At a well-lubricated dinner the other night at a first-class Chinese restaurant called Red Emperor by the stunning riverside development on the south bank of the Yarra in Melbourne, Australia, my host made me an offer that I very nearly couldn’t refuse. ‘What would it take to persuade to you come and live in Australia?’ he pleaded.
This may well be the second nicest thing anyone has ever said to me in my entire life after ‘Gosh, you’re so big.’ Or, now I come to think of it, the first nicest — because I’m pretty sure that other quote may be the figment of a hyperactive imagination warped by an excess of jetlag, Coopers pale ale, Margaret River shiraz and the occasional short film a lonely fellow tends to watch on his laptop of an evening when he’s miles from home and nobly trying to ward off the temptation of all the gorgeous Sheilas hurling themselves at him because he’s so bloody famous and they’re such a fan of his blog and God it’s so exciting to meet him at last….
No really, though. I’ve never before been anywhere in the world where I’ve been quite so well loved, so generously entertained and where I’ve felt so totally, instantly at home. Maybe it’s the effect Australia has on all first-time visitors. But I feel as if, at long last, I’ve found the place on earth where I truly belong: with the funnel webs, the king browns, the white pointers, the redbacks, the salties and all the other creatures whose threat Aussies so love to exaggerate in order to deter too many people from discovering just how blessed is a bloke’s existence in the Lucky Country.
‘Ah but you’d miss the culture,’ Aussies tell me. Well, maybe. Except that unlike say, Barry Humphries or Clive James or my Oxford tutor (Tasmanian-born) Peter Conrad, I’ve spent my formative years so super-saturated with all that arty-farty-literary stuff I don’t have the craving to escape and broaden my mind that ambitious Australians have. It’s in there, stored like the fat in a camel’s hump. So all I’d need is the occasional top-up — say, one visit every two years to the National Gallery, the Smithsonian, the Frick collection, plus a West End play if my wife insists — and the rest of the time I could console myself with stuff like Moonshadow, the new Cat Stevens musical opening soon in Melbourne. I like Cat Stevens. Should be good, I reckon.
Then there’s the global cooling issue. I jest not. This isn’t James Delingpole, Climate Change Denier (TM) shoehorning his obsession into every sodding article he writes. It is simply a matter of observable reality that the world is entering a solar minimum — not unlike earlier minima such as the ones that gave us ice fairs on the Thames and the Year Without A Summer — and for the next 30 years we are doomed to experience much colder winters and more miserable summers. Clearly, a far better place to sit this one out would be Perth or Noosa rather than Northamptonshire.
What really clinches it for me, though — or would if my wife acceded to this plan, which she won’t — is that Australia is so much better a place to raise your children. All right, so it would mean that Boy and Girl started intoning the end of every sentence to make it sound like a question — but hey, even kids in England do that nowadays. Also, every time they went swimming, you would, you really would because the threat is real, worry ever so slightly that they might be ‘taken’ (as the horribly matter-of-fact local euphemism has it) by a shark.
Against those minor inconveniences, though, you’d have the near-constant vitamin D beaming down from the heavens, the outdoorsy lifestyle, the by-far-the-best-in-the-world lattes, the seafood, the meat, the hugeness of the country, the easygoing people (who, unlike Americans, don’t blanch when you swear) and, perhaps more important than any of this, the prospect of a future.
Perhaps things have changed in England while I’ve been away. Has David Cameron suddenly acquired an ideological commitment to conservatism? Has Osborne stopped money-printing? Is the government finally addressing the deficit and the debt by slashing taxes and spending? Is the EU no longer moribund? Has Britain yet repealed the Climate Change Act? Has the BBC been abolished? No? Thought not. As I explain to Australians, at least in the era of Brown and Blair (when men said openly that Christ and his saints slept) you could claw for yourself the miserable consolation that things would get better when the Tories got in. Now that they are in and they’ve shown us what they’re made of, that’s it: all hope gone. Britain is toast. Europe is toast. And what kind of a place for my children is a burnt toast rack?
I know I’m not the only person in the world right now harbouring similar fantasies of escape. We’re many of us feeling cornered, like rats in traps, helpless before the whims of the bankster/corporatist/political class over whom we hold seemingly no democratic sway. You detect it in the French elections, in the growing popularity of Ukip, in the conversations you hear at dinner about where to flee (Canada and New Zealand: the only ones with effective conservative regimes are the current faves), where your gold is least likely to be confiscated when it all kicks off. Australia 2013, after the Liberal party landslide and the repeal of the carbon tax (and the mining tax?), has got to be a contender. And if it means having to be wary of the odd snake, well, wasn’t that always the price you had to pay for living in Eden?