The Night Train to Boganville

Sydney Central Station, 8.20 pm.

There’s a curious mixture of legitimate travellers and those on the seamier side of life, with a hair-thin line separating them. People sit disconsolately, surrounded by luggage. A group of furtive smokers has congregated just outside – two young German girls with brand new Deuter rucksacks, a guy in a suit who keeps checking his phone, a middle-aged lady in cocktail dress and heels. Ten yards further along there is a soup kitchen, and the homeless line up to receive a bowl. A guy walks past with no shirt and no shoes – I saw him earlier in the city, in a kowtowing position, on his knees, forehead touching the ground, hands mutely outstretched before him in supplication. Into one of them someone had placed a ten cent coin. Now he’s altogether more animated, swaggering up to take his place in the food queue.

I become aware of someone standing in front of me and look up to see a cop. He’s tall and skinny and has bulging, hyperthyroid eyes. “I wouldn’t smoke there if I were you,” he says. “Not unless you feel like losing four hundred bucks.” Right, OK, I say, and wander across the road to finish my fag. Australia’s draconian smoking laws, which vary from state to state in degrees of incomprehension (no smoking in a public place – NSW; no smoking in a covered area where people are eating – Vic; no smoking unless you’re so drunk that it’s the least of your problems – NT), are selectively applied. There are at least a dozen people smoking outside the station. And the packets are decorated with pictures of various smoking-related ailments – one can order 50 grams of gangrenous foot (“Smoking causes peripheral vascular disease”), or perhaps a pack of 20 pink-tinged toilet bowl (“Smoking can lead to bladder cancer”). It doesn’t stop anyone.

The train is full tonight for the eleven-and-a-half hour slog to Melbourne. I’m already soaked in sweat from walking around Sydney all afternoon, and resign myself to an uncomfortable night. The carriage smells of old socks, and we haven’t even left yet. The conductor’s voice crackles over the tannoy: “Welcome aboard the NSW Trainlink XPT service to Melbourne.” She adopts a firm tone: “Anyone under the influence of drink or drugs, wearing soiled clothing or indulging in antisocial behaviour will be removed from the train and met by the police. You are reminded that smoking is strictly prohibited and there are smoke alarms fitted in all toilets and at every station. If you are caught smoking you will be prosecuted in accordance with Federal law.” On and on and on it goes, the hectoring, the nannying, as the carriage’s occupants sit there being scolded like an unruly class of schoolchildren. “You are reminded that it is an offence to drink any alcohol which has not been purchased from the buffet car. This is a fully booked service tonight so please remain in your allocated seat.”

It’s all nonsense. Pointless, patronising finger-wagging nonsense. As events are to prove.

A guy comes and takes the seat next to me. 40s, very pale skin. He has a gingery goatee and aviator shades on. His arms are covered in tattoos. I make out a vaguely Scottish accent beneath an Australian twang:

I’m just here for the night. Had tae get the fuck out of Dodge, know what I mean? Dunno where I’m going yet. Three times now, I’ve started over, and I’m getting sick of it. She kicked me out. Been together three years, I’d built a patio, spa bath out the back, all that – just want a quiet life, you know what I mean? Yeah – I’m from Scotland originally, but been working in WA on the mines. Welder. So we were making plans, getting settled, but she was always off out with her ‘mates’. Well I know now, don’t I? What sort of mates they were. Bunch of islanders – you know, Polynesians, Samoans and that. Aye, so she was out and I was just clearing out this cupboard and I found a holdall. Didna recognise it, you know? So I open it up, and guess what’s in it? Whole bunch of passports, credit cards, you name it – all in different names. Well, I’m no angel, you know? I’ve done stuff. Never been in the gaol though! But if you want to fiddle the books, take a bit on the side off of a big corporation, fair enough, know what I mean? But I wouldnae steal from a working man. He’s grafted for that, like. So I told her – you’ve got 24 hours to get rid of that stuff, no questions. Well I come back Friday and it’s still there, and there’s a shitty little message on ma phone to mind my own business. So you know what I did? I went to the cops with it. Me! Handed it all in, like. Aye, well now ah’m in the shit, because there’s a bunch of islander lads looking for me. She was just holding the stuff, you know? So I’m up here, but I’ve got nae money at all – only these. D’you know anything about stones? Well these were in the bag and I took them out before handing it to the cops. I reckon they’re worth a bit, but I’ve been up and down the main drag looking for jeweller shops but it’s all watches and shit. I dunno what I’m going tae do now – I’m flat broke. Might jump a train at Southern Cross. Just got to keep moving, I reckon.

We crawl out of Central and slowly make our way past bricked-up warehouses and inner city housing. We don’t get far. After ten minutes or so we stop at a suburban station where two cops are waiting on the platform. They board the train and proceed along the carriage, checking the rows of passengers. They linger at the Scot for a moment – something about him isn’t right – but he doesn’t fit the description they want, and on they go. Everyone appears hopelessly respectable, and they enter the next carriage. The conductor, a short woman with a page-boy haircut and fussy walk, intercepts them and points towards carriage D. Through the carriage door I see them escorting a couple off the train – a young guy in shorts and T-shirt (perhaps it was soiled?) and a woman who is clearly very angry. The cops talk to them on the platform for a while, the woman’s voice rising in shrill protest. The young guy sits passively on a bench nearby, occasionally interjecting feebly. This goes on for a few minutes, the woman arguing with the conductor, the police ready for trouble. Eventually bags are collected off the train and the couple are escorted out through the station, the woman shouting and pointing at the conductor. Passengers crane their necks to see what is going on outside the windows, but there’s nothing to see – the couple have gone. There’s a jolt, and we begin to move again. After a few minutes the conductor’s voice comes over the tannoy again. She sounds stressed. “We apologise for the unscheduled stop. Passengers are reminded that anyone found under the influence of drink or drugs will be removed from the train. We’re very serious about this, as one couple have just found.” The Scot next to me – no angel, as he says – raises his eyebrows archly and goes: “Oooh!”, and we both laugh.

I read for a while – Graham Greene’s “Travels with my Aunt”, which seems fogeyish and archaic. There’s a black man in it who speaks of himself in the third person and is little more than a crude caricature. The book was written in the late 60s, and is peppered with a slightly self-conscious amount of hippyish slang in the mouths of certain characters, as if Greene was trying to reproduce a language he didn’t entirely understand. Not his best, by a long shot. I head to the bathroom, and when I return I notice that there are a different couple in the seats behind us. My Scottish neighbour leans over, and with his head conspiratorially close to mine – although there’s not much chance of him being understood as he’s speaking pure Glaswegian – mutters: “Coupla smackheids. Watch yer bags.” Apparently some other passengers in Coach D complained about these two, so the conductor decided to move them. Presumably she considers myself and the Scot to be less squeamish about the company of junkies. And that’s what they are alright – there’s no mistaking it. The pallor, the whining speech, the furtiveness. I eavesdrop on the conversation behind me:

Where’s the cigarettes? Give them here. My mum bought them for me, so just fucking give me them. It’s not my fault the other people complained. I’m running out of medication for my schizophrenia. Yeah I can smoke on the platform at the next stop. Don’t tut at me – you’re always tutting at me. 5 years I looked after those kids, then 18 months with you and they end up in the system. So don’t you tut at me. Give them here! Fuck!

The conductor comes back and talks to them in a low voice. The gist of it is that she’s done them a favour by moving them and if they don’t behave they’ll be put off the train. Slowly it dawns on me the full measure of incompetence that is going on here. She put the wrong couple off the train at the previous station, because the junkies were in their allocated seats. No wonder the woman was so angry. I mention this to the Scot, and he laughs mirthlessly.

We trundle on, into the night. After a while the carriage lights are switched off, and the only illumination comes from people’s mobile phones. The African ladies next to us draw shawls round themselves and nod off. At Wagga Wagga several passengers leave the train, and the Scot moves to a spare seat further back. A young lad in his teens with a skateboard gets on and comes to sit next to me. He’s got that same bleached shaggy hair and baseball cap as the lads on the sailing ship – clearly a ‘look’ amongst Aussie teens. His friends have come to see him off, and stand the other side of the glass making faces, the girls blowing kisses. As the train begins to move two of them run alongside, the taller one taking off his shirt and whirling it round his head, running along full pace beside the train, grinning and whooping. The teenager doesn’t know where to look – he’s both touched and embarrassed, and checks around to see if anyone else has noticed. It’s one thirty in the morning in Wagga Wagga and these lads are giving their friend a proper send-off. As the platform drops away behind us the two small figures slow and then come to a halt at the barrier, the one still waving his shirt, and the teenager looks out of the window for a long time after them, then pulls out his phone and scowls at it, blinking hard.

I dozed off somewhere in the wilds of New South Wales, because when I awoke he was gone. The junkies behind me were having a row about money. They hadn’t got any. The conductor came back and told them off for disturbing the other passengers: “If I have another complaint about you I’ll put you off the train at Albury.”
“Noooo – please. We’re sorry. We have to get to Melbourne.”
“I’ll ask you again. Have you taken any drugs?”
“Only my medication for my schizophrenia. It’s not my fault that I’ve got a condition.”
“Well I don’t want to hear another peep out of you until we get to Southern Cross. And you smell of cigarettes. If you smoke on this train again, you’ll be off.”
The conductor departed, and the two of them resumed their row, sotto voce. I’d had enough, and spotting a spare seat up at the front, got my bag and moved to it. Ten minutes later the conductor came back into the carriage, and spotting me occupying a previously empty seat, shone a torch at me:
“Where did you get on?”
“Well what seat is on your ticket?”
“The one directly in front of those two junkies that you decided to place behind me. I’m sick of listening to their bitching, they smell, and I don’t fancy getting robbed. So I’m sitting here now.”
“Oh.” She looked a bit taken aback. “OK. Well there’s someone else getting on at Henty. But she’s on her own. So you can stay here.”
“Super. Thanks very much.”

Henty, NSW – 3.00 am.

Sorry… sorry. Did I wake you? I don’t know what seat I’m in. This is 4E? OK. Sorry. Yeah, going to Melbourne. Actually Geelong – my mum lives in Geelong. She’s looking after my daughter for a few days, but she’s been really naughty so I’m going down early to pick her up. Britney. She’s two. Everybody reckons I’m too young, but I’m 19! It’s cos I look young. I’m always getting ID’d. And people are so judgemental. Yeah, I had a row with my partner. Yeah, it got a bit physical, and it’s like a line you cross, you know? And you can’t go back. He’s 19 too. He lost his job and now he just sits on the playstation and I have to do everything. And I’m pregnant as well. Look! Does it show? Some people want to feel. I’m spending fifty bucks a week on tomatoes. Just craving them. I’ve got loads of different kinds at home. Well it’s better than chocolate! Oh my god, there’s a man being sick. I think it’s that junkie guy. I’m scared of junkies – always think I’m going to get stabbed or something. Did you ever see Twilight? I read the whole series. Always loved reading – I wish I could study literature or creative writing, but it’s too late now I suppose. The Vampire Diaries. No? Oh I love that show. You know Huge Ackmann got skin cancer? Oh look – the conductor’s coming. I reckon she’s going to chuck him off at the next station. You’re from London? Really? No way! I thought you were an Aussie. You don’t sound British. Not like those crime dramas where it’s all “Cor blimey” and “bloody hell”. Oh wow, London. I’ve never travelled. I wanted to go to Bali but it’s too humid, like Darwin. Not London though – I mean there’s not much to see, is there?

Southern Cross Station, Melbourne – 7.40 am. 

The junkies are smoking furiously on the platform beneath a huge No Smoking sign. Passengers are waiting around for their luggage from the goods wagon, which is being brought out one bag at a time, by one man. The train crew changed in the night when we crossed into Victoria, and the new conductor, a harrassed-looking middle-aged lady, is having a rant to one of the other crew members: “Five complaints! Five! Why the bloody hell the NSW team let them travel I don’t know. Yeah, I called ahead for security to meet us here but of course there’s no sign of him. Well I thought he was dead! He was face down in the corridor covered in vomit, and when we sat him up he had four different bank cards in his pocket – all in different names!”

Seeing my bag emerge from the carriage I seize it and trundle off down the platform. Southern Cross hasn’t changed. I make a beeline for the coffee shop and get an enormous flat white. Heading out onto Swanston Street I see my usual bench has been occupied by three people surrounded by luggage and a pram. They are most definitely bogans – the Australian version of a chav. They wear bits of high street sportswear, one of the women in bright pink sweatpants with frayed trouser cuffs and an oversized little-girl nightie. She is bull-necked and enormous and she’s swearing like a fishwife at the guy. They are on their feet, circling each other, yelling abuse, faces scarlet with rage. Some disaster has befallen them – burned out of their house? Evicted? Benefits cut off? Who knows. Here they are, on the street with nowhere to go, and she’s very angry about it. Beside them a baby in a push chair cries. It is one of the most depressing scenes I’ve ever witnessed. And around them commuters stream past on their way to work, averting their eyes.

“Hi!” There’s a voice at my elbow. It’s the girl who got on at Henty. “Oh my god, these people. They scare me. Bogans, we call them.” Standing, I see just how small she is – barely five feet tall. She looks terribly young. “I just tried to buy some smokes in the 7/11 and they wouldn’t serve me. Have you got a spare one?” I duly oblige. It’s windy, and she can’t get the lighter working, so she ducks her head inside her T-shirt – which says Beyonce on it – exposing her pregnant belly as she does so. The bogans are actually chasing each other round the bench now. Where are the cops? Probably off harassing smokers, or escorting perfectly respectable passengers off trains because they were mistakenly in the wrong seat. I despair of it.

“I never want to turn out like that,” says the girl.
“You never will,” I say. And in her eyes I see gratitude.

Kyneton – 10.37 am.

Given that I left Katoomba at 10.15 am yesterday, I’ve spent the last 24 hours on trains. I’m sticky, short of sleep and have a banging headache. The green pastoral land of Victoria whizzes past outside – merino sheep at a trough, cattle lying in the shade of the trees. Occasionally there’s a billboard for the local elections – around here it all seems to be Donna Petrovich for Macedon Ranges. She beams out from the billboards looking like a rather dowdy housewife. I saw another one somewhere up north, of an old white guy in a suit, which said simply: “Integrity. Experience. Common Sense.”, and I immediately formed a mental picture of some town councillor who’d been in office for as long as anyone could remember. The Victorian elections are in full swing, with a series of adverts on TV like public safety films, which is in fact what I initially took them for. One particularly disturbing one was a recording of a phone call to the emergency services. A distressed woman. Her baby wasn’t breathing. The ambulance staff try to reassure her, but she’s sobbing down the line. And after this harrowing footage comes the punchline: “Under Dennis Napthine’s premiership, funding for health care services in Victoria have been cut.” This was followed by another advert saying that you were legally obliged to vote, or face a hefty fine. I await scenes of brutal assaults with the caption that police funding has also been slashed. “Oh, you voted Labor? Who’s gonna help you now?”

Kyneton drowsed in soporific sunshine. I trundled my backpack through the botanical gardens, taking a shortcut, and stopped under a tree for a while with rosellas – a kind of parakeet – chattering overhead. Down Ebden Street, past the gym that plays country and western (I assume it’s local radio, and it makes quite a change from the usual pumping dance music), the fire station (Fire Hazard: Very High), across “historic” Piper Street at the hotel, then down and into the driveway. Pepper the dog pranced on her hind legs and turned several circles – I suppose she thought she might not see me again. It’s rather touching how an animal can become fond of you… and we of it. She’s so timid, but she knows I’m alright. Now she lies at my feet in the sunshine, having followed me from room to room all morning, occasionally pushing her white furry snout under my hand to be stroked, which she responds to with a satisfied pigletty grunting sound. It’s good to be back.


In a city that revolves around life on the water, it seemed appropriate to get out on it. An unusual opportunity presented itself in the form of the James Craig, a restored tall ship dating from 1874. Formerly known as the Clan McLeod, the ship had rounded Cape Horn no less than 23 times in its career, and then ended up on the copra run to Papua New Guinea. Increasingly decrepit and falling apart with tropical rot, it eventually sank off Tasmania. There it lay on the seabed, until discovered by some sailing ship enthusiasts – although enthusiast barely covers the unswerving dedication and obsessiveness that led them to salvage the ship and completely restore it, using an old photograph from the 1900s of it in full sail to accurately replicate the rigging. Now one of the very few tall ships from that era that can actually put to sea – ‘The Museum that Floats’, as the brochure put it – it was crewed entirely by volunteers.

There’s something about putting to sea in a sailing ship that brings out everyone’s inner Captain Bligh (a much maligned man, apparently, due entirely to Charles Laughton’s portrayal of him as a malevolent sadist in the film Mutiny on the Bounty). The crew of the James Craig followed more of a participatory paradigm, in that despite nominal positions of rank such as Captain, First Mate and so on, everybody seemed to be on a relatively equal footing. They’d dash to a particular rope and start hauling on it to cries of: “Come on you dogs, put your backs into it!”, fully getting into the spirit of the occasion. Insurance clerks, call centre workers, bus drivers by day, this was what set them apart – the fact that at weekends they sailed one of the last tall ships. Passing beneath the Harbour Bridge there were five great blasts on the ship’s hooter, and green and yellow Sydney ferries heading in the other direction were lined with tourists photographing the ship. It was a Saturday morning, and there were a number of weekend sailors about, such as the small yacht which didn’t quite know where it was going. Another blast of the hooter, and a figure in the stern muffled in orange oilskins glanced over their shoulder and froze with the indescribable expression of someone who has just looked round to see a three-masted sailing ship bearing down on them. “Man the capstan!” someone cried. “Splice the mainbrace!” A girl power-walked her way up the deck in a low-kneed scoot, all hips and elbows, to berate some of the crew who were standing around chatting. “C’mon guys! We’re all part of a team here!” In response one of them muttered: “Yeah, we’re all playing for Team Australia” – a wry jibe at Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s description of the nation’s political woes in sporting terms, those presumably being the only ones he personally understands.

A group of lads on a school outing were mustered into vague formation pulling on ropes to raise a sail. They were all cut from a pattern of shaggy blond surfer dude hair and baseball caps. They did well enough until we passed Sydney Heads and the swell of the open sea hit us, whereupon they lay around on the grating retching noisily into sick bags, aghast at their own uncoolness. A blackboard listed the various activities that they would be taking part in that day: speed measuring, navigation, depth sounding and dandefunk. I spotted the Historical Accuracy Officer making her way along the deck. “What the dandy fuck,” I innocently enquired, “is dandefunk?”
She decided she must have misheard. “It’s a culinary treat!” she replied enthusiastically. “We’re making some down below using the original recipe!”
I took a pinch when the bowl went around – it was a sort of gingery molasses crumble, which one would have had to be at sea for a very long time to regard as a treat.

The temporary sick bay of the grating was filling up. I hadn’t appreciated before just how much a sailing ship actually moves – not just the pitch and yaw of the swell, but with a kind of corkscrewing movement over the waves. The rigging turned this way and that as the breeze filled the sails, and large wooden winches and hoists swung about. A man with a banjo serenaded us with sea shanties, the chorus of which mostly seemed to involve being ashore and consuming large quantities of whiskey. In response the crew hauled on yet more ropes, and sails rose and descended accordingly. Soon we were fully rigged and bounding across the waves, which began to darken the further out we went. “It’s a 30 knot wind,” said the doctor. “You can tell by the whitecaps.” Gobbets of spray were flung up over the bows as we rode through the mounting swell, and it became difficult to walk on the pitching deck – one moved from pillar to post in a zigzag fashion, clutching on to the only supports. Lunch was served – a large picnic bag each containing rolls and a muffin – but there were few takers. Fortunately I appear to be immune to seasickness – several North Sea ferry crossings as a child, the Irish Sea in all its temperamental glory, and one unforgettable night crossing from Shetland to Orkney in a Force 10 gale, when the hallways became as steep as mountainsides, plates cascaded out of the racks in the kitchen and even the crew were lying on the carpeted foyer of the lounge as I ate haddock and chips in the canteen, holding onto the table with a spare hand to avoid being deposited on the floor, have pretty much confirmed my immunity.

Docking again at 4pm after a day out on the open sea, Darling Harbour came as something of a shock. It was a Saturday, and the waterfront was lined with bars and cafes that belted out music, with a continual promenade of passers-by headed from one to the next in search of amusement. Girls in miniskirts and high heels, tourists with daypacks and sunhats, cops in shorts and sunglasses with pistols at their belts. I decided that it was time to leave the city for a while, and head for the Blue Mountains. The view from the train between King’s Cross and Sydney Central reminded me of somewhere else entirely, but I couldn’t be sure where. Purple sprays of jacaranda were dotted around, with occasional palm trees giving the scene a tropical atmosphere. Three large and decaying tower blocks loomed over the harbour, favela-like, with mildew-blackened walls in the humid air. In the manner of all such urban housing they had a battered and rather menacing look.  This was the Woolloomooloo Housing Project, and the blocks posed a stark contrast to the neat villas and whitewashed walls just a few streets away. At Central I bought a train ticket to Katoomba, in the heart of the mountains, just a two hour ride from downtown Sydney.

Sydney’s trains are double-deckers, and this was essentially a branch of the suburban rail network that continued on to the town of Lithgow, a few stops further along from Katoomba. We passed through a series of small, drowsy suburbs, the train stopping frequently at stations which either seemed to be named after places in Britain (Woodford, Penrith), or vaguely Aboriginal (Bullaburra, Warrimoo). I’d booked at place at Number 14 Guesthouse, largely on the recommendation of a Croatian couple I had met in Sydney who had enjoyed it, and it proved to be a good choice, with a plant-covered balcony and nice wooden-floored rooms. It had been a guesthouse since the early 1900s – there were photographs of ladies in ankle-length skirts posing on a walk through the bush –  and had an old advertisement pinned to the wall: “30 rooms. Cleanliness my motto. Beautiful views. Motor trips arranged.” Of this, the only aspect which seemed to have changed were the views, due to the onset of suburbia and a busy road just outside which meant the incessant grumble of traffic. Katoomba itself was a fairly typical small town with a main street lined with cafes and outdoor shops, the only thing distinguishing it from a thousand and one other small towns being the steepness of the main street, which dropped sharply away downhill and ended at a cliff overlooking a spectacular vista of the bush-covered Blue Mountains rolling away into the distance.

Most of the Blue Mountains towns are strung out along a ridge, with Katoomba being the main tourist centre. At the edge of the town, a half-hour walk downhill from the main street, lies the rock formation known as the Three Sisters – three dramatic pinnacles of rock. These used to be popular with rock climbers and abseilers until a few years ago, when climbing was banned due to the amount of damage caused to the surface. Aborigine legend has it that an old chief, fearing an attack by his enemies, turned his three daughters to stone for their own protection, but he was unfortunately killed before he could reverse the spell. I walked along a quiet suburban road, emerging into a large car park where several coaches had drawn up. Large numbers of sightseers, most of them Chinese, were converging on the viewpoint overlooking the Three Sisters. Put off by the clamour I snapped a few photos then headed off along a trail leading to a quieter viewpoint a few minutes away.

As I walked along, I heard a high-pitched call. “Yeah yeah!”  – or perhaps “Yeye!”. A small Chinese girl, perhaps five years old, came toddling along the path, calling out. “Yeah yeah! Yeah YEAH!” Her tone was becoming increasingly agitated. She had clearly lost her mother somewhere in the crowds. She trotted past me, little pigtails bobbing, calling out all the while. I wasn’t sure what to do. I watched her heading across the main viewpoint, threading her way through groups of people, making for one of the paths that led off on a 15-minute walk. I decided I must intervene. But how? I couldn’t even ask her name. What could I say? Even so, I turned around and began following her in case she headed off down one of the tracks into the bush. I could always bribe her with barley sugar, a bag of which I had in my rucksack. “Ba Li Shu Ga?” I considered the ludicrous media paranoia of life in Britain, where so many people wouldn’t dare to intervene for fear of being branded a paedophile – “Man Lures Child With Sweets”, or suchlike – and it doubled my resolve to do something out of sheer common humanity.

At that moment, an elderly Chinese couple came walking across from the car park. The little girl was heading rapidly away from them, but at that point something made her change her mind and she turned back towards the car park as she trotted along. “YEAH YEAH!” Her tone was increasingly frantic and she seemed on the verge of crying. The Chinese couple stopped and looked back, then had a short discussion between themselves. I reached them and said: “I think she’s lost her mother”. The man, in his 60s and wearing squarish gold sunglasses, replied in good American: “Lost her mom, huh?” He spoke a few words of Chinese to his wife, who called out to the little girl, beckoning her over. I mentally translated the conversation: “What’s your name? Have you lost your Mummy? Well don’t worry, she’ll come back. We’d better wait here by the car park for her”. Mutely the little girl nodded and then put up a hand to be held. They headed over towards one of the benches and sat her down on it, where she looked miserably at the ground, blinking back tears. Figuring she was in safe hands I watched for a while then wandered away.


Even on an overcast day there’s a glimmer behind the clouds in Sydney – an underlying brightness which sends camera light meter readings skyrocketing; lumpen grey skies, but behind them the power of the southern sun. The city feels tropical, with palm trees and lianas in the quiet leafy streets around Potts Point echoing to the limpid calls of mynah birds, reminding me of India. Large black and white birds stalk about with beaks curved like scimitars: Australian white ibis – historically rare but increasing in urban areas of the east coast since the late 70s. Despite this, debate rages over whether they are a pest or a vulnerable species. Apparently they have periodically been culled in Sydney “due to their smell and at times obtrusive nature”. I must admit I hadn’t noticed the smell, but they are certainly curious birds, and will happily march up to you with an unblinking glare in the hope of food. They honk like discordant bassoons when disturbed, which is frequently. 12 hours from Melbourne on the train here, and it feels like another climate zone altogether. Toward evening columns of fruit bats fly overhead, into the city. Today’s high was 37 degrees C.

The city’s most iconic landmarks reveal themselves only gradually, in a series of tantalising glimpses – a brief view of girders through the canopy of trees assembles itself, upon rounding a bend, into the famous Harbour Bridge. A fragment of sweeping white curve, like the sail of a dhow, becomes recognisable as a corner of the Opera House. And suddenly there it is before you, dwarfed by the bridge from this angle, and yet somehow self-contained and in proportion. The city is surprisingly quiet for mid-morning on a weekday – no distant rumble of traffic, only the flat mechanical hammering echoing off the water from the naval dockyard at Wooloomooloo, where two gigantic warships merge into the grey background. The green and yellow Sydney ferries criss-cross the harbour waters, on the way to Manley on the north shore – so named, apparently, by a British naval officer in the 18th century who spotted a group of Aborigines on the shore and, admiring their physique, pronounced them “manly”. Yachts and assorted pleasure craft are moored along the jetty; loud laughter came from one, and I could hear London accents. The name of the yacht was “Job Done”. East End villains on the run? Bunch of city boys who made good on the stock market? Either way, here they were, living the dream, drinking on a yacht moored in Sydney harbour.


Oh, you’re from London. What do you think about all these Muslims then? I remember my sister – she died of overwork, bless her; all my family died of overwork. Not that I’m sorry! They were all experts in their field. Anyway – when she was the advisor to President Mitterrand, told him to isolate them all in neighbourhoods outside Paris. ‘Monsieur Le President, you merst keep zem in seclusion, to prevent their contamination of French society’. And I remember when I met the Governor General of Australia, Sir John Kerr – a very good friend of mine – I told him: ‘We should adopt the French solution here in Australia’. Of course, later when I was advising Tony Blair about Iraq – I didn’t think much of Blair actually; he wanted to be a war leader but hadn’t got the guts of Thatcher… although I’ll never forget her pushing back her chair at the cabinet meeting, standing up to her full height, and saying: “Sink the Belgrano!” Just like that! Ooh, she was cold. But Blair, when my report was published by Chatham House, denied all knowledge! Never trust the British – although my cockney cleaning lady, I always used to ask her opinion, because I knew she’d tell me the honest truth…”

Sure, I brought my bag in. We just got off a cruise ship this morning – Fidgy, Taheedy, Noo Zealand, and now Australia – and I figured what better way to celebrate arriving in Sydney than a concert in the famous Opera House. Well, the guy at the door says “Sir, you have to hand your bag in at the cloakroom.” So I told him: “Buddy, I got passports, ipad, ipod, imac, camera, everything in here! No way am I handing it in!” Well, he let me come in with it in the end. No, it’s fine – I’ll just rest it on my lap like this.

Well we bought a sailboat at home in Vancouver, and then we figured – right, honey? – that we’d better learn to sail it! So we sailed in the north-west a little, then this guy, old seadog kinda guy, he told us: “Whatever you paid for it, you’re gonna spend one quarter of that every year in maintenance.” And you know what? He was right! Right, honey? We spent four thousand dollars that first year, on berthing, wharfage, rollocking, keel hauling and whipcording. And it got too much. So we sold it and just took off around the world. We’ve done South America, then were in NZ for a year, but it got kinda expensive, so now we’re in Sydney to make money. And you know what? I’ve been offered four jobs since we got here! We think we’ll go to South East Asia next – maybe Bali, or Thailand. And then who knows?

King’s Cross used to have a reputation for seediness, but the decline of the sex industry, largely due to the rise of the internet, has had the unexpected effect of making the area more salubrious. There are still a few token clubs along the Darlinghurst Road, but they are side by side with budget travel agents offering the kind of group tours of Australia by bus that backpackers are drawn to, and of course backpacker hostels themselves. These vary considerably in quality and ambience, with some offering wild booze-fuelled nights out on the town in a kind of organised pub crawl, and others offering a quieter experience “for the older traveller”. As I seem to be increasingly in the latter category these days, I chose Eva’s Backpackers on Orwell Street, and am very glad I did so. My first night in Sydney was at the Sydney Central YHA, which, like every YHA I’ve stayed at in Australia, had superb facilities but a total lack of ambience. Central was 8 floors of card-operated rooms ranging from 12-bed dorms to hotel-standard doubles, a cinema, and it even had a swimming pool on the roof. Despite the name, there was no real centre to it – people sat in small isolated groups around a cavernous dining room, and occasionally interacted with each other in the elevators which were the only true communal space. Waking up in the morning it was necessary to take the elevator to the first floor kitchen, then descend again to ground level and head outside onto the street for a cigarette, which led to the curious sight of groups of bleary-eyed backpackers standing around in their pyjamas clutching cups of tea as they puffed away, while a steady stream of besuited office workers headed past them along the pavement into the city centre. Eva’s, in contrast, has a rooftop garden area with a view across the city – perfect for gathering one’s thoughts first thing in the morning.

Walking round the botanical gardens I realised I was fast approaching the Opera House, so decided to pop in to see if there were any concerts on. A harrassed-looking girl staffing the information desk, clearly a tourist herself who had picked up a job there – a job which would have been made a great deal easier if she was equipped with a mouse mat to enable her to use her computer properly – looked up forthcoming events and informed me that there was one the next day. “Mozart, Shoeman and Beathoven,” she intoned uncomprehendingly. Marvellous, I said. What pieces? She frowned at the screen, and said: “Piano conserto? That’s Shoeman. And Symphony number one for Beathoven.” As this excruciating conversation was going on, a Chinese woman who had been hovering at my elbow physically intersected herself between me and the desk. “How much tickets?” she bawled. The information girl, to her great credit, ignored her, and continued to tap away at her computer in an attempt to furnish me with a ticket. The Chinese woman tried again, louder: “Ticket! For Opera House!” The information girl addressed her firmly: “Madam, I am dealing with another customer. Please wait your turn.”
“Ha! Ha! Ha!” went the Chinese lady. I reached over her to proffer a $50 ($39 for the ticket, which was reasonable, and a $5 booking fee, which was not), and duly got my ticket.

Well, the concert was excellent. There was a French pianist for the “Shoeman”, and he was a little off – a few clangers, and not quite playing to the same tempo as the orchestra – but having got rid of him and settled into Beethoven’s 1st, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra rose to the occasion. An excellent connection between players and conductor, and they all appeared to be having great fun – many were grinning broadly at the end of the first movement, knowing they’d played it well. It was a little strange to go to a concert at 11 o’clock in the morning, and stranger still to emerge from it into 35 degree heat, blinking in the noonday glare, but a very nice experience. The concert hall itself was impressive – longer and narrower somehow than many London halls, but the acoustics were reasonable, if not quite up to the standard of the Barbican. Apparently the London Symphony Orchestra are playing next week, with Gergiev conducting. Prokofiev’s piano concerto and Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony – probably his most harrowing, with screaming strings and that relentless DSCH motif throughout. Heavy going. Unfortunately I won’t be here for it – I’ll be in the Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney. And after that, who knows?