Park

Imagine where we would be without the existence of parks. No climbing apparatus for kids to fracture a wrist on. No sunlit uplands upon which youths can illegally sunbathe in eighteen degree scorchers. No shady path where you can stare intensely at your phone while supposedly immersing yourself in the outdoors. No blessed congregation of trees and flowers and birds and butterflies. No shared refuge, unifying a community.

Parks are wonderful things and have so often been overlooked for canyons, mountains and bays. Sure, there are the iconic parks of great cities that make many a pouty influencer’s backdrop. And there are sprawling reserves weaving through suburbia. Vast green lungs hosting squirrels and spiders and pigeons and pigeon poop. But it is perhaps in those small neighbourhood enclaves, the park around the corner, that we find greatest solace and celebration.

In the restricted state of Coronaland our local parks have taken on a newfound appeal; in some cases proving too alluring. My local park around the corner remains open, never likely to close in the generous open space and placid gentility of Canberra. I think I’ve been going there pretty much every day, some days twice. Not because there are no other spots where I can appreciate the outdoors. It’s just so goddam handy, especially when work from home is generating more procrastination than productivity. A mid-morning stroll in the park has become followed by an instant coffee. At least let me have one thing I can enjoy.

So, in light of the times, while I usually focus on bringing you turgid text about canyons, mountains, and bays, let me instead take you on a tour of the local. A very 2020 trip…

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I tend to pause for a rest on this bench. And sit there and browse my phone. You know…appreciating the outdoors and all that. When I do look up I often find a gang of magpies plotting how to poke my eyes out. One in front and one behind. But it’s the stealthy little bleeder unseen in the trees that you’ve got to watch out for. Especially between August and December. And probably January to July too. So it’s a really relaxing place to sit anyway.

Other entertainment from this bench can sometimes come about from observing truant EMOs playing disc golf. Some of them are really quite impressive. Who would have thought Frisbee would be so cool? There seem to be many holes scattered about the park. They consist of a green mat, from where you launch your disc towards an orange metal post adorned with chains. Kind of resembling a useless bin. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal for the EMOs, I dunno.

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It looks as though the most challenging hole is the 14th, with an occasional water hazard to the left. The Yamba Channel Storm Drain adorns the eastern edge of the park, transporting rainwater and sewage from Canberra Hospital. In times of flood it’s quite the Venice. However, this storm drain pales into insignificance compared with the nearby Woden Central Rainwater Complex. Street art, dope-smoking, feral cats. It really does have it all.

park04It’s not all magpie terror, bin Frisbee and occasional canals in my park. No, there are plenty of structured entertainment opportunities, from workout contraptions dotted along the path at intervals, to swings, slides, tunnels and a concrete skate park. I don’t tend to linger here lest people get the wrong impression. I also avoid the skate park, determined to avoid catching baggy pants, hormones, acne and that kind of thing.

Of course, nowadays, no-one can linger there.

We can, however, still access the wetlands. I say wetlands but I mean pond and the bit of water that overflows because they didn’t factor in the concept of rain. Which is kind of fair enough when you think rain was such an alien concept two months ago.

To be honest, they’ve done a decent job on this part of the park, having recently completed some improvement work. It must be an election year or something. The pond has been reinvigorated by a water fountain, which makes you want to rush home to pee. No unnecessary lingering here. The ducks also seem seriously pissed off with this addition. Imagine the peace and quiet ruined, the stagnant water now a stormy sea.

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The work does appear to have improved the water quality though, and provides habitat for an array of deadly spiders and snakes. I have also seen a few different birds come back: a pair of herons, some masked lapwings, other indeterminate duck-like things. They make their presence shown on one of the highlights of the park, pooh bridge. Like Pooh Corner, only less poohey.

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From the boggy wetlands it is worth the climb to higher ground, courtesy of the grassy hummock, which represents the highest point in the park. The grassy hummock is extraordinarily regular, as if it was some ancient burial mound or – more likely – a site for discarded radioactive waste from the hospital. There is – naturally – a disc golf tee up there and exquisite views of the fine architecture of Woden Town Centre. A landscape ever-changing, as essential apartment building continues.

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From here it is just a short walk home, but I may just linger longer, especially if all that awaits me is work and instant coffee. I might just dwell under the warm glow of a tree, sunlight filtering through leaves transforming gold. I may hesitate beside the shrubs, following the fluctuating course of a butterfly looking to settle. I could just spy a gang gang in a gum or the cluster of red rump parrots hiding in the grass, watching a while as they get on with getting on. And I may just decide to perch again on my bench, avoiding hand contact and voracious magpies, thankful for this, thankful for the park.

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Beyond the Park: A 2020ish Adventure

Meanwhile, given I pretty much ain’t going anywhere in a hurry I came up with the idea of embarking on an adventure from home. Keeping to the confines of the Australian Capital Territory and contingent on a lot of things, I thought I would try and walk the Canberra Centenary Trail. This is a loop around the hills and reserves of Canberra, stretching for 145km. Obviously there’s no way I am doing that in one go, but over several, shorter, more convoluted stages.

I wrote a fair bit more about the plan here.

 

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London Grammer

There is comfort to be had in the depressing grey shades of Heathrow Airport, a reassuring tinge of concrete and pessimism. But what’s this? People here seem a little perkier than usual, a bit more easy-going. A touch nonchalant perhaps, purposefully blinding themselves as they near the edge of a self-inflicted precipice made worse by those purportedly born to rule. That heatwave they have gone on and on about must have made life bearable again.

LDN01That heatwave was turning into a thing of the past by the time I made it onto England’s shores, and things will be reassuringly back to normal soon. Its legacy will emerge through inflatable pools from Argos gathering cobwebs in sheds up and down the land, frozen Calippo slushes, and a chance for rose-tinted reminiscence of that famous summer before the storm (or sunny skies with fluffy white clouds and unicorns pooing golden trade deals) of Brexit. Plus blackberries, lots of blackberries.

LDN02Regardless of sunshine or headwinds there will always be tea and cake or in this case coffee and cake. You could be forgiven for thinking coffee might be overtaking tea in popularity in the UK given the rampant reproduction of godawful Costa Coffee shops every fifty metres, with their godawful massive mugs and godawful patrons thinking this thing they are drinking is the height of sophistication and really isn’t godawful. Give it a week and I’ll be with them. But today, an independent café in swanky South Kensington and coffee that was not at all deitybad.

Cake commenced a Sunday afternoon that was an absolute delight, sunny skies banishing the grey and encouraging an ambient amble with my friend Caroline through London’s parks and parades. With the warmth building again and many people still in holiday mode, the vibe was convivial and quite un-London like. Almost European, dare I say Nigel and Boris and Jacob et al.

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There was biking and boating and picnicking through Hyde Park, selfies and group gatherings around the Palace and Whitehall, and the languid saunter of families and friends matching the slow march of the ever-brown Thames. That is, until all was disrupted by some kind of urban party boat, the Stormzy Steamer or something. But once that blitzed downstream to pick up Jezza, life was once again grand and London was the finest place in the world for a little bit.

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LDN04One of the pleasures of returning to London goes beyond famous sights, cake, and hearing people speaking with like proper English accents innit. There are the familiarities of place and person, reconnecting with treasured friends, perusing past haunts and – especially fresh off the boat – attempting to retune into the current Britannic zeitgeist. Spending time with Caroline helped a great deal in this regard, and with many steps across London and the Zone 5 countryside, there was much to discover; a veritable bullseye of a weekend, tru dat.

From Zone 5 to Zone 4, and a return to Finchley and a return to a friend I have now known for more than half my life. We graduated twenty years ago goddammit and don’t look a day older. More like years and years. And there was charming Orla, my chess-playing pub lunch pal, who has always been enjoyable company across the parks of North London. I may have a sense of two homes, but they make this feel like coming home.

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Lunch in leafy Highgate while wearing shorts was hard to beat. The heatwave – or at least a minor, cooler version of it – was back. And here, happy with a beer in a pub garden, I could see how easy the grey could fade into the background, and the light, the glorious, English light, could shine through.

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Great British journeys

As per usual around August and September I spent a decent amount of time in the south west of England. A place so dense and diverse in beauty that one blog post, one picture can barely do it justice. More than a place; a feeling so embedded in the depths of my soul that annual departure can feel like heartbreak. It sounds melodramatic, much like the windswept gorse and heather billowing gold and purple down towards a craggy shore bruised by the Atlantic. In which case, more melodrama will be written in coming weeks…

But what of the rest of the UK, or at least select parts of it? A journey connecting friends and family from Devon to Norfolk to Derbyshire to Lancashire to Wiltshire and Dorset? Travel time in which to reflect on those little things about the UK that may have changed in a year, or remind you of what a blessedly peculiar place this is. I made a few observations as I went along. I don’t know if all of these are unique to England or more a result of exposure which is lacking in my life and surrounds in Australia. But let me just say…

British coffee is getting incrementally better. My first Costa latte was dire, but the flat whites improved and the discovery of a place called Boston Tea Party heralds promise. On the downside there are even more Costas springing up (or, in Norfolk, a Coasta), along with about twenty Greggs servicing every small town.

Someone at Heart Radio discovered Spanish and decided they would play two songs over and over again. In between Ed Sheeran, who is rapidly taking his place as an honorary member of the Bus of Doom.

Nineteen degrees Celsius is scientifically warmer in England than Australia. So much so that every beach in Cornwall takes on the appearance of a shanty town. Circular fortresses of windbreaks and folding chairs spring up, even when the only wind is the sound of Brummie accents moaning about the price of a pasty that was made in a warehouse in Solihull.

Stop with the speed bumps for goodness sake! I counted 25 on the two miles or so between my Mum’s and sister’s. It seems needless having bumps every ten metres, especially as the roads are so congested with parked cars and other clutter that you can’t even get above 20 mph. Bloody Tories! Or EU more likely, tsssk. Good job we won’t have to bother ourselves with their trade and human rights and security and status on the world stage for much longer.

British berries are the best. Period. I just had some strawberries in Australia this morning and tasted utter emptiness.

Nobody wants to hear what dreadful videos you are playing on your phone. Especially in the quiet coach. Please just put the phone down for a few minutes. Please!

Nowhere does countryside better. It is mystifying how there can be so much of it in a small jam-packed island. It is an asset greater than pork pies and almost as joyous as clotted cream. Almost. But then perhaps I’m being melodramatic.

Anyway, on with the tour…

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The tractor fanciers express from Devon to Norfolk

Who would have thought a flight on a Thursday from Exeter to Norwich would have been full? It almost had one spare seat due to malfunctioning cars and delayed trains, but a taxi from Exeter St Davids saved the day. I really must spend a few hours in Exeter some time; as much as it begrudges me to say, it looks pleasant and reasonably civilised. But not today, I need to get to the airport.

eng00Reminiscent of Canberra-Sydney flights it was a quick up, get tea trolley out for five minutes and plunge down into Norwich. Views along the south coast of Devon and Dorset disappeared under cloud, only opening up again over the north of London before we descended towards the wind farms of the North Sea. Thankfully we made a few turns and landed in Norwich, where Jill was waiting to pick me up and really excited about the prospect of driving from a new place and avoiding numerous road closures.

We stocked up on curry from the local Indian in Acle that evening, filling us for the next day of vigorous exercise in a kayak. Kayaking was one of those things we did in Australia a few times, achieving sporadic success in getting from A to B in a predominantly straight line. Today, we equipped ourselves well, navigating a section of the Norfolk Broads without crashing into any other barges, being attacked by swans, or falling into the water. Okay, a couple of times we got a bit friendly with the reeds, but surely the purpose of being in a kayak is to get close to nature, right?

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eng02It was a placid foray out onto the water; that is until turning and heading for home which took way longer than expected and I’m sure burnt enough energy to justify a pork pie from Roys. Roys of Wroxham is a bit of a thing it seems, possibly boasting a department store, food hall, toy store, hairdresser and funeral directors. Or something like that.

eng03On reflection – trying to occupy my mind while jetlag keeps me wide awake at three in the morning – this day was definitely in my top five 2017 holiday days. Following the morning’s kayaking adventure a little R&R in the very pleasant garden sunshine preceded a top deck bus ride to Norwich and a pint or three by the river. I should have added above that Britain does pubs and beer better than Australia too. So much so that we had dinner in another before retiring at a very age-appropriate hour.

eng07Having explored a little of the Broads (and I daresay the rest looks exactly the same), the next day was spent on the North Norfolk coast. With the tide out there was ample sand to stroll along before this gave way to a rockier shoreline apparently chock full of fossils. There are more fossils here than caravans. Arguably.

Successfully mounting a rare hill in East Anglia (the Beeston Bump), the reward included fine views of the picturesque town of Sheringham and – more pleasingly – a scrumptious and lovingly recreated version of a bird roll. This was another one of those things we did in Australia from time to time, and it tasted just as good in England. Kudos to Jill for this most excellent and evocative idea. Even Paul Hollywood’s buns were not enough to ruin the experience!

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Sheringham provided all the trappings of the English seaside: rows of people sat on concrete sea defences eating fish and chips, about ten ice cream parlours, gritty sand, colourful beach huts, cunning seagulls, and idiots actually swimming in the perishingly cold water. To round out its slightly dated holiday charm, a steam train terminated here and proved more regular and punctual than the actual proper train that should have taken us back to Cromer.

Cromer offered much of the same, though with a slightly more downmarket feel. Still, the pier is an elegant place for ambling and – for many – crabbing. Elsewhere, the pub beer garden is a good way to kill an hour or two experiencing more local ales before it is acceptable enough a time to grab some fish and chips for dinner. Fish and chips on the pier as the sun goes golden. It feels like the summer is never going to end.

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The Northern Snail to Edale

It ended the next day, something which may or may not correlate with the fact that I was heading definitively into the north. I even reached Yorkshire, changing at Sheffield for a smaller train into the Hope Valley and the station at Edale, Derbyshire. There is not a great deal to Edale – a few holiday homes, a church and, crucially, two pubs. But the station sits in the midst of a slice of delectable England salvaging the grimy post-industry and haphazard gentrification of several northern cities. Indeed, in theory, Manchester should be half an hour away.

You could spend days, weeks even, exploring the Peak District National Park but my time was limited to an overnight stopover en route to the west coast. Such are the restrictions of only a month in England! Still, it was three o’clock in the afternoon upon arrival at Edale International Railway Terminus and despite greying, occasionally drizzly skies, the tops of the hills could be sighted. I struck out, on a gentle country lane, over stiles and gradually upwards through the patchwork fields of sheep contained by crumbling dry stone walls. This can only be England, and it can never fail to induce utter content.

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The climbing got a little more intense up to Hollins Cross, where a view south was becoming increasingly obscured by low cloud and rain, and the wind was a constant companion on a ridge towards the prominence of Mam Tor. Reaching the summit, the summer of yesterday was well and truly finished, and – almost incredulously – I employed my waterproof coat for the first time in two weeks!

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eng10Mustn’t grumble…the weather could have been far worse and it offered the perfect conditions for an Edale pub crawl. Walking up to the Old Nags Head, the first ale flowed quickly down as I rested in a pleasingly darkened nook of creaking wood. And back down in the Rambler Inn, where I was staying for the night, a hefty Sunday roast was well-accompanied by a couple of the local brews. I went to bed slightly aggrieved I wasn’t staying longer.

The take what you can get to Ansdell and Fairhaven

Black pudding. Now there’s something I don’t rush back to England craving.  However, having opted for the Full English and being one of only two diners that morning and being in the north, I felt duty bound to pay it some attention. Beans and HP sauce can help.

Breakfast was made more stressful with the news that conductors were on strike and trains were not bothering to stop at Edale. Alternative options seemed complex and required significant walking and waiting. But the fact that there was very little in Edale was a blessing in disguise, the manager at the Rambler Inn having to make a trip down the hills to the ooh la la sounding Chapel-en-le-Frith to visit the closest post office. Here, apparently, hourly trains to Manchester were in operation.

Indeed that proved to be the case, and from Manchester I was able to connect with reasonable efficiency on to Preston, Lancashire. I never had the ambition to spend two hours in the city centre, but that was the only viable option to kill time until the next connection. It was pretty much like any other city centre in England but at least that was marginally better than what I was expecting. I think it has improved since I was last here, thanks to pedestrianisation and – largely – an absence of unoccupied stores. Still, no offence, but I don’t think Preston would make the ‘I could live here’ list.

eng11Could I live amongst the gentrified avenues and peering from behind net curtain populace of Ansdell and Fairhaven? Possibly. The promenade fringing the estuary is pleasant on rare days when gales don’t blow off the Irish Sea, the town centre of Lytham is tidy and amenable, there are pubs, and I could even go swinging at the golf club. But most of all there are old friends who are a pleasure to see and spend time with, plus new feline ones who would be quite welcome to stow away in my suitcase.

The thing with this area is I am unsure if there are days when it doesn’t actually rain. Maybe I have just been unfortunate lately (I have heard rumours of hot sunny summer days), but the predominance of dankness simply serves to exacerbate my grim up north prejudice. A thought that was on my mind as I headed out in the drizzle to the tiny one platform station once more.

The so over it to Pewsey

It could be worse. You could be stuck in Wolverhampton for an hour, missing a tight connecting train heading further south. Aghast at such a prospect I carried on to Birmingham New Street which, following a grand redevelopment, is all impressive sleekness and luminosity. Still, it remains Birmingham and I was pleased to see a train in half an hour heading to Reading.

At Reading there was more joy in store by waiting around half an hour for a train to Basingstoke where I could wait another half hour for a train to Salisbury where I could then sit in traffic for a while before reaching the final destination of Durrington. Or I could change plans and board that train destined for Pewsey in the next ten minutes. What would Michael Portillo do, I didn’t think?

eng12Wiltshire. A new place to stay with Dad and Sonia and some different parts of the countryside to explore. With names like the Vale of Pewsey, Netheravon, and Honey Street, it could be something straight out of the pages of Tolkien. The comfortable, idyllic bit, with thatched cottages, gardens prospering in shafts of sunlight, cosy pubs and weird looking hobbits. But lurking behind this, the prospect of dark times and conflict as tanks carry out manoeuvres and prepare for the threat of some dark lord thing with a big fiery eye and fondness for Twitter.

At peace, there was much walking to be had in Wiltshire, with a trip along the ridgelines of the Pewsey Downs and through the vale below. Commonplace around here, a white horse had been etched onto the hillside, looking elegant from afar but entirely distorted close up. And a bit less white, as if it could do with a top up of gravel from Bunnings. Anything for an awful sausage sizzle.

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eng14With cloud lifting and just a little sun emerging it was a pleasant walk, a pub beside the Kennet and Avon Canal offering some refreshment but little in the way of good cheer. Better refreshment and more cheer, however, at the Honeystreet Cafe in the form of cake and okay coffee. Alas, I have since heard this spot is going to be closing down, which is a shame since it offers delicious fuel for the trudge back up to the car parked up on the ridge.

The next day was less conducive to walking and so we headed down to Poole where at least the rain was mostly insipid. It’s hard to judge Poole on a grey, damp and cool day. I’m sure on sunny days it would be rather jaunty and the appeal of boat trips and sandy enclaves would emerge. Today, it was an outing, something to do that was better than staying at home.

Back into the Wiltshire countryside, the River Avon provides a ribbon of life and opulence upon which gated estates, woodlands and cosy villages intertwine. Nestled in the middle of southern England, it is a very middle middle England. On an amiable and diverse circular walk with Dad we saw one of Sting’s mansions (unlikely to be at home, busy banishing poverty), passed a very posh lady on a horse, encountered distant views of Stonehenge, walked through a verdant valley, and just about made it back in time before a rain shower.

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After the rain had fallen, we popped off to Salisbury, with its impressive cathedral, medieval buildings and pretty riverside parklands. There were the usual shops too, and the trappings of any English town (which now seem to include the ever-expanding Roly’s Fudge Pantries, hello).

eng17I was kind of surprised – given the general affluence of the area – to observe people milling about the town included an assorted jumble of yoofs, chavs, oddballs and eccentrics. But I suppose that is also reassuring and, in many ways, comforting to know that Salisbury is not much different to anywhere else (and you too can fit in!). England is still England, kind of functioning in its own little way, peculiar but familiar, simultaneously appalling and utterly incredible. And really blessed with the best berries grown in the best countryside in the world.

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In Seoul III: The tradition edition

Warning: lots of oriental palace pictures looking almost exactly the same. It’s a similar phenomenon to being new to Europe and snapping away at every single church spire and stained glass window. Or migrating to Australia and taking a picture of a kangaroo every time you see one. Novelty and entrancement that only dwindles very incrementally. (In the case of the kangaroos ten years, and even then, the odd roo shot is not outside the realms of possibility).

Anyway, yadda yadda yadda. Palaces and temples. Seoul has a lot of them and as well as offering an insight into ancient South Korean culture and tradition they are housed within expansive grounds, providing contrast with the built up city environment bordering their perimeter. Enclaves of space and peace and gentle ornamentation, where the modern world disappears and you can find yourself all contemplative and meditative. And / or snap happy.

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Changdeokgung and the Secret Garden

The first thing to note about Changdeokgung is that you can arrive early, buy a ticket for the Secret Garden English tour and realise you have some time to kill, thereby finding a coffee place that proves reassuringly good. With the first sip I could sense I was getting closer to Australia and this plus the caffeine infiltrating my body gave me quite the buzz.

So I was already in a strangely contented state entering Changdeokgung where I didn’t really read that the palace was originally built in 1405 and acted as Seoul’s principle palace from the 1590s to 1896. Instead, I was heading off towards various buildings, all seemingly interlinked with perimeter structures and interwoven courtyards. Apart from some of the enclosed spaces, you were pretty free to roam, enabling that random meandering which proves the best form of discovery.

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The purported highlight of Changdeokgung is the Biwon, or Secret Garden. What forward-thinking pioneering marketing by calling it a secret garden. I mean, how alluring does that sound to the 21st century Anglo traveller looking for some respite from the late summer heat of a busy Asian city? The fact that you could only access it by a tour in which numbers are controlled (admittedly to a not-so-serene one hundred) can only add to that appeal.

Well, the Secret Garden was certainly agreeable, all lily ponds and curvy-roofed wooden structures, circling pathways and blissfully shady trees. I suspect it would be stupendous in the full burst of autumn and without one hundred other sightseers becoming progressively weary and disinterested as they are shepherded from one ornate compound to the next. I think the best way to appreciate the secret garden would be if you were employed as a gardener. What fabulous picnic lunch breaks there would be on the cards, and some supremely pretty sheds for your tools. Plus good coffee down the road once the horde of foreign zombies descend at two hour intervals.

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Bukchon Hanok Village

On the western flank of Changdeokgung is Bukchon Hanok Village, an area of traditional Korean housing now a little bit touristified. Nestled amongst hilly terrain there remains a sufficient network of maze-like lanes to get completely lost and stumble upon a spot that you had previously walked past. Possibly. The dwellings are single storey and – for the most part – look small, though I suspect some of this is an optical illusion and beyond those walls the interior opens out tardis-like into light and airy rooms and hidden verdant courtyards.

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On the busier strips – one ascending lane in particular seemed to be significantly more popular than the others – locals patrol with signs invoking the masses to “Please talk quietly”. It’s a reminder that this is just a regular neighbourhood with regular Joes trying to get on with their regular lives. I observe no noticeable hush, and can only deduce that the more expensive properties would be away from this major thoroughfare. But the view at the top is why so many tread this way. Looking towards the CBD and North Seoul Tower, it’s the classic juxtaposition of old and new, emblematic of this city as a whole.

Gyeongbokgung

Moving further east from Bukchon, it doesn’t take long before another royal palace comes into view. Gyeongbokgung ticks similar boxes – aesthetically at least – to Changdeokgung so I decide to keep my Wan in my wallet and have a cursory look around outside of the barriers. If anything, the site appears more imposing, with the main entrance gate at the northern end of a long thoroughfare adorned with statues and memorials. There is a greater sense of power and status here, brought to life by the presence of ceremonial guards in traditional costume. Guards which you can find in greater profusion by following the thoroughfare south…

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Deoksugung

The palace at Deoksugung may look similar to the others. I have no idea, because I never really ventured beyond its exterior walls. The main attraction here is a changing of the guard ceremony with more men in colourful costumes and garnished with stick-on facial hair. Sure, it feels like a bit of a show for visitors but – heck – I’m a visitor and expect some easily accessible semblance of traditional Korean culture, right!

I thought I may be late for the ceremony and while there was something stirring by time I arrived, I was pleased to find a space near the front. Only as the show progressed did I understand why I had secured such a premium position. Oh, that’s a big drum in front of me is it? Oh, that hastily shouted Korean was a plea to cover your ears. Oh. Ouch.

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As well as the abundance of stick-on facial hair it was funny to see this taking place in front of a Dunkin Donuts. There were also a couple of pauses in proceedings for people to come up to the guards and pose for selfies. And when it seemed like all was over, there was the sight of the ceremony heading across to City Square but – before doing so – waiting patiently at the traffic lights for the green man. For me, this was the perfect encapsulation of that inescapable (and overused term of) juxtaposition. A country moving rapidly into the 21st century while trying to hang on to its traditions. Here, progress and reverence in at least some kind of harmony.

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Gold at heart

The Olympics! I haven’t mentioned the Olympics and how good it was to see most of it on TV in the UK. Complete with the kind of partisan coverage that I love exemplarily executed by the Beeb. Great Britain, Second, Who needs Europe anyway, rah rah rah, put out the bunting. My how we have grown to love bunting!

And so to the capital of gargantuan bunting, a city that at times was an emotional and physical drain on me but is now an absolute tonic to visit. I swear the underground seems to work better nowadays, everything seems a tad cleaner and a bit less grey, the spirit is more open, eclectic, progressive, and now – as a visitor – I can see that London truly is one of the world’s greatest cities.

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Being the August bank holiday weekend I was flummoxed to find myself in shorts on a balcony in the outer suburbs of London with friends Caroline and Jill (note: above picture is not from that balcony!). With this warmth it could have been Bondi, apart from the lack of sand, good coffee, and film crews desperately waiting for the next hapless backpacker to get caught in a rip. But at least there was cake, no kids for a couple of days, and a generous array of pre-birthday celebration antics mysteriously planned. Wild times ahead!

lon01First up on a perfect day we scaled the heights of 20 Fenchurch Street. By elevator of course, up to the Sky Garden of the building popularly known as the Walkie-Talkie. No bungee jumping, no glass-bottom floor, no zip wire…just astounding views over London, shady ferns, comfy sofas and another predictably poor coffee.

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Back down amongst the hustle and bustle of the streets we grabbed some suitably middle class lunch involving hummus before embarking on a mystery journey on the meandering tentacles of the District Line. One of the fun aspects of this journey was not being told anything about where we were going or what we were doing, apart from dire warnings that I might get wet. All a hilarious ruse to baffle an old man as potential options disappeared with each tube stop, finally dwindling to something in Richmond or Kew Gardens. And at Kew Gardens Station, we abruptly bolted for the exit.

lon05I am wondering if there is any finer place than Kew Gardens on such a beautiful late summer’s day. For not only are there acres of manicured lawn, generous pockets of woodland bursting green, and a profligate array of multihued flowerbeds, but you can also play guess the airline. In the cloudless sky, the parade of jets coming into land at Heathrow provides a distracting guessing game when one finds oneself eating ice cream under the shade of a tree. The funny thing was, we didn’t seem to be the only ones playing it.

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lon06But back to earth. We must have walked a fair few miles around the gardens but at regular intervals there was an opportunity to dwell, a chance to linger. A gallery here, a cafe there, a grand house beyond the trees. Sculptures and water features and artworks to do with bees, in which human drones obediently infiltrate the hive out of nothing more than curiosity.

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Then there are the glasshouses. Today it feels like there is no need for hot, tropical climates, but it’s fair to say that the weather is rarely this good. Orchids, palms, lily pads…climb some stairs and you can even go bananas. This would be a good winter refuge.

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And finally, almost as cavernous is the gift shop. Which in gift shop terms is reasonably respectable, with tasteful botanic tea towel prints and encyclopaedic tomes relating to the history of the fennel seed. It would be a decent place to buy Christmas presents for those people you really have difficulty buying presents for. Adding to its appeal in all seasons, we concurred that buying an annual membership pass for Kew Gardens would be a worthwhile purchase if you didn’t live, say, 12,000 miles away.

One thing is for sure – people living in and around the gardens could no doubt afford it. And should they dare to venture out of their generous and elegantly proportioned homes they could entertain themselves besides the river. The Thames of course, dotted with a pub or two on the Chiswick side. An ale by the water, sat comfortably outside as the daylight faded, all supplemented by a dose of fish and chips. This has been a good, a great, a golden day.

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Such a day set a high bar to live up to and the following proved a quirkier affair. Exploits of yesterday had induced a dash of weariness but we still successfully ate some food, walked in a park, shopped, laid on a picnic blanket, and got House of Love wedged into our brains.

First up was a trip to the palace – Alexandra Palace or Ally Pally as those in the know call it. Views from here reflect back on where we were yesterday. You could see the Walkie-Talkie, but none of us could remember seeing Alexandra Palace when we were up there. I guess because there was so much of distraction in between from the other vantage.

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In the parade of pre-birthday surprises I feared an onset of painful embarrassment upon the ice rink situated in the palace. But I needn’t have feared, because there was a much more suitable food festival nearby. Offering a few free samples, mostly of the alcoholic variety, it was enough to induce a craving for an organic grain fed pork sausage and onion ciabatta. As you do near Muswell Hill.

Alright, alright, everything’s gonna be alright because somehow we ended up at Walthamstow Central, East 17. Mystified as to why, there were claims of passing Bryan Harvey’s house, seeing the place where shell suited fashions were purchased, crossing the road that the group’s dog got run over on. Or something. But it turns out this part of the world is renowned for more than a former greyhound stadium and chavesque low brow Take That. William Morris did some things with design for wallpapers and turned into a raving socialist. And this was all recollected in his once grand house and gardens, way beyond the reach of the plebs.

lon10Another surprise in this area was the presence of something called Walthamstow Village. While no thatched cottage idyll in the South Hams of Devon, it possessed that quiet street, classic brickwork, church green feel of a London village, with some similarity to more celebrated haunts such as Highgate and Hampstead. Plus there was somewhere to buy ice cream, relief on another generously warm day.

And so as in so many a tale of mine it comes back to food. The final evening of this tour – exquisitely planned and executed – encapsulated a picnic within the virtual countryside of Trent Park. And for this the unfurling of a picnic blanket – a feature of so many of these get-togethers. Under planes a little too high to turn into a game, a mixed meze straight outta North London. This was pure gold at heart.

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture

Down South

tug01Having now spent over nine years (with interruptions) in everyone’s favourite Australian city you would think I’d have exhausted every nook, crevice and scrubby hilltop. Forget nine years…many would say two days is sufficient, and even then you might have to drag things out with a wander around the National Archives, surely the least compelling sounding attraction of the lot (which might explain why, still, I have never been). But no, it turns out Canberra has even more suburbs and scrubby hilltops than you can ever imagine.

Partly, the new has been thrust upon me. Well, not so much thrust but more gently cajoled after a temporary change of residence. It’s hardly a hardship (in comparison to, say, being evicted and dragged to a mosquito-infested tropical island where you will get abused and suffer long-term mental degradation courtesy of the Australian Government). But some locals will recoil in horror, the froth atop their soy lattes spilling over onto the front page of The Australian, when they hear I am living in Tuggeranong.

Quick geography lesson: Canberra is weird and like no other city. There is a city centre, of sorts and then some town centres as well, and I suppose some village centres and suburban shopping precincts, which spread out like satellites around the town centres. Occasionally an out-of-town shopping centre muscles in to compete with the town centres and no-one goes to the city centre because they are all at the new IKEA which is on the edge of a centre on the periphery of nothing. All the important government-type stuff happens without a centre, but instead is contained within its own triangle which is more like a diamond, if you take into account the War Memorial. Meanwhile grassland wedges and lumps of trees bubble up out of a mesh of roundabouts, circles and parkways where confused cars with NSW plates frequently vanish, never to be seen again.

Tuggeranong is a town centre in the south of Canberra, with Wanniassa – where I stay for now – one of those satellite suburbs on its edge. Wanniassa is actually closer to Woden (another town centre), but I will spare you even more complexities. It’s officially part of Tuggeranong, which is believed to have a higher proportion of Bogans per square kilometre than the other Canberra towns. I cannot truly vouch for this on my forays into its cul-de-sacs. All I can report is that there is a broad cross-section of mostly Anglo-centric Australia on display, from suited public servants to Shazzas in tracky-dacks. Utage – that is the popular Australian tendency to convey oneself by pimped up utility vehicle – seems high, as does baby-booming designer spectacle wearing.

In spite of repetitiveness in its suburbia, Tuggeranong sits in quite a spectacular bowl. To the south and west, the Brindabella Ranges appear much closer and far more impenetrable. North and East, a series of Canberra hills and ridges block out the rest of the city. With a little imagination, you could picture a Swiss town in that valley, with church steeples and cowbells decorating the air (alas they filled it with concrete brutalism instead). Meanwhile, the omnipresent dome of Mount Taylor is recast as Mount Fuji, a conical summit piercing the seal of a leaden sky and drawing the Lycra-bound to its trails.

It’s no Red Hill but I have found Mount Taylor to be a convenient escape from the clutches of the valley. The lower slopes of grassland are regularly grazed by kangaroos, fattening themselves for a game of chicken on the Tuggeranong Parkway. The middle section – which flattens for much-needed respite – is all bushland shrubbery, concealing colourful rosellas and wrens and a cockatoo or two. The final ascent upon gravel is open and barren, affording views over Tuggeranong and the ever-changing weather scattered over the ridges and valleys to the west. In the other direction, the needle atop Black Mountain reminds that you are still in Canberra, and another town centre or two awaits below.

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Naturally I have not confined myself to this area – old haunts are only a 15 minute drive or so and offer greater reliability of coffee. Upon returning to one of a handful of coffee spots in the Inner South in which I regularly spread my love and money, I was astounded that they remembered my name and didn’t seem at all fussed that I hadn’t been there for over six months. While some curiosity might not have gone amiss, the warm feeling of going to a place where everybody knows your name makes it harder to sever ties.

tug05Nevertheless, it was with some contentment that I found a reasonably close reasonably decent coffee stop one Saturday morning, as part of a bike ride on the many accommodating paths in the Tuggeranong Valley. One path circumnavigates its lake, which is a poor man’s Burley-Griffin but amiable enough. Others cut through the various patches of grass set between the backs of brick houses and alongside storm drains. One route takes you up towards Oxley Hill, a reasonable but not unobtainable test of legs, and another does the long uphill drag back to Wanniassa, in which aforementioned legs turn to jelly. I may be being just a touch healthier, but with this comes justification in feasting on yet another, sadly Antipodean, cream tea.

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As well as a higher-than-average distribution of Bogans, it is said that Tuggeranong gets a little more rain, at least compared with the gauge at the dry and dusty international airport. It’s the proximity of the mountains you see, and the bubbling up of storm clouds. Some of these have been very generous in their distribution of rain in the last couple of weeks, transforming Aussie golden to English green.

With these mountains just a touch closer, wilderness practically on your doorstep, ridges almost always framing your vista, there is a magnetic appeal to that which lies nearby. The fresh air of the bush is tantalisingly close to Tuggers. And for that, and really quite a lot else, it can’t be much faulted.

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Australia Green Bogey Society & Culture

I’m an Australian, Get Me Outta Here?!

Every once in a while I pick up on a sign that I have been in Britain for a lengthy time. The coffee becomes more tolerable and I seek out a Costa. I engage in the politics, once finding myself watching Andrew Marr on a Sunday morning and invariably tutting and name-calling towards an array of politicians (just like a Sunday morning with Bazza and co in Australia). I also develop greater familiarity with popular culture, aware at least of which predictable warbler might remain in X Factor and who ends up eating cockroaches in the Gold Coast hinterland. I am persuaded that Ant and Dec can actually be quite funny. And reminded that most of the press remains dire, particularly for non-xenophobic lefties.

If anything, weather fixation intensifies and I obsessively scramble to watch the national forecast on BBC breakfast every morning. And then the local one ten minutes later. Absorbing, calculating, praying in hope that there will be a clearer slot in between graphical blues and greens depicting more rain. I doubt that I have used the word ‘dank’ in Australia, but here it re-enters my lexicon. It was inevitable, but it still comes as a disappointment.

I later discovered that November was the gloomiest on record which is absolutely brilliant isn’t it? Bright spells were as rare as succulent oak trees in a delightfully scorching sun-blasted desert. Any glimmer of blue (or white or less grey grey) prompted me to seek the outdoors. Sunshine and squally showers meant a good day, like on an outing to Newquay with Mum.

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I would naturally avoid Newquay in the summer, jammed as it would be with school holiday sun-seekers stumbling over surfboards and clinging to caravans. Out of season is a different proposition though, with Fistral Beach sparse and surfers unwilling to venture upon seas whipped into meringue peaks. An out-of-season foam party streams onto the sand as a continuous crashing soundtrack booms in from the Atlantic.

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nov03It is – to be sure – bracing, but seems more purposeful than hunkering down to watch endless episodes of Pointless. We pursue the headland for the 360 degree views and a ragged crossroads of wind and water and land. Shelter is close and welcoming, provided by another Stein enterprise which can comfortably survive a winter with fish and chips and bread and tea specials.

Post-batter and it is back through the foam party and across to Pentire Headland. Similar to before, angled walking is required to puncture through a north-westerly headwind; pausing still to take a photo requires strength and agility. Waves crash on three sides and filter into the beach at Crantock. A distant squall promptly bears down and sends us scurrying for the car. The rain is back, and the blue sky gone again.

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My standards of what constitutes a good day in November have lowered, indeed plummeted. A grey morning triggers a return to Noss Mayo, an oft-visited haven but never so late in the year. What once was quaint is turned dour, the sheep peppering the coast questioning their existence and the yachts of the estuary creaking in ghostly wails. Bleakness envelops and a downpour drenches me before I could seek refuge in The Ship Inn. Posh people hog the fire with a sense of entitlement. Times have changed but some things haven’t.

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The weather folk on TV keep trying to sound cheerful, gleefully informing us that it is unusually mild for the time of year, before presenting a summary of the week ahead featuring words like “unsettled”, “rain at times”, “overcast”, and “winds increasing”. So it came as something of a surprise to wake one Saturday morning to find a frost on the car windscreen, hastily scraped off in an attempt to enjoy the blue skies before the clouds encroached and it became “overcast” again.

The moors were looking stunning in such rarefied light, swathes of bracken glowing bronze and raggedy silver outcrops piercing a deep blue. Not everywhere was shimmering though, the sun sitting on such a low trajectory that hollows and recesses struggled to shake off the shade. Thus on a nice sunny day I find myself in a chilly, dark chasm, following a beautiful watercourse in Lydford Gorge to the foot of White Lady Falls. A very reliable supply of water (i.e. Britain) ensures the falls plunge with suitable grace and power, offsetting the annoying lack of sunlight in the valley.

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nov06With the trees rapidly denuding it seems that autumn is fast dwindling away into winter, even if the temperature is hardly playing ball. It starts to feel like Christmas is of course a-coming, although the shops have been full of Christmas since September. I cannot remember there being so many TV adverts for Christmas food, Christmas presents, Christmas drinks, Christmas movies, Christmas jumpers and Christmas music. I thought it would be nice to stay in the UK for Christmas, but this overabundance is starting to drive me mad. I guess that is part of the whole Christmas experience too!

Chances of a white Christmas appear non-existent, unless you escape to a seascape brimful of foamy fury. Unlike Newquay and the north coast, stretches of the south coast may not cut it for impromptu seafoamball fights, thanks to protection from Atlantic surge. Beaches like Bantham and Bigbury are generally more sedate affairs and miraculously the sun may break through the white cloud thanks to the shelter of the hills. At low tide, miles of sand act as a barrier to the elements and afford safe, non-muddy footing for bracing strolls.

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nov09Burgh Island is the centrepiece of this quaint corner of South Devon and easily accessed when the tide is out. Catch it at the wrong time and you’ll be faced with a giant tractor ride or a perishing wade through water surging in from left and right. Or maybe wait it out with a cocktail in the artiest deco hotel of them all. Alas, my re-acclimatisation means I am used to paying attention to the tide times along with the weather forecast and miss out on cocktails and tractors.

Despite the predominant cloud, despite the withering trees, despite the headwinds and squalls and muddy tracks, despite the gloomiest November on record, there is just a little charm and delight to be found. A few hours like those in Bigbury, or Newquay, or at Lydford make a world of difference. They are rare interludes, and may not be enough to persuade me I could do a whole November again. But then it could be a lot worse, it could be December instead…

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Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture Walking

Nuage magique

In further news not westcountry, here are some more pictures and jumbled words from a recent trip to the Geneva suburbs of France and the French bit of Switzerland. Family connections make such trips possible and while this can raise some minor irritations – think early starts, couch sleeps, tricky post-dinner cheese decisions – there are more positives than negatives. Like family fun at six in the morning, afternoon naps on a comfy couch when all is quiet, and fulfilling post-dinner cheese decisions.

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In addition there is the location, which provides access to two countries and cultures and some very hilly ground. I feel like I have at one explored much and touched only little over multiple visits. New settings emerge like the sun through the lake cloud, while old haunts linger, much like the lake cloud. Thus, in conclusion, the lake cloud is very variable and largely unpredictable in late autumn and sets the tone for the disposition of the day. Linger in cold dreariness or bask in pleasant, warm sunshine. Just be prepared to deal with it one way or another…

1. Disconnect sensory and logic-processing synapses

It looks like a pile of gloom. It sounds like a pile of gloom. It smells like a pile of gloom. It is not necessarily a pile of gloom, though it could be actually. Or maybe not. What is dark and leaden at the start of the 61 bus ride can be clear and airy at the end of it. Now, I know the 61 bus ride feels like an eternity for some, but not so long to make this transition conventional. You think there is no way under the (non-existent) sun that this pile of gloom will shift today, and it does. In the twinkle of a traffic light, your body which was in winter is now firmly in autumn and possibly just absorbing a residual hint of summer.

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Fr03Of course, this is marvellous given such abysmal expectations. You find yourself beside the lake in Geneva all sapphire and topaz crystal. Leaves are ablaze with afternoon sun. A walk up into the old town warms the body further, despite its narrow cobbled streets in the permanent shadow of expensive jewellery shops and even more expensive solicitors. The Saleve – which didn’t exist before – punctures the horizon from the Promenade de la Treille. Children play merrily, students philosophise lazily, lovers embrace amorously. Where is the gloom? None of this makes sense.

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2. Ascension

There is wisdom to be had in the words of Yazz and the Plastic Population. It may take many hairpins and navigation through the inside of a big damp cloud, but go up and you may just end up above the weather.

It was looking doubtful climbing up to a car park in the shadow of Les Voirons, a lumpy ridge rising to highs of 1400 metres. Only in the last few kinks of road did the mistiness glow bright and dissipate. Even then, occasional wisps of cloud hovered over the road surface, as if a smoke machine was spewing out its final puffs from a distant eighties dance-pop-funk performance.

In the clear air, churned up tracks through the forest conveyed a sense of truffle hunting, rabid dogs, and people with shotguns. After piddling about along these tracks for a little while, the only way was to ascend, bay-ay-beee. Up through millions of discarded leaves, into a clearing and views of the sea; a brilliant white sea lapping at the shores of craggy peaks and ice-capped spires. The very top of the Saleve a small desert island floating in this blinding ocean.

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Fr06There was something very satisfying about being above the cloud, in brilliant blue skies, knowing that it was well miserable down there. As if you had stuck two fingers up to the weather and, for once, outsmarted it. Haha, yes weather, you are no match for altitude, mwahahahaaa! All your stupid cloud is doing is reflecting the sun and making me incredibly warm, so that I can cope in a T-shirt. And in making the valleys disappear, you accentuate the purity of the view, the drama and scale of the stunning panorama of the Mont Blanc massif. Yeah, screw you, cloud.

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3. Just eat

Sunday lunches are often best when they are lingering affairs, embellished with hearty food and infused with wine. They are the perfect antidote to grey skies and uninspiring temperatures, a strip of crispy crackling in a pile of over-boiled cabbage. Perhaps in the case of this particularly Sunday lunch it was the heat from the Raclette-melting contraption (it probably has a local name, like raclettesiennierre-de-montagne-lardonass) that generated just enough upward convection to part the clouds towards the end of the day.

Fr09Cue some reluctant shifting of our own lardonasses for a welcome amble in the nearby Swiss section of countryside. Golden light casts a serene glow on everything and everyone. A crispness in the air is refreshing and helps to dilute the strong odours of cheese. The cloud has gone again, and – in such endless skies reaching to the stars – it is hard to believe that it will so easily return.

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4. Try a different country

Okay, so perhaps Switzerland has all of the sunshine, what with millions of fancy penknives slashing at the cloud and all. So, with a free day out to use up courtesy of my rail pass I was able to penetrate deeper into the country and seek out its sunnier spots.

Fr11First, with cloud embedded deep into the valleys, I had to escape up once more. From the town of Vevey, a gleaming commuter train elegantly curves its way past chalets and chateaus to the suburb of Blonay. Here, a change of train (waiting on the other platform, naturally) shifts into a steeper grade through forest and occasional hamlets to Les Pleiades. Nothing much is at this terminus, apart from open meadows, scientific contraptions, and labourers preparing for the winter. But it is a spot well above the cloud, which sits snugly in its lake-filled indent, a luminescent glacier of cotton wool.

Numerous jet trails pierce the clear blue sky and it is warm again. This is the sunny side of Switzerland, all rolling green meadows and dotted villages. Happy to linger, I gradually stroll down, passing a small fromagerie and a couple of holiday chalets a louer. A barn sits empty, the cows having descended for the winter, the sound of their bells occasionally echoing up the valley. I move down too, only from what seems an alpine summer and back to a winter by the lake.

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My original plan was to hop on a boat cruise from Vevey, a sedate and civilised way to soak up the charm of the Riviera towns and the drama of the rising mountains. While some hazy breaks hinted at a clearing it was still predominantly grey; not quite the scene I had pictured in which I lazed contentedly on a wooden deck, the lowering sun illuminating the surrounding mountains. So instead – with free travel at my fingertips – I jumped on a train for twenty minutes to Aigle.

One of the problems with free travel and chronic indecision is deciding what to do with the free travel that you have decided to buy. At Aigle, two tempting options wait and time, really, for only one. Platform 13 and a train to Les Diablerets, Platform 14 Leysin. Both equipped to move upwards and no doubt deliver another hearty dose of gorgeous Swissness. One leaving in four minutes, the other in six…time barely sufficient for decision-making.

Jumping on the first to depart (Les Diablerets), the carriages immediately turned into a tram and clunked through the streets of the town. I caught a glimpse of the chateau on Aigle’s edge, and promptly jumped off at the first stop. There would be no time to visit that as well as Les Diablerets, so I crossed a road and caught the following train to Leysin.

Fr14With the sun now out in Aigle there was less imperative to climb, but the train relentlessly lumbered upwards. Surprisingly there was deception in that valley sunshine, as it became clear once up high that a layer of haze hovered at around 800 metres. The sunny valley was no longer visible, despite it being sunny when down there. What kind of sorcery was this?

Leysin itself appeared to possess charm and utility, no doubt bustling in winter and thriving in summer. In early November things were a little devoid of life apart from clusters of students, neatly attired, mostly Asian, receiving an expensive Swiss education in a school with a view. A few joined me on the train back down, through that mysterious haze which was only visible from above.

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In time-honoured tradition I hopped off the train a couple of stops early, prior to it reaching Aigle level. I had noticed on the way up the glimmering terraces adorned with rows of vines, golden in the peculiar autumn sunshine. The chateau would be visible below, and there must be a walk down, because a carriage of younger schoolkids disembarked here on the way up.

Fr15I have no idea how all those schoolkids assembled on the platform, such as it was: two square paving slabs dangling over one of the walls cascading down in giant steps towards the valley. What looked like some kind of drainage channel passed steeply under the rail track; the only other person to disembark informing me that this was the road-cum-path. And despite this initial steepness, it was a glorious walk, mostly following the small chemins used to transport grapes and labour. Occasional houses adjoined the route, each proudly displaying the name of the vigneron and date of establishment. One or two tempted with open doorways, while outside a couple of workers toasted a hard day’s winemaking with a crisp glass of white.

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Fr17With the light lowering in the clear (???) sky, there was barely chance to visit Aigle’s picturesque chateau before it would be cast into shadow. While sunset time was a little way off, the narrowing of the valley and the proximity of gargantuan mountaintops meant that it would soon kiss this part of the world goodbye. Darkness would return, and with it, the infamous foggy shroud of dank.

5. Suck it up, cheese boy

There is only so much successful blue sky strategising that one can manage, and fortuitous decision-making will eventually turn sour. While I loved practically everything about an overnight stay up from Vevey in the village of Chexbres – king-sized bed, amazing shower, big screen TV with 832 channels in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Cornish, Swisshornian – the balcony view was not one of them. Beyond vine terraces and tightly packed village roofs floating in the mist a sparkling blue lake had disappeared.

With a midday checkout I dawdled for as long as possible for things to clear but today was not going to happen. On top of the low cloud, some medium level cloud and then some high cloud, with a few spots of rain and little hope of sun. I faced a cloud lasagne with bits of Switzerland oozing through the layers. Suck it up, cheese boy.

Still, the setting – in the heart of the Lavaux wine region – was very pretty, just that more subdued than the previous afternoon in similar terrain around Aigle. Wine has been grown here for donkey’s years, probably with the use of donkeys on the steep-sided terraces, frisked by slavering monks gagging for their next tipple. Today, a few mechanical contraptions – steep narrow-gauge rail tracks like fairground rides, convoluted water sprinklers, grape conveyor belts – have evolved, but much must still be managed and picked by hand.

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A network of chemins provides gentle and mostly traffic-free walking across appellations, between villages, and – occasionally – directly through the rows of vines themselves. It’s such easy and serene walking that you can comfortably end up strolling all the way into Lausanne. I practically did in the hope that the sun would shine as the hour lengthened. And, towards the end, the milkiest hint of sunlight filtered through the cloud levels, briefly giving the impression of a vast lake below, and high mountains beyond.

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A large patch of blue sky greeted me as I arrived back into Geneva’s train station. It seemed – from my limited recent experience – uncharacteristic that Geneva would be clear while further up the lake it remained damp and grey. Little of the day remained to enjoy it, but the light illuminated the final 61 bus ride back to Annemasse. And it provided a salient reminder that there is only so much you can do to predict, manage, and deal with the infamous wintry shroud of Lake Geneva.

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture Walking

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

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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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

Greenish and golden

IMG_6743There comes a point in January when people pause to consider what it means to be Australian. This usually occurs on or around the anniversary of a few hundred boatpeople from Great Britain arriving to “nothing but bush” (to quote the minister for Indigenous Australians and His Lordship Prime Minister of the Monarchical Colony of Australian Subjects). Considered writings of pride, of angst, of hope, of uncertainty litter the newspapers and infiltrate the electronic graffiti of the twittersphere. For the common man – let’s call him Shane – the Australian essence is commemorated through the bite of a lamb chop from a gas barbecue the size of a truck, a youthful discussion of rising intonation about the best 100 songs involving people with beards lamenting at life, or a day in front of the TV watching tennicrickcycletfooty with a so-cold-it-hurts beer.

IMG_6732While I could brave a venture into the question ‘What does it mean to be Australian?’  I neither have the will nor the current brainpower to go down this path. It may be I am suffering from that particularly laconic strand of Australianism that arises specifically at this time of year – the can’t really be arsed is it still the holidays period. I’m also in the dubious position of not really being a proper Australian, not really, even though the flag of my country of birth is still emblazed like some badge of imperial approval upon yours. All I can say is that I feel lucky, immensely lucky, to be a part of you, attached to your deep blue skies, your sandy shores, your withering white gum trees, and your mostly generous and progressive people.

IMG_6759I feel lucky, on most days, to be in Canberra. Yes really! A capital you have built in little over one hundred years from sun and frost-baked plains and bush-tangled hills. You really ought to be a little prouder of this achievement, especially because you have left some of those bush-tangled hills alone. The sweeping roundabouts and nationalist edifices now scattered across the plains are looking particularly fine as well, what with the regular stormy soakings keeping the grass nice and green. A summer of such generous rainfall that it could almost be British. How soothing.

IMG_7049Despite such impertinence, the sun still shines most days here, and for that I am grateful. The slight irony is that I write this looking out of my window on grey accompanied by a cool 17 degrees only. But this is surely a blip, for other days have offered ample warm sunshine before the storms. Conditions in which I can enjoy your verdant lawns and embrace your rising humidity. To climb bushland hills and swing golf clubs very amateurishly. To cycle alongside the water and sip coffee with the hipsters. To be that most Australian of creatures and watch sport; and not just any sport, but cricket, and cricket in an atmosphere of cleverly articulated critique of the opposing English team. Pommie-bashing I think you call it, and too bloody right.

IMG_6717

Despite being curiously enamoured here, I feel lucky that Australia is a very big country beyond its capital. Just up the road, a mere three hours, is where – if you conveniently ignore 50,000 years of human occupation and quite ingenious cultivation and care of the land – it all started. 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, Australia. Ah Sydney, that icon of iconic sights on iconic marketing campaigns that seek to invoke envy. As much as I try to find holes in it, to unstitch its veneer of perfection, to cut down such a tall poppy, I stumble upon its harbour shores and return to a state of complicit adoration.

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IMG_6752It’s been a little while since I have seen you Sydney, and I enjoyed your company. I enjoyed seeing friends and playing in parks and being temporarily transformed into a mermaid at Greenwich baths. I enjoyed nine more amateurish holes of golf and the cold beer that followed. I enjoyed Bondi lunch and Coogee brunch and Crow’s Nest salted caramel gelato (on two occasions). I enjoyed getting on a boat at Bronte, but, alas, not making it out onto the open sea. And I really, really enjoyed catching the ferry across the harbour on a warm Saturday night and having a few drinks as the sun set behind the old coat hanger and reddened the discarded prawn shells atop its giant typewriter.

IMG_6967

From excess the next morning was consequently less enjoyable, as was the traffic on Military Road, and the frequent T-shirt changing humidity, and just the general busyness of beachside suburbs on warm and sunny January weekends. Such congestion in a continent with vast emptiness is a stark juxtaposition. There is no doubt comfort in this metropolitan hubbub – a civilisation, a taming, a sense of being and belonging to others. Perhaps it is a feeling of security and protection from the wild endless uncertainty of what lies inland that keeps you – that keeps us – mostly clinging onto the coastal extremities.

IMG_7121As a more recent entrant upon this giant landmass I feel blessed that I can maintain a comfortable, civilised, and invariably cultured urban existence while still being easily belittled by nature. I can live in a clean, safe, prosperous city scattered with sweeping roundabouts and take one of the exits towards nothingness. Though for nothingness read abundance. An abundance of gum trees and hills and high plains in Namadgi, from which rocky outcrops pierce an abundant blue sky. A plethora of grasses and wildflowers emerging in swampy hollows, the weeds also thriving in a show of acceptance and egalitarianism. A setting for black cockatoos and butterflies to float in the air, riding the breeze upon which small white clouds cluster and vanish.

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Clouds which may reappear again to water the lawns around the National Gallery, or dispense rain into falls and gorges around Bungonia. Landscapes that were once seas and took 450 million years to come to this. Wildness and natural drama that is but 30 minutes from a coffee and a peppermint slice and an inexplicable giant concrete sheep. The developed and the untamed, living side by side in something hopefully approaching harmony. This is the fortune I feel at being in this place at this time, around Australia Day.

Australia Green Bogey Society & Culture Walking

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

Zzz…

…and so to bed, a closure of sorts on this long-winded journey that started off so awesome and finishes in a cocoon of fluffy pillows and cosy doonas. Among all the wonderful things seen, the delights tasted, the rants aired, it is sleep that has allowed them to happen, recharging the body and mind just enough to ensure that things can keep on keeping on. Sleep is, well, awesome, and as friends and family surround themselves with young ones, the perplexing question on everyone’s lips is just why wouldn’t you want to go to bed and sleep solidly for eight hours, pesky child?!

Sleep deprivation is, alas, a feature of the lives of many people I know, from eternally exhausted parents to work-bothered stress heads. Occasionally it pops up in my life, but usually as a result of my own endeavours, like sitting cramped on a plane for 24 hours and moving forward in time 11 hours and then stupidly expecting to sleep like a baby that actually sleeps [1]

Z_wilsprom

Or deciding to stay in a hostel room in a tiny place somewhere in Victoria and finding that the other bunks are occupied by three rather large Germans who have had a hearty dose of ale and chunks of pork and like to sleep on their back. Still, it was a beautiful early dawn ride to Wilsons Prom that morning when no-one else was yet up.

Luckily I am apt to overcome sleep deprivation and early starts with the most blessed event that can befall anyone: the afternoon nap. I think I first fell in love with afternoon naps when it happened to me as a teenager, taking me unawares as I struggled to read a boring book on a grey day in a comfy armchair. Initially it was a bit of a shock to find that I had unintentionally nodded off and drooled a little. But the feeling of contentment and rejuvenation that ebbed into my body earmarked the afternoon nap as something to occasionally strive for.

In 2013 I had a fair few afternoon naps, along with a fair few restless nights and early starts. This was primarily my own doing, attributed to the fact that I ended up staying in 121 different locations across the globe [2]. Such restlessness can induce restlessness…that feeling of being slightly unsettled going to sleep in an unfamiliar spot. Given many of the sleeps were also conducted in a canvas coffin in the middle of nowhere, prone to every possum rustle and pounding wave of the ocean and occasional snoring fit from elsewhere, solid sleep was not always high on the agenda. But then I discovered the calming properties of earplugs and got over it and probably made a bit or noise myself, mouth agape catching flies.

Still, the early starts were common as there is only so much an earplug can do against the cacophonous cackling of a choir of Kookaburras. The compensation from the termination of sleep was the sparkle of being alive and watching the natural world wake up from its shadowy slumber. Like down amongst the spotted gums of Croajingalong National Park, fringing the silver glass of an inlet as it is kissed by the laser red sun of dawn and enlivened by the rousing chimes of bellbirds. Awake is the new sleep.

Z_croaj

A few more sleeps from this spot and I happened to be in Wilsons Prom again, this time without a hostel room of Germans, but struggling to sleep nonetheless. The day had been baking hot, an arid northerly wind blowing dust and flies and smoke and hairdryer vapours to the southern extremities of mainland Australia. Too hot to sleep until – finally in the small hours – the promised cool change, bringing a pitter-patter of rain which turns to a noisy deluge amplified on canvas. Fortunately the next sleep was Melbourne and a roof and a bed and appreciation of a roof and a bed which is so often taken for granted by us first world problem seekers.

There were a few other hot nights but many more cold ones, often surprising in their unpredictability. I expect somewhere called the Grampians to be a wee bit chilly, though in March I never expected it would be cold enough to cause me to hover over a few smouldering twigs, infiltrating smokiness into my hair and stubble and fleece and beanie, awaiting the first warmth from the sun to finally emerge from between the trees. Ironically, later that day it would swelter so much as to cause sweaty backs on a climb to one of the many spectacular overlooks, provoke comfort in a lukewarm home-made shower, and create extreme fondness for a double scooped ice cream back down in Halls Gap.

In this flim-flam wiff-waff Perryinthian volatility of hot and cold, it is perhaps not so much of a surprise that one of the best swag sleeps in the past year was conducted at a very agreeable and comfortable temperature. This in itself was not at all predictable given previous chilly nights despite (or maybe because of) being in the dry, arid South Australian outback. Perhaps it was the shelter of the Cypress pines and their earthy fragrance, or perhaps just the ease of getting to sleep after many miles of quite exemplary walking, but Aroona Valley in the Flinders Ranges provided a chance to not really sleep much like a baby. And with solid sleep, an early start is no problem to appreciate the grandeur of the emerging landscape as the day is welcomed.

Z_flinders

Beyond the swag there have been air mattresses and sofas and fold up beds to enjoy, plus the occasional real bed. I’ve had a close on-off relationship with a certain air mattress for some time now, though this year saw us part company. A little part of me was a bit forlorn when I was kindly provided with my own room and own bed, complete with funky pictures of digger trucks and awesome earthmoving machines. Yet I can still sleep soundly despite stealing the bedroom of a two year old, for I always sleep soundly here. It may come thanks to the wine and fulfilling Mexican food, the equal liveliness and weariness of family life, the penchant for odd movies and cruising around Liberty City late at night. Or the grim up north Lancashire exterior quelled by the warming welcome inside.

Z_devonAnd once more it comes back to that old chestnut roasting on an open fire of comfort and familiarity. Spending such sustained time on a fold up bed in Plymouth that my back no longer hurts. Reconnecting with my eternal homeland, nodding off to the sound of drunken crazies arguing over some munter down the street eating a kebab. Waking to the sound of seagulls and the incessant irritating loop of Bruno Mars and Olly Murs on Heart [3]. Hearing the distant trundle of the railway as it fights its way through millions of leaves and brambles; a trundle that gently lulls you to sleep again later following a majestic day walking the Cornish coast. This is quite possibly the most contented nap there is.

Finally, after all this sleeping around, I again find myself in my own bed, the one I bought at Harvey Norman in Fyshwick seven years ago, before I knew any better [4]. I remember having to catch a bus that dropped me off somewhere between a petrol station and porn shop, walking through some overgrown brown grass dotted with rubble and fast food trash. Making it to the store I then waited ages for any of the dubious sales staff to take any interest in me. I’m sure I purchased the fairly cheap mattress, thinking I was only going to be in Australia for a year. But it endures and it is mine and, as everyone always inevitably says after a bout of travel, ooh it’s always nice to be back in your own bed!

Back on that day, while waiting near the porn store for the hourly bus back to somewhere close to where I was staying, I killed some time by wandering into the p…p….petrol station. I p…p….purchased a map of New South Wales to kill some boredom. This was back in the dark old days of 2006, when maps were unfathomably large and fold out-y. But it was splendid to open it out and start looking at the roads and contours and the places by the sea that were still just names then. And it was daunting to see just how large the place was, where a two hour drive was a couple of fingers width on paper.

When the bed was delivered and assembled it not only became a place of sleep but one in which the mind would formulate plans and trips, making lists in my head and sometimes struggling to nod off with the breathless excitement of it all. I’d try to count sheep, read something dull, do a Sudoku. And then I decided, probably an unwise tactic, to list things off in my head in an A to Z fashion. Like places I have been in the USA, capital cities of the world, or legumes of the Central Asian plateau or some such. Sometimes I would drift off by Crystal River, other times I’d be wide-eyed in Zagreb. But it’s something that has endured for quite a while, until now.

So it would seem, with this particular alphabet closed, I truly can rest easy. Catch a few awesome ZZZs as a chapter closes. That is until I start to toy with the next idea and several others fall open. For now though, read this and sleep.


[1] What a misguided phrase. To sleep like a baby must mean spells of doziness for an hour with six interruptions during the night to eat, and a couple of nappy changes because you have pooped all over the place.

[2] I should point out, not 121 different beds, for many of these sleeps were carried out in a swag that just happened to find itself in a different part of Australia each night.

[3] Seriously, just buy her some frigging flowers and shut the hell up

[4] I quickly decided to deliberately avoid Harvey Norman, mainly because of its very tacky, cheap and incredibly shouty adverts in which they proclaim to be the bedding specialist, or plasma screen specialist or coffee specialist, offering interest free credit until 2023

Links

Croajingalong National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/croajingolong-national-park

Wilsons Promontory National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/wilsons-promontory-national-park

Grampians National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/grampians-national-park

Flinders Ranges National Park:

http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/parks/Find_a_Park/Browse_by_region/Flinders_Ranges_and_Outback/Flinders_Ranges_National_Park

They haven’t got much better (or advanced): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3ky9cFQbbM

Back in the bed buying days: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2006/08/artistic-bedroom-furniture-ironing.html

Something else to send you to sleep: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/

A to Z Australia Great Britain Society & Culture

Xenophobe

If X is a difficult letter then why not take on a difficult subject to make it even more difficult? Perhaps it’s because I am some culturally deficient rosbif, a soap-dodging pom who has come to take your job and steal your social security and write about it with an air of superiority and pomposity befitting of someone who can eat stodgy food and believe it is better than anything ever created anywhere else in the world and then have the cheek to enforce this food upon you by taking over the corner shops up and down the land that were once yours and using them as a cover for illicit activities. Oh yes, I am your ultimate nightmare, your superlative Daily Mail concoction of hatred.

In truth this all sounds rather silly don’t you think, but time and again, in conversations, in discussion groups, in one-liners, I come across sentiments such as these. Not directed at me of course, apart from the gentle ‘banter’ of pommie-bashing which can become quite vitriolic with alcohol fuelled cricket frenzy; or that time I was in France on a school trip and a few skulking local youths decided to call a group of us ‘Bloody English’ in a growly spittle-filled accent that was too much of a parody to be overly intimidating. Bloody French cheese-eating surrender monkeys anyway!! No, these comments frequently involve stranger foreign types, queue-jumping, tax-dodging, funny-smelling immigrants from poorer places, who, it would seem, are always up to no good.

I assume many more learned and bothered-to-do-their-research people have written theories about why this might happen in civilised society, citing one or more of protectionism, fear, resistance to change, cultural imperialism, elitism, distrust, nationalism, competition for space or resources or infrastructure, pervading social norms and stereotypes. There is, to be fair, some foundation to the concerns people have about ‘others’. For instance, we can realistically assume that an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist is more likely to be darker skinned and have connections with the Middle East, and less likely to take the form of an old granny who lives next door and bakes apple pie. However, the problem is the giant leap of an assumption that, by very irrational logic, all darker skinned people from the Middle East are potential or actual terrorists. It is as ludicrous as, say, gay people being responsible for a spell of wet weather in Britain. [1]

X_gay rainSpeaking of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), it has been interesting to observe their rise in prominence at a distance. For here, as in several other countries, is a political party premised on xenophobia, and doing so rather successfully despite an obvious number of crackpots and – well, to put it nicely – policy gaps in far more important areas of concern to us all. Clearly there remain enough antiquated barons who still distrust the Germans in Britain, but where UKIP have profited most is in tapping into the fears and concerns of those disgruntled and disenfranchised and downtrodden, whose own struggle and lack of fulfilment can feel better when apportioned to something outside of their control.  And pesky foreigners have always made an easy scapegoat for our own failings.

Observing these developments from a sunny, warm, multicultural and coffee-blessed Australia, where people don’t think twice about paying ten quid for a sandwich, you would be quite right to assume there is an air of Antipodean smugness [2]. Because of geopolitical remoteness, there can be no Australian Independence Party in the same way, though I’m sure Western Australia has something of that ilk, campaigning on a ridiculous non-daylight saving platform and the right to dig up literally every single last rock in the state and keep the money all to themselves. However, despite its undoubted multiculturalism, xenophobia is alive and kicking down under, given a fresh lease of life by some of its most prominent politicians.

The big peril in Australia comes from the north, via Indonesia, which is treated like some Hicksville backwater despite being one of the most populous countries in the world [3]. Indonesians themselves are not so much in the firing line, just the innocent casualties caught in the middle of a war (yes, you read that right, war) on people smugglers [4]. You see, people smugglers are responsible for bringing foreigners across from Indonesia on boats. Foreigners who are mostly fleeing proper war or famine or persecution, or just seeking to be reunited with their children [5]. They are desperate and willing to risk their lives on a perilous sea journey and I challenge you to say you would not do the same if the alternative was inevitable destitution and destruction.

Of course, we don’t want them to drown at sea, so the latest solution is to do everything we can to stop them from coming [6]. The fact that this addresses some of the dubious concerns that our cities and towns are being ‘swamped’ by outsiders, who are taking our jobs and our houses and making the traffic to Kmart a nightmare because they are going to the nearby mosque has nothing to do with it. It would be cynical of me to think this is a neat political outcome that again taps into fears and struggles of people who are ‘doing it tough’, leveraging just an essence of xenophobia that definitely exists – and should be acknowledged to exist –  in Australia [7].

I wonder if there is something about island nations such as the UK and Australia that provoke a touch more insularity, a tad more protectionism. A churning sea provides that clear sense of separation from others and the sense of a wholly identifiable land mass to be protected. I guess I can only draw on my experiences living in these countries and would not really know if xenophobia is more or less rife in, say, mainland Europe or southeast Asia . I suspect it differs little. Perhaps it is natural for humans to be wary, to distrust, and to compete against the unknown and the alien. A genetically embedded manifestation of the survival of the fittest, which cannot be disentangled from a yearning for one-upmanship and conflict.

One would hope that the old adage of travel broadening the mind plays true. It can certainly help to dispel some of the myths and stereotypes that underpin elements of xenophobia. For instance, I have met friendly and funny Germans who totally get my sense of humour. I have been welcomed and embraced by French people, though the cheese-eating stereotype is clearly evidence-based [8]. I have been surprised that Australians can be the antithesis of their laid back Fosters advert image – hard-working, anxious, equally whingey and obsessed about the weather as some other nationality out there. I have met and talked to clever and articulate immigrants from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka who would be an asset to any country who lets them in. And I have discovered that Asian food is far from anything to be feared.

The risk is that travel can also potentially reinforce some of the distorted views of others that we may hold. A smelly toilet in France can make us question the hygiene of the entire nation. Gloating cricket winners can annoy us so much as to make us think that Australians are a cocky, self-satisfied bunch. Hong Kong citizens adorned with face masks can lead to the assumption that everyone has bird flu. Canadians being genuinely pleasant and good-humoured can make us think that all Canadians are indeed the finest people on the planet. This may be mostly true, but I am sure there are at least a few bad eggs somewhere in the depths of Manitoba [9].

I suppose the essence of all of this is that we should at least try to be a bit more open-minded about people and the places they come from. A good start would be to consider the positives, revel in the differences and what this can bring to our lives and those of seven billion others. For instance, what about all the good things that EU membership brings to the UK, what about all the hard work that has been done by Polish immigrants and the economic contribution made? [10] What about the unknown potential of thousands of well-educated people arriving from Sri Lanka, regardless of whether they do this by sea? What about the wonderful world of cheese, of coffee, of coconut cream curry that have emanated from elsewhere and enriched our lives?

 ———————————————

I wanted to finish this meandering, slightly ranting and hopelessly idealistic piece with an anecdote from Spain. This is something of a travel blog after all, so I can tell you that I have had a few visits to Spain, mostly in the Costa Blanca region, and I will shove in a photo just to have a photo in this blog which often contains a photo or two.

X_spain

I haven’t made up my mind if I truly like this area or not, given the confused conglomeration of coastal developments, warm seas and dusty mountains. There are pockets of untainted rural beauty and then there are sprawling anglicised new towns, offering roast beef and paella at the same turn.

Perhaps it was around the early part of the century that represented the boom time for the migration of older people from Britain to these far warmer shores. Recessions and downturns, housing busts and credit crises have since impacted the influx, and it is easy in hindsight to see that the country overreached itself on a false bubble of property development. Still, amongst the unfinished lots and closed down Chinese takeaways, many ex-pats linger on, some enthusiastically embracing something of the Spanish way of life, others steadfastly ignoring it and hoping it will go away.

I remember speaking to one such new immigrant a few years back, who was quick to express disdain for Britain; perhaps a natural reaction to justify in one’s own head the move overseas. I had heard it before but the crux of the argument was that Britain had been overrun by foreigners, who were taking over and were jumping the queue for handouts. Britain, it was claimed, had gone to pot. Spain was now the place to be.

Of course, there is delicious irony in these words, uttered in the midst of a series of new developments in Spain that had been colonised by, well, immigrants. Where shops sold proper English Cheddar and the Fish ‘n’ Chips were better than at home. Where tobacco was cheaper and prescriptions too, so you could happily smoke away and get some government-subsidised anti-coagulants to keep things moving. A place where there were also other enclaves for Germans and Dutch and – recently with their smartly invested oil wealth – Norwegians.  A spot where you could concur with the thoughts of the Daily Mail as you labour over a fried breakfast: surely a top notch recipe for sustaining the inevitable cycle that is xenophobia.


[1] Yes, indeed, in Britain where rain is not uncommon. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-25793358 and then enjoy the numerous piss-takes such as https://twitter.com/UkipWeather

[2] A smugness massively inflated by cricket results of late.

[3] And thus, you would think, a country to form positive relations with…to make the most of economic opportunities as Indonesia develops and for future security of the underpopulated resource-rich island to its south.

[4] I doubt if this one will make the A-Level history syllabus.

[5] Processing shows that 90% are genuine refugees. Some of the wars they are fleeing (unlike the war on people smugglers) are genuine serious things that Australian troops are involved in (e.g. Afghanistan).

[6] Preventing drowning at sea is of course a genuinely valid objective and mired in policy nightmares. For my part, I say build a bridge and deal with it like other countries have to! Hell, you could even employ immigrants in the construction.

[7] Ironically, some of which comes from second or third generation migrants!

[8] And instead of resisting this trait when in France, just embrace it and gorge on Camembert, Munster, Roquefort, Reblochon, Comte, Brie, Pont l’Eveque, Beaufort, Tomme de Savoie, Morbier, Chevre, Raclette, Boursin, Port Salut and Cantal after dinner.

A to Z Australia Europe Great Britain Society & Culture

Sidetracked

Back towards the start of 2013 I decided I was going to write this piece regarding the word ‘solo’. Not a whole two thousand words dedicated to the tangy Australian lemon drink, but an exposition of the pros and cons of travelling and – to some extent – living on your own. The independence, the freedom, the ‘ah sod it I’ll do what I like’ luxury that means you don’t have to compromise with anyone over choice of cake. Offsetting this, the boredom, the lack of conversation, the absence felt by missing out on the subtle interpersonal politics of deciding on a cake that all parties can be happy with. A double-edged sword ripe for some no doubt articulate and witty analysis. But I got sidetracked.

Throughout 2013 I was going to write 26 pieces that were no doubt articulate and witty, based around a word beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Beery Fairytales with Golfing Elements from Home and across the Oceans, getting Lost on Petrol laden Journeys only to recover Awesome Momentum to finish by the end of the year. I gave myself 365 days to do this, only really because it sounded like a nice round number with a good ring to it. A personal challenge, a resolution of sorts that was far easier than the usual New Year goals of healthy eating and vigorous exercise. But I got sidetracked.

I got sidetracked by New Zealand for a trip across the ditch. A country that is so brilliant around every turn and corner that I could happily get sidetracked by it time and again. Surely as close a country can get to perfect, a sensual smorgasbord of landscapes and moods, wrapped up in an undeniable, welcoming charm. Here cloudless days in the land of the long white cloud peak as high as the mountains all around. Lookouts and scenic spots, grand walks and rest stops, a true traveller’s paradise where there is an overload of distraction, and time for just a fraction of written reflection.

I got sidetracked by Australia, a rather large obstacle in anyone’s books. From its golden surf swept coastline into its Great Dividing Range, from its shimmering cities into its one street country towns. Across wide brown fields and into the red, an expanse of emptiness from which rocky ancient wonder rises. Sidetracks to vineyards and bays and wooded vales. Diversions to ridge lines and creek beds and trails. Along B-roads and byways, from mud tracks to highways, ocean-side swag sites and huge mounds of termites. So much to traverse and get in the way.

I got sidetracked, just occasionally, by work and other chores. Life goes on and money goes around. Sometimes things that you really don’t want to do need doing. Often it turns out they weren’t so bad to do after all. Car cleaning means a clean car. Food shopping brings the added benefit of food.  Tax returns can lead to tax refunds. Work itself can stimulate the senses and open up a series of interactions and conversations and relationships. And there is the satisfaction brought by the completion of a task, something which I may eventually feel when the 26th article is published on this site.

I got sidetracked by a European summer which itself sidetracked me towards its winter. In Munich there were sunny meanders interrupted by shady spots and thirst-quenching beer. The Dolomites offered a natural jagged wonderland of routes and pathways, a spaghetti network of cable cars and trains, a confusing conglomerate of the Austro-German-Italian. A dollop of pretzel pizza strudel. Spain was easier going, but here a car countered any chance of settled discipline. And so mountain hairpins and coastal cruises restricted what writing could be achieved in between siestas.

I got sidetracked by family and friends, sharing barbecues and roasts, brewing up tea and buttering raisin toast. A culinary backdrop for some love and affection that tastes even sweeter with a biscuit selection. I had the business of new nieces to welcome and old ones to help welcome into a minefield of teen angst, quelled with a kick about in the park. There were countless timeless trips to playgrounds with all the youngsters [1], and walks in the woods a common escape with the older ones. Then there were the moments set aside for sad Saturday nights with X Factor, stuffing our faces with pizza, burping and twerking and perhaps some flirting then hurting that that singer went out who was a bit shouty but really ab-sol-ute-ly fan-tas-tic.

I got sidetracked by my beautiful southwest of England, in two prolonged spells of adoration. Spare sunny days were taken over with a bus and rail rover, a bag packed with camera and a sense of adventure. From the very end of the land distractions spread out on every rail line and country lane still serviced by bus. Around every corner of the coast path there was just a little bit more to see: another cove, another headland, another vista of purple heather in perfect weather plummeting down to the alluring azure of ocean. In every town there was just another side alley to head up, hopeful of stumbling into a nirvana of homemade pasties and fudge. On every day there was the diversion of a walk to the sea, a trip to the top of the hill, a visit to the bakery. Days that rightly meant writing was fleeting in between eating and falling in love all over again.

S_places

I got sidetracked by anything other than writing, in those spells of sublime sluggishness when you just can’t be bothered with doing anything that might require one iota of effort. When the Internet and apps are a prelude to naps, or an accompaniment to the cricket, slouched on the couch playing Words with Friends while England’s innings ends in a flurry of wickets. When Breaking Bad is so good and Grand Theft Auto is grander and Pointless is far from it. When Daenarys Stormborn is way more exciting than the thought of writing, so much more arousing than public housing and reliving through words your own dread that winter was coming, having no heating or dragons to warm things up.

S_PerthI got sidetracked by arriving back in Perth and embracing its warm sunny disposition so much that every day feels like a holiday and it is hard to motivate to do anything other than loll. I had work and chores and sublime spells of sluggishness, suffering with a cricket background and Words with Friends malaise. But I also had the diverting allure of stunningly beautiful beaches down the road and the vibrant lilac burst of jacarandas along the way. There was the return to coffee breaks and barbecue steaks, sushi rolls and laksa bowls. A life in shorts so very inviting, that it’s hard to feel like writing, unless for time in air-conditioned refuge.

I got sidetracked by sidetracks so much that I figured sidetracks are actually not sidetracks at all. They are simply our own journeys, each of us a little bus network trundling through lanes and accelerating on dual carriageways and stopping for a while to pick up passengers and perhaps coming up against a dead end and forced to turn around. And so I merely got sidetracked by living life, busy seeing and doing, thinking and not thinking, pausing at bus stops and refilling on diesel. With hundreds of trips, thousands of interactions, millions of breaths, there is simply not enough time or no point to write it all down.

I got sidetracked but have still made it to number 19 out of 26, so far. That’s 73%, which I think you’ll find is a high enough mark for a first class honours degree. It doesn’t meet original targets but it’s far closer than anyone anywhere is doing in relation to carbon dioxide emission reduction targets [2]. And there could be more to come, depending on how much more I get sidetracked this year. It may take 366 days or 465, but I will get to Z and feel happy and proud and perhaps a bit relieved. A goal achieved, just a little later than planned. But then, how many buses run to time anyway?


[1] Along with CBeebies, parks and playgrounds truly are the saviour of parents everywhere

[2] I hold my hands up and acknowledge my own rather sizeable carbon footprint; however carbon offsets include not using as much electricity I might have if I had achieved 26 articles on this blog, dedicated use of public transport in the UK, and buying lots of cake instead of baking it myself.

Links

Solo drinking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=504OzK-VZjA

100% awesome: http://www.newzealand.com/au/

Z Factor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZuNGc1a0Ak

Words with jismslap: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCkc5rcSOwo

Don’t let a bit of science get in the way: http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/

A to Z Australia Europe Great Britain Places Society & Culture