Ashes Poetry - cricket

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David Fine, Ashes poet in residence in Australia 2006-7

England vs Australia.
Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney 2006-2007

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Bradelaide - A Tale of Two Cities

For the England cricket team and supporters, the first two test matches of this series have been the worst of times, and the worst of times.

The game at The Gabba was bad enough, the team clearly underprepared, but they'd batted well from the second innings at Brisbane till the last morning at Adelaide where they threw all their hard work away. Perth will be a challenge to say the least.

What of the cities themselves? For players, supporters and I guess journalists there's a tendency on tour just to see the games and then do a swift bit of sight-seeing. I'm the exception. I've not really gone sight-seeing. This is me. For years I was a field and landscape archaeologist so spent my time wandering around England and Europe digging up things. Consequently I tend to like to get a feel for a place and some sense of belonging. Doing that tourist thing doesn't do it for me.

You may have noticed in the poems and talks that I tend to focus on people and place - how else does The Gabba cricket ground become the Strineship Enterprise, "to boldly be more Australian where no Australian has been before?" Consequently Bradelaide is an ironic concatenation of two very different cities. Indeed more different than most cities in one country, apart from the USA.

Superficially all cities in a country are more or less the same since the road-signs, chain-stores, ways of speaking tend to be shared. I feel that for many England cricket players, supporters and possibly journalists, especially first-timers, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney aren't going to feel very much different because they'll travel together, go to the same sort of bars, not to mention spend most of the time watching or playing cricket - twentyfive days out forty, including Christmas and New Year. I feel the same - here to watch the cricket, not discover Australia.

Certainly I feel underprepared to talk about Australia since I've researched the cricket, not the country. Curiously I've done this half-deliberately. Learnt enough to understand how the different states established themselves, how the country grew from settlements to colony, territories to nation.

How the landscape and ecology is some of the most ancient on the planet, imperceptibly altered from Aborigine times which start up to 70,000 years ago (Whatever you read, add 5,000 years for the earliest settlement. Archaeologists keep pushing the dates back - when I studied it in the 1970s, it was around 20,000 years ago, and seemed to go back ten millennia every time I opened a periodical in the university stacks - by the time I shuffle off this mortal coil, humankind will have originated in Australia before the Big Bang. You heard it here first, folks.) How the Europeanisation of Australia has devasted the landscape, ecology, never mind the indiginous cultures. How Australia isn't one country but six states and the northern territory. How big it is. And how all the cities, apart from Canberra, (which was built like Washington as a capital to stop any of the other city-states from getting too uppity) are on the coast.

Australia in one para: ping-culture for your microwave. The UK is easier. An enormous bus-stop full of history and people sheltering from the rain. Fair enough?

This might sound perverse but having read Bill Bryson's Down Under before coming here (about six years ago when I was crook) you start to realise it's quite superficial too. The differences between people's attitudes in different states and cities doesn't come across. Bill picks up on the sameness, the giant inflatables and big sheep, prawn.... obvious targets.... newness of the country... ditto... aboriginal ancestry and future... no real answers....

Strange because Notes From A Small Country hits the money regarding contemporary English social class, mores and nuance. It may be something to do with Bill himself, who, by how he writes is rude about people who he thinks are rude to him. He lauds the Brits for being fair, taking it on the chin, but isn't that fair himself in dishing it out on said chin. It's witty but also cheeky because it doesn't give them the chance to say what they think of him. (Not that much, I suspect.)

This tactic doesn't work in Australia because no one is rude in the first place. Everyone I've met is interested in what you do and have to say. They make eye-contact, listen to you carefully and chose how to reply with thought and feeling. You never get the left-hand of change from the check-out clerk whose head is 180 degrees in the opposite direction talking to her colleague 'I don't know, he's alright, isn't he, but I don't know, he's alright, isn't he, but I...'

She wouldn't last two minutes here. The average time it takes to gain a waiter's attention in Oz is measured in seconds, not hours in England. Walking into an empty high street shop from Southampton to Sunderland and the dozens of staff behind the counter immediately avoid eye-contact so you're forced to ask 'Sorry to trouble you, could you help me? I'm looking for a book on positive body language and communication' In Brisbane and Adelaide at least, they look at you and each other to vie who'll say 'G'day. How can we help?'


God's own country for restaurant and shop service, what else is Brisbane like? Very American. It reminds me of Pittsburgh, downtown squeezed into the bend of a river. Also American with skyscrapers vying with each other like those three dimension bar-charts grey-suits love to display with powerpoint - 'and here we can see that the predicted sales-returns percentages across the global market-share demographically almost match our competitors.' In other words we're lagging behind.

Brisbane isn't. It's a boom town. Mining for the far east economies is the back-bone of the city. It and Perth are fastest growing in Australia. From being the newest of the cities - originally part of NSW, it didn't start to grow till after WWI - it also has a different climate, sub-tropical all year round. Thus Queensland is big on fruit, especially bananas which is taking a hammering due to droughts. It's also a genuinely outdoor city. Walk through the fabulous park in the evening into the city and the sound of cicidas is replaced by buzz of conversation outside all the pubs, bars, restaurants. People sit on benches and talk - don't see that in Britain these days.

Brisbane is best viewed from its river. The architecture works well then. Close up, it's downtown USAville, and the remains of the old Brisbane - verandas, colonial style details - is pretty well gone, vestigial. They tell me that it's due to wood and termites, which is probably true, because you get two-legged insects in cities throughout the world. How come the old wooden houses have survived on the river edge, where you've damp as well as termites.....

If you like the anonymity and ease of American cities, Brisbane is for you. A 7-11 at every corner (which is confusing if you're jet-lagged and assume like I did there is only one) and never more than two minutes from a MacDonalds, KFC or your favourite fast-sludge outlet of choice. There doesn't seem to be a distinct chinatown or specific districts. I guess what sums it up for me is that the City Treasury, clearly a building based on financial probitity is now the biggest and most expensive casino in town.

All the same I liked Brisbane. It's efficient and the people are friendly - except for the Gabba security staff where I and pretty well everyone else at the Test Match felt like suspects. The police and the cricket authorities had to run a press conference afterwards to state that they were really happy with how the security went. What else would they say? If it went that well you wouldn't need to have a press conference, would you, because there wouldn't be a story, would there? The last time I recall a major press conference around the security of a sporting event was 1988, after the Hillsborough disaster.

People also seem to be looking over their shoulders. Couldn't figure out why till someone mentioned Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, State Premier 1968 to 1987. 'What was he like?' I asked someone in the safety of the Adelaide Oval. 'Oh, George W Bush, but dimmer. A lot dimmer. A real red-neck.' Apparently he ran a police state where hippies were beaten up for wearing too many beads, namely two. In the end the regime was exposed by Phil Dickie on an ABC tv programme, Four Corners - similar to BBC's Panorama - which demonstrated inconvertably Bjelke-Petersen was as corrupt as he was vicious -never mind bungs, or brown envelopes of notes being exchanged in shady soccer transfers in UK motorway service stations, this was supermarket trolleysof dodgy money, which Petersen swore blind had nothing to do with him.

The junior cops at the end of that regime are Queensland's top security officials today. People don't jay-walk. They don't look right, no car for about half-a-mile, then left, no car for about half-a-mile, and walk across. They wait for b-b-b-b-b-b-b buzzer and the green go sign. Struck me as nuts. Everyone takes lunch in Bradelaide - a good thing because the UK habit of grab a sandwich between e-mails leads to neither enjoying the sandwich nor e-mails. More seriously it leads to the notion that the busier you are the more productive you are, which is lamentable tosh - if a fly buzzes about twice as fast another fly, is it a better fly for all that buzzing?

Back to Brisbane, everyone heads out of their offices for their God-given Australian lunchhour - the chinese quick-foods are good -and spend most of their sixty minutes waiting for the b-b-b-b-b-b-b and the green go sign.

'Why don't you jay-walk?' I ask.
'You'll get fined.'
Not seen any notices saying this.
'How much is it?' I continue, figuring out whether it's worth it.
'Dunno, mate.'
'Do you know anyone who has been fined.'
'Oh no, mate. You don't want to get fined, do you?'

This might be the final vestiges of Bjelke-Petersen's police state. Let's hope so. All the difference between a $20 dollar fine, and $2000 medicare bill for helping the police with their enquiries. There was a mixture of awe, fear not to mention a tinge of envy in other pedestrians as I walked across empty streets without the green. The next time I go back to Brisbane I shall wear a t-shirt which reads:-

Ned Kelly jay-walked

As well as the Strineship Gabba, alhough it has theatres, museums, cinemas, concert halls, Brisbane isn't a work of art. There are isolated pieces of art in the city rather than a grand design. Before moving onto Adelaide, here's a one which caught my eye.

It's Analdo Pomordoro's Forms of Myth about Agammenon. When I visited the dead remains of Mycenae, one of the first cities, and Agammenon's home, I struck by how much had been lost, yet by being lost, still remained to be discovered....


up a hill, and down again column a trail of ants
pincers focus cameras at the Lion's Gate entranced

an entomology of the Gods

my antennae twitch at a tired american's call

Just a pile of rock

Is that it? Is nothing else left? Is that all?

why did he come here? why do we?
a once anonymous hill now named Mycenae
unearths our philosophy of archaeology


with shadows
and cricket song.

trowels click,
the tourist hoards
guides and excavators
each leg it
in time

and a

with golden helmet, and golden crest,
golden grieves, golden chest,
untouch├ęd gold,

his ghostly sword and shield
in time's dew
beside me

Agamennon still awaits a geezer
from the roofless houses below
to repair a chariot wheel
driven one too many over the eight
through the Lion's Gate

a domestic with Clytaemnestra
something and nothing, words were said
as nuptials go a disaster

third-party, fire and theft
nor fully comp
would assuage the scars left
in the stone posts and stoney silence
of their marriage

her indoors will be the death of him

you should have had it widened
i whisper to myself
to let us pass a little more easily

dust settles between us

simply done. one word from you
and people jump
i tell him
petrified to the spot

(with ghosts seeing is believing)

one eye the moon, the other the sea
through the gate of his mask
Agamennon spits out time
to swear at the Gods and i

Just a pile of rock


In years to follow Brisbane might become just a pile of rock, but Adelaide will always be Adelaide.

It embodies Plato's remark that the city is a work of art. These days this is taken as meaning art in the sense of the arts, but it's better to stick with the ancient greek where art is counterposed with nature - it is the work of people to build from natural resources. For Plato if not the art review sections of broadsheets, the arts had to include artisans.

Adelaide was planned from the word go. It was largely the work of one man, Colonel Light, who decided the layout of the city and its location, up-river from its port. South Australia is distinct from New South Wales and Victoria, being a place for settlers to pay to come out, the original ten-pound poms (people of means) and buy land and property - even if the scheme was thought up by a debtor in Newgate jail pretending to be in Sydney.

Here is Light's view of his endeavour:-

Extract from Colonel Light's Journal 1839

"The reasons that led me to fix Adelaide where it is I do not expect to be
generally understood or calmly judged at present by my enemies, however, by
disputing their validity in every particular, have done me the good service of fixing the whole of the responsibility upon me. I am perfectly willing to bear it, and I
leave it to posterity and not them, to decide whether I am entitled to praise or

In other words, sod off.

My sort of guy. Has vision, prepared to negotiate, listen, work towards it, and take responsibility. A trillion light years from Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, who denied the shopping trolley-fulls of bent dosh right under his and Four Corners cameras' noses.

My sort of city. I think it is the best planned city in the world. The original design of 1839 still works today without ring-roads, underpasses, massive urban renewal programmes. Posterity, always a hard marker, gives ten out of ten to Colonel Light, as recognised by the people of Adelaide who put this journal entry on their statue to him.

It's the sort of city that developers find difficult to develop. There are high-risers, bits that are lost which shouldn't be lost and forces trying to go for commercial rather than civic gain. Overall, though, it's a city which still works pretty much as Light - and Plato - would've intended, and they would have given the city elders pretty good marks too. It's no accident that the Adelaide Oval is one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world - hell, the universe - only the Betelgeuse Gardens with its twin suns is said to compare.

I'd happy spend a week or so in Brisbane, and then start to get bored. Adelaide is different. You'll find something fresh every day walking down its main streets, not least its market, which is everything a fresh produce market should be. Despite Queensland being a fruit centre for Australia, fresh produce is hard to find in Brisbane. Come to Adelaide, and it's as though all the fruit, veg, meat, nuts, cheese has rolled around the coast to end up piled high in its market - everything fresh, nothing unnecessarily wrapped. The acme of provision.

In the same way its arts, writers and ideas festivals are fresh, open and sincere. For a city so cultured there is surprisingly little pretence - or is this me with jaded European eyes?

Adelaide has its problems. Elderly population - kids go to the big and growing cities, which is all of them, not just in Australia but in the far east. In some sense the tiger-beijing economy has passed Adelaide by. A sense of not being a destination, not being part of the modern Australia, losing out to the bigness and pull of Melbourne, and especially Sydney.

But it's civilised. For a population of one million, spread across an area larger than Derbyshire (about half the people and ten times as much political partying) local government isn't on party lines. I like that. It means people stand for local issues and improvement, not political gain, either for themselves or their parties. If anyone tried to the foist party politics into Adelaide's local governance, they'd soon get the Colonel Light treatment. Were it so in the UK, especially Derbyshire.
Adelaide feels like a good-sized healthy rural town, which all cities should, because that's what makes it's civilised. Cities are about feel and friendliness just as much as anywhere else. You can bump into people, drop by on them, not have to rely on mobile phones and personal organisers. It isn't divorced from the countryside; it's like my home-town Bakewell should be, writ large.
Well done, Colonel Light and his successors. Keep up the good work.