A Journey Through England

As travel restrictions have eased over the past 12 months, I’ve been taking advantage of the opportunity to visit family and friends overseas.

Late last year, I spent a month in the UK, and it was a trip of very mixed experiences. It was the first time I had been back in nearly 4 years, the longest period of time I have ever been away from the country of my birth.

It’s nearly 30 years since I left London to live and work abroad, and even though I am still “from” the UK, I don’t really consider myself to be “of” it. Despite family ties and social links, with each visit back I feel less and less connected to the place. As a result, I tend to experience my time there as a visitor, rather than a returning expat.

This sense of dislocation has become especially evident since Brexit, and the quagmire that is UK domestic politics. Not only does the political environment feel quite alienating, the profile of the political leadership is almost unrecognisable: last time I was back, Theresa May was still Prime Minister; when I arrived in early November, Rishi Sunak was in the second week of his Premiership.

Luckily, the rolling programme of public sector strikes and other industrial unrest had limited impact on my own travel schedule, even though it has become almost impossible to plan train journeys too far ahead thanks to unreliable timetables and complex booking systems. Fortunately, the grocery shortages evident during the UK winter had yet to take hold, and before I left Australia, I had managed to lock in a favourable exchange rate to offset the effect of inflation.

I spent most of the time in the Peak District, but also visited Manchester, Sheffield, Milton Keynes, London and Kent – a north-west to south-east trajectory. The Dark Peak was my base, and I really appreciate the scenery in and around the town of Glossop, where I stayed – but for a town that used to boast one of the highest number of pubs per capita, quite a few local hostelries were only open from Thursday to Sunday, probably a consequence of Covid, energy costs and broader inflation?

Manchester itself was a dispiriting experience – the city centre (Piccadilly Gardens) resembled a zombie theme park, and there was a palpable sense of anger and an all-pervading threat of violence in the air. Maybe I was there on a bad day, but the overall mood was definitely “off”. By contrast, Sheffield city centre, which I’d not visited since the early 1990s, felt welcoming and had a much more positive vibe.

I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by my weekend in Milton Keynes. Its reputation, as a planned New Town, for being soulless and devoid of personality is probably undeserved. Yes, it helps if you know how to navigate the network of roundabouts and ring roads (anyone familiar with Canberra would have sense of déjà vu), but I can definitely see the attraction, especially for families, with its acres of space and many recreational activities. If necessary, it’s possible to commute to London, plus there are nearby country parks and village pubs to frequent on the weekends.

Despite my familiarity with the geography and fabric of London, I now see it through the eyes of a tourist. Even though the overall layout remains the same, the constant changes in the built landscape can disorient the infrequent visitor. Because I no longer rely on it every day for work, I actually think London’s public transport has improved, but I’m sure it would only take a strike on the underground, or the wrong type of leaves on the train tracks at Clapham Junction to disabuse me of this situation. While London has always existed in an economic bubble in relation to the rest of the country, it probably wouldn’t take much to undermine the city’s renewed self-confidence as it tries to navigate a post-Brexit role in international banking, finance, trade and commerce.

Judging by a financial services conference I attended, compared to the same conference 4 years ago, there was a lot more focus on regulation as the UK (and the City in particular) disentangles itself from the EU – and as in many other areas, there is confusion about the transition process: understanding which rules continue unaffected; the scope and impact of any interim arrangements; and the anticipation of totally new measures yet to come into force.

Of course, the worst of petty British bureaucracy probably doesn’t even need the headache of Brexit to tie itself in knots. One small example I witnessed: in a country pub, I was told at the bar that I could not be served soy milk with my tea, and that the barman risked losing his license if he complied with my request – but oat milk was OK; and bizarrely, dishes that contained soy and served in the pub restaurant were also available. Go figure. I still can’t work out whether this was a quirk of local licensing laws, a capricious whim of the hotelier, or just a cranky member of staff.

My final port of call was the outer London suburbia of north-west Kent. Close enough to the London bubble to be popular with commuters, it’s also where I spent much of my childhood and teenage years. I wouldn’t say that familiarity breeds contempt, but it gets increasingly hard to feel any nostalgia for the place. Whenever I go back, it naturally feels much smaller (physically, socially, culturally) than when I was growing up there. Fortunately, when I caught up with a bunch of high school friends (all of whom have long since moved away from the area), there was a “very comfortable familiarity”, as one of our group described it afterwards: “not overly nostalgic but warm and generous. It’s the kind of thing I might have disdained when younger but I really enjoy it.” There speaks the wisdom of age(ing).

There’s no doubt a great deal I should be grateful for having been born in the UK, and probably a lot more that I take for granted as a result when I am there: walks in the country, spending some quality time with close family, good pub meals, excellent art exhibitions, even the inter-city train journeys through “England’s green and pleasant land” (no irony intended). All of which make the many varied and minor disappointments even harder to accept – I somehow expect better of the place, even after all this time away.

Next week: Hong Kong – Then and Now


The Day That Can’t Be Named…

Today’s date, January 26th, has developed a deep identity crisis, much like the Australian psyche: who are we, how did we get here, and what does this day actually mean? A celebration of colonialism – or a day of indigenous mourning?

Leading up to this year’s public holiday, there has been: a muted response to suggested changes to the current National Anthem; a bewildering comment by the Prime Minister about finding equivalence in the circumstances of people sailing on the First Fleet and the impact those arrivals had on the indigenous population; constant bickering between the State and Federal governments about pandemic-related border controls (hardly an advertisement for Federation); renewed angst about the Australian cricket team (always a measure of the public mood); and an apparent drop in public support for an Australian Republic.

And there lies the nub of the issue. For some time now, it has felt that progress on a number of constitutional and cultural reforms has been hampered by the fact that Australia still hasn’t reached the maturity of declaring itself a Republic. The impediment to moving forward is the adherence to the post-colonial model of a Federation retaining the British Crown as the Head of State. The fact that we don’t formally recognise or celebrate Federation is in itself very telling.

Lack of maturity is endemic – from the habitual need to shorten words and phrases verging at times on baby talk (why on earth do the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition choose to refer to themselves by their nicknames, “Scomo” and “Albo”?); to the suspicion of anything subtle, sophisticated or successful (the tall poppy syndrome).

Another foil to constitutional progression is the disproportionate influence (and position of privilege) that religious institutions retain in what is supposed to be a secular society.

Then there is the inability or reluctance to celebrate national success (apart from on the sporting field). Yes, Australia does “punch above its weight” in many areas, but there is so much inherent conservatism (small “c”) built into the system. The combination of 2-party politics, 3-tiers of government, cosy commercial duopolies, complex taxation, rigid regulatory frameworks, the laggardly trade union movement (not to say timid public policies on the environment, science, technology, education and the arts) inhibits innovation and experimentation. This institutional inertia (or conspiracy) all adds up to on overwhelming sense of acceptance, complacency and “she’ll be right”.

What if we had to work from the basis of some alternative histories? How would that change our views about January 26th? For example, what if either the French, Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese had colonised this land in the 17th or 18th century instead of the British arrived? What if the First Nations of Australia had developed metal tools and had fought back and won? What if Chinese fishing fleets or Indian trading vessels had established control of Australian waters and harbours long before the Europeans arrived? What if Indonesian or Malay tribes had settled here even further back than that? What if Japan had won the Pacific War?

This is not to excuse or justify the actions of the British in colonising the many nations that already existed in Australia, and all that followed from that. After all, the British Isles themselves had been invaded and conquered on many occasions over the centuries, so the First Fleet could be seen as a logical extension of that sequence of events. But perhaps this perspective can provide some additional context, helping us to reflect on the events and circumstances that have brought us to this point, and hopefully point to a way forward.

Next week: The Return of Cultural Cringe

The Age of Responsibility

How old is old enough to know better? In particular, when can we be said to be responsible, and therefore accountable, for our actions? (All the recent political shenanigans around “collective accountability”, “departmental responsibility”, “creeping assumptions” and “ministerial conduct” has got me thinking….)

By the time we are 7 years of age, we should probably know the difference between “right and wrong”, at least in the context of home, school, culturally and socially – “don’t tell lies, don’t be rude to your elders, don’t steal, don’t hit your siblings…”

The age for criminal responsibility varies around the world, but the global average is between 10 and 14 years. In Australia, it is currently 10, but there are proposals to extend it to 14. While I can understand and appreciate some of the arguments in favour of the latter, I’m also aware that criminal intent (not just criminal acts or behaviour) can establish itself under the age of 10 – I’m thinking of the James Bulger case in the UK in particular.

Legally, 18 is the coming of age – for entering into contracts, getting married (without the need for parental approval), earning the right to vote, the ability to purchase alcohol and tobacco. But you can have sex, and start driving a car from the age of 16.

As a society, we appear to be extending the age at which we become “responsible adults”. The concept of “adolescence” emerged in the 15th century, to indicate a transition to adulthood. The notion of “childhood” appeared in the 17th century, mainly from a philosophical perspective. While “teenagers” are a mid-20th century marketing phenomenon.

However, we now have evidence that our brains do not finish maturing until our third decade – so cognitively, it could be argued we are not responsible for our actions or decisions until we are at least 25, because our judgment is not fully developed. In which case, it rather begs the question about our ability to procreate, drink, drive and vote….

Of course, many age-based demarcations are cultural and societal. Customary practices such as initiation ceremonies are still significant markers in a person’s development and their status in the community (including their rights and responsibilities).

Which brings me to social media – shouldn’t we also be responsible and held accountable for what we post, share, comment on or simply like on Facebook, Twitter etc.? Whether you believe in “nature” or “nurture”, some academics argue we always have a choice before we hit that button – so shouldn’t that be a guiding principle to live by?

Next week: Making Creeping Assumptions







The lighter side of #Rona19

After several weeks of lockdown during #Rona19, and despite the serious challenges that we still face from the Pandemic and its consequences, it’s typical of the human condition and our spirit of resilience that people have managed to find humour and goodwill in the depths of despair.

In no particular order (and without any judgement) here are just some of the distractions and interactions that have been keeping us amused during social isolation, as well as a few of the apparent positive effects:

  • The video conference call bloopers (memo to team: pants on)
  • Clips of dogs vs cats navigating home-made obstacle courses
  • #MeAt20 flashbacks
  • Elderly family members accidentally gatecrashing Houseparty online drinks
  • Some introvert pupils actually enjoying schooling from home
  • Clients and suppliers displaying genuine concern for each others’ welfare in e-mails and on calls (I just hope this empathy endures beyond the Pandemic)
  • People reducing food waste (less shopping, less fussy about use-by dates)
  • Homemade videos and photos recreating scenes from famous movies and artwork 
  • More wildlife in urban areas (I’ve also seen more birds, bugs, bees, butterflies and beetles in my back yard and in nearby parks)
  • Public libraries of iconic images for use as video call backdrops (conference calls will never be dull again…)
  • An apparent drop in traditional crime rates, and fewer typical hospital casualties (people not going out getting drunk, getting into fights or overdosing)
  • Hosting virtual dinner parties (no need to organise a taxi home)
  • Many homes now have a “clearance corner” awaiting charity shops reopening (all that time to sort out cupboards and drawers)
  • A visible reduction in air pollution (as evidenced by before/after photos from various cities)

Next week: Startupbootcamp’s Virtual Demo Day