Welcome Back - On Returning to Newcastle

Wednesday, 30 May 2012
Well, we've been back in Newcastle for a month now; it has gone so quickly. (But then, it sometimes feel like I just wrote this. And when I did write that post, back in 2007, I remember a then-colleague of mine telling me, the world's oldest teenager, that I'd return to Newcastle with a husband a child. How I laughed at such a ridiculous notion).

All that I can't leave behind
 The idea of returning north had been kicking around for a while. I was tired. I was tired Sydney; tired of the crowds, the pollution, tired of getting pretty much anywhere being an exhausting hours-long odyssey, tired of not going to the theatre, the trendiest restaurants, tired of having my nose pressed up against conspicuous consumption. I wanted a simple life - picnics, the beach. So I set off to secure our fifth home in three years (oy vey), found one after a moderately tedious search, and we left Sydney for the final time. The move has been regretted by no one. We have a three bedroom house with a massive yard for the same amount of rent paid for a one bedroom flat with no balcony, laundry or car space in the inner west (although at that price, our Summer Hill place did include a lot of cockroaches). The neighbourhood is full of lovely old wooden houses, we've already made some friends (in one of those isn't-that-funny coincidences, it turns out our next door neighbour was an existing Twitter acquaintance), we can get anywhere (once the bus shows up) in twenty minutes.

It's not all good though. I miss the food in Sydney. So much. Sichuan, Xin Jiang and Shanghai food have been replaced by "Chinese". I'd forgotten, and DH is astonished, that restaurants in Newcastle close between 2 and 5:30pm. I'd also forgotten that Newcastle has zero culture of travelling on public transport except as last resort for the poor and very poor; I returned to Sydney last week for some shopping and was comforted to be on public transport at 10am with people who weren't completely decrepit. Sometimes I'm just plain confused. I'll vaguely think "I wouldn't mind going to the Lindt cafe today", or the Chinese Gardens, or the Rocks markets; then I'll remember we're not in Sydney and we aren't going back, and sigh quietly.

As I mentioned, I departed Newcastle as an overgrown teenager who happened to have a large discretionary income. I return with a husband and child, no longer interested in pubs or clubs, my perspective having changed in many ways. Bill Bryson wrote of returning to America after having lived most of his adult life in the UK that it felt like a backward step, like moving back in with your parents - they might be nice people, but you've moved on, and he felt that way about a country. I feel that way, a bit, about a city. There was a time when I thought I'd never return to Newcastle. And I get here and find I'm not the only one who has changed. Whilst I dearly miss Chinatown, the food situation has improved immensely from the chips-with-everything culture I remembered. There's plenty of gourmet and locally-sourced food providores, and when I first visited the Newcastle Farmers' Market, I was practically weeping with joy (yes, I am obsessed with food; I'm afraid we're going to have to live with that). Honeysuckle was just getting underway when I left, and I'm still to have a proper look around. Sadly the joy of "going to town" is largely a thing of the past. David Jones has gone, Showcase cinemas have gone, the Lucky Country is gone (though I find it hard to summon much emotion for the loss of the Jolly Rodger), the silver shops have gone, Big Als has gone, the lovely Eckersley's on Union St, which had the feel of an organic artists' establishment, has been replaced by a soulless clean retail emporium in Hamilton. Most heartbreakingly of all, the magic of the arts precinct - the art gallery and library - has been destroyed by the removal of the fig trees, leaving Civic Park barren and stark with no prospects of recovery.

But still! The joy of being able to get to the beach in twenty minutes will be a long time fading (and what beaches, with rockpools and nooks and places to explore). The beach and river and water are such a large part of the psyche of the city, and myself, that without it my soul was parched. There's much exploring to do yet with DH - the Watagans and vineyards, the east end of town, and I may even take him to a Knights game so he really gets a feel for living here. (Though I think he can do without that other quintessential Newcastle experience - throwing up in the car park of King St McDonalds at 2am).  In a way though, it doesn't really matter whether Newcastle is better or worse than Sydney. This will always be my true home; it's where I want to be. It's nice to get to know one another again.

So You Want a Real War on Drugs?

Monday, 21 May 2012
It's been said that the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So it was with a heavy heart that, in light of the recent debate about the failed war on drugs, we braced ourselves for the re-hashed opinion of Angela and Tony Wood, parents of Anna, who died after taking an ecstasy tablet in 1995. Mr and Mrs Wood appear in the media every time drugs are debated, gamely determined to prove they are out for revenge and have learned absolutely nothing.

This time it's an article by Adele Horin, whose writing I normally admire but who has sadly been sucked in by the Woods' peddling of their zero-tolerance message. The Woods want a "real" war on drugs. Ignoring any evidence that the war has failed, ignoring that the actual drug laws in place at the time of her death were certainly not in favour of harm minimisation - even ignoring that harm minimisation policies may have saved Anna's life by alerting her friends to the need for medical attention when Anna first became ill - they seek to somehow get revenge on drugs and their distributors by advocating harsh penalties for drug use and possession. Of course, a real zero tolerance policy for drug use and possession would mean that their own daughter, if she had been caught that night with the ecstasy tablet before she had taken it, could have faced a maximum prison term of two years (unlikely for a first offence, but a zero tolerance policy would surely advocate for harsh sentences as a deterrent). Would they have wanted her to go to jail? Hell no (they said so themselves in the execrable book written about her death). The penalties are for other people's kids, not pretty white girls from the Upper North Shore.

 If they were just soothing their grief with their delusions, then I wouldn't care so much. The problem lies in the influence the Woods and others like them have on the formation of drug policy. In the years since Anna's death, we've seen the introduction of sniffer dogs - expensive, ineffective in dealing with the larger issue as targeting mostly young people in possession of small amounts of drugs, and dangerous; young people have died after seeing sniffer dogs, panicking, and consuming all their drugs immediately to avoid detection. Demonising drugs and drug use have exacerbated the very conditions that killed Anna Wood - young people are not turned off taking drugs; if anything their illicit nature increases the allure. But when things go wrong, they are too afraid to get help.

That's the problem I have with Angela and Tony Wood. Their policies are dangerous, even deadly. How many other young people must die or have their lives shattered before they consider their daughter's death avenged? And of course, they and their ilk contribute to the disasterous global war on drugs. Angela and Tony Wood say that in Australia we just have a skirmish on drugs. They want a real war on drugs. So let me be the first to suggest they move to Mexico. Maybe if they see the war on drugs there, they might finally learn something.

Levelling Up On Motherhood

Saturday, 19 May 2012
The new, first time mother is the subject of much mirth. She is expected to be oversensitive, paranoid, laying down the rules of what she will and will not do with her child, worried about everything. It was certainly true for me with BabyG. I obsessed about germs and sniffles. Dummies which fell on a freshly mopped floor were boiled for five minutes before going back in his mouth. I changed his clothes three times a day. The first time he fell off the bed (all babies do this at least once), I was ready to call 000, until DH the paediatric nurse talked me out of it.

That was then. Fast forward to today, when I bought BabyG a raisin cookie to keep him entertained whilst I did the shopping. He enjoyed the cookie greatly. He enjoyed it all over his clothes and hair and face, in fact. And as we passed a woman wheeling her newborn in a Bugaboo, delicately wrapped beneath a beautifully embroidered bunny rug, I heard her mutter about never letting her baby get that messy. I had a small chuckle, and realised I have levelled up; I am no longer a "new" mother. For I vowed I'd never let my baby get that messy, either. How else could I tell?

  • Realising BabyG's pants are on backwards and merely being grateful that, after ten minutes of wrangling, I managed to get them on him at all (that old line about dressing a toddler being like trying to get an unhappy octopus into a string shopping bag without any of the tentacles sticking out? A breeze compared to BabyG). 

  • Hearing a thump and a cry as BabyG bangs into something and yelling "be there in a minute!" then (quickly) finishing folding the laundry or mashing the potatoes.

  • Seeing him eat grass and figuring it's all good for his immune system. Actually, when we lived in Sydney, he would sometimes suck on the handrails on the train before we could stop him, and CityRail will surely provide him with all the immunity he could ever need, ever; there's germs on those trains that not even the CSIRO can identify.

  • There's slightly sad moments, too. I've already had to shop for BabyG in the boyswear departments in those insane stores that have decided size 1 does not qualify as a "baby". We have survived the first teeth. Oh, I know I have a long way to go. Toilet training is still not on the horizon, the first day of school too distant to contemplate, the first teenage sleepover - well, BabyG will never be that old, surely. I've got a lot to learn, I'm a long way off being a master. But I've levelled up from motherhood "beginner" to "novice", and I get to roll my eyes and smile knowingly at the mother who really just hopes her newborn will always be so untouched and pristine.
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