Our Strength Is In Our Roots

Our strength is in our roots and what we cling to.


It’s a quote from a book I received from Mum at Christmas – a photographic panorama of Melbourne by Ken Duncan. The quote sits next to a picture of the cottage of James Cook‘s parents in Fitzroy Gardens, dismantled and transported – much like many of Australia’s forefathers – from Yorkshire in 1933 to be reassembled as a testament to this English explorer who first made landfall in Botany Bay on 29th April 1766. In any case, the pictures are wonderful and remind me of the unique character of this city on the other side of the world that I used to call home.

I’ve just returned from the Phoenix Cinema where, on this wet grey afternoon I watched The Butler, the story of one man’s life throughout the enormous changes of the 20th and 21st centuries. Having seen 12 Years A Slave a couple of weeks ago, I was interested in this alternative take on the slave movement and the role of black people in society over the past 100 years. And while ’12 Years’ was a great (and brutal) movie, I loved how The Butler spanned generations in time, crossing the eras of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, apartheid and the election of Obama as America’s first black president in 2008.

 

Well today is Australia Day and I have found myself quite reflective about my feelings towards my native country. Australia Day actually pays tribute to the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove, eleven ships filled with convicts and a small contingent of freemen and soldiers who would settle the harsh and distant land. There remains much controversy about this, particularly around the role of the indigenous people in this pioneering ‘tale’ but while there might be parallels with the American tale, it’s only meant as the starting point rather than the purpose of this post.

It was an interesting thing to do on my national day, go to the cinema and watch the history of another child of The Empire unfold. And it took me back to last Wednesday night when I saw Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap (The Book Nook #40 – 2011), interviewed by The Guardian’s John Mullan. This controversial novel, set in suburban Melbourne, for me lays bare the legend of the lucky country. 

When I read the book back in 2011, I felt both shocked and vindicated by its truthfulness – that beneath the laconic veneer of suburban life might lie a sense of seething resignation and resentment. I was also unprepared for Tsiolkas, a thoughtful and perceptive Greek Australian who talked openly about wanting to write about modern Australia as it truly was (and is). We are close(ish) in age so grew up in parallel Melbournes, chasing teenage dreams across the 80s, traversing (even if only figuratively) the realities of adulthood in the 90s and finding our respective ways into the new millennium so despite not being Greek, so I could relate to his reference points.

Tsiolkas talked about a grasping and selfish society and lamented a pervading sense of unkindness (although I would say that is not something that is limited to Australia’s sandy shores). He also mentioned that multiculturalism has become less overt Down Under, the veritable babel of past playgrounds full of ethnic variety a distant memory. I remember a conversation with a visiting Irishman in Young & Jackson’s (pub) in 2003 and how indignant I was that he would even suggest that Australia was a nation of racists.

Little did I know how the rest of world ‘out there’ looked and how it would all appear now I look from the outside in.

But there are many wonderful things about being Australian to cling to. Our willingness to chip in and lend a hand, our ironic sense of humour, our ‘everyman’ classless-ness. The sense of exploration and willingness to play beyond our current backyard – after all there are almost half a million Australians living in the UK alone. Our laid-back optimism and our sporting obsessions. Our outdoor lifestyle and our foodie culture. Our coffee – great, great coffee. And our vast open spaces. Sharp blue skies, stark landscapes, sparkling coasts and ‘architectural’ landscapes – wonder after wonder shaped by Mother Nature herself.

So as Australia Day in this part of the world draws to a close, it’s a big Aussie cheers from this Australian abroad who, despite finding food for her soul under the grey skies of London, still finds her heart – and her roots – Down Under.

Image Source: http://www.kenduncan.com

Done and Dusted…Commuting Gems

This week, about 10 weeks ahead of schedule, I smashed the 50 Book Challenge.

That’s right peeps – I’ve read 50 books this year.

(Actually this morning it stands at 51 but who am I to quibble over such a detail?)

Along the way, I unearthed some real Commuting Gems, writers that will continue to feed my long and literary journey to and from work every day. Douglas Kennedy made the grade early – I have read three of his books this year – closely followed by slightly off-centre crime fiction from Chris Brookmyre (I’ve read two of his). More recently, I discovered the joys of Jonathan Frantzen, Jo Nesbo and Scott Mariani and have already started my next Ben Hope Adventure (Mariani’s protagonist).

I have also travelled far and wide from the comfort of my reading spot(s) – through the post ‘et tu Brutus?’ period of the Roman Empire (Colleen McCullough) and in a black cab across America with the incomparable everyman himself, Stephen Fry. I have immersed myself in the cultural melting pot of a Russian community in China with Kate Furnivall and stood in awe of the great and mighty Vesuvius with Robert Harris.

Let’s not forget the little bit of star-spotting l managed either. I rubbed literary shoulders with Sir Elton, Alistair Campbell, Billy Connelly, Jane Austen and young Queen Victoria!

The stalwarts of my literary days gone by were there too – Lionel Shriver, Michael Connelly and Dick Francis (although after three of the latter, I might say nay – neigh, geddit? – to a Francis horse-racing extravaganza for a while).

I’ve also dropped in on old favourites like Heathcliff & Cathy and Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy. I read about risk and danger, and about a girl who played with fire and then made things worse by kicking the hornet’s nest. 

I’ve even managed both a trip back to old Melbourne town (courtesy of Christos Tsiolkas) and a joyful celebration with fellow expat Bill Bryson, of the fabulous place I now call home.

Who knew that commuting four hours each day could bring such joy!

Not all was smooth sailing (or commuting if you prefer). Three made my ‘Disappointing’ List – number 6 from Margot Berwin, number 15 from David Gibbins and 39 from Dawn French. Not so marvellous. But 3 out of 50 (that’s just 6% says she, whipping out her trusty calculator to double check her mental maths) ain’t bad. And look at all of the things I have experienced and discovered.

So if you’ve been inspired at all by my bookish banging on, or are looking for some great reads to add to your own (e)bookshelf, you can see them all – along with what I thought of them – at The Book Nook which, in the spirit of encouraging readership and literacy, I will continue to update.

Happy reading peeps!