Sunday, October 15, 2006

Back to the Womb

Take me back to dear old Blighty!
Put me on the train for London town!
Take me over there,
Drop me anywhere,
Liverpool, Leeds, or Birmingham, well, I don't care!

A.J. Mills, F. Godfrey and B. Scott, 1916

Although I have English ancestry, I firmly believe that Australia should cut the umbilical cord and depose the English queen (as cute as she may look in slacks) as symbolic head of State, a symbolism rendered meaningless by multiculturalism and democracy.

I blow big raspberry bubbles at monarchist arguments such as Australia fought in war after war under the flag with the Union Jack and that if Australians were to stamp on this flag they would be stamping on the memories of the known and unknown soldiers (Not lot ago I had a discussion with a couple of French people who tried to tell me that there were actually no Australians, or at the most one or two, fighting in the First and Second World Wars on European soil. Yes there were, I affirmed, vaguely starting to worry that i'd misinterpreted the meaning of Anzac Day and that in fact it had just been an excuse to try out a new recipe for biscuits. But I stuck to my original affirmation about the percentage of the Australian population who lost their lives in World War One being the highest of any country in the world and added: Don't you remember that not long ago your government was building an airport runway over their graves?)

Despite these English roots, growing up I was never overly interested in a pilgrimage to the Mother Country. In terms of literature, except for a certain book where a swarthy hero battles with a sickly ghost on the moor, I was more attracted by the sled-driven magical and revolutionary politics of Russian literature or the fantastical beasts of heat in Latin American books. Hotspots to visit were India and Siberia.

And although English comedy made me laugh so hard that my guts were splattered all over my nearest and dearest, visiting England just seemed too much like visiting a family member who you visit because they are family but who you have little in common with.

Two weeks holed up in a hotel in Russell Square, London, in 1995, unable to sit upright due to a bout of homesickness, resting my hand on a doilie and being spoon-fed episodes of EastEnders, didn't do much to change my ideas about England.

It was my holiday in early 2001 that was the harbinger of change, when I needed a break from Sydney, and London was the most viable option as my funds were limited and I had friends there who could host me.

I was immediately struck by the way people jostle there, making you feel like you are part of a revolutionary throng. There's not enough people to really get down and jostle in Sydney. In fact now when I go back to Sydney, after having lived in two heavily populated cities, I'm always struck by how quiet it is, how many silent patches there are in what I used to think was a honking metropolis.

Dancing to Mr Scruff at 93 Feet East in London's East End I remarked how there was so much less attitude than in Sydney, everybody's boots were just the right size and made for dancing. People were there to have a good time. It wasn't all just about being seen, as is the case among a certain crowd in Sydney: I wear big sunglasses therefore I am (just quietly I do like oversized sunglasses when they are stripped of attitude) or I have Che Guevara's face stamped on my underwear therefore I am uber cool (as to my opinion on the use of Che Guevara as fashion statment i'll just quote Manning Marable in his essay `On Malcolm X: His message and meaning': "There is a tendency to drain the radical message of a dynamic, living activist into an abstract icon, to replace radical content with pure image" - and in the process the image becomes vacuous and loses its radical meaning!)

London's icy April surface was dotted with potholes of warmth. Although Parisiens are not really as rude as They say, I am still struck by the contrast when I visit London, the easygoing manner in which people generally respond to my needs, even to the point of one helpful underground employee accompanying me to the relevant platform.

I was looking through my diary of this London trip yesterday, snipping away at my memories with a pair of scissors, reconstructing and deconstructing them as I'm prone to do. I remember how London gave me such a winning smile on this holiday:

Sitting in some place called Sausage Heaven, not eating sausages, just calmly waiting for my skin to clear, watching everyone jostling past me, writing in my diary with my qantas pen.

Having my very own Before Sunrise, when instead of Vienna and a geeky Ethan Hawke, I had bold Anthony from Boston, who reckoned I looked like a german art student and needed some layers in my hair, proposing that I get off the tube with him at Tottenham Court Road to drink pale ale and stroll among the sex shops and fast food places. Maybe we could stop by Top Shop to help him pick out a retro shirt and take a trip to Tony & Guy to fix my hair.

Eating hot cross buns that weren't hot and falling asleep in the Mark Rothko room at the Tate Modern, my toes dangling out from under a vivid red and black quilt.

Feeling like I was part of a chase, walking through Hampstead Heath, hunting for love. Watching london blinking in a cold afternoon sun below me, looking where the Gherkin should be, but wasn't, because it hadn't yet been built. Hoping to find badgers and moles and all those other animals from Farthing Wood that were impossible to find in the Australian bush.

Queuing with my buddy John for 15 pence bagels in the wee small hours, the pollution of night clubs clinging to our skin, sneezing out of my eyes from too many late nights and heavy drinking I couldn't keep up with where the vodka started to taste like gin.

Drinking in old shoe shops, dank and cosy bars the likes of which are hard to come by in Sydney's bushland of metal and light.

Staying on the spice trail, Brick Lane, with curry hot enough to keep me happy.

Drinking tea in the crypt under St Martin in the Fields church on Trafalgar Square, talking to a man who spoke only in lists. He listed all the paintings in the National Gallery, the places he has visited, the people he has known, until I had to list the reasons why I couldn't talk to him any longer.

Eating sushi in Soho, with some people who talked about money the whole time (money has no poetry) and knowing I had no money, only invited me into the conversation once to say: So Pinochiette, what do you think of foot and mouth disease?

Big grassy parks with well bred ducks.

More nationalities than I could put my lips and fingers on, until Dali's melting watch at the Saatchi Gallery told me my month was up and I had to go home.

But as we all know, I went back.