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Public parks reveal a country's soul.  I find Australia's metaphysical core on a Spring visit recently.

Author:  Brian Buchanan © 2012.03.02

large fields offer space for all sorts of outdoor sports

It's early October in a vast park near Matraville, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. The council tract encloses a long grassy berm stretching in a L-shape for five hundred metres along the borders of three sections of playing fields. To the right of this, a community centre houses a gym, squash courts and an outdoor handball court. Beyond that lies a series of tree-bordered fields for cricket and rugby. Through the middle, a paved cycling track winds by several pavilions and, at the far end, a grandstand fronts a particularly well-kept playing arena.

Behind me, a busy road strings together two large shopping malls, barely three kilometers apart. Around these, shops and flats cluster, and further out on the perimeter, single family houses, with their gated and fenced yards, stretch off in all directions of the Sydney horizon, until land meets water at ocean's edge on three sides of the scene.

Stretched before me on a cool Saturday morning in October are eight fields of play swarming with children and young adults in various forms of contest with rugby and soccer balls and cricket equipment. On a windy 18 C day threatening rain, the lads and sheilas are in full kit and furious preoccupation. It's a phenomenon like no other, I suspect. Various adults, some parents, some coaches, scatter along the sidelines, to swoop onto the field with food, provisions and advice between the spurts of action.

Maybe the old East Germany, before communism's Big Crumble, could create so much dedicated sports enthusiasm. But in Australia's case, all this rambling, running and striving wells out without compulsion, repression or incipient poverty to herd the sporters on. Well, maybe some cultural compulsion: Oz's sports traditions at the banal participation level remain deep and strong, even as its Olympics and tennis reputations fade into nostalgic memory. There's still lots left to get excited about; and getting excited about "sport," sometimes very generously defined, is what Australians do very well.

Back to the park. During most of the week, it's largely deserted during the day, springing into action after work and school. On weekends, it teems all day as well. As night falls, the large bus and car parking lots at one end attract tire squealers, soon chased away or pinched by local constabulary. Same the world over -- the toxic mix of gasoline and stupidity. "Bogans" are endemic to our species.

A team of council workers look after this park and its numerous ilk throughout the city. In fact, there are about 70 separate municipal councils here. Now, that would provide a wet dream for union organizations and other professional malingerers the world over. As it does. No worries, mate.

Australia's union and governmental traditions run deep, as one would expect from a country, which like Canada, relies primarily on selling primary resources wrested from the bleak, backcountry ground on the western side of the continent, or farmed from verdent river valleys on the eastern edge of this giant country. Unions are as crude as their beginnings, but evolve. But as Australia breaks away from merely selling the dirt and ooze of its land to other, more industrialized nations, turning instead to a service and sophisticated manufacturing and entrepreneurial economy, so too does its working class or labour ethos. Going, but not gone, are the pig-headed Brit-inherited ideas of work, class, privilege and the place of personal enterprise and capitalism. "What about the worker?" is mercifully a forlorn, dying and increasingly irrelevant plaint. That evolution away from attitudes of class, envy and financial stupidity that marked the end of the Old Labour era in Britain and the end of the wretched Trudeau and Carter regimes in Canada seems finally to have equivalently entered its death-spiral impetus in Australia, in spite of the dreadful situation where the federal and state governments are commonly Labour party controlled.

But socialism in Oz carries curious tints: in Sydney, an Irish brand of Catholicism marches hand in hand with the forces of the Left, a similar phenomenon to the the kind of political intrique one finds in South America. Mother Church, Catholic and other brands, retains social gravitas here in Oz as elsewhere. Religion still has a firm, but loosening, hold on Australians' social relationships. Many of the uniformed school children one sees on the pitch or riding public transport sport religious insignia, and much of that Catholic in Sydney. A large Catholic school borders our park, one of many in town. Across the road, another icon (this year's favourite word): the gigantic Eastgardens mall opens its maw to shoppers. God and Mammon, steps apart.

High streets are giving way to highrises and shopping centres in Sydney. These malls and accompanying parking lots give birth to towering apartments that are a relatively new feature of Australian cities so dominated traditionally by single family housing. Denser housing configurations change the profile of home ownership, commuting and shopping.The typical shopping strip or high street, one for every identifiable community or council jurisdiction (remember the 70-odd local governments?) faces extinction or at least reduced circumstances. Near our park is such a strip: the tile-walled pub with its spacious gambling and eating area remains, along with a few professional offices and small food bars and service business such as doctors and dentists, but most of the clothing, hardware and restaurant enterprises have moved on, perhaps into a mall, or to oblivion. This may not be progress; but it does wring a bit of the Britishishness out of Sydney's look and social discourse.

One blustery Tuesday afternoon, I set out on a walk to find Maroubra Beach. The stroll took me across The Park, following the crest of the high-grassed berm along the middle. Leaving the end of the dwindling ridge, I join the paved bike path as it winds by a wooded area, sand patches covering the ground under the trees. Coming out of the woods, the bikeway meets the edge of the parking lot leading to the street. I join the street's sidewalk and head straight north-west to a large boulevarded, four-lane landmark street called Anzac Parade.

Anzac Parade is a a main artery to Sydney's central edge from the "eastern suburbs." These venerable municipalities, including the famous beaches, are very close into the centre of modern Sydney, and hardly suburbs at all, since the city extends for many miles inland and north and south from here. This famous boulevarded street links a number of parks, sporting grounds and race tracks that entertain Sydneyites. I cross, heading south toward Maroubra Beach.

I follow a wide thoroughfare by large houses with high fences and large publicly controlled front boulevards. The large common property land strip invites a various and amusing diversity of aspect. For some home owners, a wasteland of rubbish, derelict cars, overgrown weeds, bush and trees is just fine, verifying the sharper edges of the principle of the tragedy of the commons. For other residents, the large public spaces become attractive additions to their beautifully landscaped private domains. In any case, dump or park, the local council seems oblivious. What? Do boulevards? Bugger that, mate.

Maroubra is a large curving crescent of white sand and light blue sea. A few hundred people play around its water edge and a few dozen surf and swim. Behind me is a large beachfront consisting of a large surf club, a pub, a few food stores and a pharmacy. At the eastern edge, a bus loop harbours a half dozen of Sydney's finest transit vehicles. On a hill eastward, there's a rifle range. Away from the water stretch streets of large, prosperous houses.

After a bit of wander, I strike up a conversation with a women bus driver, who waits for her shift to resume. Strangely, she doesn't ask me what part of America I come from. She doesn't remark on my accent at all. We have a formal conversation about bus routes and service frequency, and we talk a little about weather. Then she starts her vehicle and swooshes off. The interplay of people has changed. Often conversations with Australians lead to story-swapping about holidays. Funny, we all go to the same places: Whistler, Paris, ocean and river cruises in the same areas. Even the adventuresome trips have a sameness: the Amazon, Tibet, the deepest reaches of the Asian and South American drug-smuggling regions. Ho hum, yet it's nice to see we're all getting around, and becoming homogenized, in a good way. Strangers are hardly strange at all. We're all mates.

As I retrace my steps back up the Maroubra hill to my home park, I consider all the uniquely good things about Australia: the friendly and intelligent Aussies themselves, with their drive-in liquor stores, gambling, sports mania, and charming, iconoclastic sense of humour. Climbing the sweeping edges of the berm for the last time, I come upon the busy traffic of Bunnerong Road and my base. "Grouse place, this," I gasp.

Me, I'm off to Hawaii, where I will no doubt encounter a few Aussie tourists along with the thousands of others. Many, especially Asian women, will be searching for Australian-made Ugg boots at the Waikiki Hyatt. Good on ya, mates.

Author:  Brian Buchanan © 2012.03.02




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