Posts Tagged ‘culture’

I’ve never been too keen on Christmas.

I don’t believe in God, so its primary (though often forgotten) meaning is lost on me. I’m not a huge fan of rampant consumerism, so the spend-fest that so often marks the season makes me feel a bit sick. And I’m naturally a bit miserable, so the jollity expected from December 1 onwards is frankly quite stressful.

Don’t get me wrong; my childhood Christmasses were fun. But they were more about watching the Coronation Street Christmas special than anything else. When I married, and started spending alternate years at the in-laws’, I was slightly astounded that they ate while Jack and Vera (RIP) et al were doing their thing in Weatherfield. How can you enjoy your sprouts knowing that Don Brennan is going to try to end it all (1996) or that Deirdre Barlow is about to get it on with Dev Alahan (2001)? Actually, I think I prefer sprouts to thinking about the latter.

So if I found it hard to feel festive in the UK, you can imagine how hard it’s been here. As I write, on Christmas Eve, it’s 33C outside and I’m wearing shorts. There are Christmas decorations up in the city and indeed in my lounge, but the bright sunshine makes the lights almost impossible to see. The breeze from the fan swishes the tinsel on my tree, erected mainly to remind me that it is not, in fact, July.

Last Christmas – our first here – we went to the beach, which I believe is an obligatory activity for all new immigrants. I fussed with the sunscreen, whinged about being too hot and felt self-conscious in my bikini, secretly wishing it was cold enough to wear my usual December uniform of opaque tights and warm dresses. We took photographs of ourselves, smiling on the sand, and ate ice cream to cool down.

This year, who knows? We might take the kayaks over to Penguin Island. We’ll certainly Skype the folks back home and have a laugh at the snow that’s brought Britain to a halt these past few weeks, while bemoaning the environmental and financial cost of running our aircon here. Despite the rising temperature, I’ve insisted on cooking a roast dinner; not turkey, but lamb, in a kind of blend of UK/Oz culture. For now a seafood barbeque is still a step too far. It’ll be lonely without Corrie, but in time we’ll create some new traditions, I’m sure.

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The other night a woman I’ve never met before came to my flat to buy something I’d advertised on Gumtree. Admiring the view from my lounge – over a park – she asks if I had ‘seen the Aboriginals there’. That’s a strange question, I think. It’s not a park with any particular significance to the indigenous population. Along with a million Aussie pubs, it’s named after the Duke of Wellington, who as far as I know had little positive impact on Aboriginal history. But it is a city centre park, and as such attracts its fair share of homeless people; sometimes they may even have had a drink or two. Ah-ha! The penny drops. She’s wondering if I’ve seen them.

True, there is evidence that there’s high likelihood of any homeless people being Aboriginal. And while indigenous Australians tend to drink less overall than white people, those that do drink often do so to harmful levels. Sadly, these things are not uncommon in Australian cities, but when you look at the staggering inequalities between indigenous and white Australians, is it really so surprising?

‘More than 200 years of dispossession, racism and discrimination have left indigenous Australians with the lowest levels of education, the highest levels of unemployment, the poorest health and the most appalling housing conditions.’

So says Oxfam, which is running a major campaign to improve indigenous health. Yes, that’s right – Oxfam, otherwise known for its work in war-torn Africa and the poorest Asian nations, is working in Australia.

A great deal of work is being carried out now to right the wrongs of the past. But I have still been shocked by the casual racism displayed by ordinary people.

My Gumtree purchaser, a well-dressed, articulate woman from a nice suburb, would probably be horrified to hear that I considered her comment offensive. But for me, defining a person’s unfortunate situation in life by their race is just bizarre. And I can’t imagine anyone in the UK saying to a complete stranger ‘Have you seen the Blacks?’ in a similar way.

It’s not my first experience of this either. A few days into my first proper job in Perth, a colleague circulated a poem by email. The punchline suggested that it was acceptable to throw tins of tomatoes at indigenous people. To this day I feel guilty that it took me several weeks to raise it with my manager (because I was keen to settle in and not ’cause trouble’ in my first month), and that I never directly challenged the sender about it (although I did find plenty of reason to challenge his views as the months went by – soon after he moved on from Aboriginal people to his deep distrust of all Muslims).

Is Australia a racist country? I like to think not. I’ve met many people who respect all cultures – and there are many represented in this nation of immigrants – including indigenous culture. But these incidents, along with the Hey Hey It’s Saturday debacle and shameful crimes like this, make me wonder if the nation is as comfortable with its multiculturalism as it should be.

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One of the lesser-known reasons why I thought I might feel at home in Australia is because Australians swear a lot.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am no foul-mouthed harridan. I swear selectively, only when appropriate and only when a more ‘acceptable’ word won’t do. But I don’t find swearing offensive. Swear words are just words with a judgement imposed on them. If you’re looking for an insult, combinations of non-swear words can be more effective.

I hate to say it, but my fellow Scots do have a reputation for peppering their speech with a few too many ‘swearie words’ as they are delightfully known on the west coast. Yes, swearing can punctuate a sentence to great effect. But it should be more of a semi-colon than a comma; tricky to use correctly but amazingly useful when you know what to do with it.

No matter how much they swear themselves, I suspect most immigrants from the UK will find the language used on Australian radio a bit of a surprise. Often British celebrity guests will accidentally let a minor swear word slip, sh*t, for example, and apologise, only to be told that of course it’s f**king alright for them to say that on air. Swear words in songs that would be routinely bleeped out overseas are left in here. This year’s top place in the Triple J Hottest 100 – a kind of chart of the year’s most popular songs – went to ‘Little Lion Man’ by Mumford and Sons, a track with a chorus lamenting how the singer ‘f***ed it up this time’. I heard thousands of people sing it out loud when the band played the Laneway Festival in Perth earlier this year. It wasn’t offensive, just slightly out of tune.

So if I’m so comfortable with all this foul language, you may be wondering why I have gone down the route of using asterisks to disguise – not very effectively – some of the words I’ve used here. My usual writing loosely follows The Guardian’s style guide – which is quite clear that no asterisks should be used.

But given that I’ve only been in this country five minutes, it’s probably best not to risk offending anyone. You never can tell what people will think. I recently told someone I have known for nearly 20 years that I thought I swore quite a lot, and they were visibly shocked – even although I am pretty sure I have never uttered anything much worse than a ‘bloody’ in front of them. So the asterisks can stay on screen; the full words are safe in my head, ready for the next time I have to deal with my mobile phone company or another crazy bit of Australian bureaucracy – what swearing was invented for.

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Rockwiz hosts Julia Zemiro and Brian Nankervis

Rockwiz hosts Julia Zemiro and Brian Nankervis

At the weekend I went to see the stage version of a TV show called RocKwiz. As the (irritatingly-spelled) name suggests, it’s a quiz about rock music. As most of you will never have seen it (even my work colleagues looked blank when I mentioned it; I mean, it’s on SBS which is hardly Channel 7 but still…) let me explain.

There are two teams of three – two members of the public, selected from the audience, plus one celebrity in each. The punters guess who the celebs are from clues read by host Julia Zemiro (who I love, mainly because she always wears black and red). The celebs come on, sing individually (backed by the RocKwiz Orchestra), take part in the quiz then duet at the end. For UK readers, it’s a little bit like Never Mind the Buzzcocks but with more live music. And fewer pop stars.

I have usually got no idea who the celebrities on RocKwiz are. I do actually know more about Aussie rock than a lot of immigrants, thanks to the collection of cassettes (yes! cassettes!) my other half brought back to Blighty after his first trip here in the 90s. Paul Kelly and the Hoodoo Gurus are among my favourite artists ever, and I don’t even resent the Gurus for giving me tinnitus when I saw them live a few months ago.

And I was secretly thrilled to discover that one of the celebs at the show was Deborah Conway, the former lead singer of a band called Do Re Mi, whose album I’d bought on a whim when I was 14. I’d only heard one song but Deborah had managed to tame her curly locks into what I thought was the coolest hairstyle EVER (there aren’t many positive role models for teenage curly tops) and she wore the most fabulous red dress in her video – an event which I suspect sparked off my lifelong obsession with finding the perfect red dress.

But as the show progressed, I quickly discovered the limitations to my knowledge of OzRock.  About halfway through one of the contestants, a man in a Mental As Anything T-shirt, was asked to perform a karaoke rendition of Khe Sanh by Cold Chisel.  I have never heard of this song, but judging by the crowd’s reaction I think it must be the Australian national anthem. Better learn it before I apply for citizenship. And I was astounded by the sheer number of questions about AC/DC.

Fortunately I don’t think it will take too long to get to grips with the whole Australian music scene, as it sometimes seems amazingly small for such a large – at least geographically – country. Six degrees of separation? Make that three.

As an example: RocKwiz (the TV version) is filmed in a venue in St Kilda, a fashionable suburb of Melbourne, where Paul Kelly lives. The drummer on the show is Peter ‘Lucky’ Luscombe.

Peter Luscombe on drums behind Paul Kelly at Escape to the Park, Perth, December 2009

Lucky Luscombe on drums behind Paul Kelly at Escape to the Park, Perth, December 2009

Peter plays drums in Paul Kelly’s band. At Sunday’s show, Ash Naylor was a guest member of the RocKwiz Orchestra. Ash has played in Paul Kelly’s band, replacing Dan Luscombe, brother of…you guessed it, Peter Luscombe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Peter is frequently credited for booking the talent on RocKwiz – which I think means he rings his mates and gets them on.

So I might not have been able to answer all of the questions. I might have had no idea who Henry Wagons, the other celeb, was (even although a Twitter search on Perth before the show turned up a tweet from him saying he was doing RocKwiz that evening, I still had to Google him) but it felt good to be part of a music scene that is not entirely dominated by MTV.

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Perth has a reputation as Dullsville – but I know it’s not completely deserved (although my introspective, self-indulgent musings on here might sometimes suggest otherwise).

There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening, and a lot of cool people about. Some of those cool people have very kindly linked to this very blog – so I am assuming that makes me cool by association!

Anyway, check out SunsetMag and prepare to have your misconceptions about Dullsville shattered.

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