Upside down. Back to the future


Update story of the day: down at the butcher’s, a woman in black running gear says: “Sorry, sorry, sorry, for being so particulah… that’s amazing, though, thanks, sorry, mah son just hates fat, isn’t that amazing? Oh and those sausages, they look amazing, do you put cheese in, parmesan? I’ll take two, will they keep? I just don’t feel like cooking today, I dunno whah...” Packing them up, the stony-faced but nice-enough butcher says “You won’t regret it, just fry them with a bit of butter”. “Oh no, mah son never wants butter, isn’t that amazing? Oh mah Gawd, they’re veal, I didn’ realise, I wanted chicken, I’ll leave it for now. I’ll come back, I promise, definitely. I come heah often… Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry for the trouble.”

On the good South African side, the wonderfully energetic Ronni Kahn last month started OzHarvest Market, a supermarket of sorts with “rescued” leftover food and groceries from cafes, restaurants and food businesses. Customers pay whatever they can afford, as little or as much as they can manage.  

On the train to work, a lanky ear-ringed and tattooed (it’s body art, through which individuality is expressed) young man discusses with the multiple nose-ringed girl the “sweet syrup fruit infusion” he’ll make that night, maybe even with “some tomato for flavour”. They kiss goodbye, lattes still steaming, and I restrain myself from following him. These boys brought up by women who are both mothers and friends really are something.

Like a fruit that’s about to turn, looming beggardom in Sydney starts with mismatched clothes and running shorts-gone-grey, or wrinkled toes, a little more weathered in flip-flops. The extra plastic carrybag, the slight menace and the eyes that don’t meet yours (and not because of an iPhone). As health-care and other social services and payments become less accessible and the mentally unstable are left to their own devices, there are now beggars on most Sydney streets.

Nature abhors a vacuum. The New York Times has started an Australian edition just as the country’s two major non-Murdoch newspapers collapse in a heap. Journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald (this columnist’s alma mater and a very fine newspaper in its time) and The Age newspapers had a week-long strike in April in protest at 125 jobs to be cut in their newsrooms, on top of the 100 job losses not long ago, and that, on top of years and years of trims, while the hatchet man presiding over this “modernisation” has been awarded a AU$2.5 million bonus.

It’s unfortunately a rearguard action – too late it seems – by a bewildered (print) profession which has traditionally prided itself on not navel-gazing. It failed to convey to the public how central the role of paid journalists (who can take the time) is to democracy and accountability. Specialist journalists are disappearing at a frightening rate, and clickbait is taking over in a big way.

Speaking of not navel-gazing, that seems to be the essence of the Australian national character. Lately I’ve been hearing “Suck it and see” more and more often as an exhortation to be stoic.

“Suck eggs” is less common, although more mysterious. On a lighter, drier note, a friend describes his neighbour: “Martha’s  a nice woman but she doesn’t have a lot of horsepower.”

Along these lines, over the years have been: “not the sharpest tool in the shed” and “one slice short of a sandwich”.

Somehow tied to the suck-it-and-see approach is “no worries,” and the ubiquitous “too easy” which is rivalling “awesome”.

“You need to get out more” is a backhander when someone is a bit earnest. The scariest of all passive-aggressive ones is the use of “mate” by a person whose mate you clearly are not, as in “take it easy mate, back off mate” or even “settle down mate”.

After 30 years in Australia, I find myself, too, using the word, an escapee from my ageing addled brain. Yesterday my neighbour at work said of a client who is not fitting into her workplace culture, “You’re like the bird on the biscuit tin, on it, not in it”.

Lisa Pryor

You heard it here first. One of the New York Times’s first localised stories, by columnist Lisa Pryor, observes that, despite what you hear about spiders and sharks, the remarkable thing about Australia is not its danger, but its safety. At its best, says Pryor, it’s a peaceful nation, with health care and education for almost everyone and has had over the past two decades the longest period of economic expansion of any developed country in modern history.

Getting ahead has become a national obsession in a world where the expectation is to get a little richer every year. And Australia has some of the world’s most spoiled baby boomers. “Many retirees divide their time between cruise holidays overseas and subsidised medical appointments here,” she notes. But this enviable quality of life is at risk: aside from one of the highest levels of household debt in the world (those mortgages!) it is moving away from its egalitarian roots, as evidenced by the ballooning government funding of private schools with their swimming pool complexes and performing arts centres.

Australia needs to get back to its egalitarian roots. “Australia was one of the first countries to institute a living minimum wage in a famous court case back in 1907 regarding the employees of the Sunshine Harvester Works. The court decided that an unskilled worker should be paid enough to meet the needs of a “human being living in a civilized community which included keeping his family in frugal comfort.”

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