Michael White

Diary - 30 November 2002

The political editor of the Guardian reports from South Asia on an ingenious way to avoid Ken's tax

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Within an hour of returning to the Commons after a sabbatical tour of ex-British South Asia I find myself plunged into the firefighters' strike. The Blairites have long been envious of the glass-jawed opponents who queued up to be walloped by Mrs Thatcher. But during Monday's Downing Street press conference the Prime Minister modestly disavowed the Sun's belligerent claim that he wants to 'do a Maggie' on the FBU. There's no need really; he is as evidently a conciliator as she was a warrior. It suits the milder temper of the times, despite the media's frantic demands for victory by tea-time. Warrior Winston would not have lasted long enough to become the BBC's Top Briton if today's Daily Beast had been on his case in 1940-2.

We used the sabbatical and absurdly cheap tickets (£800 for 11,000 miles and back) to visit my wife's family in New Zealand via Delhi, Singapore and Melbourne, all previously unseen by me. Estelle Morris resigned before we reached Heathrow. Never mind. Barely 24 hours later we are being videoed with the happy couple at a Catholic-Hindu wedding party under the friendly gaze of Ganesh, the elephant god of non-Catholic wisdom. I am uneasy because our friends at the High Commission have persuaded us to wear Indian dress for another party to which we are also going. Apart from me, my host and the groom, all the men are in lounge suits.

'But did you actually like the Taj Mahal? Many people think it's vulgar,' an elegant Indian matriarch asked me after our foray to Agra. Yes, I certainly did, and was especially grateful to have first glimpsed it across the meadow from the Red Fort where Shah Jahan, the dodgy but romantic Moghul emperor who built it between 1631 and 1648, passed his declining years locked up. Like the Great Wall or the Pyramids but not, alas, Stonehenge, it passed what I call the Wow Test. You know exactly what it's going to look like, but you still murmur, 'Wow.' Wren's Sheldonian (1663-9), the Taj's near-contemporary, doesn't quite make it, though St Paul's must once have done, pre-skyscraper.

Meeting a bullock cart placidly wandering the wrong way up the fast lane makes sedentary sacred-cow dodging look easy. But we had only one accident on India's chaotic roads. 'She was on her mobile,' claimed our driver, Veejay, of the middle-class young woman who shunted his taxi. Far more intriguing are the 21st-century motoring mores of Singapore. A city-state-cum-shopping-mall of terrifying efficiency and lush-but-manicured jungle, its government no longer needs to fine people for dropping litter (I spotted a fag packet after two days of searching), but makes a fortune from cars. 'I'm subservient now, I've been fined too often,' admits our Chinese host. A smart card on the dashboard registers parking fees as well as city-centre congestion charges. Similar arrangements exist in Melbourne, where motorists seem cowed by £50 fines for the smallest speeding offences, and the state of Victoria is accused of raising cash in safety's name. The bad news for Mayor Ken is that Victorian drivers (Victorian is a contemporary adjective here) can escape the £1 congestion charge by tailgating a large truck, thus avoiding the electronic eye. Handsome Melbourne, it must be admitted, is worth the £1. No slums, good public transport, a vibrant downtown neither abandoned nor ruined by freeways, it is what similar 20th-century cities of America should be, but rarely are.

In the global literary village we found The Little Friend, Donna Tartt's new novel, everywhere. In interviews Tartt explains that she is an introvert who does not need people. India is a problem, then. It is less the large, unthreatening crowds than the servant question. Even our Sikh friends have one - or is it two? - in their modest flat. Expats are expected to have a cook, cleaner, butler, driver, gardener, sweeper and, of course, a dhobi to do the washing. 'I can cook and clean for myself, but I will miss the dhobi,' concedes our hostess. But keeping the staff happy seems so time-consuming. Nor do they leave much privacy. In the labour-intensive tourist trade, intrusion is reinforced by the urgent need to access the visitor's fat wad of 100-rupee (£1.50) notes, maddeningly stapled together in 100-note bundles. There is no servant problem in fiercely egalitarian Oz and New Zealand, where even tipping is (theoretically) frowned upon. A Kiwi psychiatrist explains: 'Here egalitarianism means treating everyone else as an equal. In Australia it means treating them as an inferior.'

India's slang defeats me. Australia's is more accessible. A 'garbo' is a dustman, as in garbage. A 'firey' is a firefighter, a 'salvo' a Salvation Army type; to 'dob in' is to sneak and to 'dob in a dole bludger' (a current government slogan) is to report a welfare cheat. If I buy 24 'tinnies' for the barbie, I have acquired a 'slab', unless I prefer my beer (or wine) in bottles ('stubbies'). I keep them cool in an 'eskie' (work that out for yourself). But my favourite comes from Cousin Zager in Auckland. Of someone who is none too bright she says, 'The wheel's still turning, but the hamster died.' Bonza.

Tourist numbers remain grim everywhere, thanks to 9/11 and Bali. The weather is as bad. In India the monsoon was again feeble. Australia suffers lethal drought and fires. November in North Island has seen as cold and wet a spring as England last May. Only in Singapore does it rain daily at 4 p.m., probably on government orders. Apart from al-Qa'eda, Myra Hindley and Paul Burrell, little outside news filters through except sport, thanks to Melbourne's Mr Murdoch, whose Sky and Star TV channels have globalised professional football. We escape Oz and the withering scorn of local cricket writers just ahead of England's Test match shame, and watch the All Blacks shrug off narrow defeat at Twickenham. Auckland inner harbour, trendily revamped since NZ's America's Cup win in 1995, is full of exotically shaped boats competing in the current series and the floating gin palaces of their supporters. Neither category looks as if it could get from Henley to Marlow in a stiff breeze. Racing is postponed when Kiwi winds are too strong.

Australia and New Zealand are grappling simultaneously with two multicultural challenges: reintegrating marginalised Maori and aboriginal peoples into their post-colonial mainstream while tackling rising anti-Asian sentiment, only partly fuelled by 9/11 and Bali. Winston Peters, MP, the smooth Maori populist, shot up in the polls after predicting that 'they' will soon be a majority. 'We don't want to end up with race riots like Britain,' says Peters, whose speech was likened to Enoch Powell's. A strange worry in this green, gentle country which long since ceased to be the South Pacific Scotland.

Michael White is political editor of the Guardian.