Oz is hotter than hell but people still see it as heaven on Earth

Sat, Feb 9, 2013, 00:00

And they say there’s no exciting news in February. What’s the Economist Intelligence Unit’s cost of living index when it’s at home then? Among other things, this thrilling document offers an ordered list of the world’s most expensive cities.

Each year we grimly watch as Dublin continues its unwelcome surge up the chart. Each year we wonder what makes people stay in Zurich – a city rarely acclaimed for its vibrancy – when a cup of coffee costs the same there as a racehorse in earthy Bucharest.

As it happens, Dublin has, in 2013, slipped from 30th place to 34th. At the height of the boom it reached 16th. It seems there is an upside to mass redundancies, home foreclosures and pay cuts.

Never mind that. Our topic today is the baffling rise of Australia. Two cities from that distant nation – Sydney and Melbourne – have made it into the top five. “Ten years ago there were no Australian cities in the top 50 and I have not seen this sort of climb with any other cities,” said Jon Copestake, editor of the index.

It’s hard to imagine a less worthwhile enterprise than denigrating a country one has never visited. But we’ll give it a go.

Why has Australia become such a desirable place to live? An examination of the nation’s soap operas does nothing to dispel suspicions that the cities come across like Basingstoke with worse weather. If the sun isn’t stripping the skin from your baking bones then typhoons are propelling Jeeps angrily across uninteresting thoroughfares.

Recent films such as David Michôd’s excellent Animal Kingdom do, at least, suggest that there is more to Australian suburbia than endless barbecues and games of street cricket. Apparently, the cities also teem with drug-crazed psychopaths who will puncture your jugular for the price of a Vegemite sandwich.

The outback

The countryside appears even more appalling. Naming the interior “the outback” only encourages the suspicion that, should one venture beyond civilisation, venomous spiders will fall upon any leg not already severed by giant crocodiles. You might as well call the place the Cauldron of Oblivion.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a great admirer of much Australian culture. Oh, pick yourself up off the floor. Nobody enjoys that ironic side-clutching act. Yes, the (ahem) Aussies’ habit of cutting any word of more than one syllable down to its root and then adding a “y” or an “ie” makes the blood boil (if it weren’t already boiling because you’re living in stupidly hot Australia). But the country does have its fair share of excellent writers.

Germaine Greer knows how to eviscerate a patriarch with great panache. The late Robert Hughes did cultured anger better than anyone. Clive James continues to make his erudite way through the world. Nick Cave, The Triffids and The Go-Betweens were among the most interesting of post-punk musicians. Barry Humphries is beyond compare.

What, talent and place of birth aside, binds these various talents together? Each one of them made for London as soon as humanly possible. Biographical works by Greer and Hughes remember a national establishment that still felt the need to cringe culturally towards the mother country (from whom it has yet to fully disentangle itself).

Last year, I got the opportunity to ask Nick Cave and John Hillcoat, director of The Proposition and Lawless, about the notion that Australia had, in the years since they left, become more socially open and less culturally conservative. “Aw no,” Hillcoat said. “Not creatively. It has changed a bit. But not that much.”

Cave nodded.

Target for emigration

All of which is very bigoted and glib of me. Having never visited the Fatal Shore, I am in no position to make any judgments. Here’s the thing, though. Thousands of British and Irish folk have – over the past 20 years or so – decided, without ever visiting Australia, that it is a kind of heaven on Earth (though hotter than the lower place).

Ask any Irish person in the 1970s which, in ideal circumstances, would be their ideal target for emigration and he or she would, most likely, have plumped for the United States. After all, it looked pretty nifty in Hawaii Five-O and The High Chaparral. Australia was seen as, well, pretty much the mean-spirited caricature I have drawn above.

It is not too absurd to attribute the change in thinking to the arrival of cheap soap operas in the late 1980s. Neighbours and Home and Away (not so much Prisoner:Cell Block H) painted the country as an entirely benign version of the home country. It was hotter. The citizens abhorred pretension. Everyone was blonde and easy-going.

Malcontents such as your current jerk, thus, found all their worst prejudices confirmed. Romania sounded a great deal more palatable. Bucharest is the fifth-cheapest city in the world, you know. Sounds Excelenta.

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