Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Blue Mountains




Taking advantage of the long Christmas holiday weekend, K and I took a trip to the Blue Mountains on Saturday & Sunday. The Blue Mountains are much-vaunted as the beautiful, spectacular, magnificent, [insert your own superlative here] place where Sydneysiders go to get away from it all, get off the beaten track and escape from the humid heat of the Sydney summer. So we had high hopes and expectations for some excellent walking and breathtaking scenery.

We drove along the Great Western Highway from Sydney on Saturday morning and after a small delay thanks to roadworks (these things are the same the world over!) we arrived in Wentworth Falls late morning. We’d packed a picnic lunch so we fortified ourselves with sandwiches and fruit and then set off on our chosen walk, the National Pass, taking in Wentworth Falls themselves. We’d read that this walk was popular and although graded ‘medium-hard’ because of the level of ascent and descent (about 250m), the track was very easy to walk along – steps and wooden platforms in a lot of places and not a bit of scrambling needed. Some of the views were pretty nice but all in all, it was just a bit too sanitised and busy with other people for me – I like to feel a bit more isolated when I’m walking!

However, our Sunday walk was much more like I was hoping for. The track was much more overgrown and wild and we only saw a few other people along the 7.5km circuit we’d chosen. This one was the Popes Glen Creek, Govett’s Leap and Braeside Track which looped around the side of Horseshoe Falls and Govett’s Lookout. The scenery was much more spectacular and gave a really good sense of the scale and immenseness of the mountains. They’re not mountains as we’d recognise them in the UK – they’re much flatter and more table-like rather than pointy and jaggy. I think this is because they’ve come about as a result of erosion of sandstone, rather than volcanic or plate-crashing activity (but my geology fails me at points so I can’t be sure!) They have a bit of a canyon-type appearance and the reason they’re called the Blue Mountains is because they are carpeted by a thick bush of eucalyptus or gum trees, which diffuse droplets of gum oil into the air, causing light to be refracted in a particular way which gives the mountains a blueish haze. So there you go! Picture above hopefully gives some idea.

All in all, I think we’ll definitely go back – although we’ll pick our routes carefully to avoid the tourist traps and we’ll also take on some more challenging routes. We’ll also avoid the overnight stay as this was quite disappointing. We’d booked into a guesthouse in Katoomba, which is supposed to be a quaint mountain town with a traditional feel about it. But it just reminded me of any other small town with nothing to do and nowhere to go. And the guesthouse, while ok, wasn’t really anything to write home about. So from now on it’ll be early morning drives to longer mountain walks!!

Proud granddaughter

A lot of people who know me probably don’t realise that the ultrasound pictures that were taken of them when they weren’t even born yet, can be traced back to my grandpa, Tom Brown.

He was a lynchpin of the invention of ultrasound technology way back and was recently recognised by way of an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (hope I’ve got that right!).

Today he’s still busy trying to improve the use of ultrasound, this time by way of addressing problems with the sonography equipment used by the people who do the actual scanning.

Here’s a link to a recent article in the Sunday Times. (Please excuse my indulgence in showing off my genetic lineage!)

Friday, 26 December 2008

Un-Christmas


It’s 9pm on Boxing Day but apart from the fact that there’s yet another James Bond film on TV and I’ve got slightly restless legs from lack of doing much over the last few days, it really doesn’t feel like Boxing Day! It’s been in the late 20s, if not higher, for most of today and although there’s a cool wind building up outside, it’s still pretty sticky and, well, summery,

Yesterday we were adopted by a friend and made very welcome as part of their extended family gathering for Christmas lunch. It seemed to be a fairly typical Aussie family Christmas with a cold meat & salad spread at lunchtime, followed by Christmas pudding and mince pies, plus plenty of wine and beer to wash it all down. There was some swimming in their pool but no beach as they live out in the suburbs a bit. And, of course, the obligatory number of small children getting very excited about bits of wrapping paper while ignoring the actual presents contained within!

Lovely as it was to be included and to avoid the alternative of K and I sitting about wondering what to eat on Christmas day, it really didn’t feel like Christmas – it’s just not the same in the sun! And other people’s families aren’t nearly as entertaining as your own! So maybe next year we’ll just go on holiday or something – my favourite Christmas memory in recent years remains being out off mobile phone contact, on a dive boat in the middle of the Andaman sea off the Thai coast! Doing two dives before most people have even put the turkey in the oven was pretty special!

Anyway, today was good fun as it was the annual Sydney – Hobart yacht race which, for the winners, takes a couple of days, and for the stragglers can take several days! Watching the start is a big thing to do on Boxing Day, so along with thousands of other Sydneysiders, we headed to one of the ‘heads’ around the Harbour (big jutting out bits of land with high viewing points) and managed to find ourselves a nice spot in the shade to watch the start. I’ll put pictures up in a few days as it’s hard to describe – basically a couple of hundred big yachts (like, twenty people in the crew), with two lines of ‘spectator vessels’ lined up either side of them – everything from big ferries commissioned for the day to private yachts to little power boats to canoeists!! As the racing yachts start and get into jostling for position, the spectator armada follows them a-pace – it’s quite a sight!

Once that was done, we headed back into the city and decided to go for lunch at one of our old haunts in Surry Hills. I miss Surry Hills and its so-called ‘edginess’ (i.e. not everyone is white and middle class) but today it was a changed place – it was completely deserted so I guess most people must be out of town. We just missed lunch hours at the Crown, so ended up staying for a few beers and then having an early dinner when the kitchen reopened!

(An aside – something has bitten me and it is bloomin’ itchy – grrr!!!!)

Tomorrow we’re off to the Blue Mountains for an overnight trip, hopefully doing a couple of decent walks in the process. The Blue Mountains are about 3 hours drive west of Sydney so we’ll make a fairly early start and get a good walk in before dark. The temperature should be several degrees cooler up there and the scenery is meant to be spectacular – watch this space!!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Tis the season to be partied out


It’s 4pm on Sunday right now and I feel about 75% recharged from this week’s adventures. We’ve got Christmas drinks & nibbles with our neighbours at 5, and then might wander over to the foot of the Harbour Bridge for a twilight carol service (not cos I particularly want to celebrate Christmas but I do like some of the tunes!)

Monday – Milk Crate Theatre Christmas extravaganza – it’s a theatre company made up of homeless people and a few professional actors – pretty soul-warming, affirming stuff.

Tuesday – Kylie concert! Not something I’d normally do, but when in Rome… Very pop-tastic and full of lots of screaming young girls and gay men – entertainment in itself!

Wednesday – dinner out with K and his boss, followed by a few drinks in our local – lovely but an impromptu evening out when I should have been doing my laundry or something!

Thursday – Christmas party with my former colleagues from my temp job with the State Govt. Typically all the Aussies left fairly early and from over 100 people at the beginning, there were three of us left by 11pm – me, an English bloke and an Irish-Australian. Good night of playing pool, drinking beer and catching up.

Friday – K’s work’s Christmas party, at their CEO’s place out in the ‘burbs. Barbecue, beer, wine, summer’s day. Pretty nice. Almost the last ones to leave (again!) by about 7pm, got takeaway pizza and headed home. We both fell asleep on the couch by 10.15!!!

So yesterday, after a good sleep and a fairly early start, I did very little apart from things like read the weekend paper, take part in my brother’s study on psychosis (as you do!) try to fix my printer (failed), book accommodation / travel / research options for various trips we’ve got coming up over next few months and watch back episodes of Sex & the City! Today has been much the same although on a more active note we’ve just been swimming, which was lovely – 20 lengths of the outdoor 50m pool nearby which is clean, uncrowded and has spectacular views.

Most of Australia seems to finish up for Christmas early and the tradition is for the holiday season to last right through until Australia Day on 25th January. We’re bucking the trend and we’re both working right through to Christmas, and in between Christmas / New Year. We’re then going on holiday after Australia Day for about 10 days – it’s good to be different, especially as it means we avoid the school holidays!

All in all I’m finding this time of year really disorientating (or is it disorienting, I never know!). Although it’s lovely to have such an extended summer, and to not have the usual misery of 3pm sunsets, freezing cold mornings and general doom & gloom of a UK winter, in a weird way I miss all of that. My body is really confused by it and I’m a lot more knackered than I normally am – K’s the same – so our theory is that our bodies are suffering from not having the usual excuse to hibernate, eat lots of chocolate and generally get away with slouching in front of the TV without feeling like we should be out ‘doing something’ and ‘making the most of summer’. We both had tons of energy when we first got here and were zipping about merrily at the weekends, going to the gym lots and were generally full of beans. Now it’s a definite struggle to keep up!! I’m sure there are lots of theories to explain this – biorhythms, need for a holiday, natural consequence of a busy year involving a move halfway across the world, change of jobs and related stresses and strains. But whatever it is, I’m hoping a few long weekends over the festive season, followed by a longer break in January, will see us back to our more sprightly selves – just in time for winter here!?!!?

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Sugar-coated Australia




Not sure how Baz Luhrman’s latest “epic” has been received in the UK, but over here / down under, it’s not exactly packing out the stalls. K and I toddled along to see Australia on Sat eve, in Sydney’s biggest cinema, where just a few weeks ago, the red carpet premiere was packed with all the stars (it’s just round the corner from my office).

The reviews here have been lukewarm so we didn’t have high expectations – and to be honest, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be, as long as you take it for what it is.

Despite the general vilification of Nicole Kidman, I thought she was quite good (apart from a few cringy scenes at the beginning) and Hugh Jackman is likeable enough (again, apart from a few gratuitous ‘pec shots’). And Brandon Walters, the child non-actor in the central role, was entrancing. And as a love poem to the beauty of the country, it did a great job. The plot was holier than a pack of nuns and the ‘baddies’ were so bad they were comical, but probably the most important thing for me was that it actually raised some realities about the experiences of indigenous Australians not so long ago. Interestingly the reviews here have barely mentioned the fairly central plot around the Stolen Generations (children of mixed race who were forcibly removed from their indigenous families ostensibly for ‘protection’ but more often than not, because of racism and a desire to ‘breed out the blacks’). Yes it was sugar-coated for the masses, with a nice happy ending and a love story to make it all seem less hideous, but far better for the masses to get a sugar-coated version than no version at all - I think.

Sea dragons and seventeen degrees




At last!! Months after arriving here, and nearly 5 months since we last went diving, K and I finally got to go sub aqua at the weekend. We’ve joined our local diving club and on Saturday morning, we were up for a nice 9am start getting kitted up and briefed, then driven to the dive site (Bear Island) where we did a gentle, relaxing dive down to about 13 metres, for about 50 mins. The water temperature here is significantly colder than you might imagine – it was only around 17 degrees, which is pretty cold. I’m used to diving in 28 degrees plus, in tropical waters, so it was a bit of an experience. Obviously you wear a thicker wetsuit etc, but even so, I was cold!!

The underwater life was quite different too. No tropical fish and no coral reef, but a massive wrasse (with teeth I’m sure!) and a couple of beautiful sea dragons – like sea horses but bigger and very delicate looking (pic above - not mine!)

The club arranges all kinds of diving so hopefully this will become a regular thing – it’s such a good way to unwind and such a good reminder of why we came to Australia in the first place – beautiful!

Sunday, 7 December 2008

I'm too old for this!

This weekend has been a bit of a write-off in terms of doing anything productive - it was my Christmas night out with work on Friday, which began at midday with about 40 of us and ended with only me and two Irish girls left at midnight - hmmm!

Some pictures are here.

Yesterday was spent recovering and then last night we went out to the suburbs for a friend's 50th birthday party, which was much less raucous than Friday but still involved a bottle of wine. I woke up feeling "rough as guts" as they say out here - not really hungover just like I've got alcohol oozing out of my pores (my skin is dreadful and my hair feels greasy even though I've washed it!) So today I am detoxing and trying to do something vaguely useful like write my Christmas cards and upload pictures etc.

Some sunset pictures from in and around our local area are here.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Nowra


Today I was in Nowra, which is one of the areas of New South Wales with the highest levels of unemployment and related problems. It’s the location of one of the businesses I’m working with – I’m helping them to make the transition to becoming a social enterprise by proactively recruiting and supporting long-term unemployed people into their workforce.

Nowra is around 2.5 hours from Sydney by car, so it was an early start (6am) and a longish day altogether. It was fascinating to get into regional New South Wales and see a different side to life in Australia. Nowra is a town of about 30,000 people with a range of villages surrounding it, each of about 3-4,000 people. There are big levels of public housing in the area which in Australia, means something quite different to our concept of public housing in the UK. Forget high rises, multi-storey blocks and stone terraces. Think bungalows with little gardens out front and wooden porches. By Australian standards the housing is poor, but compared to the type of huge housing schemes or even smaller estates I’m used to, it’s pretty nice!

Having said that, despite the quality or otherwise of the housing, there are a lot of social problems in the area and part of today was about getting a sense of the challenges that are likely to come up as the business moves towards a model where they go out of their way to employ people that other businesses don’t want to employ – interesting!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Summer starts here!

Today is the first official day of summer here and the weather agreed to co-operate. 31 degrees on the mercury today - hot, hot, hot!

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Looking inwards

This week’s news provided another example of Australian insularity. I imagine that the Mumbai bombings were covered in depth in the UK, regardless of the number of British nationals that were affected by them. Here, the bombings were only mentioned in connection with the Australians that were either killed or injured, and even then, they were given a short mention before the news moved on to much more important things like who won the cricket.

The quality of life here is good (for anyone descended from the Commonwealth anyway) but it is incredibly superficial and incredibly Australian-centric. I feel sometimes like I’m living in a parallel universe. I know there are a whole stack of global issues out there, but I have to go actively searching for reminders of them, and if I didn’t have live connections with the UK, I’m not sure I would really have a clue about anything beyond local sports and self-congratulatory jingoistic Aussie crap. And that’s not to mention the blinkers that most Australians seem to have about the indigenous population.

I find myself censoring my comments to Aussies about all of this because I realise how much I sound like a stereotypical snooty Brit! And it’s not fair to generalise about all Aussies – I’ve met a lot of individuals who are just as scathing about their own culture – but it is definitely a different culture to the UK, and I have to be honest, not one that appeals to me as a long-term home.

Work and more work!




As you can tell from the lack of posting here, I've been a bit busy the last few weeks and I was shocked to see that it's been nearly a fortnight since I last posted. I'm now desperately trying to think of interesting things I've been doing but struggling! Here are some things to give a flavour of life recently...

Leaky roof - yes, it's all glamour here! Our kitchen ceiling has had water dripping through it recently so I've had the usual nightmare of trying to get rental agents to do anything other than take money and deliver no service. In the end it wasn't too tricky and the leak has stopped - just need to get the ceiling repainted now...hmmm!

Two jobs, no life - this week in particular has been full-on with work - I was pretty much in social enterprise mode from Sunday evening to Thursday evening with only breaks for sleep. I was in Melbourne for a) two day conference b) meeting the guys who run one of the businesses I'm supporting c) an intensive session with a group of colleagues for my main job. I was pretty whacked by Friday and glad to get the chance to recharge this weekend.

Photography - today was the last session of the photography course I've been doing - you can see some of the results on Picasa (http://picasaweb.google.com/emmahutton78) and the picture at the top of this page is the latest in the 'fabulous view from our flat' series :-)

It's been great fun and I've learned a lot about how to get more out of my 'point and shoot' camera. I'm getting tempted by an SLR but I'm going to wait and see how much more I can get out of what I've already got. Highlights of the course included doing a portrait shoot with a live model in Darling Harbour, chasing cloud patterns and looking for new angles in Watson's Bay and today's 'street photography' session learning how to inconspicuously snap people going about their daily business!

Biatholonning! - Last week I ran and swam a mini-biathlon which was more fun than it sounds, honest! The 4k run was a course with views of the harbour and Opera House, and the 300m swim was in a warm outdoor pool, so really it was nice!! The running side of it was fine and my pace was pretty much in line with what I expected (about 18min30s for 4k) but the swim was another story altogether - Aussies are all uber-swimmers and I've never experienced being overtaken by a thundering group of swimmers before - trust me, it's scary! Combined with the fact that I was pretty out of breath after the run, it took me about 150m to get into any kind of rhythm and to actually remember to breathe and not just inhale all the time! The swim took me 9 minutes - for 6 lengths of a 50m pool - Stephanie Rice ain't exactly quaking in her flip flops!! Anyway, they have a 20 week series of these events, and I've got a few former colleagues who are planning to join in for the next one, so will be interesting to see if I can get any quicker!

Silly season preparations - the financial doom and gloom is still skirting around the edges of life here, but Sydney seems to be gearing up for the Christmas season which as far as I can tell involves lots of drinking in the sun - never a good combination! I've got three parties to go to so far, plus a birthday party, plus a pre-xmas dinner, plus we've been invited round to a friend's house for xmas day itself, so it's safe to say we won't be lonely! I really can't get my head round it being nearly December which means I'm going to be in big trouble in terms of presents and cards and all that - maybe I'll start tomorrow (!)

Monday, 17 November 2008

A pool with a view


This weekend has been a veritable feast of catching up with people from home. On Friday night, after a remarkably long 3-day week at work, I headed out for beers with some folks from my last job, plus an old pal from many years ago when I worked at Community Fund. Kathleen has spent a lot of time in recent years based in war zones (Afghanistan, Iraq), so it was good to see her looking alive and healthy, and enjoying an extended period of leave. Friday was one of those nights where a few beers became more beers which became a taxi ride home at 11pm, followed by crashing on the couch to watch some random TV (Andy Murray vs Roger Federer in this case!) before falling asleep and having to be put to bed by K when he came in – some things never change, no matter what the hemisphere!

On Saturday I had the latest practical session of my photography course, which involved a couple of hours of doing an outdoors shoot with a model. It was good fun and apparently I’m a natural at directing models (!) I think I’m just naturally bossy! Then K and I met up and headed over to Coogee where we met up with pals Sam & Lyndsey and their little boy, Addie, who were over here on holiday from their usual abode in France. Great to see them and catch up.

Sunday was a day of culture and sport, including a very good portrait photography exhibition called Wisdom, featuring lots of head and shoulders shots of over 65s, accompanied by their thoughts on life. Now that I know about things like lighting and composition, it was fascinating to look at photos in a more informed way than I normally do! We were going to go and see a Monet and the Impressionists exhibition, but it’s such big news to have something like that here, that there were massive queues so we’ll go another time.

Then it was off to the North Sydney pool for my third swim of the week. The 50m pool there is outdoors and is chlorinated salt water, so much more pleasant to swim in than just plain old chlorine. The water is pretty warm and the whole place is clean, uncrowded and just really rather pleasant! It’s also nestled right at the foot of the Harbour Bridge, so you get amazing views of the bridge as you swim. It's got the feel of an old fashioned swimming baths and is one of my favourite things about Sydney so far. See pic for why!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Words to go with pics

This is a bit of an out of date report on last weekend’s road-tripping adventures, but I’ll try to make sense of my scribbled notes…

We’d decided to try and get some diving under our belts and had identified the Solitary Islands further up the coast from Sydney as a good target. As they’re about 600km away, we decided to make a long weekend of it, joined a car pool, booked “Karen the Yaris” as our trusty steed, got lots of hints and tips for things to break up the journey from various colleagues and set off on our merry way last Friday pm. Unfortunately due to the faff factor that pervades our lives whenever we’re trying to do anything, we didn’t get away as early as planned and ended up caught in the dreaded Friday afternoon mass exodus from Sydney which meant frustratingly slow progress out of Sydney’s sprawling suburbs until we got clear of Newcastle, about 100km north.

But within a few more hours we’d reached Port Stephens, our destination for Friday night and having wandered around a tiny place called Shoal Bay for a bit, enjoying the views of Shark Island and the balmy 25 degree early evening temperature, we tried to find some accommodation. An unfortunate encounter with a particularly rude room-owner ensued which included him losing us as potential customers and me telling him exactly what I thought of him by text message (!) We settled, instead, on some ‘rustic cabins’ which sounded cheap and cheerful and had a friendly owner when we phoned. Booked beds under our belts, we then enjoyed a pre-dinner drink watching the sunset go down at a seaside bar, followed by a fine meal at Gianni’s, a bustling taverna with only one pavement table left, just nicely sized for us. Then the fun and games started…

We had directions to our rustic cabins, but we hadn’t factored in the fact that everything looked decidedly different in the dark…so we ended up driving around a little bit lost for quite a while and then ended up on one of those spooky tree-lined stretches of road where you can almost hear the serial killer music playing in the background. And then we saw a girl, maybe late teens, walking along barefoot and a bit worse for wear. We thought we’d better see if she was ok so swung the car around, pulled over and asked her if she wanted a lift. She was adamant that she didn’t, but we were a bit worried she’d get run over so were trying to persuade her to get in the car, when out of the rear mirror we saw a big SUV-type car pulling up behind us. This turned out to be her boyfriend, who started yelling at her to get in the car, which she did, and they sped off. It all happened a bit quickly and was a bit on the unsettling side, but we couldn’t do much except continue on our way and try to find these bloomin’ rustic cabins!!

We eventually found them, and very lovely they were too. The place was run by a couple called Mick and Michelle (tee hee) who were fond of handrearing various animals injured by cars including kangaroos and birds. “Josephine” was the latest ‘roo to have been nurtured and was often to be seen wandering around the site. Our cabin was clean, comfortable and just what we needed after a long drive. We shared the last of a bottle of wine that we’d taken from the restaurant, then hit the sack. We’d been warned about the strange noises we’d hear in the night – possums jumping on the roof, that kind of thing – and there were quite a few, but they all sort of merged into my dreams and I felt very refreshed the next morning.

We were up fairly early and went for a stroll on nearby One Mile beach, which was a pretty deserted strip of white sand, with only a few surfers in the sea and a group of kids learning how to stand on their boards. Then we headed to another beach nearby for breakfast at the outdoor kiosk we’d been told about, where we watched considerably more surfers and wondered about the point of the camels we could see nearby the huge sand dunes in the distance – presumably for camel-riding!?

With food in our bellies and provisions for the rest of the journey, we continued on to Port Macquarie where we stopped for an hour or so to take in a coastal walk along the headlands, before the final few hours of driving which took us to our final destination, Coffs Harbour. Some more navigational challenges had to be overcome before we found our youth hostel (thanks to the vagaries of Lonely Planet who seem to be fond of telling you places are in completely different locations to their real ones). It’s been a few years since I stayed in a youth hostel, and I’ve never done anything but dorm bunks. But I’d heard that double rooms in hostels were pretty good value, and this was definitely the case in Coffs. Our room was great – ensuite, big and cheap. And the hostel was clean, friendly and comfortable, as well as being really close to where we were diving, and all the local restaurants etc.

We had a big seafood dinner that night (bruschetta and whole snapper for me, mmmm) followed by a few drinks in a nearby bar where K discovered Sardinian beer called Ismus (or something like that) and I had a nice South Australian white wine.

When Sunday morning came around, our alarms went off at 6.45am to get us up for a 7.30am rendezvous at the dive centre. Sadly, however, we got a message from them to say that the weather out at sea was too rough for the boat to go out, so the diving was cancelled for the day. Obviously a bit disappointing, but we still held out hope for the next day (false hope as it turned out!), and the upside was that we got to sleep in a bit! Then once we were up and about, fortified by another big café breakfast (one of my favourite things about Oz is the breakfasts here!), I navigated us to a nearby national park, which looked like it might be good for doing some walking. And indeed it was. There was a circular loop through rainforest, passing by waterfalls and with some fabulous views at a couple of points, which was a satisfying way to spend a couple of hours. As we got to the end, we could see rain beginning to roll in across the forest, which was an incredible sight, and even more incredible to be underneath as it rolled overhead!! We made it back to the car only slightly soaked and very thankful that we hadn’t got caught earlier!

The drive from Coffs to Doringo (where the walk was) had been spectacular on the way in – hundreds of lilac-flowered jacaranda trees lining the roads, rolling green hills and gorgeous panoramas as we climbed to 800m altitude. The drive back in the thundering rain was equally spectacular as we drove through rain clouds rolling along the roads.

The following day and, as mentioned above, our hopes of diving were dashed once more. Sad, but not the end of the world as we will have lots more opportunities to dive here, and it was good to get away and see a bit more of Australia than just Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge!

We ended up doing the whole drive back that day, which took about 10 hours including breaks for lunch and a short walk, and detours off the highway to take in some of the more scenic routes. It was a bit of a monster to do, but we figured we might as well save the money on accommodation and have the benefit of a day off in Sydney. Along the way we saw storks, hawks, huge lakes, a 360 degree panorama at the top of a walk in the Booti Booti national park, and very little other traffic on the roads – a very pleasant way to spend a day really.

And so ended our first Ozzie road trip adventure! The next big one will probably be in January, when we’re flying down to Melbourne, then driving to Adelaide on the coastal road (about 1000km), hopefully taking in diving (!), vineyards and walking along the way!

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Link now works

I've fixed the link to the pictures in the post below - it now works

Link now works

I've fixed the link below - it now works

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Coffs Harbour trip

Not had time to do any words to accompany these (to follow) but here are some photos from a good little road trip that we took last weekend. The point was to go diving, but unfortunately the sea was too choppy for the dive boat, so we ended up going walking instead - a happy plan B as it turned out!

http://picasaweb.google.com/emmahutton78/CoffsHarbourRoadTrip71108To101108#

Monday, 3 November 2008

The spare room has been used!

Suddenly it’s Monday evening again and another week has whirled by. This week has been a special week though, thanks to a relatively impromptu, fairly whirlwind and very lovely visit from my mum. Somehow she pulled off an amazing feat of sticking to UK time for her trip here, which meant sleep during the day while I was at work, then evenings of sightseeing and nighttimes of reading and observing the ‘things that go bump in the night’ in our street!!

Particular highlights were the champagne cocktails at the Shangri-La with panoramic views across Sydney Harbour and a beautiful orangey-gold sunset. All too soon it was back to the airport though, and I was definitely a bit misty-eyed…

Drinks that evening with folks from work followed and sitting around sharing beers, good chat and a very balmy Friday evening was a good way to perk myself up. After a few fairly cold days, Friday was hot and humid (36 degrees at one point). But, as is the way here, the weather turned in a flash about 8pm Fri night as a cold southerly wind blew in and the temperature dropped a good ten degrees in ten minutes. It’s quite a phenomenon to experience.

Saturday was spent not doing too much, although we went to the local cinema in the evening to see Body of Lies with Leonardo di Caprio and Russell Crowe. It was okay but pretty forgettable with both actors playing versions of previous characters from previous films and a fairly dodgy plot centred around the CIA, the Middle East and a love interest. Predictable. There was also a gruesome torture scene!

The local cinema is quite fun though – it’s an old art deco place with old fashioned seats and furnishings, and a live organist (!)

Sunday was swimming, a meal out in China Town and then a trip to the Metro Theatre to see The Vines, supported by The Wa-has (teenagers with tight jeans, bad hair and lyrics no more imaginative than “Satan come home” repeated ad infinitum). Don’t really know The Vines stuff that well, they were okay but I wasn’t massively inspired to get to know their stuff any more, and I found myself mostly fascinated by watching the light tech at work, which probably isn’t the kind of review most bands want to get…

And so back to work today. This is my last week of doing my current two jobs. I start my main job properly next week (Mission Australia) after a long weekend away with K when we plan to go diving and driving. It will be good to get into a longer term challenge – it’s been fun doing shorter term stuff but my brain is itching to get stuck into new things!

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Beautiful Botanics

I spent this morning in the Botanic Gardens with my photography course group learning how to use my camera to take close-ups and get the best out of nature photography. It was excellent: I had no idea how much was in the Botanics and you look at things in a different way when you're looking for good photos, so it was a really enjoyable couple of hours. The highlight was seeing hundreds of flying foxes (fruit bats) hanging from the trees while they rested in advance of their nightly hunting. Very cute!

Not sure if this will work but try clicking here for a link to the best of the 250+ photos I took!

Friday, 24 October 2008

Keeping it simple

One of my colleagues in my new job (which I’m doing part time while I finish off the old one) gave me a nice compliment the other day when she said that a tender submission I’d drafted was clear, easy to read and made the points it needed to make without drowning them in waffle. It was good to get that kind of feedback as I do try to avoid writing in jargon and like to minimise the level of b***s**t in my writing. But working in government and policy related fields doesn’t half make that difficult sometimes!

I’ve been working on a series of “issues papers” in my government temp job and because they’ve got to be written in a particular ‘house style’ using policy wonk language, I’m getting heartily sick of writing the same old stock phrases like “in relation to”, “in the context of”, “there are a range of issues”, “evidence suggests” etc.

I’ve also found myself coming up with all kinds of other nonsense in some of my writing, which I think must be the influence of the gobbledegook around me. Today I found myself typing the following with my very own fingers:

“The heterogenous nature of the sector leads to a differential capacity among parts of the sector to conform to regulatory requirements.”

Whaaaaaat!?!?! Thankfully I stopped myself quickly. The revised version may not be brilliant but it’s definitely an improvement.

“The sector’s diversity means that organisations have different abilities to respond to the requirements of regulation.”

It reminds me of being at uni when I became rather fond of using the word “concomitantly” just because lots of articles I read were using it (in case you’re wondering, it means “at the same time as” or “in parallel”.)

On a different note, I also came across this glorious statement in something I read today:

“Of course, one of the biggest accountability controls on NGOs is that if they do not deliver what they promise, in most cases, their revenue streams would be severed either from citizens or other donors.”

This is from an article called ‘An overview of some of the factors driving the development of self-regulation frameworks for the NGO community across the world’ which is available from here.

It nearly made me choke on the cup of tea I was drinking at the time. As a piece of blatant propaganda, I find this one hard to beat. Anyone who knows anything about the reality of the NGO sector knows that revenue streams (grants and donations to you and me) bear almost zero relationship to the effectiveness or quality of the services delivered. It shouldn’t be like that, and lots of people are working hard to change it, but that’s the way it is I'm afraid. A statement like the above is from cloud cuckoo land.

As you may have gathered, regulation of NGOs was the hot topic of research at work today!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Photos from weekend





Some photos from weekend:

Melbourne South Bank & Yarra River

Bridge over Yarra

Wedding photos with CBD in background

The Caulfield Cup crowd

Four seasons in one weekend

Life is full-on at the moment (two jobs, a photo course taking up two evenings each week, a long to do list and long weekends = little time!) But I love it!

Last weekend was K's birthday so we enjoyed a long weekend in Melbourne to celebrate. I joined him and a few work colleagues for post-work drinks in glorious evening sunshine on Friday evening, then we scooted off for dinner in a very swanky restaurant with one of said colleagues and her husband. Then we sped from the restaurant to the Spiegeltent, which was making a guest appearance on Melbourne's South Bank for the Melbourne Festival (kind of like the Edinburgh one but with about 0.1% of the acts). We'd booked to see a band called Husky who turned out to be pretty mediocre, so we gave up the ghost after an hour and spent some time in the bar drinking pints instead!

Saturday morning was a bit lazy and recovery-based, but then the excitement kicked off again as we made our way to the races! Horse racing is massive in Melbourne at this time of year and we'd got tickets for the Caulfield Cup. I'm not quite sure how to describe this experience - basically it was full of p**ed up 22 year olds with tonnes of fake tan, boys with'trendy' hairstyles, girls with huge sunglasses, tiny dresses and big heels, and LOTS of alcohol being consumed. Kind of like what I imagine would happen if Ascot met Eastenders met Hollyoaks - a bizarre lovechild I grant you!

Anyway, once we'd figured out where the hell the racecourse was, had sourced and consumed some food and procured ourselves a bottle of champagne (plastic of course!), placed a bet and even better, found ourselves a seat, we were sorted and settled down to enjoy the action. It was all very silly but good fun and no, we didn't win...

We then got a train back into the city and spent a pleasant evening in various bars in beautiful sunshine and a very nice temperature, watching the world go by, chatting and generally relaxing.

Sunday morning was brunch time - I'd arranged to meet my sort-of-boss in my new job, so we went out with him and his family - always a nice way to get to know people! The weather had turned around completely overnight and the temperature had plummeted from 29 degrees on Sat to about 15 on Sunday - brrr!!!

The lowlight of the weekend was the play we saw on Sun eve - Happy Hour featuring Wendy Houston, who combines 'words and movement' in an apparently 'humourous and challenging' one-woman show about drinking. It was crap. But it provided more evidence of the complete cultural starvation experienced by your average Aussie as the rest of the audience were all hee-hawing and waxing lyrical about how fabulous Wendy's insights were (as K pointed out, her only funny lines were stolen from someone else!)

Anyway, perhaps I'm just not getting it...

So after a busy-whizzy weekend, it was an early flight back to Sydney on Monday morning and straight back to work. I can't believe it's Wednesday evening already!

This weekend will be a quiet one, so will hopefully get time to put some more pics up on here...

Monday, 13 October 2008

Photos






Here are some pics:

View from our apartment
Lunch on our balcony (view in background)
Me at wine tasting a few weeks ago
Me on a hill & Pacific ocean
Boats at harbour near our apartment

Busy in a good way

It’s Monday evening and I’m typing this after a busy day in my new job, a busy-in-a-good-way weekend and a busy-getting-settled week last week. So, it’s been busy!

A few highlights from the weekend…

Fri eve drinks in the Bavarian Beer Café with colleagues from my and K’s offices; they celebrate Oktoberfest in reasonable style here!

Sat am – Foxtel technician actually turning up (long saga from week before involving a furious K and many wasted hours waiting for non-arrival) and installing Foxtel – I’m happy because we have BBC World, K is happy because he can now watch premiership matches!

Sat pm drive down the coast, through a simply beautiful national park with lots of luscious scenery, a calmly meandering river and only a smattering of people pootling about in boats and on two legs; followed by a coast-hugging drive with fantastic views of the huge expanse of the Pacific ocean as far as we could see. So good to get out of the city and remind ourselves of how big this place is!

Sat eve seafood dinner at “The Lazy Lobster” in Brighton-le-sands (Brighton meets France without a pier or deckchairs in sight!) followed by Baileys in the hotel bar afterwards (and then another – so moreish!)

Sun am 10K race along the beachfront with the unexpected bonus of a much faster than expected time (sub 49 minutes!) I was running without a watch so perhaps the secret of success is [rich food + wine + Baileys – clockwatching]??

Sun pm navigation around the roads of Sydney, dodging tolls (we didn’t have the right e-pass on our hire car) and managing to find Ikea and then home again, all without a proper map and no major arguments between navigator (me) and driver (K).

So now it’s back to work and all the things that make the weeks pass by so quickly. I’ve started a photography course which is taking up two evenings each week, but hopefully it will improve my photography skills and I will be able to post up some masterpieces (!)

Next weekend we’re off to Melbourne for a long weekend as it’s K’s birthday. Looking forward to it already!

(Tried to upload pics but some sort of prob with site - to follow!)

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Where's the evidence?

Note – this is another policy-related posting which is probably not of much interest to most people!

In conversation the other day, the concept of the “social construction of science” came up, which reminded me, in a slightly tangential way, of a recent article I read about “evidence-based policy”. Evidence-based policy is something that I naturally incline towards – it focuses on asking and answering the question of ‘what works’ in order to develop, implement and resource social policy decisions. So, for example, in my line of work, the question would be ‘what works in terms of getting people from highly disadvantaged backgrounds into sustainable employment?’. Answers to this question at the moment would probably be based on a fair amount of information which is difficult to compare across programs, a healthy amount of values-based rhetoric and a nice dose of personal bias, rather than systematic, comparable, valid and reliable research – something I think needs to change!

However!! Evidence-based policy is one of these things that sounds good in theory but is actually difficult to achieve in practice. Or at least, I think it needs to be recognised that in practice, one person’s evidence base may be another person’s poison (or something like that). The argument is better articulated by the article I read, which summarises,

“There are three main kinds of challenge to the rational mission of ‘evidence-based’ policy. One arises from the inherently political and value-based nature of policy debate and decision-making…Secondly, information is perceived and used in different ways, by actors looking through different ‘lenses’…The third challenge to a rationalist concept of evidence-based policy is that the complex modern arrangements of networks, partnerships and collaborative governance are difficult to harness to the traditional forms of knowledge management, policy development and program evaluation in the public sector…”

Or to put it another way,

“Policy decisions emerge from politics, judgement and debate, rather than being deduced from empirical analysis. Policy debate and analysis involves an interplay between facts, norms and desired actions, in which ‘evidence’ is diverse and contestable."

From Head, B. W. (2008), ‘Three Lenses of Evidence-Based Policy’, Australian Journal of Public Administration Volume 67 Issue 1

So I guess the point is that even if we want to use rational, empirical evidence as the basis for decision-making, it’s difficult to escape the fact that even the question of ‘which evidence should we consider?’ is ridden with value judgements and inherent assumptions. In my original example, the question ‘what works in terms of getting people from highly disadvantaged backgrounds into sustainable employment?’ is, of course, based on an assumption that this is a good thing to do (not everyone would agree). Answering the question then involves another set of assumptions about what employment is, what ‘disadvantaged’ means, timeframes for evaluating ‘what works’ (is it as soon as someone gets a job or is it 2 years down the line?) and so on, and so forth. To some extent, this doesn’t necessarily matter as long as it’s recognised, but where it does matter is in terms of building up a sense of ‘truth’. If the question ‘what works in terms of getting people from highly disadvantaged backgrounds into sustainable employment?’ is seen as not worth answering by those in a position of power and with resources to expend on answering it, then the very question may never become part of any “policy truth”.

This brings me back to the concept of the “social construction of science” and I guess my thought is that any claim to have an absolute truth is invalid because it fails to recognise that as a society, we make choices about which facts we put resources into developing an empirical evidence base about, and which we don’t. And decisions about resources are influenced by politics, personal relationships, corruption, bias, personal values, imperfect information and who knows what else! Scientific truth may be based on rationality and empirical evidence, but the truths we focus on are entirely subjective.

As a slightly related aside, I came across a headline today that Smoking ‘costs NHS billions’. Shocking huh? Those pesky smokers coughing and spluttering away all our hard-earned taxpayer resources. That’s until you read further into the article, where you come across the fact that smokers pay around three times as much in tax as it costs to treat smoking-related diseases on the NHS. It’s a small but important example of how ‘facts’ can mean different things depending on their context. Interesting that the headline wasn’t Smokers single-handedly prop up NHS funding.

Anyway, my points may not be very well-developed as I’m writing this on tea break at work! But hopefully you know what I mean…

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Are straight teeth a cosmetic luxury?




I was talking to someone the other day whose daughter has just got a plate for her teeth (a mini-brace). Having gone through the horror of “train tracks” on both sets of teeth at age 14, I was sympathising about the indignities of orthodontic treatment. However, it emerged during the conversation that this kind of dentistry is seen as “elective” in Australia’s healthcare system – i.e. it’s not a necessity and is something you choose to have. This has a couple of ramifications. Firstly, it means that even if you have private health insurance (which most middle class families do), you still have to pay for the majority of costs yourself, which for the type of braces I had would be around £3,500. If you don’t have private health insurance (like most working class families), then you have to pay for the full cost.

Secondly, the result is that braces are seen as a kind of status symbol – it means your parents can afford to get your teeth fixed. So the kid with the squint teeth from the poorer family ends up with a double whammy of stigma and bad teeth!!

I was pretty shocked by this. My parents can correct me if I’m wrong but I’m fairly sure that if we’d had to fork out that kind of cash, then there’s no way I’d have the nice straight teeth I’ve got today. Ok, maybe this wouldn’t have been the end of my world but it would have made a pretty big difference to my self-confidence, not to mention my ability to eat apples properly! Makes me glad I grew up in the UK and really makes me appreciate the value of the NHS as an equaliser of people.

Monday, 6 October 2008

A new abode

We moved into our new apartment in Kirribilli on Friday, with a surprisingly minimal amount of fuss and hassle (perhaps because I went to work while K did it all!) By mid Fri evening we were fully unpacked (although we have some more stuff arriving during the week from storage) and so it's been a relaxing weekend of sorting out to do lists, browsing the local area and doing the things you do on weekends anywhere.

Kirribilli has a real village feel to it, which is a bit of a new one for me as I've not really experienced that before. It's a bit like a mini-Stockbridge in Edinburgh, whereas I've been an East End/Leith girl for years! Anyway, it's good to do something different and I quite like it so far - I'm writing this at the local neighbourhood centre where there's also a small library and various community classes (yoga, pilates, parent & toddler classes, that kind of thing). The highlight of the area so far is the Kirribilli Deli, which is a foodie's delight - stacks of cheeses, olives, specialist oils, homemade lasagnes, cakes, breads, the lot. Mmmmm...Even better, it also has all of the things you'd expect to find in any small supermarket (loo roll, laundry powder, a mini screwdriver set - my shopping list yesterday!)

Pics will appear soon of our Opera House view - it's fantastic and I love waking up in the morning to the sight of the CBD and the harbour - WOW!

Apart from moving, I also started one of my new jobs last week, just part-time to begin with while I finish up my temp job, but really good to get into it and to be back in social enterprise-land. Home at last!

Other things we've been doing...

Went to our second Sydney FC match on Saturday evening with K's friend Fraser and his family. 12,000+ crowd which was quite decent, and a good game made even better by a last-kick-of-the-game equaliser for Sydney - found myself leaping out of my seat to celebrate! Funny how loyalties can be born so quickly!

Last weekend was fun too. On Saturday night we went to the Opera House to see flamenco ballet, which was amazing. We were in the main concert hall, a very impressive space indeed. And the dancing was absolutely brilliant. I was mesmerised for the whole 2 hours. See this clip for a flavour of the Sara Baras Flamenco Ballet company.

Then on Sunday we went to the "Taste Orange" wine & food festival at Bondi Beach. It was an absolute scorcher of a day, 30+, when we arrived and really too hot to be in the midday sun drinking wine. We went off for some lunch and by the time I was halfway through my greek salad, one of Sydney's famous "Southerlies" had blown in, the temperature had dropped about 10 degrees and we all had to take refuge inside from the gusts of wind blowing tables and chairs over! I'd been told about this phenomenon but it was bizarre to experience it. Luckily, when we returned to the wine festival, we found half of it in shelter so were able to relax and enjoy a few samples of Orange region wine in comfort! It's such a hard life sometimes (!)

Monday, 29 September 2008

Apples and oranges

Something we’ve been trying to work out – and that people have asked about – is how the cost of living here compares to the UK.

Here’s what I’ve noticed so far…

1. Trying to do simple exchange rate conversions doesn’t really work because the rate is fluctuating a lot at the moment. So when we arrived it was £1:$2 which made food and shopping seem relatively expensive but salaries seem high. Now it’s back to about £1:$2.25 so shopping seems cheaper but our pay packets seem less impressive!

2. Expectations of lifestyle are quite different. Here, it's pretty average to own your own plot of land and build your own house with pool, outdoor patio etc. Similarly, a ‘small’ car here is a Ford Focus or equivalent and most people have 4 wheel drives or “Utes”. So if you don’t go in for all of that (we prefer to save as much as we can for holidays!), then your relative cost of living seems quite reasonable.

3. Australia seems to be fairly high-salary, low-tax, for the middle classes anyway, or to coin the media’s terminology, the ‘average working family’. Although you hit the 40% tax band at a lower level than you do in the UK, you pay quite a bit less in council tax as the ‘rates’ here just pay for roads and rubbish collection.

4. But! If you’ve got kids, or are likely to need anything other than basic health care at any point in your life, you’re likely to have to budget for private health insurance and, for a significant number of people, for private education. Apparently something like 35% of Aussies send their kids to non-state schools, with 2/3 of these being Catholic fee-paying schools and the rest being what we’d think of as ‘public school’.

5. Australia has a compulsory superannuation (pension) scheme where employers have to pay 9% of your salary into a superannuation fund. But Aussies have very much less by way of other employment benefits. Sick pay and holiday pay are much less generous than in the UK.

6. And, unbelievably in the 21st century, there is NO right to paid maternity or paternity leave OF ANY KIND. That’s right – nothing, nada, zip, diddly squat. Women just have to pop off, have their kids and rely entirely on their partners or their own savings to support them. There’s also no state support for childcare as far as I can make out. I find it incredible and shocking in equal measure and it really makes me appreciate the benefits of having had a Labour government in power in Britain for 10 years. The new Australian Govt is looking into the whole issue and is considering changing this, so...

So all in all, for me and K, the upshot is that we’ve got a better quality of life here, relative to our earnings, than we would have in the UK. But that’s primarily because a) we have different expectations to most Aussies b) we’re not planning to have kids here and c) we’re not planning to grow old and infirm here.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Battle of the Cockroach and other events




This week’s assorted happenings

Monday

Signed lease on our new apartment. We move in 3 Oct and I can’t wait to get in and settled. Whether or not you believe in these things (and I don’t really), I have many of the characteristics of a typical Cancerian – nesting instincts and a desire to have my home in order, plus a craving of routine and a fondness for habits – which means that the thought of being in one place for at least a year, with all my possessions around me (well, apart from the oodles of stuff that’s still in the UK!) and having the ability to form routines like finding regular running routes, a nice brunch café, a ‘local and things like that, makes me very happy!

Tuesday

Early morning second interview for job I’ve been offered. Things are done a bit differently here, so this was more of an informal chat (albeit with a set of structured questions), but it was with group of senior people so I guess it was mine to throw away! Thankfully it went well and was actually an enjoyable experience!

Out for a drink after work with one of my colleagues, a girl about my age with lots of things in common – was great to swap stories about working in the community sector/having mid-to-late twenties career crises/temping in the public sector! K joined us later and then he and I stayed in the pub for something to eat. I’m turning into even more of a lightweight than normal, although the early start may have been a factor, and had to leave my final drink and insisted we left at 9.30 - cue falling asleep on the couch by 10.30!

Friday

Found out I’ve definitely got the job! Still need to have discussion around specifics but they want me, I want them, it’s all good. Got message in the morning so had skip in my step for rest of the day!

Saturday

Have been trying to get into a habit of getting up a bit earlier, so I can start to go running in the morning – as summer hits, it’s going to be the only feasible option I think. Plus I’m naturally lazy so after a long day at work it takes extra effort to do any form of exercise. Crap as Australian TV is, my capacity for watching mindless rubbish is quite high! So today, even though it was Saturday, I was up at 8am although not for exercise purposes – just trying to get my body used to the feeling of being up! I’d bought a few books on Friday so spent a couple of hours reading in bed. I bought three books from the Popular Penguins range, that’s also out in the UK (although interestingly, it’s a different set of books). If you haven’t seen them, I’d really recommend them – Penguin have chosen 50 books from their annals since they began publishing in the 1930s, a blend of fiction, non-fiction, ‘classics’ and more modern favourites. When I looked through the UK list, of those I’d read, I would agree that 90% of them were well worth it, which gave me confidence in the remainder. Here in Oz, they have the added advantage of only costing $10 (about £5), which is considerably less than the average paperback, which is about $25.

Anyway, after whiling away a few hours with “South”, Ernest Shackleton’s story of the Endurance expedition to the Antarctic, I walked into town in the midday heat (phew!) and after collecting my kit for Sunday’s 9K “Run the Bridge” race, caught a bus to Clovelly beach, where I bought some ‘hot chips’ (that’s normal chips to you and me), spread myself out on a towel in the shade and passed a very pleasant afternoon of more reading and relaxing to the sights and sounds of Sydney families playing in the sun. (An aside – I’ve noticed that people here look really old compared to their actual age – it must be the sun, so I am now scrupulously slapping on SPF30 whenever I’m in it for any length of time! It was interesting to watch people today – none of this European ‘avoid the sun between 11 and 3’ approach – they were all basking away for hour upon hour – scary).

Went to the gym once it got dark and then had a quiet Saturday night in, with the aim of being fully rested for my early race on Sunday. The only blot on an otherwise lovely day was a war of attrition with a rogue cockroach that I spotted in our bedroom around 8pm. Think it must have been disturbed when I switched the air conditioning on (the unit is outside and looks pretty dusty and like a good home for creepy crawlies). Anyway, it was crawling along the wall above our bed, so I tried to coax it back in the direction of the patio doors which I think it came through, but instead of taking the hint, it decided to belly flop onto the bed. Some comedic scenes ensued involving the cockroach scuttling under the covers, shrieks of horror from me, much poking, prodding and gentle lifting of bedsheets and eventually the damn thing disappearing under the bed.

At this point I decided to forget about it, assuming it would crawl back to whichever dark crevice it had come from, but oh no, half an hour later, I came back upstairs to find it on the wall above the bed again!! I took a different tactic this time, and decided to see what it wanted. I kept a stealthy eye on its progress (with the other eye on a George Clooney film on TV). All it did was crawl from one side of the wall to the other, stopped for about 10 minutes, then went back again. How dull! If it had just gone back outside once it was done, that would’ve been the end of it, but for some reason it just lurked around near the bottom of the bed. By this time I’d sourced some insect killer and as it was now within spraying distance, I’m sorry to say a brutal incident followed. Boy, those things take a while to die – I used a LOT of spray and it was still staggering around for a good few minutes (apologies to anyone who finds this kind of thing offensive!) Its sorry corpse is now in the bin outside our apartment and so far, none of its friends have come back to get their revenge. Phew.

I realise this isn’t the most exciting way to spend a Saturday evening but it kept me entertained! Typical that K is away this weekend - hobnobbing at some work-related shindig where he and various ‘big thinkers’ from both the UK and Oz are gathering to discuss how to sort out the problems of poverty and disadvantage and inequality – while sipping chilled wine by the side of the pool in a luxury resort – hmmm! K is a stand-in for someone else he works with and not sure if it will really be his scene, but we’ll see. Anyway, it meant I had to face the Battle of the Cockroach on my own (normally I’d just yell for him and it would all be over in 2 minutes as he would just pick it up and fling it away!) Perhaps he planted it to remind me of his usefulness!?

Sunday

Up at 6.30am, straight into my running gear, a light breakfast and then a 10 minute train journey to Milson’s Point for the start of the 9K “Run the Bridge” race that I’ve been vaguely training for over the past few weeks. Milson’s Point is at the north end of the Harbour Bridge, and is very close to our new apartment, so it was good to see what kind of running loop I can do from there!

The race itself was pretty enjoyable, if somewhat badly organised (too congested at the start and throughout the course, runners not grouped according to speed, water stations pretty shambolic, finish not clearly marked in advance so difficult to do any kind of sprint at the end). But there was a good atmosphere, an impressive number and array of people running and some absolutely spectacular views, so these minor things can be forgiven!

The course took us over the Harbour Bridge and then down through the Botanic Gardens, before looping back to finish at the Opera House itself. It was hot – very hot – and hilly in places – but very satisfying to do. My time was a bit quicker than I was expecting – 46 minutes (minus a minute for a loo stop en route), which is close to 50 min pace for a 10K. I’m pleased as I didn’t think I had that in my legs and I actually feel like I could have gone a bit quicker – I couldn’t really get into my stride because there were so many runners and also lots of people walking the route. I can feel the running bug biting again, or perhaps it’s just my competitive streak!

So now I’m back home, having showered, lunched, snoozed, done some laundry and read a bit more. It’s a roaster of a day today and I’m quite happy to potter about in the shade for a bit, resting my weary legs! I had lunch outside on our balcony-thingy today, which was lovely. Our apartment backs onto the backs of lots of others, so it was nice to hear the vague sounds of other people’s lives floating around as I ate and drank.

Photos are of a) balcony and my lunch today b) K & Harbour Bridge, we’re going to be living just off to the right of the picture! and c) my new office building – no, I’m not going to work for HSBC, but I’ll be in that building on the 7th or 8th floor – good views!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Aussie lexicon

There are some funny expressions used here. Here's a few that spring to mind.

To auspice

To set up, run or manage. For example, "the project was auspiced by the Department".

To flick

To send an email to someone, particularly if it’s something for comment or feedback or discussion. For example, “I’ll have a look and flick it to you”.

To oversight

To oversee (strange confusion between verb ‘to see’ and noun ‘sight’!)

Peak

An organisation that provides a membership or advocacy role for others. Known in the UK as intermediaries.

Sydney in Spring

Spring is glorious here. It was 28 degrees yesterday and walking round Sydney city centre was like walking around in a warm bath. Even by the time the sun went down, it was still balmy enough to sit outside in a t-shirt and feel just fine. Today I sat in one of the big public squares to eat my lunch and basked in the baking sunshine. Although I’ll have to be careful and start using sunscreen soon as I had a distinct bit of colour on my skin by the time I got back after a mere 20 mins in the sun.

On the subject of lunch, this is another big thing in Sydney (and Australia)’s favour. In a five minute radius from my office, I can go and buy not just your average sandwich, but a whole range of yes, sandwiches (toasted, grilled, Turkish, multigrain, umpteen salads and meats), plus a vast array of fresh salads, soups, sushi, noodles, curries, burgers, fries, pizza…the list goes on and on. And it’s all delivered quickly and fairly cheaply. Today I had Malaysian chicken with flat noodles. Last week I had a multitude of different salads and one day (with a slight hangover) I had BBQ chicken and chips. It’s truly fantastic! On the downside, though, I can’t even begin to imagine how much waste goes to landfill as a result of all this – everything comes in a plastic box, with a plastic cutlery set and there are no recycling bins anywhere to be seen…come on Sydney, get your act together!!

The same could be said for the general approach to water consumption and saving. Australia is, famously, in the grip of a drought. But despite this, there are no water saving measures in place on any kind of scale. Even when it rains heavily, which it does (when it rains, it rains properly and for hours at a time), the water just runs straight into the sea – surely there must be a better way!?

Similarly, you’d think that a country like Australia might have invested in solar power on some kind of significant scale – but no, nothing doing. I’m sure it’s not as simple as you’d think but really, thousands of square miles are virtually uninhabitable because of the baking heat and yet there’s nothing in place to harness this!

Monday, 15 September 2008

To laugh or cry

I came across a sentence today, while doing some background reading on self-directed services for people with disabilities, which made me laugh out loud (that doesn’t often happen in my line of work!)

The final sentence in the paragraph below may not be all that amusing to most people, but for me it resonates with so many things I’ve seen in the past and really epitomises what is wrong with so much social and public policy.

“The xxx evaluation examined the impact of the program on all stakeholders. As stated by xxx in xxx, the program intended to assist students in their move from school to further education, training, employment and recreational activities and to facilitate the development of a flexible, consumer-responsive service system. However, there were no clearly stated aims and objectives for the program that could be used for its evaluation.”

Shedloads of money gets thrown at all kinds of initiatives and ideas, often according to ministerial or other political whims. Then, when some poor researcher or consultant is dragged in to try to make sense of what’s happened and identify lessons that we could all learn for the future (and therefore avoid wasting precious resources), they find a whole bundle of activities taking place, with “no clearly stated aims and objectives”. How can you figure out what works if you don’t know what you were trying to achieve in the first place?

It made me laugh because I could almost hear the writer’s silent cursing, but really it makes me cry.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Having a home

Following on from this week’s earlier good news, we’ve just found out that we’ve got the apartment we wanted in Kirribilli. Views of the Opera House, here we come!!

We’d been told lots of horror stories about how difficult it was going to be to get somewhere, with tales of people outbidding each other during 10 minute apartment viewings and stories of estate agents refusing to lease to anyone without squillions of references. So it’s been a very pleasant surprise to get the very first place we applied for, although it’s been a real exercise in bureaucracy and has taken way longer than it would in the UK – more than 2 weeks from viewing and saying we wanted to move in, to actually getting a ‘yes’ from the estate agent.

Thinking about it though, I realise that K and I are in an extremely advantageous position. We’ve both got good salaries, we’ve got no major financial commitments (i.e. kids!), we’ve both got jobs where we can be flexible about taking time off to sort out viewings, appointments, references etc, we’re “respectably middle class” and we can afford a fair bit more than the average rent. If we’ve found the process a little bit stressful and unsettling, what must it be like for people who don’t have all of those advantages?

We knew that if it ended up taking a bit longer than we had hoped to find somewhere to live, we could always move into a hotel for a few weeks – it would have been expensive and inconvenient, but it would have been relatively easy for us to do – we could have cut back on a few meals out or bottles of wine to make savings.

What do you do when you don’t have that option? It reminds me how close we all are, whether we choose to think about it or not, to homelessness in one form or another. For the lucky ones among us with financial security, a strong network of family and friends, education and good employment, the vulnerability may not seem so apparent. But for others, the difference between having a home and being homeless is wafer-thin. A few months of not working; disability; a violent partner; debt getting out of control; a family background that leaves you with no foundation to start in life; a breakdown of some kind. These things can happen to anyone.

Putting public spending in the hands of the public

One of the things I’ve been looking at a little bit in my temp policy work is the potential for social care services (for older people, people with disabilities and their carers) to be completely reconfigured so that the people who use the services actually get to choose how to spend the funding that is allocated to them. In the UK, this approach is known as self-directed services or personal budgets, and there have been some really interesting trials of how this could work.

This isn’t actually government policy here but I’ve been asked to have an initial look at what the implications of a move in this direction would be for things like regulation, access to services and so on.

It’s a fascinating concept – so simple – you work out how much money gets spent on meeting someone’s needs and you give them control over how to spend this – but so fraught with lots of potential resistance from vested interests, and riddled with all kinds of risks, whether real or imagined. For more, have a look at this report.

When you think about it, paying lots of tax to the state so that it can employ countless bureaucrats to process everything to death, seems like a daft way of doing things. There must be a better way!

One of the reasons this is being thought about in Australia, the UK and other developed countries is the well-known fact that the population is ageing, and that with ageing comes an increased need for care.

A recent report shows that by 2010, there will be an estimated 1.5 million Australians with a “severe or profound core activity limitation”. This is around 6% of the population. As life expectancy increases, so does “expected years of life with disability”. In fact, for women in recent years, 90% of additional life expectancy comprised “extra years with disability”. Hmmm. I’ve always said it will be a little blue pill for me when I hit my eighties!

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Good things come to those who wait

Two good things have happened this week. First, my brother is now officially a clinical psychologist – WELL DONE PAUL!!!!! Most people probably have no idea how much hard work that takes (and I’ve only seen it from one step removed) but believe me, it’s been a huge effort and I am so proud of the new Dr in the family!! For a great insight into the work that he’s been doing as part of his thesis, have a look at www.sowhatispsychosisanyway.blogspot.com, which I think is fascinating (no bias here of course).

Secondly, and hopefully I’m not jinxing anything here, I have success to report on the job-hunting front. Nothing is 100% confirmed yet, but barring major incidents or disasters, it looks like I’ll be doing two jobs from November! I won’t go into the ins and outs of how this has transpired – needless to say it’s been an interesting time of offers and opportunities and me trying to find a way to have my cake and eat it!!

The main thing I’ll be doing is leading an ambitious, national program of social enterprise development for a major Australian welfare organisation (I won’t name them until it’s all signed, sealed and delivered). The focus will be on using a transitional labour market model (on-the-job traineeships allied with vocational training) to support marginalised young people to access and sustain mainstream education or employment. Some really interesting commercial opportunities are on the table, plus the organisation in question has excellent links with government and corporate supporters, so it’s an amazing opportunity for me to lead something on a large scale which could, if we get it right, have significant impact, not only on individual young people but on the policy environment here in Australia. I’ll be working with senior staff across the organisation, and corporate/government partners, to design, set up and roll out the business model across each state and territory in Australia.

Then, on a very part-time basis, I’ll be supporting a brand new organisation which aims to create employment for people who can’t access jobs elsewhere, by buying existing businesses and developing supportive, integrated workforces over time. My role there, as part of a small management team, will be to set up the framework and accompanying policies for the business managers to work with when they’re recruiting and employing people who may not have worked for many years, if at all.

As you can imagine, I’m really excited about both jobs and feel like I’ll definitely have the challenge I was hoping to have in my time here. And hopefully both will give me strong experience and a useful perspective to bring back to the UK in 3 years!

Fingers crossed, I’ll be finishing up in my temp job and kicking off both jobs in late Oct/early Nov – wow!!!

Probably couldn’t have written a better script for this if I’d tried and am currently in a slight state of shock at how well it’s all worked out. Am particularly happy with myself for not rushing into taking the first opportunity that came along and forcing myself to wait for the right thing. Patience isn’t one of my strong points (no, I hear you all cry!!!!) and I’ve had to repeat various mantras to myself for the last few months to stop myself randomly applying for all kinds of jobs that I could do (but wouldn’t necessarily be happy with long-term).

Note to Sarah if you’re reading – I remember speaking to you about this way back before you left for SL, and I’ve often recalled our lunch in Tate Modern when I’ve been on the brink of giving in to temptation – so thanks!!!

Monday, 8 September 2008

Saying sorry

It started raining in Sydney on Friday morning and didn’t stop until late Saturday evening. Not just drizzly rain. Proper, verging-on-monsoon, soaked-to-the-skin-in-two-minutes rain. So outdoor activities were off the agenda and I decided to go to the Australian Museum. Most of it was okay, but a bit ordinary, especially when you’ve been spoiled by huge and very well put together museums in the UK like the Natural History Museum or the Museum of Scotland. But it did have one exhibition that was particularly affecting and moving: Indigenous Australians.

I was actually quite surprised to see this in the first place as there is very little acknowledgement here of the fact that Australia even existed as an inhabited island before the late 18th century. Where the 40,000+ years of pre-colonial history is recognised, it’s often in a tokenistic or patronising way, so my hopes weren’t high for the exhibition.

Thankfully I was wrong to be so pessimistic and it turned out to be a very moving, sensitive, thoughtful and frank exploration of the pretty awful history of colonisation, exploitation and abuse of people that has taken place over the last 200-odd years.

No-one knows exactly how many indigenous people lived in Australia before white settlement – estimates are around 350-500,000 or more. Within decades of the Europeans arriving, this number had been decimated and may have been as low as tens of thousands, with those who did survive being forced into pretty uninhabitable environments and/or ‘reserves’. This was partly because of the impact of new diseases like smallpox and TB, which the indigenous population had no resistance to. But it was also due to the large-scale intimidation and effective starvation of indigenous communities, as well as slaughter of “the blacks”, which was considered a “frontier sport” by many and was by and large sanctioned by the governing authorities (i.e. the British).

Although the worst of this behaviour did get reined in eventually, official policies of forced assimilation of indigenous people with white culture continued right until the 1970s. The most painful of these to read about was the forced separation of indigenous children from their families, known as the Stolen Generation. Over a period of around 100 years, from around 1869 until the 1970s, somewhere in the region of 100,000 indigenous children were removed from their families and either placed into institutional care or fostered and adopted by white families. Motivations for this appear to have been a mixture of well-intentioned attempts to protect children from abuse (no-one knows how misguided or not this was), and more sinister beliefs about ‘purifying the white race’ by breeding out “the blacks”. Whatever the reasons behind it, reading and listening to the personal accounts of some of the children who were taken in this way was harrowing, to say the least.

In Australia today, indigenous people have a significantly lower life expectancy than other groups, have worse health, get much poorer school results, are 11 times more likely to be imprisoned and are more likely to be homeless.

I haven’t got nearly enough of a handle on the issues involved to say much more than this at this stage, but what I will say is that it is really challenging to deal with a) the reality of barely concealed prejudice and discrimination that bubbles just beneath the surface of ‘civilised’ Australian society and b) the complexity of potential options from here and how to develop these, given the history of imbalances of power, the fact that it’s tricky to hold today’s Australians to account for the ‘sins of the father’ and the need to avoid over-sensitivity towards cultural differences. I’m also highly aware of my own advantaged position in Australian society, which has come about by virtue of my own colonial forefathers (in some from) and is even today, down to the fact that I come from the UK rather than, say, Vietnam or somewhere unlucky enough to be off the immigration target list for Australia.

The museum exhibition ended with a full reproduction of the newly-elected Australian Government’s apology to indigenous Australians for what has gone before. I hadn’t fully appreciated the symbolic power of this until I’d been through the exhibition and it made me glad that I’m here at a time when this apology has taken place and there is, whatever the challenges inherent, a willingness and a desire to change things for the better. I’d recommend anyone to read the full text of the apology. Some of it’s a bit political and/or cringe-inducing, but put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s family and community has experienced some of the things described above, and I imagine you will feel some impact from it.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

And some more!






And finally (for the moment), boats in the bay; our diving holiday island in Borneo; view of Melbourne centre from St Kilda; Watson's Bay in Sydney.

Some more pics







Some more pics - Circular Quay, where we get ferries; fancy boats at the Sydney Boat Show; St Kilda in Melbourne; the surf at Bronte beach; me on a sunny day walking along the coast (we'd just seen whales in the ocean behind me).

Some pictures







In no particular order, these are an AFL game, the view from our hotel in Kuala Lumpur of the Petronas Towers, Camp Cove in Sydney, view of Sydney from Watson's Bay and the Harbour Bridge at night, from the bar underneath the Opera House

Monday, 1 September 2008

Monday 1 September: Spring has sprung

Today is officially the first day of Spring in Australia and just to prove the point, it was the first day that I’ve been able to walk to work without a jacket and the first morning that we’ve not put our little gas heater on straight away when we got up. My body is a bit confused by all this as it’s gearing up for its annual retreat into winter hibernation mode, but I’m sure I’ll adapt!

Highlights of the past week…

End of luggage saga
Finally getting our bags from the UK! The three bits of luggage that we last saw at Edinburgh airport after being presented with an astronomical bill for excess baggage, and shunted back in a taxi to my mum’s for shipping by freight, have finally made it into our possession again after much paperwork, hassle and delay. It’s good to have a choice of clothes again and even better to have my ipod back!

A new abode?
Finding an apartment that we want to rent and, fingers crossed, being top of the list for getting to be its tenants. K did all the hard work on this and spent a few days last week trekking round various places. I’ve not seen the place he’s settled on but it sounds great and has views over the harbour including a glimpse of the Opera House! It’s far more common to use estate agents here and there are very few places for rent through the classified ads, so we’ve had to learn about the whole application process, which basically seems to involve a ‘points mean prizes’ approach where we get more points the more we earn, and the more proof of ID we can provide. It’s a bit strange but there you have it. We should find out later this week if we’ve got the place or not.

More fabulous food
Two stand-out meals from the last week. First, the Nepalese Kitchen, a 25-cover place in Surry Hills, which we went to on Sat eve after having been to the gym (how smug and virtuous!). I was ravenous so insisted on going for an early dinner at 6pm, which was just as well as we hadn’t booked and by the time we left, the place was full. Amazing food. Mild curries, packed with fresh spices and herbs, with flavours that woke up all my tastebuds and stayed with me for a lovely aftertaste. We shared a bhunta (aubergine, tomato and potato) and a house special chicken & pumpkin curry, with really nicely textured dal (not too thick, not too runny), a couple of ‘achars’ which are chutneys and relishes designed to bring out the flavours, a couple of rotis and some rice. All washed down with a lime soda. Fabulous.

The second meal to mention was vegan yum cha at Bhodi, in Hyde Park. We met an old friend of K’s and his family for lunch there before going to watch the football (see below). It was their choice and a great one it was. We were a bit early and they were running late, and as I’d just been for a long run (smug and virtuous again!), we started without them. We didn’t really know what we were doing though, as we’d never been for ‘yum cha’ before. But we watched and learned and basically the way it works is that you sit down and wait for a constant procession of staff to bring all kinds of little nibbly things to your table. We kept saying yes to things without knowing what they were and had soon stuffed ourselves silly!

“Who do we support? We support Sydney!! Who do we support…” and so on
Along with about 11,000 other people who are in the vast minority here who actually understand and appreciate the value of the beautiful game (most of them expats or offspring of expats), we went to see Sydney FC in a mighty tussle with Perth Glory. It was a seven goal thriller, well not really, but it was quite amusing and about a third of the price of an equivalent game in the UK. The most impressive part of the whole thing was the diehard section of the crowd behind the goal, who kept up their singing and drumming and chanting for the whole 90 minutes and seem to have developed their own particular habits including synchronised scarf-twirling and synchronised scarf-throwing-in-the-air-and-catching-again. Not sure how long they’d last on the terraces back home, but it was good entertainment! Bizarrely though, there were almost no away fans so the vitriol of the chants was a bit unfocused and this seems to have led to a splinter in the home support, between “The Cove” and the “Sydney Soccer Crew”, who amalgamated for most of the match but then split into their separate factions at the beginning and the end. Strange.