Robert Hughes, the late Australian-born art critic, wrote a masterpiece of history in 1987, The Fatal Shore, in which he called his native land a “…cloaca, invisible, its contents filthy and unnameable.”
He was referring not to his own, but to English attitudes during the Georgian era towards his yet unsettled country as England prepared to empty its hulk ships and festering jails onto the First Fleet sailing off to Cook’s oversold Botany Bay in what would come to be known as the “Great Transportation” — the forced resettlement of hundreds of thousands of petty thieves, whores, and miscreants. They had formerly been sold into indentured servitude to America prior to Great Britain losing that convenient dumping ground because of the American Revolution. No more America meant England needed a new dump and that Hughes chose a scatalogical simile is all part of the global conspiracy to paint this great country with cliches perpetuated by Men At Work, the “throw-a-shrimp-on-the-barby” guy, Discovery Channel’s “Weird Things that Will Kill You in Australia,” Mad Max and the Great Humungous, and the unnamed wit (I suspect Jeremy Clarkson) who called the place the “Alabama of the World.” Crikey, let’s give Australia a break. I’d move here in an instant.
I myself was transported to Sydney earlier this week courtesy of a seat in economy class on United Airlines and an invitation to attend a press conference announcing my company’s relationship with the Australian Government. I managed to read Thomas Keneally’s : A Commonwealth of Thieves as well as re-read Fatal Shore during the 15.5 hour flight (versus five months for the First Fleet), and arrived at Kingsford Airport on the shores of Botany Bay on a muggy day in the southern hemisphere’s version of late spring. The Sydney Opera House conveniently revealed itself during the descent, looking smaller than I imagined (a view from 5,000 feet will tend to shrink objects).
My colleague suggested a hotel at Manly Beach, an eastern suburb of Sydney fast by North Head, the northern promontory at the entrance of Sydney Harbor. Soaked in a funk of plane sweat, all I wanted was a shower, but of course the room wasn’t ready when I checked in so I staggered around the waterfront and the “Corso” in a jet lag fugue taken to an extreme by the International Date Line. Was it Sunday or Tuesday? I left California on Saturday night, but it was Monday. I think. As Hughes writes in Fatal Shore, the poor bastards that were first shipped off to Australia could have been embarking on a trip to the moon, except for one difference: you can see the moon from England.
First thing I did was flush a toilet to see if the water drained counter-clockwise due to the Coriolis Effect. It did not. According to Wikipedia: “Contrary to popular misconception, water rotation in home bathrooms under normal circumstances is not related to the Coriolis effect or to the rotation of the earth, and no consistent difference in rotation direction between toilet drainage in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres can be observed.”
My colleague met me for lunch. He observed my wretched condition and asked if I might like to go for a swim, motioning out past the tall Norfolk Pines at the beauty of Manly Bay, the surfers riding the Cabbage Palm break and the infinite Pacific beyond.
“Box jellyfish. Great White Sharks. Stingrays. Saltwater Crocodiles. I don’t think so,” I said, beginning a five day recitation of every Australian cliche I could think of.
My room was (and still is) on the backside of the hotel, away from the beach, facing some place named with a lot of vowels in it, like “Woolooloogong” or “Baggahammas” and it was very thoughtful of the desk clerk to put me in a room overlooking a school playground filled with two hundred identically blue uniformed screaming children who seemed to be on perpetual recess. A cricket pitch is across the way where — I shit you not — they practice bagpipes at night. A weird bird that looks like a cockatoo flies by every five minutes and makes a noise like a pterodactyl that has gargled Drain-O.
I finally received my shower and then lunched with my colleague. After bidding him g’day I vowed not to break the first rule of coping with absurd jet lag: do not touch the bed while the sun is shining and don’t hunker down in a hotel room when you could be out walking it off. So I set out to explore Manly Beach. I love a place named by the founding governor of Australia — Arthur Phillip — because he thought the aborigines on the beach looked quite manly. That they ran a spear through his shoulder next to a beached whale because they were tired of all his colonial incursions is besides the point: Governor Phillip survived and even accepted the locals had good reason to be miffed, what with the smallpox and pilfering convicts and what not and ordered the red coats not to go looking for revenge.
Where the governor was speared now stands the Manly Wharf, home of the “World Famous” Manly Ferry that connects to Sydney’s central business district in what I wager is the world’s most beautiful commute. I strolled down there on evening one, found a brew pub, and drank myself into a condition where sleep might be possible.
Tuesday was the big day, my reason for being there, a press conference in Sydney with the Chief Technology Officer of the Australian Government and 17 members of the local tech and business press. I like hanging out with reporters because I used to be one. I also know what I used to call ex-reporters with titles of “VP of Corporate Marketing. Flaks. Australia actually has a thriving press. There’s a half dozen actual paper newspapers in the hotel lobby every morning with lurid headlines about well endowed young women who died from Ecstasy overdoses. It was actually kind of great to schmooze with tech writers who had also worked for the late Pat McGovern at IDG, and in the published aftermath from the press conference they were more than kind even if one quoted me al s a company executive 11,000 miles away and another told me I looked like Jeff Bridges. The Big Lebowski version. Which means I must need a haircut.
A reporter interviewed me with an iPhone. I realize my mouth was hanging open, slack jawed, for most of the interview.
Wednesday morning I decided to check stuff out and went on a hike to North Head, a national park south of Manly that encompasses an old World War II artillery fortification for the coastal defense of Sydney. After a monster hill climb that turned me into aquaman, past the ubiquitous Crossfit box, I turned onto a trail and started getting lost in the outback of Manly. Signs warning of the endangered Bandicoots, bizarre birds, bees without stingers, skinks, gowannas, unseen marsupials, all of a sudden I was conscious that I wasn’t walking on the paved esplanade past the hotels and schnitzel shops, but in the bush where even the plants might kill me.
I found an army observation hut, went inside, expecting a gigantic spider attack, looked out the window for the Japanese Fleet, and seeing nothing but ocean all the way to the South Pole, went on my merry way, poking around a massive gun battery with a really big gun, then onto a very sombering memorial walk commemorating the Australian military a day after Veteran’s Day, the inscribed paving stones dotted with red paper poppies.
After that expedition what is there to really say? The people are really nice, healthy, drink in pubs they call hotels. Like their beer cold. Drive on the wrong side of the road. Are cheerful to strangers. Don’t push in lines and smile a lot. I couldn’t find “Australian cuisine” — but pieced together that “bugs” refer to lobsters of some sort, there is kangaroo meat on some menus, they are keen on Mexican food, the Thai is outstanding, and lamb on a pizza is a common thing.
Sydney is gorgeous, clean, cosmopolitan, and I even heard a didgeridoo by the ferries at Circular Quay. Now I get to fly back to the dank cold darkness of New England and wonder what cliches we’re known for. Oh, and the English dumped a ton of criminals on the Puritans, so we Americans can embrace our convict heritage too.