An Update on Melbourne

As you can see, I’ve not posted much recently.  I’m still in Melbourne, keeping myself reasonably busy.  I’ve taken a basic sailing course, which means I am qualified to look at a yacht and opine on whether the hull is the bit on the bottom or not.  This was a lot of fun, as it meant spending several hours out on the water of Port Phillip Bay.  First time I went, I didn’t bring the right gear with me and vastly underestimated how damned cold the wind would be.  The second time, following a visit to a chandler’s, I was togged up in waterproof dungarees and a jacket which looked like something off Deadliest Catch.  It was much more enjoyable.

I’ve also embarked on a Russian course, mainly to give me something to do, but also to make sure I don’t start forgetting stuff and in the hope that I might improve.  I’m about 8 years ahead of the rest of the class, but the teacher is giving me some pretty difficult stuff to do and for now it’s worthwhile.

But other than that, I’ve not got a lot to say about Melbourne.  The problem I have is that Melbourne is a dumbed-down version of the UK with better weather and worse accents.  Don’t get me wrong, I like being here.  Given that 8 years of the past decade have seen me in Kuwait, Sakhalin Island, and Lagos, being somewhere normal again is great.  I am enjoying decent internet, proper shops, and having a variety of places to eat and drink.  Also, it’s nice to know that when your shoes fall apart you can go and buy a new pair that afternoon, instead of planning it into your next holiday or business trip.  And being able to do proper grocery shopping in a well-stocked, functioning supermarket is a new-found pleasure.  I came across a new, exotic fruit the other day, called tangerines.

Now I’m sure there are some great places to visit around Melbourne, and elsewhere in Australia.  The Great Ocean Road for one, something we intended to do last weekend but my colleague got sick.  But as a city in itself, Melbourne is okay but no more than that.  I can see why Australians go all giddy over it – their scope of experience is generally so narrow that anything merely above average is “sensational”.  (Apparently Japan is the best place in the world to go skiing.  I’ve been to Niseko, and I’ve been to Les Trois Vallées in the French Alps, and the two just don’t compare).  And I can see why immigrants fleeing wars in Africa, poverty in the Indian sub-continent, or democracy in South Africa love it, because on a global scale it does rank pretty high.  Only for me, it doesn’t have anything particularly unique or interesting about it.  I spent 7 years in a city where everyone speaks English, drinks a lot, has a multitude of well-attended sports fixtures, a redeveloped docklands area and a tram network, hosted a Commonwealth Games, and prides itself on its music venues.  It was called Manchester.  True, the weather in Melbourne is better and they have a beach (then again, as my colleague from Queensland said: “You call that a beach?”).  But you can escape from Manchester and be in Paris or Barcelona in 2 hours, whereas Melbourne is in the arse-end of nowhere and 2 hours will see you in Sydney or Hobart.  And Melbourne is f*cking expensive.  Had I not been coming off a string of hardship locations, on a temporary assignment, and excited about exploring this corner of the globe for the first time, I’m not sure I’d be too happy here.  In itself, I don’t see Melbourne as being a place I’d want to live full time (then again, I’m yet to find anywhere like that, so perhaps it’s just me?)  If given a straight choice, I think I’d rather live in the UK and travel occasionally to find better weather.

But clearly a lot of people like it.  The Aussies do, for reasons of simply liking their home (nothing wrong with that) or those I mentioned earlier.  Some Kiwis like it, but from what I hear about New Zealand, subtract the natural beauty and the rugby and you’re left with very little.  No wonder they invented bungee jumping and other mental sports.  One group who like it are Brits, and the place is full of them.  But I’ve noticed something about a lot of them (not all of them mind, so don’t jump down my throat, any Melbourne-based Brits who are reading this).  A lot of them are pretty second-rate.  I get the impression Australia is a place which attracts Brits who aren’t exactly setting the world on fire back home so want to chance their arm in a country where the standards are perceived to be a bit lower, without having to bother learning a new culture.  I’ve not met a single person who came to Australia for a challenge, all of them came for “the lifestyle”, by which I take to mean a life which is more laid-back and easy than the one they left behind.  Which is fine, but some of them laughably try to pass this off as “international experience” in the professional sense, which is bollocks even if strictly true.  Moving from the UK to Australia is probably the most effortless transition to make: the culture is almost identical, relative to any other country.  There is no need to trouble yourself with a new language, or cuisine, or music, or customs, or indeed anything else other than climate, and in the case of Melbourne that’s pretty much the same for half the year.  Anyone who thinks he’s gaining vital international experience by moving from the UK to Melbourne is kidding themselves, but it doesn’t stop them trying it on.

For these reasons I’m a bit suspicious of Brits who say how amazing Melbourne is.  What, exactly, is amazing?  The fact you don’t need to wear ironed clothes to work?  That you get to call your customers “mate”?  It reminds me of the Brits I met in Baku and Abu Dhabi who thought those places were great, by virtue of there being no professional standards and a ready supply of cheap hookers.  Okay, I’m slapping everyone with a pretty wide brush here (and if this comes as a surprise, you must be new to this blog).

A lot of them might like the laid-back, matey culture.  I think it has its good points, mainly the way that Australians are as friendly as hell.  I’ve got chatting to guys asking for directions, people sat on trams, in the gym, in bars.  You can launch into a friendly conversation with anyone nearby, regardless of the venue, and that’s pretty good.  Nobody is stand-offish or uncomfortable talking with a complete stranger.  Which is great on a personal level, but not so good when adopted by companies and officialdom.  Insurance companies advertise products as if they were your mate trying to shift a second-hand lawnmower.  Advertisements for retail outlets have managed to be even dumber than those of the UK, sinking to something resembling teenage slang or text message English.  Even the Federal Government puts out adverts about “Giving the Aussie Tradie a Fair Go”, whilst at the same time managing to ignore economic reality.  It might work, I don’t know, but the impression it gives – to me anyway – is somebody who up until last week was smoking weed and watching big-wave surfing documentaries has now been put in charge of a bank’s public relations department.  It doesn’t instill confidence, and I contrast it with the French who unfailingly begin every encounter with “Bonjour, m’sieur…” and address you as vous until such time you actually are pals.  If somebody in an Australian shop wanders up to you and says “G’day mate” he could be anyone, because there’s no way he’ll have a uniform on, and his name tag is hidden lest he looks uncool.

That said.  I badly misjudged one chap in an acoustic guitar shop who kept me waiting for half an hour while he chatted up some blonde piece with stories of his own musical prowess.  She was buying a guitar, so he did need to attend to her, but I took the laid back look, unkempt hair, and matey manners to mean he didn’t know his stuff.  Then he turned to me and spent the next hour giving me an impressive education on the development of the acoustic guitar from the 1920s through the depression up to WWII, which woods they used and why, the bracing configurations, and the characteristics of each model.  His efforts were rewarded by my walking out the door with a ludicrously expensive (but incredibly nice) guitar which I’d never have bought had he not been so knowledgeable and good at his job.

So I can understand why people like Melbourne, I’m just not sure that I do particularly.  I don’t dislike it by any means, I’m just neutral.  Interestingly, my French colleagues are a bit “meh” about it, too.  True, they’re tougher to please than the Brits, but are probably a better yardstick of how nice your city is.  No doubt there’s a Brit living under a pile of rubble in Mogadishu enthusiastically telling everyone how great the place is.

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14 Responses to An Update on Melbourne

  1. Duffy says:

    Are there any parts of Upsidedown Land that you would rate more favorably?

  2. Tim Newman says:

    I’ve not been anywhere else yet. I can say with almost certainty there will be places I’ll (hopefully) visit which will be great, particular as regards nature and scenery. Also…bear in mind visiting a place and living for a while involve different criteria.

  3. Bardon says:

    You should have a look at regional Victoria before you inevitably leave Melbourne, as there are many interesting towns with interesting European history. Bendigo, Ballarat and the like are worth a visit, I don’t really like the Victorian coast that much. A short drive to Healsville and a drive up the range to experience the eco shift in vegetation is also a fantastic day trip as well. Victoria is unique in the Australian context that you can drive to these places relatively easily, many in a day trip although an overnight stay and a few wines is always recommended.

    One thing that is mandatory to get in with the Melbourne way is to get mad about AFL, that helps you assimilate a bit down there. The run up to the finals and the grand final and spring is a great time especially for a father/son/workmate type craic, the sheilas are also right into it as well. My sons also enjoyed Melbourne for its street cricket, AFL, schoolmates, skateboarding and all that kind of stuff.

    I quite like the Melbournites and must admit that I never knew any Brits in Melbourne so I can’t comment on them that much. Your dead right about them being house proud, they are and they probably have the best architecture both heritage and modern and that is another reason why I like it as well. I am into houses and architecture and love the older style dwellings although I own a modern house there.

    I have had two long spells in Melbourne and both times it was because I was working on the largest projects that were being undertaken there at the time. I might have a distorted view because I was in the fast lane at work and quite enjoyed the leisure time in Melbourne, plus I was on the big bucks and allowances and that always helps me to like a place. Melbourne is not known for being a big project town and most people that work on major projects are not from there, or if they are, then they are only back there because of the project and they are happy to be catching up with family and friends.

    Spending most of my time in the Australian sub tropics and Asia, the Melbourne climate is refreshing with its four seasons and European feel. My mother who is from the UK even recognises most of the vegetation in Melbourne.

    Yes, it may be relatively expensive but lets not forget that you can make very big money in Melbourne and it was historically a very wealthy city, with the gold rush and all. When I say expensive I mean relative to other cities here. I don’t buy this Australia is expensive bit, as the comparison cannot be made until you consider that our wages are far higher than other countries and we have the highest minimum wage in the world. This coupled with a strong dollar means that any comparison to say the UK about how much a pint of beer costs just isn’t worth the bother. Its like saying that an apartment in Moscow is expensive.

    It actually used to be the wealthiest city in the world, with Collins St having the most expensive real estate in the world during the gold rush which was when most of the grand buildings both commercial and residential were built. The Collins St architecture is still one of the best retained historical strips in western cities and the ANZ gothic bank and other buildings located there are right up there in the must see stakes for those interested in that kind of stuff.

  4. Bardon says:

    Typo correction

    Its like saying that an apartment in Moscow is more expensive than one in Manchester.

  5. Tim Newman says:

    I do intend to take a few weekend trips around Victoria. I have a car now, although bizarrely they didn’t provide a GPS but an iPhone does the job. Once things settle down here a bit, I’ll start driving out of town. I’ve heard about Bendigo, a colleague of mine lives near there and told me about an agricultural show up there in October. I think I might be back in Lagos when it’s on, but I’d otherwise be keen to go. That sort of stuff I love, growing up as I did in an agricultural area.

    I don’t mind the AFL, but I can’t get really giddy about any sport. I love watching sport on TV, and could happily stay in watching rugby, cricket, or soccer, but I’ve never got into the tribalism of it. I’ve watched most sports alone, courtesy of my being sent to places by myself for much of my career and the fact that a lot of them are played at funny hours, so although I prefer a good discussion, the whole passion thing passes me by. I get pissed off if Wales lose at rugby or England at cricket, but it doesn’t go much beyond that.

    Your dead right about them being house proud, they are and they probably have the best architecture both heritage and modern and that is another reason why I like it as well.

    That’s probably why I’m underwhelmed. With the exception of medieval castles and cathedrals, I’m not into architecture in the slightest. I like the buildings of St. Petersburg, which is about as authentic as Dubai when you think about how it was conceived, and some of the old European cities, but that’s about it. I can see why people like it, but it doesn’t do much for me. In fact, the building I am sat in right now is an old bank on Collins Street, and it is very impressive, but no more so than the old buildings in London. Unless you can appreciate the finer points, which I can’t, it’s all a bit “meh”. And I’m sure there’s other aspects of Melbourne’s history that would be interesting to some, e.g. the industrial development, the immigration, etc. Only I didn’t find this particularly interesting about the industrial cities of the UK. Sure, I liked visiting the industrial and maritime museums with the giant steam engines and anything related to engineering: bridges, tunnels, sewers, etc. But any interest I have in the industrial development of cities is dwarfed by my interest in modern military history, of which there is none in Melbourne. By contrast, I swarmed all over the war museums in Moscow, Seoul, Saigon, and Helsinki.

    Its like saying that an apartment in Moscow is more expensive than one in Manchester.

    Well, not really. Moscow and Manchester aren’t comparable in terms of economic development, culture, or history. Somebody moving to Moscow from Manchester would have a completely different lifestyle in mind, and would use a totally different set of criteria to judge the move from somebody looking to move to Melbourne from Manchester. Cost of living is probably one of the key criteria looked at by somebody moving from Manchester to Melbourne, somebody moving from the UK to Moscow would be looking at other stuff entirely (mainly because the cost of living would be borne mostly by his employer).

    I don’t buy this Australia is expensive bit, as the comparison cannot be made until you consider that our wages are far higher than other countries and we have the highest minimum wage in the world. This coupled with a strong dollar means that any comparison to say the UK about how much a pint of beer costs just isn’t worth the bother.

    Agreed, but I’m not doing this. When I talk about how expensive a place is, I don’t try to compare like-for-like prices, but to try to gauge how far your money goes, and what standard of living a normal wage gets you. I think the UK lies at the very bottom of the list for standard of living versus what you pay for it, mainly because of the house prices. This is my main reason for avoiding the place, I think you get far better value for money elsewhere. Australia probably provides better value for money than the UK, and the standard of living is undoubtedly high, but I still think it is very expensive: again, mainly because of property prices.

    By contrast, I found the standard of living in Germany to be very high: good quality houses and cars available at a fraction of the cost of those in the UK, and whilst wages were lower, those wages go a lot further. The same is true for France in some ways. Regardless of how you factor in Australia’s higher wages, I bet you need to work longer in Australia to buy a bottle of wine than you do in France. A lot of this comes down to personal choice in what’s important to you, but at first glance, Australia is expensive to me because it doesn’t seem to offer great value for money. Better than the UK for sure, but as I said, once you’re in Australia you’re kind of stuck here. No nipping to Tallinn for a cheap getaway. Probably the country with the highest standard of living in terms of what your money buys you is the US, where almost everything is half the price it is elsewhere. I know all about the economic and inequality problems in the US, and I doubt they’ll ever be resolved, but the fact remains if you’re looking to buy camping gear, kitchen equipment, a camera, a mountain bike, a computer, clothes, or anything else, you’ll get it a lot cheaper in the US than anywhere else – even if you take into account their lower wages.

    One of the most infuriating things about Brits as a nationality is their weakness in the face of being ripped off. They just accept it and pay up. The Americans don’t, they demand lower prices. The Australians have followed the British in accepting that stuff is inevitably expensive, when in actual fact it doesn’t need to be.

  6. Bardon says:

    I visited Germany on holiday last year for the first time and was quite impressed with it, that is excluding their wine of course. Easily fixed with the abundant choice of Austrian reads. I did find them conservative you know at breakfast and things which was something I didn’t expect to see, no g’day mates there, maybe thats why you like it as well.

    Interestingly enough Germany doesn’t have a minimum wage and the UK’s is nearly half that of Australians.

    http://static5.businessinsider.com/image/52124706ecad041e39000028-960/minimum-wages-around-the-world.png

  7. Tim Newman says:

    What I liked about Germany was the Mercedes I hired and the abundance of beer and sausages. Germany doesn’t have a minimum wage because the workers, unions, and government cooperate with one another to a far greater extent than the UK. In fact, German politicians and unions conspired to keep wages down to keep their export industries competitive, something rarely mentioned in the UK by those who champion the German economic model.

  8. Bardon says:

    I am a Mercedes and sausage guy as well, even down here in oz!

  9. TNA says:

    Great post. It didn’t take you long to spot the 2nd rateness of the Poms here.

    Here’s my take on it; ADULTS http://thenewaustralian.org/?p=442

  10. Bardon says:

    Sadly, TNA may have a very valid point with his above categorisation of the Poms. I personally wouldn’t label them all with a sweeping judgement lie that, but I suspect if someone like TNA were to reside in other countries he would rapidly come to the same conclusion as to their social ranking. Unfortunately this suspicion is based on what I have directly observed when working in countries, other than Australia.

  11. Tim Newman says:

    Hmmm. I very much doubt you’ve worked anywhere where Brits had a low social standing. Now I’m sure you’ve been to many places where people stand around moaning about Brits, but I’ll bet you can’t name a single place outside the US where Brits didn’t occupy senior positions, British companies weren’t working, and the locals weren’t considering going to Britain for work or education more than any other country. This is a far better measure of British social standing than ex-colonials moaning about Brits. That second-rate Brits seem to make it in Australia shows that even here, they enjoy a higher social ranking than you imply.

  12. Bardon says:

    Tim, is your comment directed at TNA’s observation about the second rateness of Poms or my further post on his point?

  13. I would suggest reading the chapter of Charles Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle” in which he describes his visit to Sydney in 1836. He visited Sydney rather than Melbourne, but said very similar things about Australians, their obsession with the value of their houses, the sorts of Britons who come here etc that you do.

    I was walking around my old haunts in Sydney yesterday feeling a bit nostalgic and a slight sense of missing it, and you did remind me why I left, yes. Also, my budget for this trip is completely blown. I love the Sydney and Melbourne inner city architecture – but there is a story to this. The best of it was built in about 1890, which Australia was at the end of being booming and up and coming and confident. Australia has never really been the same since. After that came the recession of the 1890s, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, and a sort of timid complacency after that, which has pretty much lasted ever since.

    As for the guitar guy, this is typical of Australian obsessively compulsive nerds. (I am one of these, myself). In many ways the culture is not friendly to them, but somehow this makes them more intensely nerdier. You will see some pretty extra examples of this on election night in two weeks. Australian electoral politics and Australian electoral politics are extremely nerdy. The politics itself is just politics and the politicians are as ghastly as anywhere else, but the guys who count and analyse the numbers are pretty extreme. The current media star of this is a guy named Antony Green, who works for the ABC and you will see a lot of him. (When I first came to the UK I was surprised by the extreme crudeness of the way these sorts of things are done there).

  14. Anne says:

    Hey Tim, don’t feel bad because you’re not enthralled with Melbourne – most Australians feel the same way. The cold is only part of it.
    The oil industry took us to country Victoria for four years and everyone I knew kept right away from ‘the big smoke’.
    Had some good times though, looking back – checking out the snow resorts, bushwalking, rainforests, and visiting some of the country towns esp. those along the Murray.

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