Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Anzac day

Saturday was Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance of the Australian & New Zealand soldiers who have fought in various wars.

The Aussies are big on the "Anzac spirit" although I'm not entirely sure what that means exactly. Here's what Wikipedia says it is:

"The Anzac spirit or Anzac legend is a concept which suggests that Australian and New Zealand soldiers possess shared characteristics, specifically the qualities those soldiers are believed to have shown on the battlefield in World War I. These qualities cluster around several ideas, including endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour, and mateship. According to this concept, the soldiers are perceived to have been innocent and fit, stoical and laconic, irreverent in the face of authority, naturally egalitarian and disdainful of British class differences.

The Anzac spirit also tends to capture the idea of an Australian "national character", with the landing at Anzac Cove often described as being the moment of birth of the nationhood of both Australia and New Zealand."

Hmmm. I'm sceptical about this. I've not seen any evidence that Aussies are particularly into "endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour and mateship". And from the evidence on display in the bars of Sydney on Sat night, Anzac Day seemed to be more about the values of getting rip-roaring drunk, macho posturing, mild and not-so-mild racism and general obnoxiousness towards women.

But apart from all that, we had an entertaining night out with a group of pals who'd been drinking for 8 hours by the time we met up with them - we got thrown out of the first place we went to before K and I had even ordered a drink (due to one of my pals dancing behind the bar)!!!

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


Watched an incredible documentary last night about Andrew McAuley, an Australian adventurer who, in 2007, attempted the 1500km crossing of the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand in a kayak - alone.

He made it to about 30km off the New Zealand coast after over a month at sea, where he'd survived a huge ocean storm with waves more than 10m high pounding his kayak and capsizing him regularly. He was able to 'batten down the hatches' by lying full-length in his kayak and pulling a 'bubble' over his head - this meant that even if he rolled over, there was enough buoyancy that he immediately came back up. Even so, it looked extremely frightening not to say excruciatingly uncomfortable.

Sadly, with land in site, Andrew ran into trouble - best guess is rough seas which his kayak was too damaged to deal with, leading to him capsizing without his 'bubble', not being able to 'right' the kayak and drowning in the 15 degree water once the hypothermia set in.

The documentary included footage from his own filming on the seas - a memory card with footage was salvaged from the kayak (his body was never discovered) - as well as footage of his wife, 3 year old son, friends and support team, both throughout the journey and then in interviews after his death.

It was an incredibly moving film, all the more so for the incredible understanding and acceptable of Andrew shown by his wife. I'm sure there are many people who would criticise him for undertaking this kind of adventure with a 3 year old son (an argument that is more often trotted out for female adventurers mind you), but I challenge them to watch this film and not feel that, ultimately, anyone would feel privileged and proud to share his gene pool.

Mind you, it didn't make me want to set foot in a sea kayak ever! I don't share the same DNA as adventurers - the sea scares me at the best of times, let alone when it's angry, stormy and whipping up 15m waves.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

You know you're getting used to life in Sydney when...

* You think it’s normal to wear flip-flops at the same time as a woolly scarf and gloves

* Your train takes 2.5 hrs to cover 1hrs driving time, runs 45 minutes late, has no tables or catering – and you don’t think twice about it

* You can tell beaches apart just by glimpsing them on TV

* You become oblivious to massive cruise ships berthed in Sydney Harbour

* You find yourself saying “no worries” and asking people “how are you going?”

* It’s 23 degrees and you think it’s cold!

Easter bunnies in autumn – wrong, wrong, wrong!!

I’ve never had so many people wish me “Happy Easter” as this year in Oz – it’s a really big deal here, far more than I’ve ever been aware of in the UK. All the pubs closed here at 10pm on Good Friday and shops that wanted to open on Easter Sunday had to put in special applications for licences to do so. And there were quite a few Easter decorations around – bunnies and lambs and the like – that I’ve not really noticed before, except in gift card shops! I think it’s a reflection of what seems to be a much more prevalent Christian culture than exists you get in the UK these days. Don’t know what % of people in Oz go to church regularly but it feels pretty high – even accounting for the fact that I work for an organisation with its roots in the missionary movement.

Maybe it’s also a reflection of the quite stark segregation between different faiths and cultures here – although Australia is a veritable ‘melting pot’ of nationalities, religions, cultures, backgrounds etc, interaction seems to be quite limited. But that may be a reflection of our lives and lifestyle here, which is much more firmly ‘affluent middle class’ than I’m used to. Kirribilli, our suburb, is the epitome of the Australian dream (if there is such a thing) – water views, tree-lined streets, the gentle murmur of teenage boys from the local private school chatting away in shorts and long socks, the local deli selling dozens of varieties of olive oil, imported cheeses and meats and so on…If we were living in the inner West, I think we’d have a very different perspective on Sydney & Australia – apparently it’s a common trend for newly arrived ex pats to live on the North Shore (where we are), ensnared by the harbour views (as we were) but then find themselves craving some form of night life / diversity / sense of energy (as we are) and moving to the inner West where the cosmopolitan heart of Sydney apparently beats with a vengeance (as we’re thinking about doing!).

Autumn socialising Aussie-style

Last week K and I were invited round for an evening barbecue to say goodbye to Ali, a colleague from the UK who’s been out here for a couple of months helping to set up the Aussie equivalent of his organisation, the School for Social Entrepreneurs (K and I both involved in School in typical small world way).

About 12 of us gathered in a lovely house near Bondi for a feast of deliciously juicy prawns, a huge and lightly flavoured snapper (about 2 foot long), heaps of salads and, the piece de resistance, a massive pavolva (with 12 eggs apparently!)

It was a clear autumn evening with lots of stars in the sky and it was only at about 10pm that it got cold enough for me to need a jacket, having been t-shirt temperature until that point.

Lots of good conversation (and not all of it about social enterprise!) and a lovely time all in all. The ubiquitous barbecue is one of the best things about this country!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Ku-ring-gai national park & mum's birthday

K and I went bushwalking again this weekend - now that the temperature is cooling down it's really nice to be outside and getting some decent walks in. We went to the Ku-ring-gai national park, 24km north of Sydney, which was really really beautiful. We ended up doing a different walk to the one we'd planned and scaled Mount Ku-ring-gai itself - not really a mountain mind you, more of a slope on a valley and we were up and back in about 2.5 hrs. Then we sat by Cowan's Creek while I cooled my feet in its waters and fed a passing duck bits of my sandwich - simple pleasures!

Today it was an early start to skype into my mum's 50th birthday celebrations, happening thousands of miles away in Scotland. K and I were projected onto a big screen in front of 29 assembled family members - lucky I look so good at 6.30am (oh that's right, I don't!) It was an emotional occasion and for a minute I thought I wasn't going to be able to get my little speech out through the choke in my throat but got there eventually and then very much enjoyed watching everyone else do their bit as webcam relayed it all. Technology is a wonderful thing sometimes. (Love you mum!!!!)

Going back for a visit in 5 weeks and really really looking forward to it. Although having booked our flights months ago, we're a bit peeved that the airlines have all slashed their fares on the "Kangaroo" route to UK so if we'd booked now, we'd be saving over $1000...ah well.....

And so to Sunday evening - much the same as always including ironing, Bones on TV and early to bed after this morning's adventures.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Things you find in the pub...

K took me out for dinner on Wed night (tapas, very nice especially the salt cod croquettes) and then we went to our local pub for a nightcap. The Kirribilli Hotel is a bit of a dive but it's bearable. We found ourselves a corner in the outdoor bit, but as far away from all the smokers as possible. Someone had left a pile of papers on the table near us so we went to move them, when we realised that said pile of papers was an inside report on the state of the Australian market & economy, prepared by one of the main financial services companies here (I won't name them in case I get sued!)

It was fascinating stuff, particularly the assessment of the reality of the economic outlook at the moment. Their main view seemed to be that despite the media doom mongering, actually the worst is probably over, or almost over (or to put it another way, it will be back to 'business as usual' fairly soon. A few choice quotes:

"Nice to see the green starting to sprout in more and more places - and more and more minds. So far most seem to regard this ferocious rally in equities and risky assets as bear market rally, but one or two starting to explore the possibility that it might be for real."

"Among the developed economies, the UK is arguably showing the most sprouting, with many indicators taking a turn for the better, including all the ISM type indicators and now, a number of them from the housing world."

"Though the newsflow around job losses continues to escalate and the unemployment rate is now clearly ratcheting higher, this was offset by a number of positives since the last survey period...While our expectations for the unemployment rate to gap-up rapidly in the coming months will put renewed pressure on confidence, it is worth noting the signal the confidence index is now sending. Should confidence maintain these levels it would imply the beginning of a recovery in spending or at the very least a surge in spending on the back of the stimulus. We continue to favour a gradual recovery in consumption over the remainder of the year."

On housing, "We continue to expect a second half 2009 recovery. Initially a first-home buyer phenomena the increased willingness of individuals to take on more debt is broadening to other owner-occupiers. Residential investors are now the only major category that continue to moderate their exposure to debt (probably reflecting the fact that cashed-up first home buyers are outbidding investors for a largely static housing stock.)"

I find all of this really fascinating, particularly the role that perception plays in confidence - people's job insecurity is palpable at the moment even though, in reality, Australia still relies significantly on inward migration of labour to keep its economy going. Unemployment is rising but as always, the people who are worst hit by that are the people who were already unemployed and were struggling to get into the labour market - the hard core few hundred thousand people in Australia without skills, qualifications, work experience, who have almost zero chance of getting a job without significant support. The housing market may be stagnating but again, the people who are worst hit are those who are homeless or vulnerable to homelessness - as competition for housing stock increases, those on the margins are squeezed even further out. This has been a recession for the middle classes and while I wish no-one any harm, I do find it hard to feel too much sympathy for people who see the value falling on their 4 bedroom, 2 bathroom, 2 car space detached house in the suburbs. Similarly, I've just read that 60,000 people in the City of London have lost their jobs in the last 18 months. How many of those people are now sailing round the Med or using their huge cash windfalls from the good times to do something else, and how many are genuinely facing long-term hardship. I wonder. Meanwhile millions of migrant workers in the Gulf are losing their low-paid, long-hours, menial jobs building temples to greed for rich Westerners visiting Dubai and are arriving back in their poor home countries by the planeload to a life of poverty.

But hey, the green shoots are sprouting - people will soon get back to borrowing to consume in their merry way and we'll all go back to normal.

Our economic system is built on mass exploitation of people at the bottom - always has been and looks like it always will be. What's the alternative - answers on a postcard, or at least on a blog comment please...

Monday, 6 April 2009

Yikes, it's winter!!!

I can't believe it - winter has finally arrived in my life! After what seems like the longest summer in the world, stretching from pretty much a year ago (barring a brief wintry interlude when we first arrived in Oz in July), today was quite a shock. The clocks changed here on Sunday and it was DARK when I left the office today!!! I can tell I'm going to find this all very confusing - just like when it was summer here and winter back home. I can cope fine with autumn & spring being the wrong way round (doesn't feel that different) but summer & winter are a different story...

Apart from that slight shock to the system, we had another lovely weekend of exploring parts of Sydney that we've not quite managed to until now. Yesterday we walked up and around Kurraba Point, to the east of Kirribilli, taking in some fine views as we went. As is customary after any walking adventures we do, we treated ourselves to a few beers afterwards: the venue was the Oaks, a very pleasant beer barn in Neutral Bay (the suburb along from us and where we ended up after walking), so-called because it's a complex of about 7 linked bars, with a quadrangle-shaped beer garden, centred around a massive oak tree which must be from colonial times if not before (er, were oaks imported here, I don't know?!)

The afternoon was sunny, warm and lovely - but it did have that feeling of 'this might be the last time for a while that we spend a couple of hours in a beer garden in the sun' - oh well, will just have to find some nice bars for indoor beers!!

Pictures to follow once K comes back from Melbourne with our laptop...