The Decline of Australian Sport

Michael Jennings isn’t going to like me pointing this out, but Australian sport appears to be going through a rough patch at the moment.

In 2012 Australia was so confident of whipping Britain in the London Olympics that their sports minister made a wager with ours, which she went on to lose.  But the decline had started earlier, as the following tables show:

Athens 2004

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia4th17161750
Great Britain10th991230

Beijing 2008

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia6th14151746
Great Britain4th19131547

London 2012

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia8th8151235
Great Britain3rd29171965

Rio de Janeiro 2016

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia10th8111029
Great Britain2nd27231767

As Britain’s success grew, Australia disappeared into the ranks of the also-rans.  My guess would be that Australia pioneered a lot of professional sporting techniques – particularly in swimming where they used to do extremely well – and had world-class coaches who were ahead of their time, plus generous funding for their Olympic sports programmes.  Now that other countries have matched or exceeded the funding and adopted professional training regimes, as well as hire a lot of Australian swimming coaches, the Australians don’t have the edge and their small population isn’t producing enough talent to dominate like they used to.

Australia is also going through a low point in Rugby Union, which I don’t think is a mere blip.  Following a strong showing in the 2015 RWC (where they avoided South Africa and rarely worried the Kiwis in the final), their Super XV franchises did spectacularly badly the following season:

Were it not for the wildcard system that ensures the playoffs are not dominated by the Kiwis, the Brumbies – Australia’s best side – would have finished joint 7th on points and miles adrift of 5 of the 6 New Zealand sides.  The Brumbies got dumped out of the knockout stages in the first round, and that was the Australian effort over for 2016.

But what made it far worse was that halfway through the season England toured Australia for a 3-test series and went back home having whitewashed their hosts.  For Australia to be beaten 3-0 by a Northern Hemisphere touring side was unprecedented, and it was especially perplexing because Australia had comprehensively beaten an England team made up of much the same players on their home ground in the Rugby World Cup the previous year.  Only in the intervening period the English Rugby Union had snaffled the wily Australian coach Eddie Jones who had made few personnel changes but utterly altered the mindset and gameplay to a degree Australia did not appreciate until it was too late.  And it that weren’t bad enough, the next time the Australian national team pulled on their jerseys they received a 42-8 thrashing on their home turf at the hands of an All Black side which seems to only get better with each passing year.

Traditionally Australia can turn to cricket to feel good about themselves sports-wise, but unfortunately they’ve just been beaten 3-0 in a test series in Sri Lanka: up until this tour, Sri Lanka had managed to beat Australia just once in test matches, back in 1999.  What must worry the Australian selectors and fans is not that this record has been broken, but that the players looked utterly clueless against a Sri Lankan side who had been all but written off with the recent retirement of three of their greatest ever players.  Today the news is that Australia’s captain Steven Smith is going home to “rest” with the ODI series sitting at 1-1 with 3 more to play, which is drawing a lot of criticism from fans who have been brought up on stories of Border, Taylor, and Waugh eating barbed wire for breakfast.  There is much discussion in Australian cricket regarding their apparent practice of using fast and bouncy drop-in pitches at home to guarantee success against visiting sides, which is leaving them hopelessly unprepared for swinging conditions in England or the spin of the sub-continent.  By contrast, England’s humiliating exit from the 2015 ICC World Cup resulted in the wholesale firing of the coaching staff and the appointment of the experienced and canny Trevor Bayliss – an Australian – who immediately turned the team’s fortunes around by winning the ODI series against the more fancied New Zealand.

I daresay Australian sport will pull itself out of this hole and start winning things again, but they might find they are going to have to work a lot harder than previously to do so: the rest of the world, particularly England/Great Britain, has caught up by adopting their methods and hiring their coaches.

The Bali Nine Seven

This post is an expansion of a comment I left over at TNA’s gaff, and is on the subject of the recent execution of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the ringleaders of the Bali Nine group who were arrested for smuggling a shitload of heroin out of Bali in 2005.

Firstly, Australia as a nation was entitled to, and would have been correct IMO, to oppose the execution of these two men on grounds of principle.  Such a principle could have been that the death penalty should never apply in any case for a variety of reasons, for example:

1) the fallibility of any justice system;

2) the irreversibility of the sentence in the event the conviction was wrong;

3) the propensity of individuals working within justice systems worldwide to fuck over defendants in order to further their own careers (examples here).

I would have agreed with Australia formally making Indonesia aware of their opposition to the death penalty in principle, for the above reasons, before the Bali Nine were even arrested.  I would have considered it perfectly reasonable for Australia to reiterate its opposition in this manner before, during, and after the sentencing.  And I would have been quite okay with Australia repeating this point right up the execution and to continue to do so afterwards.  Raising such objections would have been entirely possible while still recognising Indonesia’s right to manage their own affairs.  Had they done so, there is a chance the Indonesians might have listened.

Instead, we got an attempt by the Australian and international media – seemingly supported by Australia’s politicians and intellectual elite – to downplay the fact that the two condemned men were unrepentant criminals who had been tried and convicted of a serious crime which would result in the harshest of sentences in any jurisdiction you care to mention.  Rarely, if ever, was it noted by those supporting Chan and Sukumaran that:

Four of the seven mules were arrested at Denpasar airport with heroin strapped to their bodies, while Sukumaran and three others were detained at a Kuta hotel in possession of heroin. Chan, arrested at the airport, was not carrying drugs.

Convicting them in February 2006, the court said the pair were guilty of “illegally exporting first-class narcotics in an organised way”.

It said Chan and Sukumaran had provided money, airline tickets and hotels to the seven mules.

“There are no mitigating factors. His statements throughout the trial were convoluted and he did not own up to his actions,” Judge Arief Supratman said of Chan. Another judge, Gusti Lanang Dauh, said Sukumaran “showed no remorse”.

These two were not duped into carrying drugs, or desperate men who turned to desperate measures.  The Indonesian court recognised that the other 7 were not as culpable and handed down hefty prison sentences instead of the death penalty.  The court, quite rightly, recognised that these two were the head of an organised criminal enterprise without whom the smuggling would never have taken place.  This distinction was barely mentioned by all those campaigning for clemency, mainly because the main message being peddled by Australian politicians and the media was that actually the two are pretty good eggs after all:

Multiple advocates for the pair said they became very different in jail to the young men sentenced to death by the court.

Chan, 31, ran Bible study classes in Bali’s Kerobokan jail, while Sukumaran, 33, became a keen artist.

The son of restaurant owners, and a former part-time cook, Chan also ran a cooking school in Kerobokan prison.

Sukumaran’s mother told News Limited that her son was also “rehabilitating” and had set up several courses in prison, including those in philosophy and art.

This rubbish is insulting to read, yet it was wheeled out again and again.  Bible classes, learning to paint, and cooking – the three things which were mentioned most often – does not constitute a single shred of evidence that the two were reformed.  I suspect a cursory glance at death row and lifer inmates worldwide would show most are engaged in some sort of artistic or instructional endeavour, mainly to stave off boredom.  And any regret they may have is an utter irrelevance: few criminals do not have regrets when receiving a harsh sentence, particularly those on death row for drug smuggling.  What might have convinced the Indonesians that the two had reformed was an admission of their guilt, a full and detailed description as to the extent of their operation and methods employed, and a request that their supporters in Australia desist from insulting the Indonesians any further by refusing to respect the court which convicted them.

Because if I was an Indonesian, hell I’d have been spitting feathers.  By all means, make the principled stand I described earlier but whipping up a media frenzy which overlooks the pair’s incontrovertible guilt and their leadership role, complete with accusations of corruption, threats of boycotts, withdrawal of ambassadors, and the casual dismissal of the sovereign right of Indonesia to try and sentence criminals apprehended on their own turf in accordance with their own laws.  There were times when the Australians might as well have said “Listen brown folk, we know you’re all corrupt and we are your superior neighbours, so let our citizens go free and we’ll allow you to sit with us at the next regional summit.”  Would Australia have dared to behave like this had the two ended up on death row in California?  Would they hell.  Would Australia have been happy about the Indonesian government protesting an Australian court ruling in such a manner?  No they would not.

Whatever chance the condemned men had of being spared before they were shot on 29th April, this was surely extinguished by the frankly disgraceful behaviour of Australia’s politicians and media.  No doubt the Indonesians will be blamed for years for the death of a “young, shy Australian man” and his mate who is “funny, articulate… charismatic and has a very caring personality”.  But Australia ought to shoulder the blame for ensuring their sentence would be carried out by insulting the Indonesians to such an extent that they had little choice but to do otherwise.

They were a nasty pair of criminals who chose to break the laws of another country and persuade others to do the same.  The Indonesians should not have sentenced them to death or carried out the executions, but even after doing so they come away from this sordid affair looking better than the Australians.  For the latter, having not actually shot anybody, that’s quite some achievement.

Tickled Pink

When I read stories like this, I can’t help but get the impression that Australia is going to disappear up its own arse before too long:

The pink jersey worn by Australian rugby league referees is being scrapped as there is a feeling among officials that it undermines their authority.

So far, so meh.

But the move has come in for criticism for alienating certain groups.

Dr Tom Heenan, of the National Centre for Australian Studies, said: “I don’t think this move away from pink really supports social inclusion.”

Heenan told the BBC World Service that the change risks alienating the gay community and breast cancer awareness groups.

Leave aside for a moment the laughable idea that Australia is a tough, frontier nation and the even more laughable fact that certain of its menfolk go on holiday in Japan, aged 40, wearing a t-shirt saying “Harden the f*ck up!” on the front.

Really, people are going to become alienated by rugby league referees changing their shirt colour?  What a load of bollocks!  But it’s yet another example of the most patronising language deployed against any given group of people coming from those who profess to speak on their behalf.

I assume there are a lot of gays in Australia who like watching rugby league, and I doubt there is a single one who genuinely gives a shit that the referees are not going to wear pink any more.  Probably because, unlike the crude stereotype Dr Heenan is peddling, most gay men don’t go all giddy over the colour pink any more than they have limp wrists and wear bottomless chaps.

Then again, Dr Heenan is an academic.  Here’s what his profile at Monash University’s website says:

Tom believes that learning should be informative.

Just think: that is only the second most stupid Tom Heenan line I have posted today.

He likes nothing more than taking students on the road. His students sample life in Outback New South Wales. He introduces them to the mining community around Broken Hill, and the endless expanses of Eldee Station and the Mundi Mundi Plain.

They ride camels, visit the ghost town of Silverton and meet the indigenous custodians at Lake Mungo National Park. Students explore this and other Australian places and issues as part of Tom’s Australian Idols: Exploring Contemporary Australia unit.

I have no idea what Dr Heenan teaches, but his students would be forgiven for thinking they’d joined a rambler’s association by mistake.  I wonder what they get charged for this?

Should have seen it coming…

When he’s not abusing Sydney’s nouvelles riches ladies of leisure and snapping photos of Sydney’s sartorial disasters, The New Australian is fond of pointing out two things:

1. Like Brits, Australians have bought into the idea that property is a guaranteed, one-way bet to wealth; and

2. Australia has not experienced a recession in the last two generations, and is therefore going to get a colossal shock when the reality of the current downturn starts to bite.

In support of these positions is a telling article from the BBC:

After 23 years of growth, including one of the biggest mining booms in the nation’s history, tumbling iron ore and coal prices have put a brake on Australia’s economy – and mining towns are paying the price.

Peter Windle is a casualty of the mining slowdown. The New South Wales mining employee has lost a well-paid job, a company car and an annual bonus that in some years was as high as A$60,000 ($48,800; £31,300).

A termination package from the mining company he used to work for has helped soften the blow. But Mr Windle still had to sell his investment property to keep his head above water.

It’s not difficult to see what’s happened here.  Mr Windle failed to recognise that the recent period of high salaries and plenty of work was an anomaly and would not last forever, and so leveraged himself to the hilt buying a property which, in ordinary times, he couldn’t afford.  You can, well, put your house on the “investment property” that he bought was wildly overpriced and unlikely to break even unless the resource boom continued for another decade.  A quote from the article hints at this:

“It’s the worst I’ve seen it in 28 years in the mining industry,” says Mr Windle. “Everyone is getting out. Three hundred houses are for sale in my town, three in my street, and rental prices have collapsed on older weatherboard houses from A$1,000 a week to A$200,” he says.

Ah.  So what’s the betting Mr Windle has bought an “older weatherboard house” for a staggering sum of money and was relying on A$1,000 per week in rent for the next 10 years in order to pay if off?

If he’s been 28 years in the mining industry, he should have known better.  I am incredibly fortunate to have hit mid-career in the oil and gas industry in a period of unprecedented oil prices and salaries.  Several of the industry’s old hands have told me of the lean periods in the 1990s when there was no work, and one of them told me he worked a job for a year which paid less than he was spending: but at least it slowed the debt accumulation.  I remember in Sakhalin some of these same old hands telling us young pups that we should count our lucky stars and invest the money wisely, and know that this might not continue forever.  Few of my generation (and younger) missed this lesson.

Most of us knew that the good times would come to an end, which they did in 2008-9 but thankfully picked up again fairly quickly.  Everyone used the cash to buy property, which makes a sound investment if geographically diverse, a future permanent home, and/or is part of a portfolio of other investments.  But other than perhaps a few weeks after the initial purchase, few were daft enough to mortgage themselves to the point they’d be forced to sell if the prevailing boom came to an end.  For a short time I was a day-rate contractor, and the lesson dinned into me then was always have 6-12 months of salary stashed away in cash.  So if you lose your job, you have a cushion.  It’s a habit I still haven’t gotten out of even as a staff employee, keeping at least one, preferably two, year’s mortgage payments and living expenses in cash should the worst happen.

Obviously this isn’t feasible for most people working PAYE in civilisation in normal jobs, but for those of us who rode the oil and gas wave over the last 5 years or so, we were making hay while the sun shone.  I considered myself (and still do) extraordinarily lucky and privileged to have been able to benefit from it, but not a day goes by without having an eye on the oil price and the appreciation that in 3 months time I could be out of a job with a mortgage to pay, a wife to feed, and no home back in the UK.  I am grateful to those old hands I met in Sakhalin and Nigeria who told me not to squander the money made in the good times and be very aware that someday it will end: I learned to treat it as a bonus, not business as usual.

It appears there were not so many wise heads in the Australian mining sector:

It is poor consolation for Mr Windle, who is now contemplating looking for a job in another state.

“I’m 54 now, and I’ve had a hip replacement. I might get a job at an outback mine in the far north of Queensland but I’d hate to spend another year working away from home. And suppose they lay off workers too?” he asks.

It’s a shame for Mr Windle and others like him, but he should have factored all of this in when he bought his “investment property” and worked out his monthly cashflow.  Tough times, and it’s going to get worse.

Uniquely Australian

There is a sport out there which involves:

“[L]ong distance cross-country navigation, involving both route planning and navigation between checkpoints using a variety of map types.

Teams of two to five members visit as many checkpoints as possible in the time allowed. Shorter duration [competitions] often allow solo competitors. Checkpoints are scored differently depending on level of difficulty in reaching them; therefore teams choose a strategy (for example, to visit many low score checkpoints). Teams travel entirely on foot, navigating by map and compass between checkpoints in terrain that varies from open farmland to hilly forest.”

The checkpoints are marked by this symbol:

150px-Orienteering_symbol.svgWell, yes.  It’s called orienteering right?

Apparently not.  It is a sport invented in Australia called Rogaining which:

“can trace its roots back to 1947 when the first of many events with some of the features of rogaines was organized by the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club. The events from the 1940s eventually led to the birth of the sport of rogaining in April, 1976, in Melbourne, Australia. The sport was named, rules were adopted and the world’s first rogaining association was formed (the Victorian Rogaining Association). Growth of the association and the sport occurred rapidly over the next decade.

The word rogaining is derived from the names of three of the founders, Rod Phillips, Gail Davis (née Phillips) and Neil Phillips (RoGaiNe, hence ‘rogaining’, ‘rogainer’ etc.) who were all members of the Surrey-Thomas Rover Crew which organized the world’s first rogaine.

Uh-huh:

The history of orienteering begins in the late 19th century in Sweden, the actual term “orientering” (the original Swedish name for orienteering) was first used in 1886 and meant the crossing of unknown land with the aid of a map and a compass.  In Sweden, orienteering grew from military training in land navigation into a competitive sport for military officers, then for civilians. The name is derived from a word root meaning to find the direction or location. The first orienteering competition open to the public was held in Norway in 1897.

Next week: the uniquely Australian Aussie Pie, a dish invented by a Sydney chef in 1976 and sold overseas as a mince and potato pie since 1623.

Some more on Melbourne

It was with some interest that I read this BBC article on Melbourne, having recently just quit the place:

With its grand Victorian architecture, and famous network of 190 lanes, Melbourne is regarded as one of Australia’s big tourist attractions. But city fathers have been selling some of the alleys to property developers – and Melburnians have an uneasy feeling that vital heritage could soon be lost.

Okay, Melbourne’s lanes are nice.  I had fun in my first few weeks there ducking and diving through the back alleys of the CBD stumbling across cool, independent bars with precisely nobody in them outside the hours of 17:00-20:00 on Fridays.  I particularly liked this one.  But I think a rather large point is being missed here, which I’ll get back to later.  Meanwhile:

But for three years running, Australia’s second city has topped the world for liveability, last year scoring 97.5% for stability, healthcare, culture, environment, education and infrastructure.

Yes, and it’s easy to see why it scores highly on those criteria.  Sounds like the perfect place to live a nice, easy, untroubled existence as a nuclear family, commuting from an overpriced home in sprawling, nondescript suburbia to a monotonous job while the kids receive a third-rate education which is more than enough to follow in their father’s professional footsteps.  Which sounds like heaven if you’re from overpopulated India, war-ravaged Sri Lanka, disaster-prone Bangladesh, or unpredictable China.  Or if you like that exact same kind of living in the UK but want some sunshine.  But to me, judging a place on those criteria alone is simply an exercise in identifying the most dull cities on earth:

CaptureHang on a minute!  “Culture” is one of the criterion, yet Calgary, Adelaide, Perth, Sydney, and Auckland make it into the top 10?  Adelaide?  Seriously? Okay, so these places are stable, but so is London and New York, which rank at 55 and 56 respectively.  True, the environments are better, except for Calgary where it’s clean but minus forty for half the year.  From my brief visit to Sydney I’m not sure their infrastructure is so far ahead of London’s, and the gap will be closing fast.  I’ve been to both Vienna and Helsinki, nice places the both of them, but hardly the most happening places in the world.  And from what I’ve seen of the Australian education system, and heard about the health system, it’s hardly world class (sure, better than Britain’s, but that’s not saying much).

No, this seems more like a list of cities where British families like to be expatriated than a measure of which cities are the best to live in generally.  Note that there are only two cities in the top 10 which are non-English speaking, and English is widely spoken in Helsinki leaving just Vienna which would pose a challenge for an Anglophone.  I find it hard to believe that Perth or Calgary (both based around oil/mining) are considered more desirable cities to live than Berlin, unless the respondents to the survey were British housewives living in Aberdeen or London wishing hubby would get a job in a place where the houses are bigger, there aren’t so many swarthy foreign-types, and they don’t need to go to all that trouble of learning a new language or even, really, a new culture.

It is my opinion that life in these cities would be “good” in one sense, but interminably dull in another.  I’ve found living in rougher, readier places is an awful lot more fun.  Which brings me back to the article:

The Economist Intelligence Unit judges left out a few essential elements of Melbourne’s good life – like food and wine, beaches and forests, and vineyards an hour’s drive from the city centre.

The author thinks this is a good thing, whereas I expect Paris or any other major French city would have knocked Melbourne into a cocked-hat had these criteria been considered.  Take the food and wine, starting with the wine.  Yes it’s good in Australia, but fucking expensive.  If you know where to look, and shop around, and stumble on a decent offer, you’re looking at $15 for a reasonable bottle.  In central Paris you can pick up a bottle of equal or better quality from any random shop on your way home from work for €7, or two-thirds of the price you’d pay in Australia with a fraction of the effort.  Things aren’t much better in the vineyards.  A trip to a vineyard in France will gain you buckets of wine at giveaway prices, whereas in Australia you might as well buy it from Cole’s as far as price goes.

The food in Melbourne wasn’t bad, by Anglo-Saxon standards, but I have no idea how the city gained a reputation as a gastronomic centre.  The food that was excellent came at eye-watering prices, and the cheaper stuff was no better in quality than that which could be found in Manchester city centre.  The lunchtime selection in the CBD was superb, but you pay a considerable premium over the same stuff in Paris.  And the lunchtime selection in London is also superb, and you pay through the nose there, too.  I think that for years Australia was so devoid of a decent selection of food that when the Italian, Middle Eastern, and Asian immigrants arrived and dragged the standard of food up, Australians went bananas and thought they’d created something unique (examples abound of Australians reinventing what exists elsewhere and claiming it as unique or their own).  I am quite prepared to believe that the standard of food in Melbourne at some point in the last 20-30 years surpassed that of many other cities around the globe, but with the sharp increase in prices and the unarguable improvement in food quality and availability elsewhere (particularly in the UK) in the intervening years I really don’t see where Melbourne’s edge is supposed to come from.  Compared to Paris it falls well short, in my opinion.

And beaches?  Forests?  Well, yeah.  Melbourne’s beaches are nothing to get too excited about, at least compared to Sydney’s.  I didn’t see much by way of forests, and I’m sure they’re all very nice, but I’ve yet to hear somebody tell me Melbourne is an awesome place to live because of the forests an hour’s drive away.  Whereas the Ardennes region is not only beautifully picturesque but it is also handy cover for invading Germans.

The other thing which is not considered – and I found this to be a serious issue in Melbourne, and I’ve heard others say the same of Calgary – is how damned isolated those cities are.  Perth, Auckland, Vancouver, Adelaide – great places to live if your entire life is there and nowhere else, but not so good if you have to visit family or like to visit a different culture every now and again.  Long weekends in another country aren’t viable, especially taking into consideration the price of international flights out of Australia, leaving you pretty stranded.  One of the best things about living in Dubai was the presence of a decent airport and its location slap in the middle of Europe and Asia and 6-7 hours from each.  Even living in Lagos had the advantage of being 6 hours flying time from Europe and in the same time zone.  I find it hard to believe that living at the arse-end of the world, whole continents away from everywhere else, shouldn’t get factored into the quality of life equation somehow.

Back to the article:

Melbourne is a leader in fields like biotechnology and financial services, also music, theatre, film, and festivals.

Hmm.  That would a local leader.  Melbourne is hardly a global centre of financial services, is it?  I think even Sydney packs more of a clout on a regional basis.  I don’t see how Melbourne outscores Manchester on any of these criteria.

The city was laid out in 1837 on the Hoddle Grid, designed by surveyor Robert Hoddle.

Yes, and as a result it is rather dull.  This is the first time I’ve heard somebody describe the grid pattern of a regional city as adding character.

Following the gold rush of the 1850s and 60s, the lanes led Melbourne’s trajectory downwards, with many becoming no-go zones and haunts for criminals, and buildings becoming brothels, opium dens and speakeasy gaming houses.

As suburbia flourished, the city centre slowly died and right into the 1980s the lanes were dark and dirty. Many disappeared beneath faceless office blocks.

With the urban renewal of the 1990s, the spirit of Melbourne’s lanes revived.

These days, they are not only a colourful reminder of the city’s past, but an integral part of its present – bijoux benchmarks of constant change, with Japanese tea houses and Chinese dim sum diners, fine dining and trendy bars and fashion boutiques, bespoke jewellers, art galleries, coffee grinders, hidden jazz clubs, and secret restaurants like the Italian Waiters’ Club, which opened on Meyers Place in 1947 and only recently put a sign over its door.

Now I have no doubt that Melbourne’s lanes were once as notorious, and later vibrant, as the back streets of London once were, but having walked up and down an awful lot of them, and visited a hefty sample of the venues therein, I think the author is guilty of bigging-up his hometown somewhat.  Like the food, it sounds to me as though Melbourne is trading on its past somewhat in this regard, as the nanny state which is so prevalent across Australia, and especially Victoria, is everywhere.  Rather than being a hotch-potch of genuinely avant-garde establishments, they are regulated into places far more sterile than the author is making out.  Walk into any bar and you’ll see enormous signs warning people about drinking too much, detailing hefty fines for various alcohol related offences.  At some point in the evening a squad of police in high-viz vests may well come walking through the joint, and you can be sure none stays open beyond the permitted time (or opens if there are no office workers around).

I think what summed Melbourne up for me was when a colleague of mine, who grew up in Venezuela, went to a Latin American street party in Melbourne.  They had all the food on the tables outside, the music, dancing, the lot.  Except drinking on the streets is banned, so if you wanted a drink you had to go inside and consume if there.  Only Australia could come up with a Latin American street party where drinking outside is forbidden.  If the author is concerned that Melbourne will lose its character if the laneways get sold to developers, he might like to consider what his state and federal governments are doing to it.

From my point of view, I’d take a bit of groaning infrastructure over sterility any day.

An Observation on Australian Sporting Culture

The other day I caught an interview between one of the presenters of the Australian cricket show and the former Australian bowler Glenn McGrath.  McGrath said something which would have passed unnoticed by most viewers, but for me it spoke volumes about the difference between sports in Australia and sports in the UK.

The presenter asked McGrath if he thought the on-field sledging of the English batsmen by the Australian players had gone over the top.  McGrath’s response was along the lines of:

“No, not really.  We kopped it when we played over there, with the Barmy Army singing all their songs, so we’re just dishing it back out now.”

I doubt most Australians would consider this answer remarkable, but for this Brit it was.  McGrath is effectively equating Australian players getting stick from an English crowd with English players getting stick from Australian players on the field.

In England, the players and the crowd at sports matches are very much separate.  What the crowd says or does is in no way representative of the players, and there is a large psychological divide between the two.  The players are not an extension of the crowd, or “one of us”.  And the behaviour of the two is expected, rightly, to be quite different.  Were Alistair Cook to start behaving like the Barmy Army it would be frowned upon by all, including the Barmy Army.

But I’ve noticed in Australia that the psychological dividing line between the crowd and the players is much less clear.  A television advertisement that ran throughout the Ashes series – I think one for Cricket Australia – showed the players in a stadium crowd with the voiceover saying “they are not taking on a team, but a nation”, implying that the players were inseparable from the supporters.

It’s interesting, because just watching the coverage of the Ashes here shows that the fortunes of the national cricket team takes a far greater precedence in societal affairs than in England, and more so than even the English football team.  I don’t think anything short of a World Cup win would put a sports event on the front page of a newspaper to the exclusion of anything else in the UK., and maybe not even then.  The Melbourne papers put the retention of the Ashes following the Perth test as an exclusive front-page story, with a full-page colour photo.

This might explain the reaction of many Australians to English objections to the behaviour of the Australian players at times throughout this series.  Most Australians interpreted Michael Clarke’s threat to have his fast bowlers break James Anderson’s arm, an exchanged picked up by the stump microphone, as fair game and many justified it by referring to taunts made by the English supporters.  By contrast, had Alistair Cook made such remarks the majority of English supporters would be utterly ashamed, myself included.  Taunting Shane Watson about reviewing an obvious LBW is about as harsh as was dished out by the English players in the previous series, but in this Ashes the Australians took it to another level of in-your-face aggression of which they seemed proud, players and supporters alike.

For Australians, it’s not just the case that sport features heavily in society, but societal behaviour appears to feature heavily in sport.  I’m not sure that’s altogether a good thing, even if it does occasionally produce results.

A Trip to Adelaide

Given I shall soon be leaving Australia and unlikely to return for some time, I decided to do a bit of local tourism, with my first destination being Adelaide.  Other than it being the scene of an unimaginable slaughter a few weeks back, I didn’t know much about it and half the people I spoke to said it was lovely and the other half said it was full of inbreds.

I flew down on Virgin Australia, a flight of an hour or so, and as I found when I went to Sydney the domestic airports at each end were models of efficiency and organisation.  I have to hand it to the Australians, when it comes to making domestic air travel as painless as possible they have it nailed down, at least insofar as the airports are concerned.  With an absolute minimum of fuss I was checked in and at the departure gate within minutes.

I caught a taxi to my hotel which was situated bang in the middle of town on Hindley Street.  For the price it wasn’t bad (a fraction of the cost in Melbourne), but it was a bit dated and I didn’t bother eating there: hotel breakfasts in Australia, like everywhere, are a bit of a fleecing and so I made use of the McDonald’s over the road more times than was probably good for me.  I had arrived on the last Friday before Christmas Day, and there was much revelry in the air of the office Christmas party kind.  The bars in Leigh Street near my hotel were mobbed, music was pumping out of one of them, and so after a quick kip I went out to join the fun.  But first I needed some food, and I went up and down Hindley Street at least twice looking for somewhere to eat.  In doing so, I discovered that Adelaide’s busiest street (aside from Rundle Mall) consists almost entirely of:

  1. Strip clubs
  2. Asian massage parlours
  3. Adult video stores
  4. Hookah cafes
  5. Dodgy bars and clubs
  6. Dodgy takeaways

I couldn’t find anywhere that looked suitable to eat, so I went into one of the bars and ate a hotdog.  Coming out, I wandered about some more.  The streets were beginning to fill up with Adelaide’s youngsters, the girls of which were often slim and pretty (they wouldn’t stay that way long) and wearing next to nothing (like they do in Liverpool) and speaking in godawful accents (like they do in Liverpool).  At least half of them had tattoos.

The main attraction in several of the bars, according to the signage, seemed to be 24-hour poker machines (or pokies, as they are called in the excruciating local vernacular).  Clearly the gambling addiction in Australia isn’t confined to Melbourne.  For sure, you’ll find fruit machines in most English pubs, but they’re not advertised on enormous banners outside to the exclusion of anything else.  Half of these places were less bars than gambling dens which served alcohol.  I also saw Aborigines for the first time in Australia, and they didn’t appear to be doing too well.  They were a couple of old men and an old woman, all barefoot, and seemingly drunk in the middle of the street (more so than the rest of the locals).  One of the men had a bandage on his bleeding head.  The woman was dancing drunkenly in front of an elderly busker who was playing an electric guitar which had been smashed up.  It wasn’t a pretty sight.

I went into a packed bar on Leigh Street where I sat at the counter drinking something or other, before going to the next street where there was a Russian-themed bar.  I walked in and discovered the barman was from Nigeria, Port Harcourt to be precise.  The Russian theme didn’t amount to much, and so I talked to the barman about Lagos instead.  Shortly afterwards two young fellows came in and sat nearby and we got talking.  Turned out they were natives of Adelaide and once the inevitable ribbing about the cricket had finished, we got stuck into a fair bit of alcohol.  At some point some Nigerian mates of the barman came in and we had a jolly good laugh about Lagos (I forget what they were doing in Adelaide, but I think one of them might have been running a backpacker hostel, or something).  As the night moved on, an Australian girl joined the two lads and in with the general festivities.  After an hour or so, one of the lads and the girl went home and the other lad, Adam, and I went a-bar hunting.  We wandered into three or four packed bars, drinking and bullshitting in each one, and then at some point after midnight went into the Adelaide casino to prop up the bars there.  Whereas the Crown casino in Melbourne is impressive in size and probably style also, the same can’t be said for Adelaide’s.  It looked like a pretty seedy joint, half full of middle aged married or divorced men coming from the office parties and drunkenly trying it on with their middle aged married female colleagues.  It was painful to watch, but by this time I was getting pretty drunk and really wasn’t so bothered by my surroundings.

It got to a point, sometime around 2 or 3am, and the streets were an utter carnage of drunken revellers, when we decided to go to a bar I’d passed several times on Hinkley Street called the Woolshed.  We went in and I found myself in the biggest shithole since my days of drinking in Manchester.  The first thing that hit me was the smell.  Since the smoking ban, bars have gone from smelling of smoke to smelling of BO, stale beer, farts, and backed-up toilets.  It was honking.  The carpet was sticky, which is a sure sign of a certain type of establishment, and the music absolutely bloody awful.  There was a mechanical rodeo bull set up in one corner with drunk girls dressed in tiny dresses trying to ride it without any success, but attracting a sizeable audience nonetheless.  I poked my head in the toilet and found a proper, British club style arrangement: cubicle doors hanging off, graffiti everywhere, the seat ripped off, the porcelain cracked, both toilets blocked with bog roll, a pint glass in the urinal, and the whole floor covered in piss.  The whole place sent a wave of nostalgia over me for the many dives I have patronised, and I loved it!  I felt right at home.

And so Adam and I were off, drinking ourselves into oblivion, watching plastered, sweating halfwits trying it on with anything vaguely female, and who they outnumbered by eight to one.  Somehow I got talking briefly with some girl who looked about 20 who had two strange words tattooed on her inner wrists, which turned out to be the names of her daughters.  The music got worse, but the dancing – if you could possibly call it that – had no greater depths to which it could sink.  I stayed on the edges, guzzling bourbon by the tumbler, watching Adam try his luck with anything which passed his threshold of interest.  He was one hell of a drinking buddy, and I was mighty grateful for his company.  We went to the first floor level, up a ludicrously steep flight of stairs given the state of the customers at that point, which was packed full of people of all ages, shapes, and sizes.  One thing I like about these shithole clubs is they are egalitarian places with no pretentiousness.  I detest pretentious bars and clubs – Melbourne has them by the dozen – pretending to be as hip and trendy as Manhattan’s newest gay bar, when in fact they’re just your standard, boring dump with a lick of paint applied.  The Woolshed by contrast didn’t pretend to be anything other than an absolute, end-of-the-night dive and as a result everyone was there only to get hammered and, for a lot of them, to pick something up. Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves at any rate, and I didn’t see a sniff of trouble.

I saw lots of things which I really wanted to remember so I could blog about them, but alas my memory failed me in most instances.  I blundered into one group who had a teenage French girl with them, who had been sent from Paris to stay with her cousin and learn English.  Quite what sort of English her parents thought she’d learn in Adelaide, and quite what words and phrases she’d learn in the Woolshed at 4am is anyone’s guess, but I was able to speak French with her for a while.  My French language abilities are rudimentary in the extreme, but compared to everyone else in the joint I might easily have passed for Gerard Depardieu.  Eventually she cleared off to smoke outside with her friends, and it was pushing towards about 5am when I realised that the place was now half empty and I’d lost Adam.  At this point, or somewhere around it, I stumbled the short distance back to my hotel and went to bed.

The next day I thought I’d better do something productive to justify my coming to Adelaide, but unfortunately I looked around and realised it was already mid-afternoon.  That’s the problem with going out until dawn and getting up after lunch.  So I took a stroll up to Rundle Mall, the main shopping precinct, in spitting rain which was not what I’d expected: Adelaide had experienced one of its hottest days on record two days previously.  There wasn’t much to see, although I did stop to watch this guy play his guitar in the street, which was very impressive and his method was something I’d never seen before.  Australian shopping areas aren’t much to visit, and I was feeling pretty rough, so I decided to spend what was left of the afternoon in the cinema, watching American Hustle which, after a slow start, I quite enjoyed.  I went out that evening to get something to eat, again struggling to find a proper restaurant just by wandering about and looking, settling for a burrito at a Mexican-themed takeaway joint.  I tried to go back to the Russian-themed bar for a quick drink but found it closed for the staff Christmas party, and I really couldn’t be bothered to look anywhere else and so went back to the hotel and watched test match cricket between South Africa and India.

I got up a lot earlier the next day and looked at the range of brochures on display in the hotel advertising things to do in Adelaide.  The problem was, none of them advertised things to do in Adelaide: everything involved travelling outside for anywhere between 20 and 100km.  The things people recommended I do – mainly winery tours – were outside the city, and when I looked at the things for which you can book a day trip I wasn’t overly excited.  Most of them seemed to involve travelling an hour or so to a place where there really wasn’t very much, and none of them interested me.  Even the winery tours didn’t appeal for two reasons.  Firstly, wine in wineries is no cheaper in Australia than it is in a supermarket, which defeats the primary purpose of going on a winery tour: to get pissed cheaply on good wine.  And secondly, I’m moving to Paris in a few weeks where I will be drinking good wine until it comes out of my ears at a fraction of Australian prices, and likely doing plenty of winery tours over the course of the next couple of years where the wine is practically free.  So it wasn’t something I felt a real urge to undertake when in Adelaide.

Just to ensure that my trip didn’t just consist of me getting totally pissed and going to the cinema, I took a stroll down to the river, opposite the Adelaide oval which is undergoing renovations.  I was tempted to hire a pedal boat in the absence of anything else to do, but they were sorry looking things and customers were not allowed to take them out of sight of the hire point.  Then I looked at doing what was advertised as a river cruise, but when I enquired what there was to look at the best I could hope for was “grassy banks”.  Not even a kangaroo or a bunch of convicts.  The park area along the river was quite nice though, and I took a few photos mainly to justify having lugged the camera with me from Melbourne.

IMG_2621IMG_2626IMG_2627IMG_2628 I suppose it was a Sunday afternoon, but there really didn’t seem to be much going on.  My walk back to the city centre took me through the university campus where there were flyers advertising some Marxist snoozefest of the type which has been a stock feature of university campuses across the western world for about 5 generations now.  IMG_2629A Marxism conference promising “ideas to challenge the system”.  Really?  New ideas these, are they?  You’ve got to hand it to these lefties, they don’t give up.  A resilient bunch, and each generation seems to put forward enough numbers to pick up where the last lot left off.

I briefly went into the Museum of South Australia which, from what I could tell, was a museum of whale bones and Pacific Island cultures, before giving up on finding anything else of interest and going home.  Aside from a passable Indian curry that evening and the flight back to Melbourne, that was pretty much Adelaide for me.  Not really worth the trip on the face of it, but I did need to get out of Melbourne and get my mind off some serious work issues, and the night on the piss with my new friend in the Woolshed adequately served that purpose.  So I’m glad I went.