Over here

There are thought to be some 200,000 young Australians in London. But why on earth would they leave

At a Whitehall team-bonding session recently, the question was put to us: "What percentage of the division is from Australia and New Zealand?" People gave answers up to 40 per cent, but the real answer was 9 per cent. The Australians in the room laughed - sure, it's a stereotype that they're loud and everywhere, but they suspected the source of the error was that they did more than their fair share of work.

That perception, along with their sense of customer service (when they say "G'day" they mean it) and their willingness to work early, may be why they are so welcome in firms and government organisations in the UK. My favourite feedback was that people enjoy my "Australian freshness" (read: loud, brash, doesn't know his place).

The question I am most often asked is: "Why are you even here?" The implication is that I am mad to leave the sun, surf and general sexiness of my homeland. But if Australia is known as "the lucky country" here, that's not how it feels to its educated and restless youth.

"The lucky country is a myth. I'm 29 and on 80,000 quid a year as a financial controller in London. If the Australian public and politicians saw just how many of us live here and in Europe, they'd be worried," says Mike of Camden Town.

"Working in the public sector [in Australia], you have to wait for someone to die or have a baby to get a chance for the job you want," says Emily, aged 27, who lives in Herne Hill.

"I left in 2002. I just had the feeling I was 'too' everything. I was too different. Too ethnic. Too outrageous. Too ambitious. In London being different is why people value you. In Australia it is used to stifle you," says Rita, a 32-year-old, part-Chinese woman now living in Islington.

In contrast, the buzz of a world capital like London can dazzle an ambitious or adventurous Australian. If you come from a country where public transport often runs at hourly intervals, London's maligned Underground and budget-flight boom are like winning the Lottery. Austra lia is not an interchange; it's the end of the line.

Life in Australia can feel like a time warp. You live your day ahead of the US and Europe, but you get your news a day after. Whereas the UK is in the heart of print media, is surrounded by digital TV and supplies broadband that actually works (it's known as "fraudband" in Australia), Australian public culture is locked in the grip of a familiar set of faces from the generation of Germaine Greer and Clive James. One newsreader held his post for more than 40 years. It's an old person's paradise. Without the spur of competition and the niche outlets to develop new ideas and talent, I got sick of being sidelined by a well-off generation that treated multiculturalism as an eating strategy and didn't know how to share.

It is not accurate to say that Australia still suffers a "cultural cringe", but nor can it claim to have caught up culturally with more established nations. Forever holding the country back are its brilliant weather and setting. The lure of the beach is just strong enough to stifle creativity, dull ambition and act generally as a cultural anaesthetic. People like 32-year-old Jo want something else: "At the moment there is nowhere for me to go in Australia. It was too easy back home. I needed to be pushed. At the risk of sounding like someone on a journey of self-discovery, I needed to be challenged, because Australia was making me a bit complacent."

More than 1.1 million Australians, or 5 per cent of the population, seem to agree. Most are under 35. With the freedom to reinvent themselves and the fear of being turfed out at any moment by an increasingly nasty Home Office, Australians have the right incentives to stand out and enjoy the UK in a way Brits often fail to do.

They also have practical reasons for being here. Take, for example, housing stress and the price of education. You don't need a brain to succeed in Australia, only property. This illness has been labelled by the Economist as an "extraordinary and potentially dangerous binge".

If I lived in Sydney I would find it harder to get a mortgage, and my rent would be the same as that on my flat in Whitechapel, though I would probably not have a wage to match. Throw in university debts (I paid A$20 or about £8 an hour to do an arts degree at a second-tier university), which I can avoid repaying by moving overseas, and you find why Qantas sells so many one-way tickets to London.

Many a Labor MP has at one point owed his seat in parliament to the strong Labor London vote. In fact, the Australia House polling booth is the biggest in the election. (The 200,000 Australian Londoners would be a voting bloc in the London mayoral election if courted carefully.)

But there is a clear difference between expatriates of my generation and those of the Clive James vintage. Our moves are rarely permanent. They will not suck the life out of Australia: we want to stretch the umbilical cord, not break it.

We will keep coming as long as you let us. As a group contributing more than it takes, we're a good thing for the UK. What Australia gets from the deal is a question only a more conscientious government and public culture could answer.

Ryan Heath works in the UK Cabinet Office as a civil servant. He is the author of "Please Just F* Off - It's Our Turn Now" (Pluto Press Australia)

Australia at a glance

Population: 21 million

Average life expectancy: 81

GDP per capita: $33,300

Well-being: Third most content country in the world, according to the United Nations

Children: 11.6 per cent live in poverty but

Unicef still ranks Australia seventh in child “educational well-being”

Unemployment: At a 32-year low of 5 per cent, having fallen from 11 per cent in 1992

Flying Doctor: Service started in 1928 to provide emergency health care to people in the outback

Drought crisis: Currently experiencing worst drought in 1,000 years. Every four days a farmer commits suicide. Farmers are receiving A$2m (£800,000) a day in drought relief. Kangaroos are invading cities in search of food and water

Climate change: Experts predict up to 20 per cent more droughts by 2030, more frequent bush fires, tropical cyclones, and catastrophic damage to the Great Barrier Reef

Non-native plants: Of the nearly 3,000 species that flourish in Australia, 70 per cent are a threat to natural ecosystems

Opals: Australia produces 95 per cent of the world’s opals

Water: Annual inflow to the Murray-Darling Basin is likely to fall 10-25 per cent by 2050. Roughly 85 per cent of all irrigation in Australia takes place in this basin, which is the size of France and Spain combined

Kangaroos: At least 69 species

Convicts: About 160,000 were shipped over between 1788 and 1868. Free immigrants began arriving around 1790

Racism: “White Australia” policy, intended to restrict non-white immigration, began in 1901 and ended in 1973

Racial groups: 89 per cent Caucasian, 5 per cent Asian, 2 per cent Aboriginal, 4 per cent other

Aborigines: Life expectancy is 17 years lower than the national average

Rugby: Only country to win World Cup twice, in 1991 and 1999 (left)

Research by Marika Mathieu

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain