Exordium (Memoir Part One).

You sometimes hear older folks lamenting Australia's multicultural immigration policies and their effect on ethnic diversity: "I feel like a stranger in my own country". Whilst I deplore their racism - if nothing else, do they want us to go back to eating boiled mutton? - I envy the nostalgia of security. I have always felt like a stranger, in my own country and my own skin.
I was born overdue and in distress; worn out by the exhausting three day labour, as soon as I was out I promptly defecated. Squalling, red and pooping; I sure did start as I would go on. 

Ireland in the 1970s, whilst shaken by terrorism, was still an extremely conservative Catholic country. My mother was required to quit work when she married. In the hospital where I was born, the nursing staff, mostly nuns, were stingy with the pain relief; labour pains, after all, were to atone for original sin, as well as the dire sin of sex that led to getting pregnant in the first place (and never mind if, as my mother was, you were married at the time of conception and birth). So my mother laboured in agony for days, and I almost didn't make it out, and by the time I arrived she was exhausted and fed up, and struggled to bond with this screaming red shit machine. She and I got off on the wrong foot somewhat.  

My parents were still pretty young - it is a shock to me to realise that I am now older than they were when I was into my teens, when my kid hasn't even started school yet (as a child, I always imagined I would also marry and have children young, lots of them; it didn't happen for reasons we'll get to way later). My father worked at a large car rental company's Dublin office; my mother, as required by law, stayed home with me. But it was still very much the era of mass migration from Ireland, my parents were two of the thousands enticed by the lure of sunshine and opportunity, and after a year of applications, vetting, checks and guarantees, they landed in Sydney in 1981. That amazes me know, looking back. Here they were, two twenty somethings with a toddler, flying to the other side of the world to a country they knew nothing about and knew no one. I lost my freaking mind when I moved from Newcastle to Sydney at a similar age, and I was three hours from home and moving in with friends. 

My parents had no real idea what Australia was like. My father had a job lined up at the Sydney offices of the car rental firm he'd worked for in Dublin; it was located on the Pacific Highway, and my mother imagined a winding coastal road where people admired spectacular ocean views from their shiny convertibles, rather than the congested suburban thoroughfare lined with car dealerships and private schools it is. Anyway, we settled on the North Shore before shifting to the Northern Beaches, and apart from a brief stint in Canberra I can barely remember, that is where I spent most of the first decade of my life.

Naturally, my parents threw themselves in to their new life in Australia. We went to the beach. We went to the beach. Then we went to the beach some more. It was a great novelty to my parents, and we went pretty much every weekend. In the 1980s, the concept of sun protection amounted to "sunburn is pretty sore, you might want to put some cream on" and I got burnt to a crisp every weekend. I've not had any dangerous moles yet; I hope I've balanced things out by only going outside twice since I turned twenty. There were long trip across in Sydney in un-airconditioned cars, INXS and Dire Straits on the radio, blistered skin sticking to unupholstered seats. It was an era when smoking with kids in the back of the car was not considered child abuse, and given the combination of smoky hot air and the stop start of Sydney traffic, there is scarcely a street in  Sydney my parents didn't have to pull over on so I could deposit the contents of my stomach (usually white bread and cordial) on the footpath; luckily this happened most often travelling through Kings Cross, so no one noticed. Incidentally it came to my great surprise when I was older and no one smoked in cars any more to realise I am not, in fact, prone to motion sickness; it was just the toxic combination of traffic, cigarette smoke, and 1983.

The smoke eased somewhat in 1984, when my younger sister was born. We couldn't have been more different. I am ruddy pale, fair haired, awkward and tending to plump; she is dark, thin and always beautiful. I'm loud and confident on the surface but a great mass of jelly on the inside; she seems quiet and reserved, but with a will of steel underneath. We share, though, a sense of humour and laugh, a weird quirk about creams and lotions in jars, and a sense of spatial awareness that leaves a lot to be desired.

 Still, I'd later come to look back on those car trips as something of a golden era. At least we got to listen to music. As the 1980s progressed, my father got rather a taste for talkback radio. Specifically the self-styled kings of Sydney talkback radio; Alan Jones and John Laws. It is a puzzlement why a large chunk of the residents of Sydney - which likes to think of itself as a fair, open minded, tolerant place - has such a penchant for radio hosts somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan. Even at age right I could tell these people were craven idiots. And whilst INXS retains fond memories for me and I continued to like the band, the sound of John Laws' voice, and his political views, are for me inexorably linked with that hot smoky car, and car sickness; even to this day, if I hear someone complaining about all the special benefits Aboriginal people get, I feel like I'm going to throw up.

One of the places my parents particularly liked to drive to was the exclusive Palm Beach, on the very tip of Sydney's northern beaches. I'm not sure why we went - there was very little there to entertain children - but then, children's entertainment was not a primary concern. But my parents were fond of looking enviously at the oceanside mansions there, frequently remarking on how the other half lived and wouldn't it be nice, before we returned to our third floor walk up two bedroom apartment.

I was confused. The way to get nice things was hard work, wasn't it? My father was always at work. He worked long days, went away for weeks on end for work, worked second and even third jobs on the weekend, but we didn't have a nice big house. Wasn't hard work enough? What if you needed something else - something you couldn't work to get? How could that be fair? Shouldn't you get things based on how hard you worked?

And that violation of what seemed to me the principles of basic decency (combined of course, with my distaste for right wing talk back jocks) turned me in to a socialist at about age six, long before I knew what a socialist was. We were a very apolitical family - my parents didn't become citizens until I was well into my teens, so I was deprived the childhood experience of lining up to vote with my parents, the how to votes, bunting, hand-shaking candidates and democracy sausage. My father would occasionally approvingly repeat something Laws or Jones had said, and my mother would usually agree, and that was about it. But I seemed to have an innate interest in politics. I remember feeling bitterly disappointed when George Bush beat Michael Dukakis to the U.S. Presidency in 1988, even though I couldn't for the life of me have told you why. (Who knows, maybe I could sense evil).

Childhood wasn't all the fun of car sickness and political games, though. Eventually I had to be enrolled in school. I say eventually because my mother tried to enrol me in the local Catholic primary school at 4, only to be told I was too young. When I eventually popped into the classroom at age five, there was some malarkey about me being gifted. Tests and assessments were carried out, and I was skipped ahead a grade. Unfortunately the support ended there. I don't want to drag up some pretty painful stuff this early on, so let me just say it was another time, in terms of recognising difference in children. I had some...quirks. Chewing, hand twirling, unusual speech patterns and above all, almost no sense of what constituted socially acceptable behaviour. There were some issues. Feelings hurt.

Anyway, I didn't like school. At all. I had a passion for learning, but we didn't, as far as I could tell, learn anything in school. My Disney's Wonderful World of Knowledge books were full of interesting information, but at school all we did was rote spelling, mentals and lining up (plus a hefty dose of Catholicism) until I was bored to tears. Things got worse when I realised teachers could be wrong; my year four teacher asked where Sydney's first farm was located. Farm Cove, I answered when I was called upon. Wrong! I was told. The first farm was at Parramatta. I was right, but my attempts to redeem my injured vanity in front of the class were rebuffed, and I retreated from classwork into my own world of books, a stance which was to doom the rest of my compulsory education.

The Catholicism permeated the day, not always for the good. I wasn't aware of any sexual abuse, but there were still a few disturbing incidents. The one which stands clearest in my mind is when one of the little girls in my group drew some explicit pornographic pictures, which were left on the playground and found by a teacher. My classroom teacher decided I had drawn the pictures, and instead of sensitively asking where I had seen such things and why I drew them, she called me out in front of the class to tell me off for being a dirty minded little girl. Then, aged 9, I was humiliated and indignant merely for being incorrectly identified as the artist; now, looking back, it is my fervent hope that the little girl who drew the pictures had simply accidentally stumbled across a parental stash of Penthouse and was copying what she saw. I hope I hope I hope it was nothing more sinister than that.

Amidst all this, everyone was gearing up to celebrate Australia's Bicentennial. Well - almost everyone. I was too young at the time to realise what an enormous insult the concept of the Bicentennial was to Aboriginal Australians, symbolising as it did the invasion and destruction of their lands, celebrating all that they had been robbed of. I didn't know then, except my father echoing the words of John Laws and Alan Jones that Aboriginal people marking the day as Invasion Day should just get over it, that the Midnight Oils song Beds are Burning was a load of black armband rubbish; although I thought if John Laws was against it, it must have something going for it.

I have to admit that as a child devoid of context, the Bicentennial was kind of neat. There were tall ships on Sydney Harbour, fireworks, the former industrial precinct Darling Harbour reopened in a blaze of gleaming aqua perspex and aluminium as an entertainment precinct, complete with a monorail, that seemed to me to be the last word in sophistication and excitement; there were exhibitions and events, and school excursions and family trips into the city on the Manly ferry. Sydney seemed gleaming and fresh and dazzling, and it was a good time, really, to be a child attracted by glister and novelty.

The good times couldn't last. as the 1980s drew to a close, the economy began to tank, and interest rates hit 17% just at the time my parents realised they couldn't put off upgrading from our long-outgrown apartment any longer. Not wanting to contemplate the more affordable Western Suburbs, they decided to leave Sydney altogether to pursue the great Australian dream of home ownership.

There's an internet joke that the history of Russia can be summed up in one sentence: "And then, things got worse". I've sometimes, jokingly, said the line could sum up my life; at any rate, leaving Sydney was the first of the many times things would take a downward turn. My life was about to change beyond imagining; the happy family outings were at an end, as puberty and the discovery of decent music changed everything, for better and for worse.

Writer's Note: This is the first of what is planned to be a ten part series on my life, such as it is. All recollections are based on my somewhat wobbly memory. Names of those who are not public figures will be changed. New updates posted every Monday afternoon, Australian Eastern Daylight Time. Hope you enjoy, and please leave feedback below. 

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