We’re off overseas again but this time the children really are excited. After many years I’ve relented and said yes to the United States. NBA games for the boys! Harry Potter World for my daughter! Movie studios! The Seinfeld tour! ‘Finally we’re going to a place where they speak English,’ notes number three, the youngest and most phlegmatic. No one had to spell it out for Dad. They’ve never been this up about Italy, France, Holland, Germany, Hungary and all those other places filled with art galleries and museums staffed by people who speak non-English.
Sigh. Somewhere between my childhood and theirs, someone built a bypass. All roads no longer lead to Europe, but to New York. I played soccer, hoping to be the next Pat Jennings, and religiously watched Brian Moore present English soccer on The Big Match. Money from my paper round in Darwin was spent on second-hand Agatha Christies. But my 12-year-old, a Houston Rockets fanatic, can name the starting five for just about every NBA team, and checks the results every day on the internet — when he’s not watching The Simpsons or Modern Family. He has told all his friends about the games we’ll see in the US, but when I first took the children by boat around Amsterdam — look, guys, your grandparents lived close by these very streets when they were your age! — they were so bored they played Uno. I feel rejected.
The price of my surrender is that we first celebrate Christmas in Holland with my relatives. I can’t wait. It’s said the Eskimos have a dozen words for snow, being so familiar with the stuff. The Dutch, one of the most domesticated of peoples until recently, have their own almost untranslatable vocabulary to describe the various kinds of social cosiness they’ve long specialised in. Gezellig is the best of them, implying lots of cosy pleasantness indoors, with the easy familiarity Jan Steen famously captured in his paintings.
I expect that will make Christmas more Christmassy than last year, when we went to the source of it all. A Jewish taxi driver didn’t dare take us all the way into Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, and it was raining to drown Noah. Soldiers ambled over Manger Square with that pregnant purposeless typical of overstuffed Middle Eastern security forces. The biggest icon was a three-storey high portrait of that kleptomaniac terrorist Yasser Arafat. Interesting it was. Christmas it wasn’t. ‘Happy Christmas,’ a wandering clout of local youths yelled at us.
To be frank, I am glad to leave Australia for a spell. There’s an unpleasantly strident tone to the political debate. A new viciousness. I know, I know — I’ve been right in there, too, hurling grenades and shouting of slush funds, spin and broken promises. I plead justification. I wouldn’t be so critical of Julia Gillard if there wasn’t so much to be critical about. I feel like the bloke who jumps in to wrestle the man-eating crocodile and comes out covered in mud. I blame the crocodile but I’m still dirty, and resent it.
Gillard is even busting up friendships. When I left the ABC’s Insiders two year ago to start The Bolt Report I parted with host Barrie Cassidy on excellent terms. Tears were shed. He said kind things about me and I wrote even kinder things about him to his boss. But now? I’ve been dismayed by Barrie’s open barracking for Gillard, and his airy dismissal of her disgraceful role in the AWU slush fund scandal. Is his friendship with Gillard’s boyfriend clouding his judgment? Barrie in turn has written of the public being ‘badly let down this year’ by pundits too critical of Gillard. Unlike me, he’s too nice to name names, but there aren’t so many anti-Gillard pundits around that he needs to. Damn you, Julia Gillard! I need a new Prime Minister who — as Barrie’s old boss Bob Hawke once promised — will ‘bring Australians together’. Starting with Barrie and me.
While we’re away, builder Brett, his team and his dog will finish the new garage with a mini-flat above for our 18-year-old. It’s our cunning ploy to keep him at home while giving him more independence. Yet I again seem at odds with mainstream culture. It’s a feeling I often had as the son of migrants who ping-ponged around the more remote parts of Australia, and it got worse in some ways when I married. For instance, I actually loved my mother-in-law and found mother-in-law jokes — long a staple of Australian culture — a bit off. Today, stratospheric house prices have made a joke of the one million grown children who won’t leave the family home. They are the new mothers-in-law, and comic Trevor Marmalade has even made commercials for Lawson’s bread giving tips for driving them out of the nest. He’s from Dutch parents, too. He should know better.
I first lived in Holland as a 17-year-old and was soon checked by the remnants of the culture that had created such a bourgeois society. I was clipping my aunt’s hedge when pious Neighbour Nap approached, frowning: ‘Working on Sundays. We don’t do that here.’ This month three Moroccan teenagers from an Amsterdam club ended a soccer game by kicking a linesman, one of the dads, to death. The mayor of Amsterdam meanwhile unveiled a plan to exile anti-social citizens in public housing to what have been dubbed ‘scum villages’, where they’ll live in shipping containers and caravans. Holland is not quite so gezellig any more, and even my impeccably leftist relatives wonder if Holland’s flirtation with liberalism went rather too far. Of course, the mayor’s spokesman presented scum villages as an unimpeachably liberal scheme to defend, say, gays from ferals: ‘We want to defend the liberal values of Amsterdam. We want everyone to be who he and she is — whether they are gay and lesbian.’ I may have chosen the wrong place for a holiday from spin.