australia day… my way

This evening, down at Altona Beach, I strolled in the evening sunshine and literally watched the world go by. Australia Day had brought everybody out to enjoy the beach, and the council had put on a festival to help.

A small number of Aussie flags were flying on cars and transferred onto sunburnt cheeks, a few green-and-gold sports shirts were in evidence, and two mounted police officers flew the Boxing Kangaroo flag from their saddles.

On the boardwalk people wore hijabs and chadors, beach towel turbans and long-haired topknots, bikinis and board shorts, saris and sarongs. There was Greek baclava, Italian woodfired pizza, vegetable samosas, New Zealand “fush, chups and igg”, SES sausages in bread, all for sale within a hundred metres. Young muscle-bound men showed their Polynesian tattoos with pride, and one brave soul rocked a bleached-blonde flat-top and bandana.

One end of the Esplanade had live Country & Western music, the other Tongan reggae blaring out from a huge speaker. Kite surfers hung out down the western end of the beach whilst kite flyers dominated the east.

I saw Africans of every stripe, Japanese tourists and Vietnamese families, three generations of Pacific Islander at the same all-day picnic, young and old from sub-continental Asia, Italian nonnas with gaggles of grandchildren, a handful of mix-race couples of various flavours. Not many pale-skinned, freckled people like me though.

There was no “love it or leave” slogans, no “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” chants, just people being people, chatting and laughing, running after two-year-olds, drinking coffee and beer, ignoring boys and posturing in front of girls. This is the Australia I subscribe to, the Australia I belong to.





walking on very long beaches

I‘ve always loved walking. For twenty years or more it’s been my main source of exercise, and never more so since I moved to Australia. For me, an hour’s brisk walk (and I walk at six or seven kilometres per hour) clears my mind, resets my brain, opens up possibilities, recalibrates my spine and offers me precious alone time.

On a good day, when I turn back at the park and head east on Altona Esplanade, I feel so uplifted I could lift my arms and fly back to the car. IMG_7274 But it’s taken me twenty years to realise that there is one sort of walk that I adore above all others. I unconsciously seek it out when planning a trip. No other walk every measures up. After two decades of diligent practice I can now say that my favourite pastime is Walking On Very Long Beaches.


I didn’t grow up very close to the coast. It took half an hour by car or bus to get to Sandymount or Costelloe’s beach in Dublin. But all of my family fare better when close to the sea, and most of us now live minutes (or even seconds) from the water’s edge.


I think the turning point for me, though, was ten years spent living in the midlands of England. The closest beach to Leicester was Skegness, and one autumn Sunday I couldn’t take it anymore. I pointed my car east and drove a full three hours non-stop to the coast. When I got there, on a chilly, murky spring afternoon, the tide was out. In Skegness the tide goes out about half a mile, so I had managed to reach the seaside without arriving beside the sea. Defeated, I turned around and drove the three hours back, without getting out of my car.


Fast forward a decade or so to India, when I spent many happy months living in the village of Candolim just yards from a six mile long beach. Each morning I walked south to Sinquerim and the old fort, uplifted by the occasional sight of a dolphin just a few feet away in the surf, feeling like I had the whole beach to myself. Afternoons saw me strolling north towards Calangute, where the only concern I had was how far I would walk before jumping into the water to cool down. That beach gave me my sanity back.


These days I live about a ten minute drive from a nice suburban beach with a lovely boardwalk and a park at either end. Winter and summer, it’s my favourite place to walk: not too busy, just the right length. If I want a change, I can walk at least an hour from Port Melbourne to Elwood before I run out of footpath and have to turn around. And if I tire of bay beaches and need to hear the crash of real waves, the grand sweep of Ocean Grove on the surf coast is only an hour’s drive away.


My ideal beach length is “longer than the time I have to walk it”. In other words, I prefer to run out of time than to run out of beach.


These days, the quantifiable self tells us that we should walk 10,000 steps a day, so I like a good 8-9km round trip walk so I can get my daily quota out of the way whilst staring at waves and getting my ankles wet.


Every trip I take, I search for a location with a Very Long Beach. Tasmania, Ireland, Vietnam, Queensland, USA, the Caribbean: my travels have taken me to, or taken me back to, some of the most wonderful VLBs in the world.

Where are your favourite VLBs?

heartbreak… 21st century style

It was a brief, but short-lived, love affair. A chance encounter online then, finally, a hurriedly-arranged reunion on Australian soil. The few weeks of anticipation dragged as my impatience rose and my expectations fell. How could it be the same as the last time I’d seen him, back in London, so many years ago? I warned myself not to let my hopes get the better of me.

The night came at last. It was the first time I’d set eyes on him in over fifteen years, and he hadn’t changed a bit. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, he had me from the first time he spoke.

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voting in a new election

Last time I voted my Dad was still alive. Last time I voted, I was living in England and trying to figure out who was going to get my single vote in the constituency of Brent East. I had to walk about a hundred paces from home to the local primary school to cast my vote. I didn’t back the eventual winner, a Liberal Democrat called Sarah Teather.

Five years later, we live in a new country. I have gone from proportional representation in Ireland, and the ability to vote for both Dail and Senate, to an “x” in a single box for Parliament in the UK (nobody gets to vote for the upper house there), to some sort of hybrid here in Australia.

Because both Orlando and I will be out of our home state on Saturday – he in Hong Kong and I in Tasmania – we found an Interstate Voting Centre in Sydney during the week and voted early. Here in Australia, it is illegal not to vote. Enrolment on the Commonwealth electoral roll has been compulsory since 1911, and voting at federal elections has been compulsory since 1924 for all citizens on the Commonwealth electoral roll. As a result, there are lots of ways to cast your vote. Mobile polling places have been popping up around the country in very remote areas for a few weeks now. Colleagues posted in tiny Pacific Islands lined up to vote in Australian or other embassies in the past week or so. Most major airports have early polling stations on site so that you can vote before you fly – a very clever idea I think. And in every state capital, and many other places besides, there are plenty of interstate voting places where you can pop in, fill in a quick form, and they will magically conjure up a polling card for your own constituency right before your eyes.

There is no excuse not to vote… except for the dearth of reasonable candidate parties to choose from.

We found the Sydney offices of the Australian Electoral Commission before work on a sunny Sydney Wednesday morning, and presented ourselves for our first formal duties since we became citizens nineteen months ago. We filled out the details on the front of our polling paper envelopes, and the polling officer came back within minutes with two pieces of paper. No ID check, nothing except a casually-requested verbal declaration that we had not voted anywhere else beforehand.

The first – lower house – polling card was easy. About one-third A4 size, it had a nice little list of six local candidates on there. Our instructions were to vote 1 to 6 in order of our choice, and not to leave any box unmarked. Easy.

The second – Senate – polling card was more like a roll of polling wallpaper. Easily more than double A3 landscape length, there was a row of party names along the top of the paper with a box associated with each. Below a thick black line, a list of candidates was listed below the appropriate party name. In all there were 60 names listed under 20 parties or marked as Independent. Some party names I recognised – Labor, Family First, Liberal, Greens. Some were indistinguishable from each other: Socialist Alliance, Socialist Equality Party, Socialist Alliance. One sounded like a locum politician service: Senator On-Line. Wonder if they are a 24-hour service?

Then the barking mad parties came: Australian Sex Party. Climate Sceptics. One Nation. Shooters and Fishers.

I wish I were making those names up.

I had two choices. I could mark a “1” in a single box associated with a political party above the line, or I could stand and mark every one of the names below the line from 1 to 60 in order of choice. If I didn’t do it right, my vote would not be counted as I would have spoiled my vote – over here it’s called an informal or donkey vote.

I seriously considered doing the latter. I am used to proportional representation. I always felt cheated in the UK with only one measly”x” to mark my choice. But there were too many of those anonymous parties listed and I didn’t feel confident. Do the Australian Democrats, the Nationals, Building Australia or the Christian Democratic Party deserve a higher number than the rest?  Who are these people anyway? What if I go through the full list as best I can starting from 60 and working up, and somehow when I get to the last box I am still only on number two or three?

I bottled it. I marked “1” in a single box above the line, spent ten minutes trying to fold the polling wallpaper into a reasonable size, returned to the polling officer and handed in my vote.

Job done… for another three years at least. Let’s hope.

home alone

I woke up this morning alone in the house, an unusual experience for me on a Saturday. Because we both travel quite a bit, I’m used to having the house to myself, but not for a whole weekend.

It brought me back to my twenties, when I mostly lived in country villages quite a distance from friends – a couple of hours by car at least. If I wasn’t actually driving to visit some of them, it was not unusual for me to go home from work on Friday and not speak to another soul until Monday morning, apart from the odd shop assistant. Some Saturdays, the weekend stretched out in front of me like an empty desert, and I would divide the time into manageable two-hour chunks and then try to fill them all.

So as I lay in bed this morning, I was acutely aware that a weekend to myself is only fun because it is rare.  Twenty years ago the very same set of circumstances weekend after weekend were soul-destroying at times.

This morning it was different. I luxuriated in a bed all to myself, and a full day to do whatever I wish.  I contemplated a treatment for my hair, and a spot of shopping for bamboo for the garden. I almost certainly will spend some time tidying my wardrobe (I feel so Zen when it’s all done). A bit of quiet time is always good for me, so a Saturday night in with home-made pizza, a decent bottle of wine and a few movies is heaven to look forward to.

But the best part is that I’ll be back with my wonderful O on Sunday night, watching online TV in bed, bickering about chocolate crumbs, and keeping my feet warm in a better way than pink bedsocks. That will be the highlight of my weekend.

crime capital

It seems every morning I open the Age newspaper website, at least two of the main headlines refer to another murder, stabbing, shooting somewhere in Melbourne. The other thing that is beginning raise alarm bells is the number of serious injuries or deaths on the roads, so often by young people still on their P plates acting like idiots.

I wondered if my concerns were just down to me getting older and more easily alarmed, or whether I was simply not used to this level of violent deaths. Coming from several years in London, surely this was all in my head?

So, sitting here on a Sunday morning with a coffee in hand, I decided to do a quick comparison of murder levels in London and Melbourne. I used to live in the Borough of Brent, which was reputed to be a tough place to live. Harlesden, my first address in this part of the city, was known at the time as the murder capital of London.

So how does Melbourne – and my new borough of Maribyrnong – compare?

I looked up crime stats for each city and each borough for the last two years, and the numbers were shocking. Since we moved here, so many people have told us how much safer it is living here than in London, and that they appreciate the feeling of security of living in such a safe city compared to London.

Turns out it’s all a myth.

Take the city comparisons first. London, a city of 7.6 million people, has had a yearly average of 142 homicides in the past two years. That is 1.9 homicides per 100,000 of population.

Melbourne on the other hand, a city of 5.2 million people, experienced a yearly average of  173 homicides in the same time period. That is 3.3 homicides per 100,000 people.

Looking at these figures, you are almost twice as likely to get murdered in Melbourne as in London.

The local government figures are even more interesting. The Borough of Brent has just over 260,000 inhabitants and has had a yearly average of 7.5 homicides per year in the past two years. That’s about 2.8 homicides per 100,000 people.

Maribyrnong, a borough of about 68,500 people, has had a yearly average of  6 homicides in the past two years. That comes out as 8.75 homicides per 100,000 people.

So, in my local government area compared to a borough once known as the murder capital of London, I am almost three times more likely to get murdered.

I was going to continue on to analyse road traffic injuries and deaths, and sex crimes, once I’d finished with murders, but my comfort levels are already so compromised I think I’ll stop there.

And people wonder why Orlando and I are so security conscious?

  Average Murders 2007-09 Average per 100k pop. Population of Area
Melbourne 173.5 3.3 5,257,576
Maribyrnong 6 8.75 68,571
London 142.5 1.9 7,500,000
Brent 7.5 2.8 263,500