For an Englishman interested in taking a side-step out of his regular life, there is no place quite like Australia. After all, a couple of centuries ago, the ancestors of today’s Australians took a side-step out of their regular lives (or, to be more accurate, were booted out of their irregular lives) and took the road less travelled, opting for openness, sun, space, danger, co-operation, youth over the greyer alternatives.
Today the first question of any normal English person visiting the country will be: why can’t our lives be more like this?
I am on Darling Street, Balmain, which is a suburb of Sydney. It is an easy, relaxed shopping street (these things exist in Australia) with a slightly haut bohemian vibe which is only slightly marred by the name some of the retail outlets have chosen for themselves. Down the road is the Chinese restaurant Wok Right Inn, near to Blokes, a men’s clothes shops. The few Darling jokes which escaped Blackadder 4 are to be found here: Darling Kids and a restaurant called Are Your Hungry, Darling? are the best of the bunch, with Darling Kisses (not sure what that sells).
I know from previous visits to this extraordinary country that it takes a while to become acclimatised to life here. Even then, there are distinct stages in the process.
The first is wonderment at how simply civilised it is. There is truth in the old g’day cliche. In shops, they will not only ask you if you are having a good one, but seem genuinely interested in the answer, happy to compare your good one with theirs.
On the street and in cafes, couples talk to one another. The girls are effortlessly beautiful, with more perfect legs than anywhere else in the world, but seem innocently unaware of the fact. The old, of whom there are mysteriously fewer than in England, are treated with respect.
In miraculously unvandalised playgrounds, children play sweetly with one another as their parents look on, chatting easily to one another.
You get a general sense, here in the heart of Phase One, of a society that, just for the hell of it, has decided to be decent. The streets are not rattling with litter. On the ferries around Sydney harbour, that captain asks his passengers to take their rubbish with them when they go, and they do.
In Sydney’s Hyde Park, there is a giant chess set which is used thoughout the day. The pieces are not stolen, nor used as weapons by marauding gangs of youths. Chess-players are not mocked or harassed. Dogs do not crap on the chess-board.
To a visiting Englishman, all this can seem like a utopian scene from a science fiction novel in which everyone, adults and children, take a happy pill at the beginning of the day. Right now, the weather has taken a happy pill, too – balmy sunshine alternates with warm and gentle rain. So has the mynah bird on the branch of an olive tree nearby, singing like a blackbird on steroids.
It will change. Phase One, I have discovered, passes quite quickly. The happy pills bring a downer in their wake. There will come an odd resentment at all this unquestioning kindness and goodwill. It will begin to seem gormless. The grouchy Englishman will start to hanker for a little grit, and might even provide some of his own, spreading around some much-needed cynicism and rage as he travels about. There is something zombie-like and creepy about the civic decency of Australians, he will decide. The fact that, because has so many minerals to sell to China, it is not even experiencing a recession will add to his irritation.
Right now, though, it’s Phase one. With the sun, the mynah bird singing and Balmain going about its daily business, it’s impossible to deny that I am having a good one.
Perhaps, if I lived here for any time - followed my own road less travelled – I too would start chatting univited with strangers (I try it now, but my timing is out, and the locals smell Pom). Quite soon, I would become a different person altogether. There would be an end to all that chippy questioning, that pointless niggling.
I would look on the bright side, as a matter of course. I would become a smiling, easygoing, darling bloke.