The sunshine renders Melbourne almost cartoonish: the vivid green lawns, shimmering glass buildings, and palm trees set against a Prussian Blue sky. As cities go it must indeed be one of the world’s most ‘liveable’, in the curious phrase of The Economist Intelligence Unit, which has placed it at number one on their ‘liveability index’ four years running, as if one weren’t really fully alive in other, less favoured conurbations. Joggers run past exchanging breathless gobbets of snatched conversation, striving to keep a level tone: “Got your email”… puff, pant… “Oh right?” … pant, puff … “I copied in Charlie”… puff, pant, puff… A convoy of skateboarders trundle by, veering round office workers walking at a quick clip. The muted clang of bells from the trams, the distant rumble of traffic, and the shrieking calls of cockatoos in the trees overhead.
Collins St., 5 pm, is the title of a 1955 painting by Australian artist John Brack which hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria. A sea of commuters goes by in the foreground, the men all identically clad in brown raincoats and pork pie hats, only a pair of spectacles here or a moustache there distinguishing them from each other. Two female typists are at right, one with a tight, pursed smile that doesn’t quite manage to reach her narrowed eyes, the other with high arched brows, an open, unassuming gaze, and an expression of dim-witted, rather dog-like optimism. In the background a line of Lowryesque figures streams past beneath the grey edifice of the Bank of New South Wales. There’s a grim humour to the painting which made me smile wryly the moment I saw it – the loss of individuality in the mass, the conformity, the drabness. The diminutive, bristling toothbrush moustache and horn-rimmed spectacles on one man immediately conveys some middle-manager, perhaps a martinet at work who is hen-pecked at home. The jutting jaw, the squint, the angular cheekbones – all somehow convey a lack of vision. The painting perfectly complements the one next to it on the gallery wall – The Bar (1954), modelled on Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. In Brack’s version the shadowy, cadaverous drinkers – the same commuters from Collins St., with their hats and spectacles – down pints, draw deeply on cigarettes and stand elbow to elbow in a joyless ritual known as ‘the six o’clock swill’ due to Australia’s restrictive licencing laws at that time. In the foreground facing us stands the barmaid, hands upon the counter, narrow-eyed, with a face like a skull and a lemony complexion, that same tightly humourless smile and deep shadows under her eyes. They are disturbing, deeply satirical pictures, and while the costumes may have changed, with more variety in the conformity, it’s a scene which still rings true today. A group of young Chinese tourists go around dutifully photographing every painting on their phones, and then… wait, no, will she really? Yes, one of them, wearing Mickey Mouse ears and Ugg boots, is posing in front of The Bar and flashing a peace sign for the camera. She adopts a kooky, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed pose. How cute. Ought I to photograph the spectacle myself, thus creating a work of performance art? Sadly I didn’t.
The Melbourne free city tram goes in a circular route around the outskirts of the CBD (Central Business District), heading nowhere useful. As I boarded an announcement played in the kind of enthusiastic American accent that seems to end each sentence with an ejaculation: “Hi! My name’s Dave, and I’ll be your driver today! Welcome to the free city tram!” At this point the driver rose from his seat to fetch a large metal spanner from a shelf. He was a large man in his 50s with tattooed arms, scabs on each elbow and a heavy, pendulous look. There was no greater contrast to the dementedly exuberant voice on the speaker and this rugged, blue-collar Australian tram driver – the entire thing was a recording. As we clanked past the Melbourne Aquarium we were informed that within we could expect to encounter “sharks, colourful tropical fish, and turdles”. A little further on, at a car museum, we could see cars owned by “such stars as James Dean, Picasso, and Ringo Starr”. Quite an eclectic collection.
The Claremont Guesthouse in South Yarra is an old Victorian hotel done up as an upmarket hostel. An elegant central staircase is lined with portraits of sylphlike women in diaphanous gowns. They all have pale, dewy complexions and stand around in various poses of coy abandon. Backpackers plod up and down the stairs, depositing luggage. Three school groups are in residence for a volleyball tournament, and they gallop along the corridors excitedly, shrieking and pushing each other. I overhear a team briefing of teenage boys in the dining room, delivered by a man in a tracksuit: “Now you’ve all worked hard to get here, so let’s work together to make it happen. And most importantly, have fun. Just be aware that if you head out to get some food this evening, there’s a pedestrian crossing 100 yards up the road on your right. Use it. It’s not like home now – there’s traffic here, trams, all sorts, so don’t just run out into the road.” It makes me wonder what sort of place they come from, that they need to be told of the existence of traffic on a road. They sit around with expressions of acute boredom until a girls’ volleyball team file in to the other end of the dining room, whereupon they become animated. Even so, they are too shy to actually interact – I see the two groups later, sitting at opposite ends of the dining room, surreptitiously scrutinising each other as they play with their mobile phones. When the boys all get up to leave one of the girls groans pleadingly to herself: “Oh don’t go!” But go they do.
I was wakened at midnight by furious banging and crashing sounds from next door, and cursing I got up to go into the corridor, expecting to encounter rampaging adolescents. Instead I was greeted by the sight of a small Asian man pushing a cleaning trolley. He grinned apologetically. “Cleaning bathroom sar.”
“At this hour?? Well must you do it so noisily?” I realised that I sounded like a character from a black and white film. I got a head waggle in response. In a mood I went downstairs for a cigarette, and in one of those fortuitous encounters ended up having a long conversation with an interesting man in a hat about his experiences of taking ayahuasca in the Ecuador rainforest.
This disruption was to subsequently happen on each night that I stayed at the Claremont: come midnight there was a tremendous banging and crashing as he cleaned the bathrooms. A few days later I received an email from the hotel saying that my feedback was important to them and asking me to rate my stay, and I replied, rather peevishly, that it was unique in my experience to stay in a hotel that had a policy of waking up all its guests at midnight, and that I would stay elsewhere in future until their ill-conceived policy was abandoned.
I have, in many ways, been fortunate enough to have travelled in places that were largely untouched by tourism. Perhaps every generation feels this, and bemoans the lost idyll prior to the onset of ‘civilisation’. Mass tourism kills the very thing that sustains it – that sense of difference – by bestowing upon a place a uniformity and a conformism that renders everywhere superficially the same. Exactly how superficially is a subjective judgement. I remember that even the remotest bottle store in rural Zimbabwe would have the Coke logo emblazoned next to the storefront name – a small concrete shack with a sign saying Mutasa Butchery and Bottle Store, and the red and white swoosh behind it. Inwardly, however, these small shops were not exactly in tune with head office’s marketing directives. For a while, in the ’80s, it was impossible to buy a Coke unless you had an empty bottle to put down as a deposit. The wise traveller carried a crate of empty bottles jangling in the boot for forays into the rural areas. Then there was the great Castle Lager shortage of ’92. They had the beer, they had the bottles – they even had the labels. But what was lacking was the glue to adhere label to bottle. Hence a national shortage. By ’93 there was a newcomer on the market – Zambezi Lager, which had a picture of Victoria Falls on the label. It was a gassy, metallic-tasting brew that caused explosive eructations, but was nevertheless popular due to novelty value. The real treat, if you were a beer drinker, lay to the north in Malawi, where Carlsberg was brewed locally. This being southern Africa there was a racial dimension even in beer-drinking: Africans were said to prefer the brown label Carlsberg; whites inevitably ordered the green. The green was a pilsener, the brown slightly sweeter, but had it not been for the label I doubt many would have known the difference.
Well, we drank a great deal of beer in those days. I remember the long drive across Zimbabwe to Nyamapanda, queueing in a line of trucks to enter Mozambique with our transit visas safely in hand (“O portador” beneath the crossed machete and AK47 of the national flag). And then the rather tense run through northern Mozambique, which jutted out in a dog-leg on the map to separate Zimbabwe and Malawi. We’d pass through bombed out towns with every wall pockmarked with shrapnel, along streets called things like “Avenido 25 de Junho”, and slow for the numerous checkpoints – usually we were waved through. You’d often see soldiers hitch-hiking, and it could be useful to pick them up as they inevitably got us through with minimal fuss. African villages would be seen through the screen of trees just back from the road – the circular thatch of ‘rondavel’ mud huts. They were much larger than the usual grouping of half a dozen or so dwellings on the Zimbabwean side; Mozambique had been at war for 30 years, and people huddled together as a form of protection. Bombed out tanks lay just visible in the bush. We’d cross the Zambezi in the town of Tete, which was always stiflingly hot, crawling over the long suspension bridge, past tollbooths that issued us a torn ticket for one car in exchange for a bundle of torn meticais, the local currency, or perhaps some low denomination Zimbabwe dollars. I remember one day the tollbooth was deserted, and I drove through unthinkingly, only to be halted by a yell. A bearded African man in a Hawaiian shirt was shouting and waving at us from the opposite carriageway. He wore a pistol on his belt. Thinking that he might be official I halted, and he ran up to the window. “Where is your ticket? You must buy a ticket to pass.” Expecting the usual transaction I rummaged for local currency, but he rejected it and demanded payment in US dollars – I think he wanted $50. This was so outrageous that I laughed, whereupon he took out the pistol and started waving it in the air while shouting. Eventually we persuaded him that we only had Zimbabwe dollars – meanwhile offering him a cigarette (“Please – keep the pack”). Grudgingly he accepted 20 Zim – barely one US dollar – and 20 Madison Red and sauntered off, tucking the pack of cigarettes into his pocket as he did so.
Just the other side of the bridge was a small restaurant, tucked into the lee of one of the pillars, and we often used to stop for lunch there. The staple was “bif normao” – normal beef – a kind of steak with a fried egg on top, usually served with chips and a small pile of toxic-looking salad that we carefully pushed to one side. There was a local beer – was it MM? Dos M? The ubiquitous Google these days tells me it was Mac Mahon, marked with “2M” on the label. It was said to contain formaldehyde, which given one’s life expectancy in Mozambique was not a significant concern. I remember the waiter once trying to calculate our bill in meticais, and running out of digits on his calculator – it only had room for 9. We handed over US$10 and received a wad of change.
North of Tete there was a gigantic triangular peak of granite sticking up out of the bush. Rumour had it that there were Renamo bases on it – the guerrillas mired in an intractable civil war against the government, who were known for their atrocities. They carried out ambushes on passing vehicles, abducted children from villages, and disfigured their victims. It was always a tense time on the journey. The high embankments that the road cut through afforded perfect shelter for an ambush, and we would inevitably extinguish cigarettes, switch the music off and speed up, scanning the tall, tawny grass alongside the road as we passed. We’d watch the sun dip towards the horizon off to our left, until it became a huge red ball hanging on the skyline and the surroundings darkened, the cool air through the open window bringing the smell of woodsmoke, the sound of lowing cattle and the scents of dusk in Africa. Finally there was the frontier, and policemen in smart blue uniforms instead of shapeless camouflage, and the sign, “Welcome to Malawi – The Happy Country!” It was, in comparison.
There was an interesting report the other day on Vice News about Australia (which makes a change), saying that 93% of Australians see themselves as being middle class. This is curious. Australia’s class system has gone through many stages of evolution over the years, but this latest one seems mathematically improbable. In the early years as a penal colony, the convicts themselves were, naturally enough, on the lowest rung of society. But within their ranks, although most undoubtedly came from working class backgrounds in Britain and Ireland, were some individuals from better circumstances – middle class clerks, disgraced solicitors, even the occasional minor aristocrat. In that sense the penal colony was a great leveller – whatever their background, they were all convicts together, and indeed the hardened professional criminals ruthlessly picked on those ‘fallen gentry’ who found themselves thrown together with people from very different backgrounds. By imposing a system of convict overseers who in many cases had earned their freedom, the authorities inverted the class system, so that a man who may have been a labourer at home found himself in a position of authority over another who was an educated middle class professional. In time, families came out to join convicts who had earned their freedom, and this resulted in a bizarre hierarchy where as long as convicts continued to arrive, there were always going to be people to look down upon, so that within the span of a seven-year sentence it was possible to climb from lower to middle class. Some convicts were assigned as bonded labour to new arrivals, and thus Australia’s class system was born.
The new middle class was itself desperately snobbish, keen to distance themselves as far as possible from their own humble origins by adopting all manner of airs and graces in order to distinguish themselves from their less fortunate convict brethren. This was a class within a class, in many ways, as the British still ran the colony, with governor-generals bristling with titles appointed from England. The stain of convict heritage was so shameful that it was only really in the last two decades that Australians began to openly admit their convict ancestry almost as a badge of pride. “Look where we came from, and what we’ve made of it.” As a result, this country defiantly proclaims its working class background at every opportunity – think Britain’s White Van Man, but driving a ute. “Tradies”, as tradesmen are known, are looked up to in a way that would be completely alien in Britain – however much “respect” Mr Milliband may have for them. In much the same way that distressed denim, originally workwear, became worn as leisure attire as a parodic signifier of one’s “working man” credentials, in Australia the Tradie look is elastic-sided Blundstone or Redback boots, Hard Yakka trousers or shorts (yakka is Aussie slang for work), and a fluorescent yellow or orange polo shirt. All over the country, from Darwin to Hobart, you’ll see men in pubs at the end of the day wearing identical outfits. Similarly, the vehicle of choice for the discerning boy racer is not a hot hatch, as in Europe, but a ute – originally a “utility vehicle”: basically a pimped out pick-up truck, preferably lowered so as to make it unusable for load carrying, with tinted windows and a loud exhaust. The myth of the self-made man, who has got to where he is because of good, honest hard work, is still very much in place.
And this goes hand in hand with a number of conceits. There’s a certain playing to the lowest common denominator. For so long a provincial backwater, Australia has never really come to terms with the fact that it’s a player on the world stage culturally. There’s still a slight sense of insecurity about it – a suspicion of ‘education’ in a similar way to the distrust in parts of the United States towards East Coast intellectuals. This manifests itself in the phenomenon of the “cashed up bogan” – what we might call Essex Man in the UK: someone with lots of money and absolutely no taste. Bogans (which I’ve written about before at some length) are similar to what we call chavs in the UK, with one crucial difference. Chavs are the underclass. Bogans can be too, but their roots are more anchored in working class culture. No-one in the UK would proclaim themselves “just a chav at heart”. And yet, in Australia, it’s an identification with working class roots, a bold statement of “ordinariness”, and a suspicion of arty-farty cultural highbrows. A number of shows on television highlight this: a comedy called, with admirable directness, “Upper Middle Bogan”, and the execrable “Housos” (housemates), which seems to consist of disgusting people shrieking obscenities at each other and loudly celebrating their own stupidity. It’s hard to know who the joke is really on here. Is this self-mockery or a vitriolic sneering at others perceived as lower on the class rung? Perhaps it is both.
So why the middle? Why not be proudly working class? This is, after all, one of the wealthiest nations on earth, with an admirably egalitarian approach. There’s no tipping in Australia, for example: serving staff are paid well enough to get by on their salaries – something which would be unthinkable in the United States. The answer comes back to Australia’s foundation: no matter how wealthy people are, they still associate upper class with ruling class, and where the ruling class were essentially operating to an imported British framework, identifying oneself too closely with it is almost a sign of “un-Australianness”. The working class, on the other hand, are just that bit too closely associated with Boganism to many – the lack of culture which might seem de rigeur to blend in in a small town begins to look pretty parochial in a big city, which is where more than 80% of Australians live; they are, paradoxically, given the size of the place, some of the most urbanised people on earth. Hence the safe ground of the politically neutral middle, which has consequently expanded to accommodate them all. If class is increasingly based upon measure of wealth, then it’s true – Australia, with a more equitable dispersal of wealth across the general population than many other western countries does indeed contain a very large middle class. In the words of Professor Clive Hamilton at the school of Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University: “Australians are some of the most conformist people in the world, so we don’t want to stick out as different.” They even claim to have invented the expression “Tall Poppy Syndrome”, where poppies will twine around a taller one to bring it back down to size.
Travel is loneliness… disorientation. I don’t know what got me thinking about Africa, but perhaps it was the sense of being rootless, coupled with the excitement of discovering new places. Of going into that strange limbo where we are leaving one place and heading for somewhere new. I view yet another hostel with a sigh, and remember a few of the places I’ve been, and think to myself, “well, this isn’t so bad.” Travel is exhausting, and yet routine is anathema. At some point a new place becomes familiar, we get into its routines, and then suddenly one day it feels too predictable, too boring. We go in search of the new, half-dreading the exhaustion, the potential pitfalls, the stress of it all – not knowing where you’ll stay, enduring long, uncomfortable journeys, the hassle and the rising panic – and then we do it anyway. Perhaps it’s a strange assertion of self, seeking rootlessness and dislocation from the familiar, wanting to detach from the ties that bind in order to get down to some essential truth of oneself: I travel, therefore I am. Rather that than five o’clock on Collins Street.