Sunday, 27 September 2009


Unlike the relatively civilised evening we had this Friday, last Friday we'd arranged a 2 for 1 cocktails night in King's Cross, a far less 'salubrious' part of town! It's all my fault really, as I'd spotted the 2 for 1 offer in my monthly email from Time Out, and as I've been getting a taste for cocktails lately, figured it was worth a go!

So me, K and various work related pals headed along straight from work to "Goldfish", a fairly dark and dingy spot on the main drag in "The Cross" as it's affectionately known round here.

Unfortunately they didn't seem prepared for a deluge of people demanding cheap cocktails as there was only one barman and at least 12 of us, which meant that it took a LONG time for us to get served - especially as he wasn't the quickest cocktail maker in the world. An extra touch of class was added by the plastic glasses that everything was served in - haven't had that experience since living in Glasgow!!

Still, it was all good fun and the cocktails were actually pretty good - a wide selection and at $7 (£3.50) each, you really can't complain. The special offer finished at 9pm at which point we ended up ygoing for a burger, before hitting another bar for possibly one or two drinks too many...

Sailor's Thai

Two unusual things happened this Friday night - 1. I went to the gym after work instead of going straight to the pub 2. by the time I got to the pub at 7ish, the decision had been made to go for a meal instead of carrying on drinking.

That's how we ended up in Sailor's Thai, a fantastic thai restaurant tucked inside The Rocks, one of the main tourist spots in Sydney and not where you'd expect to find such a great place.

The dining format is a long table where people are fitted in where there's room, so not really intimate but very efficient! There were four of us and we shared plates. We had stir fried fish, green papaya salad, spicy rice balls and marinated whole trout, all served with steamed rice and a bottle of pinot noir. Every dish was excellent and far more interesting than the usual green curries and chilli jam stir fries of the average Thai meal here - that's not to denigrate them, as the standard is generally really good, but just to say that Sailor's Thai is a real cut above the norm. I was still remembering the flavours the next morning and will definitely go back - top marks!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Life on Mars

Woke up at 6.45am today wondering what the strange orange glow in our bedroom was. Looked outside and wondered if armageddon had come overnight. This was our Martian landscape this morning - and still like that now at 10.30am here.

A huge dust storm is passing up the east coast of Australia, bringing with it red dust all the way from the Northern Territory and South Australia (thousands of miles away). Ferries are cancelled, I'm working from home as didn't want to get my hair all dusty on the walk in to my office, the air is heavy with dust and even inside my eyes are tickling. Quite surreal.

More pictures here.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Generation Game

A quirky feature of Australian life (compared to the UK) is a slight obsession with the characteristics and trends of different 'generations'. Although I had a slight awareness before coming here that demographers talked about things like baby boomers and generation x, I'd never really taken it particularly seriously and would certainly have struggled to place myself or anyone I know in a generational pigeon hole.

Here, hardly a day goes by without another media article about the unique features & challenges faced by Generation Y or the clash of interests between Baby Boomers and their 'Gen Y' offspring. References to different demographic generations are scattered throughout daily conversation. Everybody happily slots everyone else into their preconceived place.

It's so much of a 'thing' here that I've actually had to find out what the different labels mean and who they're supposed to refer to! I had no idea that I was in Generation X, along with K (we both just scrape in at either end of the 'early 1960s to late 1970s' span of this particular generation. Although it seems I might also be on the cusp of Generation Y but as everyone here seems to strongly dislike Gen Y, I might self-select into X!! Apparently we tend to be economically and politically individualistic, technologically adept, flexible, interested in work-life balance, distrustful of authority and are all in the habit of sleeping together before we get married.

I reckon it's all a bit silly, however it seems we're now onto Generation Z - which begs the question - what comes next?!

Sydney Half Marathon

Up at 6am (yuck) for half marathon, thankfully the start line is only 5 mins from the flat! Didn't get as much sleep last night as I'd have liked (less than 6 hours) and only managed to grab a slice of melon & some water for breakfast, so not as well fuelled as I'd normally like to be before running 13 miles!

Still, the pale early morning sun gave the harbour a beautiful calm and pearly sheen and as I had Muse's new album on my iPod ready for a first listen, I was quite looking forward to the race.

Started ok as we headed over the harbour bridge and into the city. Felt I was going a little too quickly so tried to pull back a bit as the km's passed by. Despite the early start, it was still a warm morning and so I took advantage of every water station, taking on lots of water, sports drink when it was offered and a few cups of water over my head to keep me cool. Got to the 1/3 stage at 7km quite comfortably but the middle stretch was a bit less enjoyable. Started to feel hungry and slightly weak and my old left pelvis-hip injury started to twinge a bit at around 11km, which had me feeling like it was going to be a long run-in.

Thankfully the second half of the course is more downhill than up - not that there were any horror hills anywhere, but still, every little helps. Got to the 2/3 mark at 14km feeling like I was through the hardest bit, the pain in my left leg had eased off a little and I was just about managing to stay on track for my target time of 1h50m.

By the time the last 3 or 4kms came round, I was feeling pretty good and as the course reached its final few kms weaving round the harbour foreshore, I started to put my foot down a little bit, getting to the finish line in 1.49.22 - very pleased with that, especially as at 11km I'd pretty much told myself to forget my time goal!

A special thanks to the Muse boys for both the new album (first two listens = thumbs up) but also for old classic Plug In Baby which gave me a real energy boost at the end!

All in all, not the most comfortable race I've ever done and I think a few more long runs in training and more strength / core training sessions would have helped, especially with the pelvic injury - my whole left leg is hurting quite badly now! But still, not bad to come in 429th of 2811 female racers!

How best to "intervene"?

This post has been updated to rectify some factual inaccuracies pointed out to my by a reader – thank you Bob.

I’ve just read an article from the UK about a comment made by the CEO of Barnardo’s that we should think about taking more children into care when they’re babies, to prevent them being damaged beyond repair by people who don’t want to, or can’t be effective parents. This appears to be at least partially in response to the recent case of torture, assault and sexual abuse of two boys by two other boys aged 10 and 12, who apparently come from a “terminally dysfunctional” family.

The issues this raises are similar to, at least in part, to those raised by a feature of Australian society that doesn’t get talked about much, but is quite startling when you find out about it – “The Intervention”. I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while…

The Intervention was / is an ‘emergency response’ by the Australian government to a report into child abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (NT). By way of a quick overview, the NT covers a vast area and has a small and scattered population. It’s six times the size of Britain with a population of only 220,000 (about the same as Aberdeen or other small cities). Following European ‘settlement’ 200+ years ago and the resulting dispossession, mass slaughter and general destruction of way of life of the indigenous population that had lived there for the previous 40,000 years, some redress of a kind took place when vast tracts of land were granted back to their traditional communities, and aboriginal townships and settlements now dot the NT. (As a side comment, it’s worth noting that around a third of indigenous Australians live in remote and rural areas, compared to 14% of all Australians, but that almost a third live in urban centres – not relevant to this discussion, but a little known fact…)

Anyway, skipping ahead to a few years ago, and the emergence of major allegations of widespread child sexual abuse, coupled with concerns about levels of welfare dependency and alcoholism, and the breakdown of traditional cultural norms and values in indigenous communities. The resulting report, The Little Children are Sacred, catalogued some very horrible and disturbing stuff, which seemed to indicate that many of the concerns were justified. So the question then was what to do about is? (Which is where I’m reminded of the issue by the Barnardos comments).

The then government’s response has been widely reported as ‘calling in the army’, although what this means in practice has been unclear and has apparently been restricted to logistical support rather than a ‘policing’ function. In addition, anti-discriminiation legislation has been suspended to enable ‘welfare quaranting’ of benefits paid to indigenous people in around 70 proscribed communities’ in the NT. There have also been bans on the of alcohol in indigenous communities, and pornography filters placed on public computers. On a less punitive note, there has been additional investment into, and policy prioritising around increasing school attendance rates and providing new community-based services.

I’d love to say that the Intervention has been controversial in Australia, but in truth, I’ve barely heard an Australian mention it. The outback of the NT might as well be on a different planet to urbanised Sydney and I’ve blogged before on the, at best, amazing levels of indifference to indigenous Australians, and at worst, blatant racism.

The Intervention has, however, been controversial to the indigenous population (numbering nearly 500,000 in total), with some polarised views on both sides. Some indigenous leaders and spokespeople have welcomed aspects of it, mainly it seems because some action is better than nothing, and there has been some extra funding for projects and programs as a result. Female community elders have been quoted talking about the benefits of alcohol bans (although note that many indigenous communities had become ‘dry’ through self-determination anyway), and have welcomed the ‘income management’ policy of quarantining welfare payments for use on food and essential items only. Others, however, including many indigenous people, Amnesty and the UN, have heavily criticised the whole approach, condemning it as racist and as a blunt tool to try to shape new community developments.

It’s a thorny set of issues, but I think the following from Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) sums it up well:
“ANTaR has no problem about governments intervening when children are at risk – indeed they would be negligent not to (and have been ignoring the problems in Indigenous communities for decades) so we want to see the national government stay engaged, commit far more resources to the Northern Territory, and across the nation, to help address the massive problems confronting Indigenous communities, to address the huge backlogs in housing, health programs, education and other community services which other Australians take for granted.

But we want to see this engagement on a different footing: one which respects the human rights of everyone; one which engages Indigenous people in a partnership of equals, not a disrespectful dictatorial situation; we want to see measures which respond to behaviours, not racial categories (so case-by-case income management may be legitimate, but not as a blanket policy); one which builds Indigenous capacity for genuine self-determination and sustainability of better functioning communities.

Governments must work with communities for the long haul, to explore with them the options for their development, opportunities for their young people, and for enabling them to stay on their country with a reasonable range of services and some hope and sustainability for the future.”

Which brings me back to Barnardo’s CEO and his views that removing children from their homes and, presumably either plonking them into nice middle class families or looking after them in one of his charity’s homes, would be a good way to tackle the problems of poor parenting and damaged children.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the kinds of communities I suspect he has in mind when he talks about families that can’t be fixed – this isn’t explicit in his comments, but I think we can all assume he doesn’t see a great problem with child protection and ‘broken families’ in the middle classes. I know first-hand how desolate ‘disadvantaged’ communities can be. Two or three generations of people in families who’ve never had a job, or any expectation of one; no money coming in apart from the dole; drugs everywhere; no shops apart from the chippy, the bookie, the offy and the corner shop, not a bit of fresh food for miles; crap schools and crap housing. Kids being born to people who are still kids themselves and haven’t had any role models to help them be parents.

It isn’t really a surprise that we’ve got dysfunctional families in places like these, but is taking children out of their homes on a bigger scale than we already do, really the answer? Are we just going to write off a whole generation of new parents because they didn’t have the parenting or education or chances that most of us take for granted and are simply repeating patterns they’ve learned? How about we actually get in there and try to do something a bit more useful, like creating new jobs for people living in communities where there’s 50% unemployment, instead of weeping and wailing about the Global Financial Crisis and how much value it’s wiped off our nice pensions and houses? How about we invest in high quality childcare and education, how about we start designing social housing so that we don’t just dump all the poor people in huge, out of sight, out of mind, peripheral housing schemes with no transport, no fresh food, no jobs nearby, no decent schools, no nothing. How about we stop punishing people for being born poor. How about we try to give people some hope, something to aim for, some ambitions?

Of course, children need to be protected and of course, sometime, that means removing them from their parents. But that has to be a last resort and surely, as with the Australian NT Intervention, we need to be getting a lot more inventive about preventing yet another generation being lost to poverty instead of resorting to blunt social control tactics which are just a slippery slope to a nasty, nasty world where we’ve de-humanised whole swathes of the population.

Monday, 7 September 2009

In defence of jaywalking

As any Facebook friends will know, last week I had an encounter with the Australian nanny state that left me pretty pissed off. What happened? Well, I crossed a road, having checked both ways for traffic and making sure it was safe. But oh no, that’s not good enough here:

In Australia it is illegal to start crossing the road at an intersection when a pedestrian light is red or flashing red. If no such pedestrian light exists, the traffic lights are used, making it illegal to proceed on green or orange. Furthermore it is illegal to cross any road within 20 metres of an intersection with pedestrian lights or within 20 meters of any pedestrian crossing (including a zebra crossing, school crossing or any other pedestrian crossing). However laws against jaywalking are rarely enforced, with the exception of the occasional police 'blitz' on jaywalking for a week or so at a time, when the laws are enforced more stringently. Some roads, such as roads with a record of pedestrian accidents, feature fences in their centres to discourage pedestrians, but there is no law against traversing them.

Two policemen stopped me and advised me that I’d broken the law and were about to slap a $60 fine on me. Thankfully I managed to plead ignorance – and my accent helped! But it really infuriated me. Apparently the laws are very rarely enforced here, apart from occasional 'crackdowns' which are obviously just a revenue-raising exercise. Talk about a tax on common sense.

I can’t find any evidence anywhere that “jaywalking” leads to increased accidents or injuries to pedestrians or that countries that have anti-jaywalking laws have lower injury or death rates. But intuitively it seems to me that if you take away people’s right to make an informed judgment of speed and distance, then they’re going to lose those skills pretty quickly (or indeed, may never develop them). And if you treat people like idiots, they tend to act like them.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Different sides to Sydney

I’ve been on my travels this week and will be finishing off the week with a trip to Melbourne. The last three days have involved three very different sides to Sydney and its hinterland.

Monday – Campbelltown. A “rough” area to the south west of Sydney, about 90 mins drive from the centre, characterised by high unemployment, lots of public housing and high levels of crime, drug use and so on. The sad moment of the day was when my colleague pointed out the large pub across the road from the court house, which apparently does a roaring trade in people drinking their last beer before going for sentencing and throwing their last few dollars in the ‘pokie’ machines (games machines, which loads of pubs here have huge rooms full of).

It’s several degrees warmer inland there than it is on the coast, which gets pretty suffocating in summer. The breezy glamour of Sydney Harbour seems a world away.

I was there because we’re setting up a new social enterprise to help local people get work in the trades by carrying out repairs and maintenance contracts for the Department of Housing, and I spent the morning in the local civic centre, meeting some of the people we hope to create jobs for. As always, it was good to be ‘on the frontline’ to remind myself why I do what I do. We had a great turnout and the room was full of people who want to work, have lots to offer, need a bit of support, but most of all need to be given a chance – and I’m really glad we’re able to do that.

Tuesday – Nowra. Nowra is a three hour drive from Sydney on the South Coast. It’s in an area of high unemployment, but is itself a pretty little place with beautiful surroundings. It’s a popular destination for ‘sea changers’, people who choose to move from the city for a lifestyle change, and for rich Sydneysiders with weekend homes (which inevitably prices the local population out of the housing market). If Australian culture and social attitudes generally feel like Britain in the 1970s, then Nowra is more like Britain in the 1950s (as I’m led to believe it was anyway!) Old fashioned, socially conservative and claustrophobic. It’s the kind of place where you imagine people still tut about single mothers. Mind you, I realise as I write this that there are plenty of places in Britain where that still happens.

Wednesday – the heart of the CBD. Today I spent my day in the glitzy heart of the CBD (Central Business District), rubbing shoulders with the city slickers that knock around the financial centre here. Suits, ties, lip gloss and spiky heels as far as the eye can see, more skinny double shot cappuccinos than you can shake a stick at, towering glass buildings everywhere and an army of low paid workers servicing the whole shebang.

This post doesn’t really have a point other than as a vague musing on how communities segregate the way they do. The image at the top is a visual representation of this, sourced from the Centre of Full Employment and Equity, which shows the relative vulnerability of different areas to rising unemployment. The dark blue areas are those, like the ones I live and work in, which are populated by people with good qualifications, working in secure jobs. The red and amber areas are those like the ones I visited earlier this week where people have casual, low paid work if they’re lucky, have much lower levels of education and qualifications, and are the first to lose their jobs when recessions hit. I very much doubt this picture will have changed much by the time the next recession comes around. Some might say who cares, but I find it hard to accept that a child born in a ‘red’ area will have significantly fewer opportunities than one born in a ‘blue’ one.

Thoughts and comments welcome as always…