Hello Again, Sydney

One Sydney-sider's experiences moving back to Sydney after a long absence overseas.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Dream the Impossible Dream

No, I’m not talking about West Ham miraculously avoiding relegation this season (but GET IN THERE YOU IRONS! all the same). What I’m talking about is the favourite subject of every good Sydney-sider – real estate.

It’s insidious I tell you. Like most newcomers I was disgusted by it at first. But over time, I softened and acquired a detached, historian’s interest in residential architecture. Gradually I developed an appreciation of Art Deco apartment blocks and dark-brick Californian bungalows. And now, as that "appreciation" blooms into an obsession, the time has come to admit I have a problem.

During my morning train ride I stare wistfully out the window at the little allotments of homeowning bliss. Near Erskineville I peep into the back courtyards of the semis. In one there's a weathered table with three chairs, a medley of potted cacti and an ashtray. I imagine the people playing cards the night before, lingering over a mid-range Shiraz Viognier, smoking rollies. I imagine myself there too.

Near Croyden the bungalows begin, always with a frangipani out the front. Out the back they have gardens, large enough for a swing set or a respectable veggie patch. And as I ogle over the fences I can see myself plucking ripe tomatoes off the vines, or digging carrots out of the cool earth – my cool earth. At the end of the street a similar backyard is overgrown with weeds and I frown at it the way you might at a neighbour who lowers the value of the surrounding houses by neglecting basic maintenance. When was the last time they painted?

And then when the view opens up near Homebush, my breath catches as I peer across the landscape. Between the bushy treetops, solid and ordinary orange-tiled roofs shelter solid, ordinary lives - people on time for work and soccer practice. This is the landscape that I travelled halfway across the world to get away from, that I hated, and now, perhaps, could love.

But is this love? I thought love was wholesome and good, whereas this feels consumptive, depraved. It's like having fantasies about that person you never could … never would … I catch myself peeping into the real estate agent's window, looking at the prices. Next door is the newsagent and I see Lotto has another jackpot this week. The red sign calls to me.

Sydney, Sydney, Sydney. You’re driving me crazy.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Fat Quarters and Feed Dogs

What would you say if I told you my boss was giving me a fat quarter from her stash? And that I was going to cut it up this weekend?

These are not the ravings of a hardcore stoner, but a newbie crafter. I haven't mentioned it before, but since I've been back in Sydney I've been working at a publisher of craft magazines. There are about a dozen titles covering quilting, patchwork, embroidery, doll making, decorative painting, card making and scrapbooking.

I had to learn a lot, especially the crafting nomenclature. Imagine my confusion when I first read the instruction to put the feed dogs down (poor animals!) or to baste the fabric (doesn't sound very appetising). But I've managed to get my head around most of it now.

Still, I felt that I'd never be taken completely seriously if I didn't do some kind of craft. So to break through the glass ceiling (or in this case the embroidered curtain) and learn something from the quite amazing people I work with, I'm wading into the world of patchwork. My first project is a birthday present for Santi which I'll hopefully be able to photograph and post here in a couple of weeks. I've got Monday off and will be spending the day on Mum's old sewing machine, piecing up a storm.

Friday, May 11, 2007

We have ways of making you healthy

Hats off to the NSW Cancer Institute for their latest ad campaign, 'Which Disease'. You can see it here, but if you can't be arsed, it's basically poking fun at the way smokers try and avoid the more graphic health warnings on cigarette packets; no-one wants the picture of mouth cancer, but emphysema – a close-up of a lung which could just as well be roofing insulation – is ok. The thrust of the ad is that you can't choose which disease you get from smoking.

It's very true and less heavy-handed than their previous efforts, usually marked by the absence of irony and the terminally grey filter they film everything through. I had expected them to continue taking the hard line and even had a couple of proposals up my sleeve, one to start printing the health warnings on the actual cigarettes. How many people could handle smoking a ciggie with a picture of a gangrenous foot on the filter?

In Australia we have a history of shocking public service announcements. The bar was set 20 years ago by this classic grim reaper AIDS ad which I found on youtube. I hadn't seen it for ages, and remembered it as OTT and naff. At times it it is – check out the baby somersaulting out of the mother's arms for example – but it's also pretty frightening. It gave kids and adults nightmares and got them asking questions. We now point to this, and the government policies of the time, as the reason for having a relatively low incidence of AIDS. Still, I loved the comment one person left: “the scariest thing about this ad is the hairdos”.

Back in Bogotá they dusted off the grim one (aka la muerte) for a public safety campaign about crossing the road. First they spray-painted stars (estrellas) wherever people had been run over (estrellado), then they had transit officers dress up as the grim reaper and if you tried to cross the road illegally, they scythed your head off. Actually, they didn’t, but they did blow a whistle, and my wife says, sometimes they grabbed you and hugged you. Effective? Not at the time of us leaving.

So is fear still the best motivator for public health and safety? I’m undecided. The latest round of ads I’ve seen here are targeted at marijuana users with lines like “You’ve got beautiful eyes … when they’re not bloodshot.” and “I wouldn’t be firing you … if you bothered to turn up on time.” There are a couple more, playing on fear of social rejection and fear of letting down your mates in a team sport scenario. It's not the pot making us yawn at these ads but the fact we've already overdosed on fear. In this climate, humour could be the best medicine - I hope they try it.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Give me a D

Democracy. It's the kind of word that makes you want to stand up and clap, isn't it? I think of fraternal Zorba-the-Greek-style dances, or conga lines of voters snaking their way through the free world. But democracy is a lot like love – there's more to it than they show you in the movies.

My first inkling of this came when I was working at the ABC. The MD sent out an all-staff email – typical managerial bumf that you scan and consign to the 'Important Memos' folder – and one employee sent back a response, also copying in all staff. It was a long, well-written email, disagreeing with most points the MD made and, I thought at the time, a pretty cool way of getting fired. But it turned out this kind of thing was okay at the ABC and it happened on a few occasions after that. Unfortunately, the emails were really long and I had a lot of work to do and I actually stopped reading the correspondence after a while. That last bit, for me, pretty much sums up democracy.

And as I face up to my democratic responsibilities once again after missing quite a few elections overseas, I know that if I'm going to be (ahem) serious about this, I'll have to read those long polemic emails and come to grips with the issues. One thing raising the interest levels is that the MP for my electorate is Peter Garrett – ex-frontman for Midnight Oil.

It's kind of cool to be able to vote for a guy whose music you like and whose lyrics you respect. Or at least it would be if he his victory speech was a rousing rendition of The Power and the Passion. Instead, he'll probably have to toe the party line. And what is that then?

That's what I aim to find out. Promises are dangerous things, but seeing as this is about politicians, it feels right to get it on the action, to wit: (clears throat and stands on chair) I promise to study the candidates for the Kingsford-Smith electorate and find out what they represent, not just as party members, but as individuals. If I can, I'll ask them questions directly and I'll vote for the best individual candidate, regardless of what party he/she belongs to. This is me, promising myself to be a more informed voter.

Well, I'll believe that when I see it.