Sydney Airport, January 5, 2006
Like Gatsby preparing to again see Daisy, I’d imagined it vividly and often. However, our plane simply rose from the Heathrow runway, and ended our English adventure. Leaving became only a transaction, a mere connective between one life concluding and the old one, recommencing.
Returning to Australia after nearly thirty months is like being both troubled and delighted by the sudden, unmistakable scent of a forgotten friend. I’d missed our popular culture, and drifting through the in-flight entertainment during my 3am restlessness I discovered Billy Birmingham, the Twelfth Man, being interviewed by Adam Spencer. Billy’s first success, I‘d forgotten, was co-writing 1983’s Australiana. How weirdly wonderful, as we rushed over the Tanami Desert, sleeping in the silently breathing below, to be stirred by those faintly pathetic puns- ‘Well a few of the blokes decided to play some cricket. Boomer says, ‘Why doesn’t Wombat? Yeah, and let Tenterfield.’
I then watched Crowded House’s farewell concert from the Opera House. Could that have been a decade ago? I recall my sadness of months before as we journeyed along the Grand Union Canal in a narrow boat, and I read in The Guardian of Paul Hester’s passing. Through the 767’s window, the sun then burst up over the Western Plains. Not a stunning sunrise, but as it’s my first Australian sunrise in nine hundred days, its poignancy makes me misty. Which band could have served me other than Crowded House? Favourably compared to the Beatles with their fetching melodies, but manifestly local, they’re as effortless as a Sunday BBQ. When they performed Better Be Home Soon I realised that the golden corridor, my arrival, was close.
Scurrying about the Sydney airport shops, I beam at things unremarkable transformed by my excitement to native treasures. Powderfinger CDs. Steve Waugh’s autobiography. Boost Juice! Their realness is exhilarating. Within the terminal, the uncluttered spaces, affable colours and the brazen January light are deliciously Australian. After gloomy British currency, visiting an ATM makes me gawk at the sliding crayfish-coloured banknotes. And everywhere, voices, our voices. Here, accents don’t crash like improper cymbals above a mortified English string section. I eavesdrop and the chatter is as comforting as a Coopers.
Waiting with our hand luggage while my wife goes for a stroll, I fiddle with my Walkman radio, singularly ravenous for Australian sounds. My morning’s second musical epiphany occurs as Triple J plays Sarah Blasko’s version of Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees. I knew Flame Trees but I’d never heard Sarah Blasko. Originally released as I began uni when life was inching beyond my dusty hometown, Kapunda, I’d long appreciated the song’s jaded melancholia and evocations of happy hours and old friends. It speaks of the Australian reality, the desperation, the inescapable pull of home. It is the desert, and the suburbs. It is expansive, but it is desperate to escape.
But Blasko’s plaintive singing – her fragile, yet quietly strong voice – gives Flame Trees an aching warmth. This is a welcome contracting of my planet back to the recognisable; a sensation not easily found in a confronting, often unknowable Europe. Having hugged me so tightly upon my homecoming, this song again sits in my heart.
The Cold Chisel version offers immediacy, while Blasko’s seems resigned, and almost happily broken. I used to be hostile about cover versions, but as I age, I’m more open to them, if they provide another reading. Both receive affection from me. I can listen to either, and both.
It is fitting that Sydney was covered by cloud for when we land in Adelaide the unbounded sky is a cathedral. Walking across the tarmac, I take in the low, auburn hills and the thirsty plains and later, the idyllic drone of the cricket as we move through the empty afternoon streets of our screen-doored suburbs.
After months and hours of hungry longing, I am home.