At a cricket match in Sydney, I lit a Marlboro: it started a Mexican wave, just for me

It's taken me a good five days in Sydney to realise that the bouncer outside the city centre pub was absolutely right to bar me from his establishment for being drunk. I may only have had two pints when I tried to get through his door last Thursday, but I now know that bouncers in this city need to have their eyes constantly peeled for even the smallest indications of potential deviance if they are to preserve the usual high standards of public behaviour.

It's been the same story ever since. Three days after being barred for being drunk in the Central Business District, I turned up at Sydney Cricket Ground to see the day-and-nighter between Australia and Sri Lanka and again found myself in the grips of security. My appalling crime this time was smoking. After sitting quietly for an hour in the baking sun, I casually pulled out a duty-free Marlboro and lit up. Within seconds I'd precipitated my own personal Mexican wave.

Several dozen people in neighbouring seats immediately took their eyes off the cricket action and began to gesture in my direction. "You'll have to go to the special area," said the man on my right who only a moment earlier had returned to his seat after a trip with an empty beer bottle to one of the strategically placed recycling bins.

And when my friend said "special area" he meant "special". At the SCG they don't merely ban smoking, they herd anyone who can't get through the day's play without a puff down a narrow flight of circular stairs into a tiny unventilated room in which they are forced to confront the horrors of their own deviance. One or two more rebellious spirits try to buck the system by lingering on the stairs but every few minutes security people arrive and brusquely insist that even these minor deviants descend the final few feet into the den of their iniquity.

I'd noticed that none of the men at the SCG chose to go without a shirt and had assumed that this was because of the Australian paranoia about skin cancer, but on Sunday at Manly beach I realised I'd stumbled across another case of civic propriety. Even though I watched for fully half an hour, I didn't see a single person walking along the huge promenade who hadn't dressed for the occasion. As soon as anyone came off the beach they immediately pulled on shorts and shirts over their costumes as though even the act of sunbathing had been a temporary aberration for which they now needed to make sartorial amends.

Last night the good citizens of Sydney were at their most circumspect. There were nearly 200,000 of us packed into the area of parkland called the Domain to hear the Sydney Symphony Orchestra bring the city's festival to a climax with a programme of Russian music. A spectacular sight. But even though I tramped through acres of middle-aged picnickers and young backpackers, not once did I catch a whiff of marijuana. And, as if this was not proof of abstemiousness, I then found that the one place where there was room to sit was in the Toohey's beer tent. It was the only tent selling alcoholic drinks in the vast arena, but during the whole evening there was never a queue of more than two people and I realised the place was not so much being overlooked as positively shunned.

I'm starting to get into the swing of things. Only this morning I found myself delivering a long, hard, disapproving Sydney stare when I spotted a young man who'd had the effrontery to walk across a traffic junction without waiting for the pedestrian light. That's an offence in Sydney. And quite right, too.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage