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Sunday, 31 December 2017

New Year in Sydney

First, here are some samples of a Sydney New Year's Eve, taken from expensive seats on Pinchgut, two years back. This year, we and our standard NYE friends will dine at a quiet restaurant away from the lowing herd, then walk back to our house to see the New Year in, on a north-facing balcony, looking away from the glows in the sky. After almost 50 years of harbour fireworks (the first we saw were in 1970), we don't like the discomfort and the heaving crowds.


Things happened to amuse the waiting crowds. Remember the bridge, because it plays a role.

The sun set, but it wasn't 9 pm yet.
Finally, the show began. Look for the bridge and the Opera House.

Look for the bridge and the Opera House. These are our tribal icons.

Among the guests on Pinchgut were two Scots couples who come out each year for the fireworks on the harbour. I fear they may have had to find a new vantage point this year, as the restaurant on the island seems to have disappeared.  Our Australian celebration of New Year's Day owes a lot to our Scots heritage.  Perhaps I am a biased observer.  As my surname implies, my ancestors were Scots.  My family has been here since early colonial days, but we still keep many of the old traditions intact.

Even in my generation, there has always been at least one piper in the family to welcome in the New Year with a skirl, and the bagpipe remains my favourite solo instrument, for I spent my earliest New Year's Eves, standing directly beneath my father's chanter (that's the lowest pipe, the one you twiddle on), taking in the sound and the smell of the pipes.

Perhaps I will learn to play the pipes when I retire.  I will be in good company if I do, for I know of just the pipe band for me, made up entirely of old and retired ‘Scots’, most with broad Australian accents.  Some traditions die hard, even under an Antipodean sun.

Others may celebrate their New Year's Day by nothing more than a day at the beach, or around a suburban backyard pool.  Still, some hardy traditional types will spend the day at a Highland Gathering, engaging in all sorts of strange activities like tossing the caber and wild dancing to pipes that serve to remind them of the hangover they still bear from the night before.

Traditionally, anybody can be a Scot on that day.  My father knew a champion piper called Colin Campbell who was, as it happens, one of the original Australians.  In those days, whites would stress further that Colin was a ‘full-blooded aboriginal’.  Be that as it may, he would appear each year in the New Year's Day piping competitions to play his own spirited rendition of ‘A man's a man for a'that’, and often to take prizes for his playing.  Those who know their Burns, of course, will see Colin's point . . .

But Sydney has always had its unusual Scots.  A hundred years ago, a Chinese merchant of Sydney, one Quong Tart by name, was popularly known to one and all as ‘Quong Tartan’.  He came to the Australian goldfields as a small boy, and was taught English by Scots people, so his accent was well suited to his nickname.  Historical accounts mention that he was an accomplished reciter of the poems of Robbie Burns, including, I imagine, ‘A man's a man for a'that’.

One of the things which strikes tourists about Sydney is the huge range of faces on the street, but this is by no means new.  Now, we call it ‘multiculturalism’, but it used to happen a hundred years ago as well.  Here is what ‘James O'Connell’ wrote in 1836, preserving his spelling:

In George street, the grand thoroughfare, the visiter is amused with the motley group of divers nations, kindreds, and tongues that he encounters.  New Holland is less exclusively the residence of convicts than the reader may have imagined.  Settlers and visiters from all portions of the globe — Spaniards, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Americans, Chinese, Malays, Kanakas or South Sea Islanders, the latter arriving in whale ships, add variety to a scene which, without them, would be varied enough.

‘O'Connell’ was an escaped convict who had clearly spent several New Year's days here before he escaped to Ponape (Pohnpei) in what was then the Caroline Islands, and later to the United States, but let us stay with the present, for now.

Other Australians will spend New Year's Day in the bush.  No, not in A bush, but in the bush.  That is, in what other lands might call a wilderness, a forest, a jungle, or even a heath.  To us, these are all one and the same: they are all ‘bush’.  Where other nations go hiking or back-packing, we go bush-walking.  Last century, we never had highwaymen, but we always had our bushrangers.  We took the word "bushranger" from the Americans, who used it to mean anybody who roamed freely through the forests, but it soon took on the meaning of an armed robber.

‘Bush’ can also mean anything rural, not of the city, as in ‘the city or the bush’, or as in a classic ribald poem, ‘The Bastard from the Bush’, but mainly it refers to those patches of native Australian vegetation which are to be found, even in the middle of a city of nearly four million people like Sydney.

New Year's Day will be a hot and listless high summer day, so the sensible thing to do is to find a shady spot beside a creek, to swim a bit, to eat a bit, to drink a bit, to relax and enjoy the quietness.  One of the joys of Sydney is that you can find clean cool water in a quiet gully, within an hour of the very centre of the city.  The most preferred housing sites have a harbour view, closely followed by those looking over, and surrounded by, bush.

Of course, this can also a drawback, for those patches of bush can flare up into cruel bushfires, but that is something most people prefer not to think about on New Year's Day.  It is high summer, there is cricket on TV, beer in the fridge, and tomorrow will be a time to relax, at least for now.

I might just spend a few days in the bush. After all, ours is an evolving culture.

Still, bliadhna mhath ur.


  1. We in Southern California will probably have a sunny January 1. Whether it will be hot (in the 80s F), is another story. Millions watching the Rose Parade may decide to pack up and move here. We'd welcome many tons of snow, preferably melted. See the 2017 wildfires ;)

  2. This was evocative of much, and a gentle and acerbic musing on turning the wheel of the year. Gratitude to you.