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Authors: Niall Griffiths

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BOOK: Ten Pound Pom
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That’s a shame. This is a brilliant drinking-hole. We sit round a table, myself and Ian and Geordie and a guy called Steve who comes from Shropshire and whose lovely wife, Belinda, is the daughter of Liverpool-born parents. Some students are with us, too. My brother’s off somewhere with the poledancer which is causing consternation:

–He needs to watch himself, your Tony. She’s trouble, that one.

–I’ve told him.

–Should’ve warned him.

–I did. But he’s older than me, he’s a big lad, what can I 
do? Can’t bodily restrain the man, can I?

They tell me tales of the poledancer and her exploits. With each one I groan. Dread to think what Mum’s going to say. I can imagine her look of despairing disgust.

This club, and the district of Sydney of which it is a part, has a messy energy and is possessed of a bursting life-force that I absolutely love. It seems free of that simmering underlying violence which characterises British cities on Friday nights, although Geordie tells me that it can be here, and I don’t doubt it for a second. But I don’t see it, tonight, wandering around the streets in the small hours; people are hugging, not hurting, each other. Buskers. Much music. Outside the fast-food places, people sway and eat stuff from paper bundles and no-one seems to be feeling the need to stab anyone else. Violence occurs here, I’m sure, but it doesn’t appear to be an important ingredient in the atmospheric mix. This is a good part of Australia. I could stay here longer.

Later still, I’m in a cab with Tony, returning to the Palisades. The driver’s from the Lebanon, listening in to our conversation. I’m telling Tony what the others told me about his poledancer, the scrapes and ruinations she’s suffered and caused.

–They tell me she’s bad news. Stay away.

–I know all that. Should’ve heard some of the things she told me. But in my defence –

–Bollox to ‘in my defence’. You’re digging a hole for yerself and not thinking cos Little Tony is doing the thinking for you. Stay away.

–Less of the ‘little’. And in my defence, she
is
a
pole-dancer.
She can balance a ruler on her nipples and everything.

–You let the boy be, the cabbie chips in. –You jealous.

–Yer arse I’m jealous. I’m looking out for my brother, that’s all. Why the fuck would I be jealous? I live with a woman at home who I love dearly and have no desire to sleep with anyone else and even if I did I wouldn’t want in a million years to sleep with the woman we’re talking about so why the fuck would I be jealous? Jealous yer arse.

–Ah, but me, I see a hole? He takes both hands off the wheel and smacks his right fist into his left palm. –I fill it (SMACK). See a hole and I fill it (SMACK).

So there we go, then. It’s all sorted out, now. Thanks very much for that, Lebanese cabbie.

Sleeeep. In the morning I meet Felix, who I used to know as Boo, although Felix is his given name. He was the long-term boyfriend of the friend of a woman I used to go out with, and with whom I co-habited for a couple of years, in York. We’ve long since parted from these women and have different partners and lives now, his in Sydney, with children. We haven’t seen each other for almost twenty years. Never close friends, we nevertheless got on well and liked and respected each other and it’s good to see him again. He’s hardly changed; few wrinkles around the eyes, some grey at the temples, that’s about it. But we’re both men now, with mortgages, careers, wives (common-law in my case), and, for him, kids. My past is threaded through Australia, from childhood to middle youth and, now, early middle age. The parabola of my life will always touch the antipodes, whether I like it or not.

Felix buys me breakfast. Bacon and eggs and toast. My booze-bloated belly protests at first but soon sighs and settles into grateful digestion. I feel energy returning. I’m leaving Sydney today, for Canberra. I talk with Felix about a thousand things. He likes his life in Oz. He likes Sydney. He doesn’t
know for sure but he thinks that he’ll probably spend the rest of his life here. I’m happy to see him happy. I tell him of my misgivings about Australia, about its parochialism, the curtailed level of expansion in much of its citizens, its false air of ‘no worries’ acceptance. Felix tells me, echoing Steve and Ian, that Oz has pretty much of a tolerant attitude towards anything but the smallest misdemeanour; jaywalking, for instance, is seen as a vile and heinous crime. This makes a kind of sense, to me; I don’t mean that the judgment itself seems rational, rather that its appearance in Australia, given the country’s historical and ongoing socio-political climate, is logical and unsurprising. See, the convict strain seethes deep in the collective Oz psyche; it shouldn’t, really – sons don’t need to pay for the sins of the fathers – but it does. It smoulders in the marrow of the Australian Everyman. It means that he doesn’t really trust others, that he feels anger and shame at not being trusted himself. The shallowness of the available history – an eighty-year-old telegraph station is seen as an ancient ruin – is reflected in the general mental attitude, which is happy to accept whatever lies on the surface and has an intense aversion to investigative endeavour. In Oz, history is not what you live; history is something other countries have. The aboriginal historical narrative is closed and removed, unless trampling over their temples such as Uluru can bring in the tourist dollar, and the aborigines themselves, when encountered in cities and towns, are either doing funny dances in face-paint for small change, or have been reduced to wretched drunks. Australian culture is, largely, at your shoulder, right in front of your nose; it’s all immediate. By and large, it has no depth (of course, there are exceptions), which generates a kind of surface mateyness,
which leads to a specious sense of solidarity, which produces a culture of snooping because if that mateyness wants to survive it needs the fuel of antithesis, for something to measure and define itself against; so revile the jaywalker, hold the smoker in disgusted disdain, sneer at those who want to wear a hat in surf-bars. The same thing is happening in Britain, albeit for different reasons; there, the meddler and the interferer and the snitcher and the twitcher of net curtains are being held up as examples of folk-heroes. They’re nothing of the sort; what they are is nosey, pinched, dog’s-arse-gobbed begrudgers who elevate themselves by inventing reasons to look down on others. And what does over-legislation achieve but more rage? Most people lead lives of low-level but incessant humiliation, swallowed by corporative interests and bent into shapes they don’t want to adopt, that make them feel worthless and ashamed. Tonics to this have traditionally, and effectively, been lust and energy and exuberance, which is why places like Kings Cross exist and continue to sizzle; now, though, what used to be called ‘going out’ is stigmatised as ‘binge-drinking’, and is a socially irresponsible problem to sort out, and the demonisation of nicotine has meant that old men must stand like schoolboys in the rain outside their clubs and that
pub-owners
who want their patrons to smoke in the pub they own aren’t allowed to let them. Humiliation pollutes the very arenas which were once temporary refuges from diurnal demeaning. Is it any wonder people are angry? That the average Brit sits on his sofa watching telly and screaming inside his skull? The solution is seen as simple: more laws, more restrictions, more curtailment and coercion. More prohibition. Which leads to more anger. More self-destruction and more violence against the person and more utter
incomprehensibility of the notion of dignity. I see no way out of this; we seem forever stuck in this rut. We’ve sold our collective soul for the little throb of warmth we get at feeling, and being told, that we’re better than others. This must be fought on a personal level, as a specie of defiance; don’t allow these fuckers to emotionally impoverish you. Live life on your own terms, increasingly difficult though that’s proving itself to be. Energy, energy. The world they’ve made will only be happy and complete when it’s pounded you to paste, colourless and insipid. Don’t let them do this. You must not let them do this. History has proved, repeatedly, that a people cannot be bombed into submission. Yet I fear that they can be legislated to death. God, I look into the future and see nothing but grey, flat, featureless, dull, uninteresting, soul-dead, grey.

Anyway. I say goodbye to Felix and we leave the city on the Hume Highway, aimed at Canberra. I think I’ll miss Sydney. I liked it there. The roadmap tells us that there’s a place called Liverpool close by so we decide to stop there for a wee bit. Just to see what it’s like. How could we not? It’s called Liverpool. On the other side of the world.

And it looks like the British Liverpool, too, or at least those parts of it which have been overlooked by the recent regeneration; Halewood, say, or Speke. Redbrick low-rise flats with the washing out, rusty railings, a busy arterial road, even a stoat-faced guy in baseball cap and shellsuit. Torrential rain. Graffiti. The resemblance is uncanny. Dumped supermarket trolleys. A few square blocks of gridded streets, one shopping precinct. And, oh, a museum. I go in. Tell the women at the desk that I was born in the British Liverpool, which leaves them markedly unimpressed.

The exhibits nearly all concern colonial massacres of the
local indigenous population. There were many of them. A settler named J. D. Lang called the area ‘a dull, stagnant, lifeless sort of place’. Gloom grows as I wander around and continues to grow as I drink tea in the caff and flick through the local newspaper, the
Liverpool City Champion.
Front page: ‘Deluge Disaster’. Tales of destructive floods and storms. Vandals wreck two buses belonging to Share Care, a local charity for disabled people. Stories about drug epidemics and death by overdose and the ineptitude of local MPs in dealing with such things. Speed appears to be the most commonly used illegal drug; a spokesman for the Youth Drug Support Team is quoted as saying: ‘Heroin users are easier to manage because the drug tends to make them more docile, but amphetamine users are out of control.’ Drug issues dominate the newspaper. The
Liverpool City Visitor’s Guide
(‘creating our future together’) gives me some history; the area’s original inhabitants were the Cabrogal people, who spoke Darug. They called the area Gunyungalung and populated it for 40,000 years. It became ‘Liverpool’ on November 7th, 1810, when Governor Lachlan Macquarie named it after the Earl of Liverpool, then Secretary of State for the Colonies. It’s Oz’s fourth-oldest town, behind Sydney, Parramatta, and Hobart, and the country’s ‘first free planned settlement’. Current population is over 155,000, and is growing quickly. Coming events, in 2007, include the Bent Jazz Festival and a Refugee Week. It has a Catholic Club, a Collingwood Hotel (Liverpool, UK, has a Collingwood Dock), a New Brighton Golf Club (Liverpool, UK, has a satellite resort of that name), many other correspondences; St Luke’s church, a Mount Vernon district, etc.

The Liverpool Migration History Project has produced a booklet called
Memories
+
Fragments
+
Objects: An Alternate
Narrative,
which grips me enough to order a second pot of tea. The project is given to ‘exploring the history of migration and settlement in the Liverpool area, [and] aims to trace migration patterns, settlements and indigenous histories through visual narratives’. It traces European settlement back to 1788, after the obligatory mention of the Darug and Tharawal peoples, when the first convict ships from Britain arrived, and it has a chapter on Ten Pound Poms, who ‘earned a reputation for complaining, which those who firmly identified themselves as Scottish… escaped’. (Which isn’t borne out by my personal experience; if you’re from the UK, you’re a Pom. Nor do I hear a great deal of complaining; in fact, I hear it mostly from native Australians who seem unable to stop complaining about complaining Poms.) Some had a right to whinge, ‘adrift from all they knew and shocked by the conditions at hostels where they first lived’. There is mention of the alarmingly-titled Big Brother Movement, which was ‘overtly committed to keeping Australia white and British’, and there’s a brief discussion of the ‘New Australians’, migrants who were encouraged to ‘blend in by hiding their exotic cultural traits and diet [and] changing visible distinguishing characteristics like dress style’. Indeed, ‘at the annual conferences of the Good Neighbour Council of NSW during the 1950s it was popular to have a “spot the Australian” competition in displayed photographs of migrants’.

Bloody hell. No wonder there’s a drug problem. At the end of the booklet, though, there are brief character studies of twenty-three people who took part in the project, residents of the area born elsewhere. I like this. There are people from Iraq, Malta, Algeria, Fiji, Portugal, India, Serbia, Chile, Ireland, Greece, Vietnam, Yorkshire, others. An Iraqi guy says: ‘The people of Liverpool they are good, actually multicultural, and
the community here is establishing, takes all people. So I feel like at home.’

Just people trying to get by, that’s all. I finish the tea, cold now, and we head for Canberra.

THEN

They arrive in Canberra at 2:30 p.m. and book into the Carotel motel at $28 a day. The dad feels ill and goes to bed to sleep it off and the boy and his brother and sister and their mother sit around the TV to watch the FA Cup final. Southampton beat Manchester United 1-0, which makes them cheer.

They stay in Canberra for a couple of days. It’s a very peculiar city. There’s a huge carousel in the centre, such as it is, and the man-made lake outside the civic buildings produces a display of multi-coloured water jets of an evening. In the Museum of Military History, an exhibit of the Cu Chi tunnels of the recently-ended Vietnam War captivates the boy’s brother while he himself is enthralled by the First World War German tank which has the word ‘Mephisto’ painted on it and a stylised, fierce little devil painted below it. The boy wonders at the psychology of this; the playful, almost childishly cruel humour on a machine designed to do nothing else but kill people horribly.

Canberra’s a government town, and not much else besides. Some years later, the boy will read what Gertrude Stein says about Los Angeles, that ‘there’s no
there
, there’, and he will remember Canberra.

BOOK: Ten Pound Pom
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