Here and There – Adelaide

In a film on The Migrant Experience, one woman who was interviewed explained she felt she was “living on the edge of the world”.  She added she didn’t particularly mind, but she was worried that if she fell off the edge her mother in England wouldn’t know, because the news wouldn’t get to her.  As I recall, the team making the film might have told me she was talking about her life in Perth, which is one of the most isolated cities in the world, but she could have been thinking of Adelaide, the westernmost city in the eastern half of Australia.  Leaving Adelaide by road means that you have to drive through extensive uninhabited and very dry areas (the ‘bush’ as its fondly described).  It can make you feel isolated.  However, despite distance and a sense of isolation I really liked – and still like – Adelaide.

Our family moved to Adelaide from Edinburgh in 1975.  The travel from Edinburgh to Adelaide had been long.  We had made stops in various European and Asian cities, a series of holidays.  Our final stop comprised taking a short holiday in Bali.  From there we flew to Perth to visit a set of relatives and touched down in Adelaide early in November.  It was the beginning of summer, and we had our first experience of living in a world of hot cloudless summer days, and houses with air conditioning.  Just a year earlier, November 1974, we had been snowed on in Scotland!  To add to the almost inevitable disorientation of changing hemispheres, I caught chicken pox from the Perth family’s children.  It wasn’t evident when we left, but by the time we got to Adelaide it turned out to be a bad case.  I was unable to commence work for three months.  It wasn’t a good beginning.

Moving to a new city always requires many adjustments.  However, the first few weeks in Adelaide were weird.  Hastily, we bought a television, so there was something I could watch while isolated.  On the first day when I watched the news, I thought I had made a mistake.  Most of the 30 minutes was taken up with extensive coverage of strange scenes at the entrance to Parliament House in Canberra.  It was 11 November, and now I know the then Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, was in the process of being dismissed.  The shouted remarks and conversations on the steps of the Parliament made little sense.  They would have made little sense for any new arrival, even those not ‘away with the fairies’ covered in spots and with a fever!  Just to add to the series of unusual events, at the end of December, when I was well into recovery, an Italian family we’d met invited us over for a ‘Christmas meal’.  For our sake, the huge lunch included roast turkey, Christmas pudding and other traditional delights, all to be eaten when the temperature was around 37ºC.

We lived in Belair, our house on Winding Way looking out over the plain, with city lights and even the airport visible at night.  A peaceful house, even if there were brown snakes in the garden (once we found one curled up in front of the car, a discouraging sight when you are about to go to work:  it slid away before I could get back with a spade!).  We had our moments there.  On one occasion my children started a fire in the garden, which could have turned into something serious, but was extinguished quickly.  On another day, two evangelists drove up our steep drive and parked their car, precariously, at the entrance to the car port.  As they left, they misjudged their journey backwards down the drive, and rolled off into the bushes.  It was an expensive attempt at a (failed) conversion!

Then there was the swimming pool.  This was the first of two times I have owned a swimming pool:  they are not recommended.  The Belair swimming pool was distinctive, as it was slowly tipping over!  One side of the pool, dipping down towards Winding Way’s road several metres below, was a few inches lower than the upper side.  I was convinced we would wake up one morning to see it down at the bottom of the block, or even resting on Winding Way itself, a somewhat disconcerting thought.  It never happened, and when I checked on Google maps in 2016, I saw the pool was still there.  I guess it had slipped as far as it was going.  The other thing I remember was that the pool was surrounded by gum trees (better known as eucalypts).  That meant a steady supply of leaves into the pool, and large amounts of debris every time there was a dust storm.  We had a ‘Kreepy Krauly’ automated pool cleaner, but I still had to go out there every few days to remove leaves and other junk.  And how many times was that pool used?  Very few, and never by me!

After the disastrous and very sudden end to the life of a Yorkshire Terrier when living in Cambridge, and the sad demise of two hamsters during time in Edinburgh, I was keen to avoid pets.  However, one daughter was determined to have a pet again, and so I agreed to her buying two guinea pigs.  A suitable cage was built, placed under the living room of the house, which stood out over the hill below, providing a safe dry location.  She trained her guinea pigs, yes, trained them, with the result ‘Squeaky’ could be released from the cage, and would run up the side of the house and wait on the front door mat.  She was very patient!  However, disaster was waiting in the wings, and one night there was a terrible sound from the vicinity of the cage, and we discovered it had been torn apart by a couple of dogs, and guinea pigs were gone.  Is this always the case with pets?

It would have been some months later when I returned home after collecting the children from school.  I went into the house from below, and then heard cries from upstairs.  I raced up, worried someone had been bitten by a snake.  No, not that.  There on the front door mat was a somewhat emaciated but clearly alive guinea pig:  Squeaky must have managed to escape the dogs and, true to its training, eventually arrived at the front door mat.  Amazing.

Bizarrely, another feature of our life in Adelaide was the decision to learn to ski.  I got a book (of course) titled We learned to ski, published by the UK Sunday Times, and read through the opening chapters.  After driving over to Porepunkah, we hired all the equipment (we had already bought snow jackets, trousers, hats, and gloves), and then we went up to the ski area at the top of Mount Buffalo.  Ski lift tickets purchased; we were ready to have fun.  Armed with the book, I was (moderately) confident.

Step one (chapter one) I showed everyone how to put on boots, skis, etc.  Step two (chapter two) I showed everyone how to walk up a slope, turn, and hold yourself steady using the stocks.  My eldest daughter now asked a question “Dad, how do you go down a slope?”  This might have been step three (in chapter three), but full of confidence, I simply lifted my stocks, moved the skis to be parallel, and started to slide down.  Unfortunately, there was a man at the bottom of the slope, and I was heading for him. “Get out of the way,” I shouted.  “I can’t, I’m a beginner …” he replied.  There was no time for further discussion, and I slammed into him, and cracked two ribs!!

The rest of the trip, I stayed on the baby slopes, while my three children were up on the most difficult slopes in two days.  A year later, they were keen to go skiing again.  We went to Falls Creek.  On the first day, I was abandoned by the children, and continued my slow progress, skiing down the simplest slopes.  By late afternoon, I could manage easy stuff – just.  Coming down towards the village area, I saw a slight bump, and, in a moment of foolish excitement, sailed over it, landed with a jolt, and cracked the same two ribs a second time!!  I’d always known sport – of any kind – was not for me.

The great delight of Adelaide was the biennial International Arts Festival – an opportunity to see and hear theatre, music, opera, and cutting-edge drama; to enjoy a real cultural feast.  For three weeks every two years, the place was alive.  For my wife and daughters there was ballet.  For me, there were great plays:  I will never forget seeing ‘The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade’, performed by the South Australian Theatre Company.  It was so compelling and moving the audience was unable to applaud for moments after the end; we could see that one actress couldn’t – or didn’t want to – get out of her role.  Gripping beyond words.  What an introduction to Adelaide,   a festival of wonderful and exciting performances from around the world.

While we lived in Adelaide, we went to two festivals, in 1976 and 1978, and then came across from Melbourne every couple of years until 2002.  Looking back, we were lucky to enjoy what was a purple period for the festival.  Adelaide offered a comprehensive arts festival, based on the parent model of the one in Edinburgh.  The city paid for the expensive and stunning festival arts complex, a drawcard for a sunny city in early March.  Arts festivals had emerged from a past where music hall vaudeville and travelling circuses were dominant, and this was a brilliant development.  For Australia, I think Adelaide led the way.

For a city down under, there was the chance to see and hear the best.  Perhaps I can offer a few examples.  In 1978 the Israel Philharmonic came, we heard Tippet’s ‘The Midsummer Marriage’, and Roger Woodward played 32 Beethoven piano sonatas.  In other years we saw such delights Britten’s ‘Death in Venice’ the extraordinary Shostakovich opera ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’, Glass’s music for ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Rostropovich and Andreas Schiff, Prokofiev’s ‘The Fiery Angel’, Peter Greenway’s opera ‘Writing to Vermeer’.  The list goes on, with Tristan and Isolde, ‘Nixon in China’, Melvyn Tan, the Kronos Quartet, and Jean Yves Thibaudet, and more.

It wasn’t just music.  Highlights over the years also included  the Nederlands Dance Theatre, as well as ‘Dido and Aeneas’ by the ACO and Mark Morris Dance Group, and the Frankfurt Ballet.  One special highlight was a version of the Magic Flute that was advertised ‘for children’:  it was for everyone, and Papageno played as a football supporter has been stuck in my mind ever since!  Dance was always on the program, especially contemporary approaches like DV8, Bang on a Can and the Bangarra Dance Theatre.  Finally in this long and boring list of credits, I have to add Kabuki and Noh theatre and a performance of Vietnamese Water Puppets.  Why give you that list?  To convey how in Adelaide, in the middle of nowhere, you had access to outstanding arts, if only briefly.  Enough?

In 2004 we skipped the Festival to go to The Ring in November.  We sat next to a Jewish couple from Sydney, who were worried they might be ‘seen’ by someone they knew; it was still not ‘kosher’ for many Jewish people to go to listen to Wagner!  We have been just once since 2004, mainly because of work and other mundane matters.  Whoa!!  Did that long and boring list of activities give you the idea – arts in Adelaide were sometimes great!!!

No more listing things I saw and heard – it’s silly.  I’ll just add that over the years, other cities in Australia have sought to compete with Adelaide and then began to surpass it.  I don’t think the Adelaide Festival can claim to be the pre-eminent arts festival in Australia any longer, now competing against high profile alternatives in Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney.  Given what was happening around it, few years ago the city decided to make the Adelaide Festival an annual affair.  It still attracts great overseas acts, but so do the others.

However, beneath the surface of a city that is often described as a ‘great place to bring up children’, there were other issues.  Adelaide was very stratified, despite all the talk of Australia as a classless society.  The aboriginal community was hidden away in back streets.  Despite the pioneering efforts of Premier Don Dunstan, it was homophobic, predominantly middle class, with ‘intellectuals’ concentrated around the universities, all rather boring.

When I lived there, I used to joke that Adelaide was truly alive for three weeks in every 104 weeks, the weeks of the festival.  It wasn’t a fair criticism then, and even less so now, as more events have continued to make Adelaide a vibrant centre for the arts.  There are other delights.  Within easy reach of the city there are wineries, both north and south.  Most Australians are aware of the Barossa Valley, which is often packed with tourists trying out wines in some of the more famous wineries.  For locals, the preferred choices were the smaller winemakers in the Clare Valley to the north, and in McLaren Vale to the south.  It is hard to beat a lazy, warm day sampling vintages in a handful of small wineries, all the while professing to having a discriminating palate, even if any such ability to be discriminating was largely eroded after the first few samples!

Adelaide is an outdoor city.  Eating out means eating outside most of the year.  Away from the metropolitan area, there were many lovely bistros, several of which allowed BYO (Bring Your Own) or only charged a small corkage fee if you came with your own wine.  Food and wine, what could be better.  Well, I guess that was a silly question, because now I need to add that for many people the other attraction was the beaches and the sea.  Not for me, as I remain firmly uninterested in getting sand in my pores, and quite convinced water is a dangerous substance.  On that latter point, there were times when sharks could be seen out at sea, but there were lifeguards keeping watch, and shark attacks were rare.  It made no difference as far as I was concerned, water was dangerous in itself, and remains so.

Looking back, Adelaide was an interlude.  When we left Adelaide for Melbourne, I was leaving the academic world, and about to spend some twenty years working for the private sector, the government and the not-for-profit sector.  I did go back to the university world eventually, but those Adelaide years were exciting.  Back then being an academic meant that you had considerable time for research, for ‘thinking’, and even for escaping!  I suppose the time in Adelaide was like an extended summer camp.  Yes, there was work to be done, but there were trips to be undertaken, new experiences to be sampled.  It was a time that revived my love of theatre (as an audience member), of music, and of literature with the Festival’s Book Week, where we listened to authors reading from their work and discussing issues.

I returned to another earlier hobby, birdwatching.  It was exciting and at times almost overwhelming to discover that any knowledge of bird varieties that remained from my childhood was almost useless.  The place was full of parrots, cockatoos, and tiny brightly coloured wrens.  There were black swans.  There were bowerbirds.  There were emus.  Have you seen an emu?  They are big (only the emu’s close relative the Ostrich is any taller), and apparently fearless.  I didn’t know much about them until we went camping up towards Wilpena Pound.  We put up our tent, noticed them off in the distance, and then spent most of our time checking for snakes.  Almost without our noticing, they advanced, and one got inside out tent, and couldn’t get out.  One slightly confused emu can make quite a mess.  The day of the emu in the tent summarises the Adelaide experience well:  exotic, unexpected, hot, chaotic, a crazy interlude and an equally crazy introduction to a new world.  Reflecting on this blog’s title, ‘Here’ had been Edinburgh, but now it is ‘There’.