Friday, January 30, 2009

Why Foster? Why South Gippsland?

The fundamental choice I made about how my life was to be ordered was my decision to make attachment to place a priority over following a career. By making such a choice a very different set of values then follow from the ones dictated by climbing the slippery pole of career ambition. This is not to say that I haven't had any sort of career. I have, but it's been bounded and limited by a higher loyalty. I do what I need to do to live in this place, although sometimes that has involved working in other places for a while, such as in Indonesia and Thailand in order to set myself up financially, or Melbourne in the eighties when I needed more social stimulus.

By making such a fundamental choice, one's life is greatly simplified. It's easy to work out what your subsidiary values are. Because you will spend a long period of time in a local community, the kinds of artificial aids one needs to bolster one's prestige in a larger and more abstract social milieu aren't needed. What's the point of a prestige car when for better or worse, everyone knows what kind of person you are anyway? And in any case, the flash car doesn't look flash for long once your wife starts carting her goats around in the back.

Office and career politics can be a thorny issue in any job, but if everything doesn't hinge on it and you were only in it for the money and a bit of fun in the first place, if you fall off the slippery pole, it's no longer a shattering tragedy.

Of course communities can be toxic too, or just plain unlucky. It pays to back winners in this life. It may be admirable to devote your life to helping lepers in Burma, but it's not likely to be a great place to bring up the kids and you can forget the notion of participation as a full citizen in national life. Even in this wide brown land, there are places I personally would give a wide berth to. What's the point of being president of the Wittenoom Progress Association? In the same way and with the broadest and crudest brush-strokes, I would not consider anywhere inland of the Great Dividing Range. Too dry, too vulnerable to climate change and almost always too vulnerable to changes in single economic variables (export agricultural products for starters are exposed to market fluctuations, climate variations and land degradation through irrigation and dry land salinity).

I've got nothing against city or suburban living per se. There are vibrant and sustainable communities in cities and big towns, and the larger and more diverse a place is, the more reslient it is likely to be in the face of the changes which are now upon us. So small communities like Foster are liable to be less viable and more vulnerable than bigger ones.

But I'm used to living here, I've lived in a diversity of other places and looking at it with a cold objective eye it's got a lot going for it. And that's what you need: a cold clear look at the frying pan you're leaping from into which fire? What follows is Lloydy's rough guide to thinking about this sort of decision.

Sea or Tree Change? Nothing wrong with either, but think carefully about where you’re moving to. No low lying coastal properties! And if you’re thinking about a move to the tropics, consider how you’d go without air-conditioning, and the likelihood of extreme weather events such as cyclones.

Again, consider location before all else! What are you really after? Is what you’re seeking a realistic vision which you know will work, or is it just a remnant of a fantasy you had while trapped in the cube farm? You remember that weekend you and your wife had in the cabin tucked away in a rain forest a couple of years ago – that’s what you want! Whoa buddy! No it isn’t! In the end, there is a common human pattern which governs the good life. We need food, shelter, love and companionship, meaningful work and community. You move into your cabin in the woods and what happens? You’d forgotten about the mosquitoes, the leeches. You run out of firewood in the middle of a week of solid rain. Your wife gets run off the road by a logging truck and becomes too traumatised to drive herself anywhere. You find in winter you’re driving into town in the dark and home in the dark, dodging wallabies and wombats, not very successfully, and in eighteen months, the gravel roads hammer your gorgeous little European car to death. There are only two crappy TV stations. After your house warming party, you don’t see anyone for months at a time, until Christmas, when all your old friends turn up with their surly teenagers and have a holiday for free. You discover your close neighbours, who you made a big effort to befriend when you first arrived, are barking mad. They borrow your tools and never return them, and you find yourself having vague and troubling conversations with them at the mailbox involving long running feuds, guns and dark marital secrets. And all this is assuming the price of fuel still makes driving hundreds of kilometres a month, in and out of town, affordable!

Live in or very close to a town. Assume at some stage that you will need to do without a car at all. Choose your town with care. It should have a diverse population, with reasonable medical services and other professionals, and not be overly dependant on one crop or industry. Is it dependant on irrigation which may fail? Don’t live in a place surrounded by tall trees unless you want to spend every summer terrified by the smell of smoke. Don’t be sucked in by charming old buildings. And don’t buy low lying properties on the coast. Remember? Global Warming? Sea level rise? Long before the waves wash over your mansion on the beach at Mollymook, its value will have collapsed through sheer fear of sea level rise. You won’t be able to get insurance on it either. Be sensible!

Look at the people. Try and gauge their feelings about the place. Is it ruled on Saturday nights by gangs of drunken louts in noisy cars, looking for someone to fight? Get the local paper and look at the police reports. What sorts of crime get reported weekly? If it’s just lost wallets and speeding fines, with the odd break in of sheds on remote properties, it should be OK. Is the shopping centre full of a lot of empty shops? Look at the demeanour of the people you see in the street. Do you see lots of people in conversation on busy days with smiles on their faces? Are the young people friendly or surly? Remember everywhere has its oddballs, so don’t focus too much on them.

Talk to school teachers if you have children who’ll be going to local schools. You may be lovely cultured people, but the wrong crowd in a small town can destroy your kid’s lives, or force you to send them to boarding school. On the other hand, the right crowd will give them a confidence, straightforwardness, lack of cynicism and ability to mix with all types which they would never get in the City. They will be big fish in a small pond, and get the kind of attention to their education which you’d need to pay serious money for anywhere else. I know some remarkable groups of people who’ve grown up together in country towns and who’ve gone on to adult life staying in close touch with each other and doing great things, in particular a bunch of people from Mallacoota in East Gippsland who I’ve worked with on many diverse projects over twenty years, and who’ve become musicians, builders, writers and film industry professionals, and with whom you could trust your life.

So you decide to make your move. You find the ideal house, you have work lined up. Good. Now you need to get some tradesmen in to do some work and you’ve struck your first problem. It takes forever to get the builder/plumber/electrician. And beware of someone who’s too available. The good tradies are always booked well ahead.

Now you will be starting to measure your dreams against the reality. Just don’t forget the locals will be doing the same to you. Everyone is very friendly, but it all comes down to one thing. Are you a good payer? If you want to discover whether it’s possible for something to travel faster than the speed of light, mess a local tradesman around over money. Every other local tradie will know instantly and they’ll never return any of your calls. Oh, they’ll nod politely to you in the street and make vague noises about coming over sometime, but you’d better call someone from out of town if you want the job done in this lifetime.

This is the reality of life in a small community. Every act outside your front door is public act, and there are no private conversations. The small acts of kindness and patience will be noticed, and so will every insult and act of deviousness. Don’t run the person you bought the business from down in conversation with your customers. Let them do that, after all, it was their brother/uncle/ daughter in law. Treat everyone with equal respect and decency and you’ll gain a reputation as a good person and it wont do you any harm.

Everyone knows who the local dope dealer is, and who made a move on the teenage baby-sitter. In the town I grew up in people still spoke of a scandalous pregnancy resulting in a broken engagement which had taken place sixty years before.

The upside is that when disaster strikes, like a serious illness, or your house burning down, the community will get behind to help in a way that will astonish you.

No comments: