (me included) might then say, “Well, it’s all downhill from here!” But to me, there is something innately appealing about climbing a mountain at the start of the year. The concept of the fresh start is realised through the open vistas, the pure air, and the blank canvas of the fairly indistinguishable landscape of the Australian high country. There is a goal, real and tangible, I daresay even SMART. And then there is the achievement of reaching that goal, and being rewarded for it solely by the beauty and solace of nature. In my eyes, a reward that beats that excuse for a performance related bonus you received at work last year.

So in January, forget cutting back on the cream cakes and fretting about what you are supposed to achieve in the forthcoming year. Just go climb a sun-kissed mountain or tackle an ice-racked tor. The rest of the year will then be a doddle.

For more mountainous inspiration in January or beyond, check out my gallery of various high points near and far

12 Months Australia Society & Culture Walking