THE DELIGHTS OF DOWN UNDER

My brother and sister in law are bound for Australia this September to visit their youngest daughter, and I envy them, not only their visit to Australia but the delight of their first entry into that country.

Australia is so different and so beautiful. It has a unique smell- not unpleasant but sharp and pungent with overtones of menthol and eucalyptus but more complex than that. It’s huge and empty. Its hinterland is desert. It’s red. When you visit some of its coast – say the stretch from Melbourne to Adelaide, and you see a few small towns strung out along an inhospitable, though beautiful coast, nothing but the fathomless ocean deep between you and the Antarctic, with hours of empty scrubby land in between each precarious settlement, you can feel the weight of the vast empty interior pressing on you, and you think, you could go mad living here. We travelled all day out from Perth on the West Coast, a distance equivalent perhaps of the journey from London to Edinburgh, and we saw two small villages, the geologically interesting Wave Rock, and a dog cemetery. This is a lonely place: the dogs had been beloved companions.

Australia has the most beautiful dawns I’ve ever seen, like a Christmas card, with a silver light creeping up from the horizon into the midnight blue infinity, gradually increasing until the sun actually rises, when it soars swiftly upwards in a ball of burning red gold. There’s no comparison with our own subtle, milky, and also lovely, dawns.

As for its flora and fauna – there are hundreds of varieties of eucalypt. Some have beautiful barks, shining white, peeling copper, or trunks twisted like a stick of rock. Flocks of parrots fly past, brilliant in colour, large and noisy. There are kangaroos or marsupials of every size. You see the kangaroo when he moves. When they stand motionless, they simply disappear. Australia’s insects are terrifyingly lethal. Its beaches may have crocodile or sharks. It’s both very familiar – speaks English, drives on the left, plays our sports, everything works, there’s always hot water. The people are friendly, with a good opinion of themselves, down to earth and refreshingly open and candid. An Australian will surely tell you like it is.

But on the other hand, the land itself is mysterious and utterly unfamiliar, and the native culture is largely incomprehensible. The connection between the white Australian and the land is an uneasy one. He keeps trying to turn it into Europe, but the land resists and it will prevail in the end. A vast burning desert set in the freezing Southern ocean can never be like Europe. As for the relationship between the natïve people and the white incomer : it has been a tragedy and is a great shadow over Australia.

When we were in Brisbane (a pleasant town on a lovely river, largely unsung, a Glasgow to Sydney’s Edinburgh perhaps) I flung a coin in a fountain, and a little girl said to her mother, “Why did she do that?” The mother did not know, so I said to the child, “Because I hope to return.” As I walked away, I heard the girl ask her mother, “Why doesn’t she just come back?”

If only, I thought. I never want to say good-bye to Australia.

I was discussing with my son in law why there was antipathy between his native New Zealand and their Antipodean neighbour (although actually it’s three hours flying away) Australia, and suggested they had much in common. He didn’t agree that they did, and on reflection, I think he’s right. New Zealand is not desert; it’s relationship with previous incomers, while it could be better, is not disastrous; the New Zealanders don’t have the chip on their shoulder that the Australians have because it is alleged that they are descended from criminals (of course they were not criminals but the victims of British injustice); it doesn’t have that bone chilling loneliness. It’s native culture is more Polynesian and its myths and legends much more accessible to us. It was Cook who connected Australia to New Zealand and in the end, the Fijians ate him.

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WE PEOPLE WHO ON EARTH DO DWELL

 

On the night of Friday 17 August, I woke between 2 and 3 am. I’m somebody who wakes to instant alertness and function (this can be a liability because it makes it less easy to return to sleep. ) But I realised at once that something unusual had wakened me.

There was a gap between the closing of the curtains and an almost full moon was shining full on my face. It was very beautiful. I lay and watched it as it travelled through the visibility of the gap. It took about ten minutes to pass out of my view.

It made me realise, as I lay on my bed, that I also was lying on a planet hurtling through space, twirling on its axis as it circles the sun, and around which in its turn a lovely moon revolves.

I’m glad I’m an earth dweller.

DOG DAYS

We’ve had Rob and Elisabeth’s dog, Milo, a golden retriever, for the past fortnight. He’s a good-looking, good-natured fellow, but we’d forgotten the reality of dogs.

He’s a large and powerful animal. Basically his interests are food and smells. He likes people and he loves playing. When you’ve taken him on a LONG walk, stood for ages at the pond on Ditchling Common, throwing in sticks and apologising to the people he soaks by going right up to them and shaking his coat dry, yielded to his pleadings not to be left in the car while you have a coffee and kept a vigilant look out so he doesn’t snaffle food from beneath the noses of other people’s unsuspecting children, and you eventually get home and collapse on to your sofa, it can be slightly irritating when Milo, whom you would think might be exhausted by now, instead thrusts his tug-of-war toy on your knee and repeatedly nudges you to propel you into play.

He enjoyed his walks with John, but finding John didn’t tolerate any nonsense, Milo (he’s a smart dog) figured how to be revenged on John for any perceived slights. Why won’t you let me lick your plate clean? Why can’t I eat what’s left of Anne’s dinner? I didn’t bother her and she doesn’t want it. I like chewing your socks and it’s not as if you don’t have plenty. I’m not doing any harm lying in your flower bed. I think the flowers look nicer flat to the ground. I prefer drinking out of this muddy pot rather than that boring clean water you’ve provided… Well, if you’re going to be unpleasant about it, I know what I’ll do… And out he would go to the garden, all meek and obedient – and the minute John’s back was turned, he would start digging a hole in the lawn.

Now John is an eminently sensible and reasonable fellow, gallant to women and kind to children and animals, but there are two things about which he is not entirely reasonable, and those are golf and lawns. So when he came in from the garden with an air of just having witnessed a total catastrophe, and announced in tragic tones, ‘Milo has just dug an enormous pit in the middle of the lawn’, I expressed sympathy but had mental reservations. When I looked out in the morning, I could see there was indeed a small hole. John set to at once and filled it up with sand, soil, grass seed. He carefully watered it in. Milo sat nearby chewing thoughtfully. “Now don’t dig there again,” John told Milo severely. Milo, who has a most eloquent face, expressed total surprise. ‘Who – me?’

Yet later when John had reprimanded Milo for nosing under the table in search of crumbs while we were eating, I just knew where Milo was going as he sloped off into the garden. “Why are you closing the curtains in the middle of the day?” he enquired, not unreasonably. “Er – it’s too bright,” I said feebly, frowning at the dark clouds. “I have a headache.” John, like Milo, is not stupid either. “It’s that damned dog, isn’t it?” He twitched the curtain back, and there’s Milo, digging for Sydney, compost, soil and grass seed flying behind him in all directions.

But this morning, Rob and Elisabeth having taken him off home after their holiday, there was no cheerful, hopeful face to greet us as we came downstairs, and we miss him.

AMEN FOR DARLING

I recently watched, with John, a re-showing on the BBC Parliamentary Channel of the Referendum Debate between Alex Salmond and Alastair Darling in Edinburgh. It was lively and interesting. Neither party was victorious or vanquished. The chairman, Bernard Ponsonby, was formidable and excellent. I felt like weeping at the end of it.

As a young woman, I used to feel sorry for any organisation or place where my father took up a temporary Residence because he would walk in meekly, concealing his real identity as an avenging angel. For some weeks or months he would go quietly about his business while observing the local corruptions. Then his cooperation would be required. My father would politely refuse. The issue would rapidly be escalated until the main man stood before him. Only then would my father plant his standard and cry Justice! He would advise the main man to repent and make restitution for all his sins, otherwise ruin and destruction awaited him. As you can imagine, the local Big Mick would be incredulous. Who was this unknown stranger, this nobody, to challenge him, Big Mick of generations of Micks Big who had run the affairs of Tinpot Yokelery without opposition for decades? He would threaten to call out his dogs. My father would very politely advise him to think carefully before committing himself to so unwise an option, and withdraw. Then would follow a period of siege, where hoodlums would be sent to beat him up, local cars would seek to involve him in accidents, other harassments. My father would endure all this without retaliation other than that required for self defence and by a combination of cunning, forethought and amazing good luck would survive unscathed. When I think about these experiences now, I am reminded of the Roman proverb, Fiat justitia ruat caelum. (Let justice be done, though the heavens should fall.) My father explained that there were two ways to overcome an enemy. One way was to study his weaknesses, lay traps for him, and lure him to destruction. If you were clever and patient enough, you would probably succeed – but how were you any better than him? The other was to behave as near to perfection as you could, wait until a suitable opportunity came along, make a stand, cry Justice and stand in your place until the heavens fell. I saw the heavens fall in more than one place. People would die in accidents; go to jail; their farm which their family had owned for generations would be sold at auction to pay for their debts. (None of these things were directly linked to my father.) We would enjoy the peace of the place for a little while, and then my father would be off, whistling, to slip quietly into the next unsuspecting place. It was very educational, but in truth one eventually became tired of living in a war zone.

Months ago I began watching the Referendum debate with a neutral stance, desiring an option which was not offered and was neither Yes nor No. But the behaviour and attitude of the No campaign has annoyed me. Why didn’t Cameron go to Scotland, state his credentials as PM of the United Kingdom and therefore bound to serve what he saw as the best interests of the 4 nations. He could have said perhaps the Scots did not feel valued enough within the Union and then list some of the strengths of Scotland and where it has made a valuable contribution to the UK. Then he could enumerate the benefits to Scotland of remaining in the UK. (There have to be some, I suppose). He could then outline his alleged measures to devolve more power to the four nations and pledge that he would carry these out to a stated timetable irrespective of what the vote was. He could say he had absolutely no doubt that Scotland could make its own way successfully in the world, but he commended the union. However they voted, he would do his utmost to assist them. He hoped that he personally would be counted as a friend of Scotland, and it had been an honour to serve as their prime minister.

Had he been able to lead the campaign as a man of honour and with the conduct of a gentleman, what a different position we might be in. But had he said that the Tory party, whose members are not averse to getting rid of Scottish labour MPs (bearing in mind there are more pandas in Scotland etc etc) – would promptly have expunged him from the record and then he wouldn’t have been Prime Minister.

Anyway enough of him. I’ve discovered something astonishing. The Press doesn’t always tell the truth! The newspapers almost uniformly report a Darling win. This debate could not produce a ‘winner’ but in my view it certainly wasn’t Darling. The view of the Press was that Darling had ‘won’ because Salmond declined to detail his plan if England was successful in denying Scotland the use of the UK (Note: the UK) pound. I think his refusal to do so was wise. It is not tactically recommended to answer hypothetical questions designed to put you at a disadvantage especially when you may have a delicate negotiation to conduct eventually. Incidentally, for what reason would England seek to appropriate the UK pound? Since it would be advantageous to all parties to come to an agreement, surely Westminster and Osborne would not pursue a policy of attempted denial merely through spite and malice? Would they?

But the question that Salmond asked Darling – Did he agree with Cameron that Scotland could be a successful and independent nation, was more revealing. Darling proved unable to answer Yes – even though it is obviously the case. He became upset and annoyed in the process. I felt really sorry for him. Darling is a good man and he will have Scotland’s best interests at heart as he sees them, but he has thrown in his lot with crocodiles. Presumably he felt unable to be quoted as saying ‘Scotland could be a successful, independent nation.’ He reminded me of Macbeth: Wherefore could I not pronounce Amen? I had most need of blessing and Amen stuck in my throat.

Salmond, on the other hand, remained calm throughout. Some ignorant, arrogant businessman, in disappointed headmaster to troublesome pupil mode, chose to declare himself displeased with Salmond’s conduct during the debate. Not only was this untrue, unfair and inappropriate, it was also extremely impertinent: Salmond is First Minister. Salmond did not react to or acknowledge this statement by so much as the flicker of a muscle. He also, once he had made his point, did not press Darling unkindly. He did not wipe the floor with his opponent.

I was thinking, that the Westminster lobby holds up Ireland as an example of the difficulties that can beset a small country which chooses to go it alone in the world. But I’m sure that the vast majority of Irishmen would gladly face these difficulties and be a free and independent nation than return to being an occupied English territory. (Erin go bragh.)

As for Alastair Darling, I fear he is fighting for the wrong side, but he is a good man for all that; so we will say Amen on his behalf and wish him every blessing. Scotland in the difficult time to come will have need of every good man it has.

Brace yourselves, ladies and gentlemen. We’re in for a rough ride.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GAMESMANSHIP

One always watches Opening Ceremonies (of countries about whom one cares) with slight anxiety. If it all goes horribly wrong, it doesn’t bode well. If it’s all incredibly slick, but vastly expensive and boastful, that’s not good. There’s a huge potential for error. Then there’s the messages – the overt and the hidden. So I commenced watching Glasgow’s Welcome to the Commonwealth Games with trepidation.

Glasgow is a very distinctive city. It comes high on my list of Ten Favourite Cities of the world. It’s scarred but still lovely. It’s full of contrasts. It has a tendency towards self pity and drowning its sorrows in drink; it can lurch with startling speed into violence; and it also has an amazing resilience and capacity for endurance and regeneration. It can be stylish and witty and fun. It’s people are big hearted, generous and friendly. But they also have a strong sense of egalitarian self belief, consider themselves the equal of anyone, have (mostly) little time for snobbery or pretension and they have an assassin’s keen eye, swift hand and cruel tongue. I cannot claim to be a daughter of the city of Glasgow, though I know it quite well and have always loved it; but I know to tread carefully. I briefly went to school there, and a wee local toughie of a schoolboy said to me, (I translate) ‘When you came here first, I thought you were a right wee snob: but I see now that you’re not.’ In its bluntness, directness, acuteness and generosity that’s a very Glaswegian remark, and I was highly complimented.

So, Glasgow’s lovely; Glasgow’s friendly; but it’s definitely Not for Messing With.

In the event, I thought the ceremony a triumph. It obviously had a modest but adequate budget which I thought was entirely appropriate. It mastered modern technology successfully. It was self mocking about its cliches. The tartan uniform was not old-fashioned kitsch but up to date and edgy. The pipes were played but in a modern funky style. There were in jokes. Dancers were dressed as Tunnocks Tea Cakes (of which this Scot is also inordinately fond.) They showed quick camera shots of the statue of the Duke of Wellington with a traffic cone on his head. (Students had traditionally placed traffic cones on the head of the statue, and Glasgow City Council proposed raising the statue out of reach on a plinth, (though there is no height that would be unscaleable by a drunken Glaswegian) at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. In a matter of hours, tens of thousands of signatures were obtained on an objection, and some pundit declared that the City of Glasgow cared more for the traffic cone than for the statue. The Duke remains, with a traffic cone on his head.) Billy Connolly appeared and spoke affectionately of the city and its people, and reminded us that Glasgow was the first city to name the street which held the S African consulate, Nelson Mandela Street… So Glasgow said, with all its warmth and openness: Welcome to the Games. But it also said, And all will go well, so long as you remember: Do not mess with us.

The crowd was well behaved and good natured. (It couldn’t believe its luck that it sat out hot and dry as darkness fell.)

There’s always a Daddy-O of games – some recently retired, very high achieving athlete of impeccable reputation who seems to steady everything with his very presence and is everywhere at once. For the Olympics, it was Steve Redgrave; for the Commonwealth Games it’s Chris Hoy. (Is this an official position? Is the athlete approached and asked: Are you willing to be the Daddy-0 of these games?). Chris Hoy did everything asked of him with modesty, grace and charm.

The crowd – oh, they were magnificent. They stood in absolute pin dropping silence in honour of the dead in the Malaysian plane. They applauded each and every entering team, including the English.

The tension which the Queen, with all her experience, displays these days at any major Scottish event, shows that she does not fall into the trap with English politicians and consider the whole referendum issue to be one of minor relevance, a provincial matter She knows that if things go badly wrong, her heirs (though not herself) stand to lose a quarter of their kingdom. The Queen herself was received with great warmth. It was noticeable however that when the National Anthem was played, the crowd stood politely, but it did not sing.

The Provost of Glasgow spoke with passion of his city and from a working class perspective and why should he not? Billy Connolly spoke warmly of the city but reminded us that Glasgow was the first city to name the street with the South African consulate, Nelson Mandela Street. Alex Salmond, class act that he is, scored no political points but swiftly discharged his duty as First Minister of all Scotland. The Queen was gracious. The Games were open.

Magnus Linklater in his article in The Times of July 26 drew entirely different conclusions to mine. He said the crowd sang the National Anthem with gusto. Is he joking? Has he never heard the rugby crowd at Murrayfield roar through a second verse of O Flower of Scotland, unaccompanied by the orchestra – because it will sing what it likes and won’t be dictated to? That’s gusto and you could almost hear them in Glasgow.

And he said the crowd cheered the Queen and only rendered polite applause to Alex Salmond. The Queen, an elderly lady, much respected, who has treated the Scots with cautious respect over the referendum issue, (which they have observed and will remember) will be welcome in Scotland, irrespective of the outcome of the vote, for as long as she lives. Why ever did he think they might not cheer her when she graced the Games with her presence?   They have better manners than that.   And she’s not just Queen of England, after all.

As for politely applauding Salmond, that’s appropriate too. This was a sporting occasion, not a political one. Besides, we don’t need him to be Daniel O’Connell. (Not yet anyway.) But I felt Salmond was moved and relieved as he drew his brief remarks to a close, and it is rare for him to show any emotional reaction. The people of Glasgow, on behalf of Scotland, had done him proud. They’re not stupid. They know how to behave as a dignified and modern nation should. With their own voice they had welcomed everyone in the spirit of warmth and hospitality for which their city and our country are famed.

Let Glasgow flourish.