Fake snow in the Big Dry

Christmas around the world: Adelaide

I arrived in Adelaide in early December, and one of the first things I saw, when I went for a walk around the city, was a giant snow scene, in the Alpine style, occupying a huge area of the lobby of the Hilton Hotel. How ridiculous and kitsch all this fake snow seemed when the temperature outside was 35 degrees and the country itself is drought-stricken. Indeed, the eastern states of Australia are suffering from the consequences of their second major drought in five years - the Big Dry, it is being called here. Programmes on national ABC radio are continuously being interrupted by news flashes about the latest bush fires. Australia, like the United States, is not a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, but the wider population is becoming ever more alert to the threat of global warming. Peter Garrett, former frontman of the band Midnight Oil and a respected environmental campaigner, has just been elected to the front bench of the opposition Labor Party. He is popular. Change is in the air. Meanwhile, out in the parched bushlands of the overheating interior, the fires rage on.

There were thousands of English cricket fans in Adelaide for the Test match that ended in such anguished defeat for the tourists. They are no threat and are here only to enjoy themselves. For many of them this meant gathering in massed ranks on the hill at the cathedral end of the Adelaide Oval, one of the loveliest cricket grounds in the world, and to stand there for five days drinking and singing with little cover from the intense heat. Would that our cricketers had showed similar fortitude.

There is very little news nowadays from Europe or even America on the Australian networks. But every second story seems to be about one of its neighbours, whether it is the coup in Fiji or unrest in Indonesia. Yet somehow, it seems, ordinary Australians aren't really listening, because this remains an extraordinarily parochial and introverted country.

However, one day soon, you feel, as the demographics of Australia are altered significantly by the inflow of migrants from Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and other Asian countries, Australia will begin to slip free from the shackles of its British inheritance. Already the country is noticeably more multicultural and multi-ethnic; more Asian-Pacific and less European.

Already the rituals of Christmas are beginning slowly to change: this year, for the first time, more than 50 per cent of Aussies will be eating seafood on Christmas Day, rather than the traditional roast of old.

What chance, then, the future of that snow scene in the lobby of the Adelaide Hilton, or others like it, especially as the old country continues remorselessly to heat up?

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year Special 2006