I am reading aloud a telegram written in Klingon to a room of more than one hundred people as the last rays of the sun turn the shiraz grapes on the vines to rubies. It's good to be home.
Getting there was less good. After only a day in London following my Glasto trip it was back in the air. Mercury retro, eclipses and duelling planets were never going to make for an easy ride to the other side of the world. Basically everything went wrong. We weren't seated together, they ran out of meals, my laptop decided 33,000 feet above the Med was the right time to update Windows -rendering it useless till Singapore. In Singapore we couldn't connect to the wifi to try to work out how to undo the auto-update until just before the flight. (If this happens to you, just let it restore. Windows says it takes thirty minutes. It takes five hours.) When we finally arrive in Sydney at 6am we find our rental car is booked from Midday. Ahh well... at least we didn't get trapped in Kiev for 22 hours.
Australia is a strange place. It combines petit bourgeois fascism -ecigarettes are banned- with remarkable, small-scale creativity: coffee shops inside the bathrooms of other coffee shops, a thriving domestic music scene. To be fair, it combines its petit bourgeois fascism with its full-blown big brother version, too. Journalists can now be jailed for ten years for reporting on spook activities and it is now 'legal' for the government to monitor the entire internet. During my little brother's wedding ceremony, the celebrant said words to the effect of "I am authorised by the Federal Government to officiate this marriage, defined under Australian law as the monogamous union of one man and one woman." (Romance, eh? The last three non-religious weddings I have been to have been shit from a ritual perspective. A reading from Captain Corelli's Mandolin? Pass.)
Occasionally the English will ask me why I don't live in Australia or if I ever have plans to move back here. The whole place is governed by 'small 'c' conservatism'... a preference for little moves and suspicion of change. Australia is really bad at looking outward and really good at looking inward. It is the Jane Austen of countries. The UK may be home to the world's largest tax haven and an inbred power-elite that still has its lizard claws in most of the planet's pies but at least you can vape at gay weddings.
I think of Australia the way I presume most right-thinking Americans think about America. I am ashamed of the place but I also love it because it is sometimes the best place on earth. Countries are more like families than we realise: they're filled with jerks but what are you going to do? In any case, I didn't come for the human rights, I came for the human contact. I am here to emcee my youngest brother's wedding back in our home region of the Hunter Valley... the fruits of which you have no doubt consumed.
We finally collect our rental car and head north from Sydney. On my last trip I was picked up at the airport so I didn't do much driving. This time it was me at the wheel again, heading back to the river valley of my childhood. There is no question regarding the choice of radio station; Triple J. For foreigners, this is a government-funded national youth radio station and it is probably the best in the world. (I am resolved to listen to it over the internet when I get back to London.) Here's a blast from my childhood, evidently still going strong, that I heard on the drive north.
Although I have not lived here for a third of my life, there remains a muscle memory for every bump in the road, every bend where you should change lanes (Chatswood!), every opportunity to speed and which parts of the Pacific Highway are best for concealing cop cars. There is an unconscious reabsorbtion of land and space... or at least a resurfacing into consciousness of a connection to land and space. This deepens the further north we get.
I have not been kind to my home over the years. When I moved to Sydney from the Hunter region I told everyone how shit Newcastle was and would complain about having to go back. When I moved to New Zealand I told everyone I was from Sydney. When I moved to London I told everyone I was from New Zealand. (Which was technically true in a 'most recently from' sense.) But the English specificity -the desire to have everything in labelled boxes of known quantities- led initially to a rediscovery of a broad sense of Australian identity. And then over time this refined down to a Novacastrian/Hunter Valley sense of identity... actually this blog has something to do with that re-emergence in ways I would probably struggle to articulate. Something something being honest with oneself something something nothing left in my fuckbasket to give to your opinion?
Driving back from Glastonbury into London on Sunday was beautiful. The Somerset hedgerows lining the little roads are filling with little black dots on their way to becoming berries on their way to becoming jam no one will eat. The vibrant green of the fields is framed by the new gold of the trees. It is a postcard of English wonderfulness. But it is little. Little like a chocolate box. Heading into the Hunter Valley is something altogether more wild. There is a verticality to the landscape... steep ancient mountains covered in extremely tall -I had forgotten how tall!- eucalypts. Flocks of cockatoos as big as supermarket chickens whirl through the treetops. And there is a spacing to the trees I had never noticed before... a spacing derived from a local biosphere that periodically erupts into fiery maelstrom. It is spring so the fields are mottled with patches of wildflowers as yellow as the cockatoos' crest.
And the smell. The smell of eucalyptus in the baking valley heat used to smell like prison to me, like the tyranny of distance. I used to hate it. It still smells like distance -we are at the edge of the world, after all- but it no longer smells tyrannical. In my defense, it was a very different place in the early nineties and a challenging one to work out you were gay and a wizard... especially prior to the internet.
In the more-than-a-decade since hitting up the vineyards of the Hunter Valley (that time was also for a sibling wedding) it has become a sort of sci-fi landscape. The huge international success of Hunter Valley wine has led to loads of money being put into vineyard visitor centres and cellar door experiences. Now my parents have front row seats to the Rolling Stones playing this particular vineyard:
Y'all are a long way from Altamont, boys. Today, the Hunter does loads of different grape varieties but does semillon and shiraz best... possibly best in the world. Shiraz may well be the oldest grape variety humans have been turning into wine. Thinking about it, this is probably the source of my mild annoyance at the choice of celebrant over a church wedding... given that there are numerous opportunities to pull the Jesus story backwards through various wine gods through to the part of Syria that gave us Shiraz/Syrah. But it is nevertheless on my mind... I am from the valley of the earliest wine god... even though there have only been vineyards here for 120 years. I briefly wonder what to make of that and more importantly what I can make of it in the future... and then I buy some port and take a selfie to send to my neighbour/partner-in-port-drinking back in London. (You'll note the free wifi in the background that facilitated said ironic social statement.)
The wedding was lovely but I essentially worked it for free. Scratch that. I paid thousands of pounds to come to the other side of the world to work for free. No one tells you this when they ask you to emcee. You have to wrangle a hundred strangers, speak Klingon in front of them because your cousin the astrophysicist at Oxford University is a massive nerd (the clue is in her job title) and she couldn't make it. It feels like Service with a capital S, though. Now the whole clan is married and this sibling, the youngest one, was the only one who actually asked me to be involved in any meaningful way. Because my older two siblings are from my father's first marriage we never really grew up together... I was the quintessential older brother to the one getting married as we grew up. It appears I have a faint sense of guilt about abandoning him, first for the bright lights of Sydney and then for the lack-of-lights of New Zealand while he was going through some stuff at home. And I won't deny that there is an element of "follow this, you bitches" about coming home to the valley, grabbing the mic and then getting an entire vineyard of strangers laughing and enjoying themselves. As the title of the post implies: Left home when I was seventeen, I had a lot of ambitious dreams. Show, not tell, eh?
It feels like service and it feels like connection. The evening before the wedding I am seated next to one of my country cousins who has bought an unbelievably haunted house in Newcastle... to the point that she freaked out as the movers were about to leave and insisted they pack everything back up. (They didn't.) But... story of my own life... she also has had a few mental health struggles. The thing about ghosts is, though, that they will haunt the mentally well and the mentally unwell. Singular explanations rarely suffice. So I got to give a few wizardly prescriptions that I have every confidence she will follow up on to her tremendous benefit.
Speaking of ghosts, it was hugely interested to benchmark my necrovoiant capacities with a much younger Gordon. I thought I was just scared growing up in the valley but no... step a few paces away from the light out in the Australian bush and it is legit scary. Buy me a drink and ask me about my theories relating to the Restless Dead and the colonies.
The whole experience was one of authentic reclamation... of identity, of land, of family. On a national level, parts of the Hunter Valley have a very Deep South stereotype... not the ice tea drinking politeness... more the cousin-marrying, duelling-banjo type. And in a curious way, there is much to recommend that stereotype. The drive back to Sydney passed through places that still look straight out of True Blood... trailer parks decaying in the shade of giant, wild, gnarled, Jumanji plant life. You would not want to burst a tire here in the middle of the night. I have no idea when I will be back so as we drive through the bush, over mountains and past creepy farmhouses, I drink it all in... drink it all in so greedily that I worry that I will turn the landscape sepia. The triple-j-o-mancy kicks in and I get another domestic artist singing a hugely appropriate cover.
I'll leave you with it. Bienvenue a chez moi.