A few weeks after I arrived in Australia in 1977, I was taken to a sporting club in Sydney’s inner west with some of my wife’s Armenian cousins. The men were sharply turned out in shortie leather jackets and collared shirts. Fresh from England, I was wearing the kind of gear a would-be intellectual would wear for a pint at a London pub—Levi’s and a denim shirt over a roll neck sweater. When my turn came to sign in, a bouncer stopped me.
“Jeckut?” I thought he said.
“Sorry, didn’t get that.”
“Jeckut.” No upward inflection this time. “Follow me, sir.”
My wife and her relatives had already crossed the ginger-carpeted entrance hall and were weaving their way through the flashing pokey machines.
The bouncer took me by service lift to a room with a rack of blazers in the same ginger tone as the carpet, with the club’s emblem on the breast pockets. I put on a jeckut and went back to the sign-in desk amid smirks and nudges. I might as well have had pommy git chalked on my back.
Well, that is how I felt at the time. Perhaps the staff smirked, perhaps they were just cheerfully following regulations. When I found the Armenian relatives, they shrugged and went back to enjoying the floor show and seafood-in-a-basket. I backed my chair into the purple drapes, fuming at my humiliation.
What was really ailing me was culture shock: Not the jarring shock of a Pom freshly arrived in Egypt or China. No, Sydney looked easy for a Londoner to slide into—until you actually tried: The class categories of home didn’t align; people came across as superficially affable but unreadable; accents were no guide to working out who was who. It was impossible to know where you fitted in.
Canberra, where we spent our first year, was even more mystifying. Like many newcomers, I spent hours driving around looking for a non-existent city centre. I was studying at the Australian National University, and a fellow student invited me to a barbecue at the farm where he lived outside town. OK, so I didn’t expect a thatched cottage, and ducks in the pond, but I wasn’t prepared for sitting on a stump eating charred sausage and ketchup in sliced white bread while my new chum blasted vermin with a rifle.
Today, my regular bike ride takes me along Manly Beach. At Shelly Beach I change down to bottom gear for the short push up to the car park, where I stop to look over the Tasman Sea. Blue headlands to my left stride thirty kilometres northwards to Palm Beach. Waves smash on jagged rocks below. I change up a gear and head towards St Patricks Seminary, the golden neo-Gothic pile that overlooks Manly. Then it’s the long sweep down past the art deco cottages of Darley Road to the ferry wharf, and through the back streets to my home. If there’s a place in the world where I fit now, it’s Manly. Which brings me to my latest book.
When I was planning The Sunset Assassin, the third novel in the Siranoush Trilogy, the theme of culture shock was giving me an irresistible itch. In Bury me in Valletta I had installed my Armenian-Egyptian protagonist Pierre and his wife Zouzou in a seedy flat in London:
“We’re out of cigarettes, Zouzou. Do you need anything else from the shop?”
“A box of sunshine, bring me that.”
Outside, a bluster of April wind chased away the sooty bus fumes and the smell of damp pavements. He waited in the Pakistani shop behind an orderly line of lumpy British in their anoraks and bobble hats. The shelves bore the packaged goods that spoke of stuffy bedsits just like Pierre’s: Kit-E-Kat, Spam, PK chewing gum, HP Sauce.
Now when an itch starts, you’ve got to scratch it. Cycling the back alleys of Manly during the 2020 COVID lockdown, I came across a knot of shabby lanes where I decided to instal Pierre and Zouou to see how they would cope in 1978 Australia. Conveniently, I’d left the couple at the end of Bury me in Valletta with airline tickets to Australia and false passports in the names of Kevin and Rhonda O’Donnell. I found Pierre a job in the State Translation Office as a court interpreter, so I could sharpen his sense of being neither insider nor outside.
His great challenge is to master Australian English:
Pierre took a mental note: A lend of you—another new expression to file away; he was fluent in Armenian, English, French, and Arabic, and could make a fair impression in half a dozen other languages. But the victory over Australian English was yet to be won.
It’s not just the language that confounds Pierre. The novel opens with his first abortive attempt to entertain work colleagues at a front yard barbecue. The day is furiously hot, and the firelighters won’t catch. The catering arrangements confound Pierre:
“Tell them to bring their own meat and grog. Just make the salad,” his colleague Hermann had said. Could this be true? It would be unforgivably rude in Egypt, laughable in fact. Why eat your own food in someone else’s home? “Keep a few snags and some booze on hand in case you’re a tad short,” Hermann had added.
After the guests wolf down the free salad and guzzle the emergency box of Moselle, the party descends into sullen political mudslinging under the blistering sun. The incident was actually inspired by a party that my wife and I organised in 1978—our first attempt in our new homeland. We’d acquired about ten friends in Sydney by then, and we invited them all to our flat one Saturday night. Two turned up, sour at the turnout, and the sorry affair was over by 9pm.
A clear memory of my early days in Sydney is the darkness of the garden suburbs at night. Unlike English suburbia, where nature has succumbed to centuries of taming and streets are brightly lit, these Australian gardens seemed to cower on the fringes of the hostile bush. Even today I get flashbacks of desolation if I happen to drive at night through northern suburbs like Wahroonga or Pymble.
Let me give the last words to Pierre’s wife Zouzou, riding her scooter home late one night:
Broad bungalows stood in darkness, front gardens sinister with dense shrubs and trees. Her headlight picked out the eyes of a startled possum scuttling along the top of a fence. A silvery whisp strung between trees indicated the fresh web of a spider hanging at eye level, ready to tickle the face of a blundering human. The very air was alien with its blend of night aromas, some minty, some sour, some bearing an enigmatically savoury tang. A dog barked, and another replied from six gardens away — ‘Yes, I’m scared and lonesome like you!’