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Itís the first of December and this is the last month of the decade, the noughties. aAnd what a ridiculous term that is, the noughties! It beggars belief that weíve had ten years to think of a more fitting label and thatís the best weíve been able to come up with. And what will we refer to the next decade as? The teenies? Please, spare us! For those growing up in decades past the bestowed upon it embodied a potent mix of cultural and historical association mixed with affection and nostalgia. But the
Whereís the street cred in
With our submission to build currently before council thereís little more we can do now until we get a response, hopefully before Christmas. Consequently weíre a little in limbo which, in the lead up to Christmas, is not such a bad thing. Iím very clear however that itís merely the lull before the storm. The coming year is going to be filled to the brim with so many demands it becomes dizzying to contemplate and time will fly, of that there can be no doubt but before that happens Iíd like to enjoy a very chilled and relaxed festive season.
The last month of the noughties (there, itís said!) is an apt time for reflection. It was 10 years ago this month that we gathered on the banks of the Yarra in Melbourne to welcome in (albeit it one year early) the new millennium. While some held their breath waiting to see whether aircraft would come tumbling from the skies and the world as we knew it would come crashing down around us, we were swept along by the power of the moment beneath cascading rainbows of incandescent colour and the ethereal music of choirs emanating from across the river.
As with any over-hyped event, the dawning of the new millennium was something of an anticlimax. Within the larger scheme of things the big event was still some 20 months away. Within my own personal sphere however I was very conscious of the fact that we would be moving to the UK at the end of the year. It was a year of counting down, a year of closure and moving on. Having said that, until the week before we flew out in the first week of 2001 I still had difficulty imagining what our new life would be like.
Life in Melbourne had been good. My partner and I had been gainfully employed since arriving there in suitcases in 1995 and by the time we left Iíd clocked up four years as Head of Art at an excellent school and worked both full time and part time at the Melbourne School of Art as a lecturer and course coordinator. We had a wonderful circle of friends, a house in Prahran and an apartment in the city. Many wondered why we were moving to London. I guess we simply wanted to throw caution to the wind and see what happened.
The lead up to the big move was surreal. Life was so busy I couldnít get my head around it until a few days beforehand when we were packing boxes ready for storage. Iíd been working up until the week before Christmas and we left the day after New Year. With so many rushed goodbyes and last minute arrangements for renting out the house and the flat it wasnít until we were actually waiting in the departure lounge of Tullamarine Airport that it finally dawned on me that this was it; the moment of truth. We really were heading overseas.
Having lived in London in the early 90s I was on some levels quite confident about moving back. Iíd worked here, had friends here and possessed a passable if rusty knowledge of the cityís geography. What was less certain was how I would fare in the work stakes and where weíd end up living. I was fortunate in that I had a teaching position to come to but it was in the area of special needs, something of which I had little or no experience. Above all, I was concerned about how weíd manage financially in such an expensive city.
After a few days spent relaxing in the Philippines where by a stroke of luck we made friends with someone who unbeknownst to us all would within a matter of weeks become our new landlord, we landed in London in mid January of 2001. After a hot Melbourne summer and a balmy few days just outside Manila, the UK winter came as something of a shock. We spent the first two weeks with a friend in Woolwich and then moved into a funky basement flat in Pimlico. Meanwhile I had my first taste of working with disaffected teenagers.
Had anyone told me before we left Melbourne that within two weeks of arriving in London we would be living in Zone 1 in such a central, historically interesting and attractive area as Pimlico I would not have believed them. The flat did need some work. It hadnít been painted in many years and the kitchen and bathroom were filthy but that in part helped us negotiate a lower rent with our new-found friends Riki and John and it didnít take long to transform it into somewhere warm and cosy and from thereon, life was on the up and up.
I was very ambivalent about my new job. I was working on a contract basis in a centre that worked with kids who had been excluded from mainstream education. Having spent the last four years working with high achievers in a highly prestigious school for girls in Melbourne where a B grade was a serious cause for concern I was largely unprepared for the kind of behavioural issues I was now faced with. My colleagues were collectively brilliant and great fun to work with but the kids were another matter altogether and there were many times I felt like quitting.
There was never a dull day at the centre. Kids who were calm and cooperative one minute could be screaming and throwing tables and chairs around the room the next. I remember one young lad who for weeks liked nothing better than to read aloud to me and talk passionately about the latest book he was reading. The last time I clapped eyes on him was as he was being dragged away by four burly policemen in full riot gear after heíd held a teacher a knife point in a classroom after becoming annoyed at being told what to do.
For all my misgivings about the job my colleagues were all incredibly supportive and very keen for me to stay on once my contract had expired. Curiously, I believed I would become de-skilled if I remained in the job and took up an offer to work in a predominantly Muslim school in east London. I was seduced by the schoolís glossy promotional brochure and the charms of the headteacher whom Iíd met at a recruitment meeting in Melbourne the year before. I took the position on in September 2001 and within 24 hours I realised Iíd made the wrong choice.
I was in the school office when we heard the reports on the radio. Within minutes we were all gathered around the TV in the library watching with disbelief as the Twin Towers burned and then collapsed before our eyes. In the weeks and months ahead I was in an odd way glad to be working in a predominantly Muslim school. While all around the hysteria grew and Muslims everywhere became easy targets for bigotry and prejudice I was unable to fall back on such shallow stereotyping. The world is a far more complex place than such bigots would believe.
While we loved our funky little basement flat we decided we wanted to buy a place of our own. We had our eye on a little flat just down the road but the asking price was higher than we wanted to pay and it was sold before we could put in an offer. To our delight it reappeared on the three months later. Upon inspection we realised why. It was in a very sorry state. It had a bathroom you could grow mushrooms, window frames that were rotting away and holes in the ceiling you could put your fist through.
After initially rejecting the idea we reconsidered. Despite everything the flat was sound and the renovations required largely cosmetic. As for location, we couldnít lose. We put in a first and final offer. To our delight it was immediately accepted. Once we took possession we worked every hour of the night and day making it habitable: new windows, new bathroom, new kitchen, new robes, central heating and the removal of untold layers of wallpaper followed by re-plastering and re-painting. New flooring would follow a little later.
Again, had anyone told me weíd own our own flat in central London, well . . .
Glossy brochures can be very misleading. The new school was poorly managed and staff morale was low. To be fair there were some excellent teachers and some very bright students and working with the children and families of the Muslim faith was both enlightening and rewarding. Nonetheless the management problems and the very architecture of the building, a recent and very expensive flagship building more suited as a shopping mall than a school, actively worked against the very aspirations the school claimed to promote. Consequently I found myself putting in ridiculously long hours for what felt like very little reward.
Before very long I was clear that I wanted to get back into special needs. After a few phone calls and interviews I secured a post working with school phobic students at a centre that was associated with the one Iíd been at previously. It was a permanent position I imagined would see me through for the next few years; however, within six months I took up another position working with highly disaffected and emotionally challenged students who even the exclusion centres were unable to cope with. So began the steepest learning curve I have ever had to contend with.
The headteacher at my new school just so happened to be a very dear friend of long standing with whom I had lived some 20 years previously in Australia. While that may sound nepotistic, she too was new to the post. I was interviewed and subsequently employed by the woman who had established the school and the former headteacher so I knew Iíd got the job on my own merits. Nonetheless it was a remarkable twist of fate that we were working together and within a few months I myself was appointed deputy head. Again, if anyone had told me . . .
For a long time I didnít feel settled in London. Much as I enjoyed all that the city has to offer, my heart remained largely back in Australia. Each year Iíd return during the northern summer, which meant I had two winters each year. My English friends are often surprised to hear that winter can be cold in Australia, especially in Melbourne, but itís true. Indeed, with central heating I barely notice the cold in London but in Australia where central heating is the exception I really felt the bite of winter, although the warmth of friendship more than compensated.
I remember Doris Lessing describing her first year in London; how it seemed like a nightmarish city until one evening while strolling through a park she had en epiphany and realised that London was now home. I first read her quote in the early 90s when last in London and had anticipated something similar this time around. It took more than a year to arrive, more like five, but in the end I realised that I had somehow become a part of the very fabric of the city, as it had me.
Itís what will make it hard to leave.
This is the longest period of time I have lived continuously in one place since my teens and by the time we leave it will have been the longest. I suppose that in itself is as good a reason to move as any. The experience of time changes as we grow older. One year runs into the next with barely a bat of the eye. Before we know it our youth is behind us and the temptation to sink into a comfortable slumber becomes increasingly tempting. But weíre not old: older maybe, but not old.
Not by a long shot.
One of my concerns about moving to London at the age of 40 was that I was too old. If I hadnít had my dear friend the headteacher as a role model, she having arrived a few months ahead of me in the early 90s when she was in her mid-forties, I might have tried to wriggle out of it. Looking back now all I can think is how young I was and how much Iíve grown and learned since then.
No doubt Iíll be looking back on 2010 at some future point in time and making a similar assessment.
2010. I remember when that used to be the stuff of science fiction. Then again, I remember when 1984 was the stuff of science fiction. From my current vantage point itís an unwritten page, like my old diaries were as I sat with pen poised on January 1st trying to imagine what changes the coming year would bring. Iíve decided to maintain a diary during the next 12 months. I havenít kept one for a while, choosing to rely on these entries alone. But with such a momentous year ahead I feel the need and desire to start one again.
Iíve had various other teaching and educational responsibilities since my job as deputy head, all working with disaffected kids. Ironically, Iím now the manager of the centre where I first started back in 2001. Iíve learned things I would never have learned back in Melbourne and taken on challenges I could barely have imagined. Having said that, Iím beginning to feel Iíve paid my dues in terms of working with special needs and difficult kids. Or maybe Iím just a bit bored of it all. Thatís always been my forte Ė move in somewhere new, make a difference and then move on.
So this is our last Christmas in London. Iíve gotten used to celebrating the festive season in a cold climate. Thereís something about being wrapped up and snug indoors while outside everything is cold and crisp and with much of the country under a blanket of snow these past few days I canít help wondering how next Christmas will seem when the sun is shining and weíre all running around in shorts and T-shirts. Christmas in Australia is a very different affair. You have to try a little harder to create the atmosphere and even then, itís not the same.
Iíve been doing very little these past few days, aware that once I go back to work everything will change. The next few months are going to throw up one challenge after another and Iím determined to embrace them in the spirit of adventure they deserve. Until then however Iím happy to sleep, wake up late, do as little as possible during the day, go back to bed, sleep and get up the next day and do it all again. I have always maintained Iím lazy by nature and a couple of slothful weeks are just what this body needed.
We spent the day with friends in North Barnett today, one of whom Iíve known for nearly 30 years and who remains one of my favourite people on the planet. She is one of lifeís adventurers, someone who has constantly reinvented herself, staring adversity down and refusing to buckle before it, choosing instead to seize every opportunity and where opportunity is lacking, create it. She has embraced parenthood as she has embraced life and her children are testament to her commitment and strength of spirit. To see her happy and so full of hope for the future is an inspiration.
She has at best just weeks to live. I called today to wish her well and we chatted a while. Sheís still relatively pain free but requires oxygen 24/7. Sheís managing the hot weather with the air conditioning and grateful to have her daughter over from the UK. Her husband, now in care and suffering with dementia has little understanding of whatís happening to her and she rarely speaks to him now except by telephone. Itís very sad. Sheís always been such a feisty, intelligent woman. She chose to forego treatment and the end is now near. Such is life.
One of the things I love about London and one of the things I'll miss are those clear, crisp, cloudless winter days when the sky is so luminous and impossibly blue itís like seeing blue for the very first time. Buildings stand out in such sharp contrast, all shades of orange and red mixed with grey, cream and white and punctuated by the bare branches of deciduous trees. The quality of light is unlike anywhere else I know and in such stark contrast to the muted greys of the more frequent days of wind swept streets and rain washed pavements.
However well we do back in Australia and no matter what we manage to achieve weíll always look back on this time with immense affection and a great deal of nostalgia. Thatís the way life is for those of us who move on. A period of life becomes contained and defined by a sense of time and place and we never fully appreciate where weíve been or what weíve achieved until we move on. We are perhaps the novelist of our own existence, deciding where to draw a line and say enough is enough: time to start a new chapter.
I was 40 when the last decade was ushered in. I am fifty now that the next one is upon us. Back then I was looking ahead to a decade of change. I look ahead now to much the same thing. The coming year will be very different from the one now passing. Embracing challenge and change will be mandatory. There is something symbolically powerful about the convergence of a new personal decade with a new decade itself. Thereís the potential for decisions to be more heartfelt and personal resolutions more meaningful. So itís upwards and onwards from here on.
The Tip Jar