The one in which Neil gets ready for a return to the UK…
More cost, less speed.
Incredibly, it’s been 5 months since my last ‘Notes’ update to this haphazard canon, but in my defence, it’s not been down to laziness on my part; instead, it’s simply coincided with a rather busy period for Heather and me, involving Heather launching her ‘So Different’ Concierge Seamstress business with tremendous instant success, whilst my slower-burning ventures and sporadic income have involved building a studio here at home to provide an ‘overnight’ audio editing and mixing service to northern hemisphere clients (www.theaudiosuite.com.au) (3 significant projects completed), launching the online Sound for Moving Pictures Academy (www.soundformovingpictures.com) (2 courses successfully delivered) and being engaged as a freelance Audio Director, supervising and mixing live-to-air sports Outside Broadcasts for Australian – and beyond – sports channels. I’ve even travelled inter-state doing this, flying to Melbourne at very short notice to replace an Audio Director who went sick. This is good progress.
But those are all the ‘professional’ side of things; the personal bits, the bits that really call on your time and energy – as anyone who has moved house, let alone emigrated, will tell you – is getting the new house in order and fitting all the old things in. (It’s amazing what fits in straight away, and what looks out of place – generally the former are the things that you didn’t think twice about bringing, whilst the latter are the things that you knew should go, but instead you brought them 10,000 miles to dispose of them on a different continent.)
It took the symbolic act of our furniture finally arriving on January 21st – along with all of our other essential things like clothes, personal possessions, 4 industrial sewing machines, 3 motorcycles, 2 studios worth of sound equipment and 1 voice booth – to really allow us to make a start on establishing ourselves; and to feel like we were here for the long haul, and not on some bizarre and protracted package holiday, where our luggage had gone missing and the travel firm had gone bust.
We’d left the UK on the 7th of June the previous year, and went on to spend 228 days without any of our stuff (not that we were counting) other than that which could be carried, or fitted in a suitcase; and in the interim the freight forwarders kindly loaded us with a hefty surcharge for some vague ‘unexpected costs’ that somehow occurred between us paying their fees in full when we left the UK, and our container ship the Santa Vanessa docking in the Port of Brisbane. I was tempted to be at the dockside when she arrived to see if Captain Jack Sparrow was at the helm, and if the skull and crossbones was flying aloft, instead of the national flag of Liberia.
It wasn’t just Covid that had ratcheted up the costs of course: in late March 2021, the container ship Ever Given managed to get itself stuck in the Suez Canal for over 6 days, and in turn, this caused mayhem to already taut supply chains around the world; and not least of all, it pushed up the cost of renting shipping containers that in any case were full of someone else’s goods, and sitting somewhere else in the world, other than where they were supposed to be.
It seemed that everyone suffered: wholesalers, retailers, traders, consumers; everyone that is but the shipping companies who managed to find a silver lining in this cloudy sky.
Whilst the operating company for the Suez Canal were reportedly losing $15 million a day (https://www.bbc.com/news/business-56559073), in the 9 months that straddled the grounding incident, Hapag-Lloyd – one of the biggest sea freight operators in the world – saw their profits soar 10-fold from $564 million to $6.41 billion. (https://www.reuters.com/business/hapag-lloyd-nine-month-net-profit-soars-over-10-fold-record-freight-rates-2021-11-12/)
Not since the Egyptians took control of the Canal in 1956, after 87 years of British and French ownership – the principle stockholder at the time was that usual suspect of international intrigue, political positioning and financial opportunity, the questionable Rothschilds – had the world’s attention been brought to bear on this single-lane stretch of water.
The Suez Canal is the same length as driving from Birmingham to London, so think of it as the M40 of the Mediterranean, at 193 kilometres (120 miles) long, 24 metres deep and 200 metres wide (but minus the traveller’s delight that is Welcome Break’s Oxford Services); and if proof were ever needed, here was a state of affairs that proved that ‘one man’s loss is another man’s gain’.
But it wasn’t just the shipping companies licking their lips at the situation: our freight forwarders – Allied Pickfords in Brisbane – were seemingly not averse to dipping their nose in the trough, too. First came a cleaning bill for $814, because one of the motorcycles had ‘organic contamination’. When pressed though, (and when I requested picture evidence, because the bikes had been subjected to extensive and expensive cleaning to prevent such issues cropping-up, before they were encased in their wooden crates in the UK) this charge was dropped to $250, but sadly, not written-off; even though it was established that the sum total of the contamination comprised of 5 dandelion spores resting on one of the engine casings, and these were of a species (Taraxacum officinale) that is native to both Australia and the UK, and could easily have blown on to the engine from Allied Pickfords’ wind-swept marshalling yard. ‘How can a native species present a bio-hazard’, I asked? No one answered, and worse still, it wasn’t the end of our freight-forwarding frustration.
Because then came the news that my 1.3m x 1.3m x 2.2m voice booth (which for some reason Pickfords started to refer to as ‘your solarium’ – I’m sure they did this just to wind me up – as if a Pom is likely to find themselves short of sun in Queensland) and which comprises of an assembly of 8 substantial, but not outrageously heavy, soundproofed metal side panels and two roof panels, could not be delivered by Allied Pickfords themselves, because they ‘didn’t have a vehicle that could carry such a weight’. Therefore, we would need to source a vehicle to deliver it from their yard, at our expense.
I did make the point, that having paid considerably more than £10,000 to have the contents of our home in Birmingham delivered to our new home in Brisbane, them accepting the job and agreeing to do this, and us exchanging a legal contract to this effect, it was not unreasonable of me to expect that the voice booth would be delivered as agreed, along with the other 377 packages detailed on the wallpaper-length ‘B534e Unaccompanied Personal Effects Statement’ form, as required by the Australian customs office.
The next excuse was that Australian Health & Safety policy dictated that their employees could not be expected to lift loads heavier than a certain weight. Speaking to the Manager as far up the chain as I could ascend by telephone, I asked him ‘How experienced is your company in removals? Do you, for instance, move grand pianos?’ ‘Oh yes, of course we do’, came the reply. ‘Ah, well, that’s good to know’, I said; ‘because the booth weighs considerably less than a grand piano’.
However, it still took a ‘Without Prejudice’ letter advising that I would be suing them for breach of contract before the booth made it home with the rest of our belongings. If anyone is ever considering a thoughtful gift for me, please could I have back the hours of my life that I spent dealing with Allied ‘Ever Helpful’ Pickfords? That would be great.
With an impressive display of coincidence and synchronicity, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse gathered in South-East Queensland on the same day (February 22nd), that Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced that the compulsory wearing of face masks outside of Queensland homes would be lifted. In my mind, they were looking down on the state’s capital city from the top of my beloved Mount Coot-Tha; and like I do, they no doubt enjoyed a Boysenberry ice cream cone whilst admiring the view that stretches out as far as the ocean. (People look at you strangely here if you refer to it as ‘the seaside’.)
It was a significant date because this was the day that the rain set in. And so, as one tribulation was weathered, another trial began: which came to be known as the Great Brisbane Floods of 2022.
It’s rain of course that causes the problem, that and the river; and Brisbane, being both sub-tropical and the only capital city in Australia to be built on a flood plain, has a recurrent problem with flooding; and has done since the time of Brisbane being known as Meanjin by the ancient and original custodians of this part of the country, the Turrbal people. (The word ‘Meanjin’ in Turrbal translates as ‘a place shaped like a spike’ and is a reference to the spike, or finger of land, shaped by a bend in the Brisbane River, and where the Brisbane central business district is now located.) The characteristic of wet summers and dry winters have shaped this land, and you would have thought, how it needed to be inhabited; but the early British settlers took not one jot of notice of this, of course.
Queensland was first seen by Europeans in the 1600s, when Dutch explorer Willem Jansz landed on the Cape York Peninsula in 1606, and in 1623 Jan Carstens explored the Gulf of Carpentaria. But it is an Englishman, Lieutenant James Cook, who is acknowledged as the first European to encounter Queensland’s east coast, in 1770, as part of his voyage to the New World in HMS Endeavour.
Some 18 years later, Sydney became the first area of settlement in Australia and consisted of about 850 convicts and their Marine guards and officers, led by Governor Arthur Phillip. They arrived at Botany Bay in the “First Fleet” of 9 transport ships accompanied by 2 small warships, in January 1788. But it took until 1825 for Europeans to settle in Queensland, when Brisbane was selected as a penal settlement for the more difficult convicts. This function came to an end in 1839, when the land, originally part of the colony of New South Wales, was prepared for sale to enable permanent settlement.
As Queensland’s economic significance increased, its productivity and population expanded, and the people of Queensland began to realise the importance of Brisbane as a port and urban centre. A desire to separate began to emerge, and in 1859, Queen Victoria signed papers to grant Queensland its independence from New South Wales. (A rivalry however – mainly in politics and sport – has remained ever since. That and a stubbon refusal by Queensland to adopt Daylight Saving Time; which is a pest for 6 months of the year.)
Severe flooding occurred in the Brisbane River in 1887, 1889, 1890, 1893 and 1908 – so it could hardly be said that there wasn’t a pattern that could be observed – but then came a break until the next catastrophe, which was in 1931. After that, the next major flooding of the Brisbane River took place forty-three years later in 1974, and then thirty-seven years passed between the 1974 inundation and the great flood of 2011.
This time around, we’d been forewarned of impending heavy rain by the Bureau of Meteorology, attributing it to the La Niña low pressure weather system that was approaching Queensland’s southern coast, which was dragging in moisture from the Coral Sea in the north, and promising to deliver it over the Queensland coastline.
And as luck would have it, this significant weather event coincided with our ‘great Australian birthday weekend’; a planned celebration and outing when Heather would be surrounded by 2 of her 3 children, and 3 of her 4 grandchildren, at Willowbank Raceway for an afternoon of hot-rod racing and some truly sumptuous picnic food. The children had never been motor racing before and were all supplied with Bunnings best ear-defenders, in anticipation of the revving, roaring and racing that was scheduled to take place along the famous ¼-mile strip.
Thankfully, we also equipped them with enveloping plastic ponchos. Because after just two races – we saw perhaps only 10 minutes in total of machines heating their tyres and burning rubber, before shooting off into the distance – the heavens opened… And then it continued to rain pretty constantly until early April, as Australia’s east coast endured three intense weather systems that led to record rains and flooding.
Within three days of our doomed drag-strip day out, Brisbane had received 31.2 inches (792.8 millimetres) of rain, and by the end of the first week of March, southern Queensland and northern New South Wales had each received more than a year’s worth of rainfall in a week.
April’s rain was over 30% higher than the Australian average, and records for rainfall were still being broken in May. The effect was catastrophic: the February to April 2022 Brisbane flooding caused an estimated $3.5 billion worth of damage, as 20,000 homes and businesses were severely affected. Tragically, 23 people also lost their lives.
With the long-running legal case against those responsible for the flood management failures that exacerbated the impact of the 2011 floods still not settled, huge numbers of homes and businesses were uninsured; unable to pay the not unheard-of premiums that were in some cases in the realms of $40,000 per year. Many Brisbane properties in areas likely to flood, have now become economically uninsurable for the average homeowner.
(With cruel timing at the end of April 2022, dam and flood defence operator Seqwater, on appeal after previously being found vicariously liable in court for the actions of two engineers who released large volumes of water at the height of the 2011 floods and needlessly damaged more properties by their actions, reached a settlement of $440 million with the legal team that brought the class action against them. This represented a healthy discount of well over 50% on the $900 million originally awarded to the flood victims by the court, and resulted in only small, token payments being made to the home and business owners affected. With that payout of $440 million being just 12.5% of the estimated $3.5 billion of damage done by the floods, this has to be viewed as a real bargain-price settlement for Seqwater.) (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-04-12/qld-2011-floods-high-court-victims-negligence-claim-quashed/100986536)
What bites into any provision property owners might make for these insurance premiums is the enormous cost of buying a home in Brisbane. This year, the sunshine state’s capital house prices have grown by over 32%, year-on-year: that’s a $553 increase per day, day-in, day-out, on median-priced homes – the fastest of any Australian major city – and the property gold rush is showing no signs of stopping, despite fears of it overheating and then crashing. Local rumours are that sellers from the southern states of Victoria and New South Wales come north for the sun and have cash to spare from selling their homes in traditional property hot spots, such as Melbourne and Sydney.
Dr Nicola Powell, chief of research and economics for industry body Domain, said a unique cocktail of ingredients was behind the surge that, unlike Sydney and Melbourne, was far from fizzling out.
‘The special ingredient for Brisbane is that it has been the strongest recipient of population growth; Queensland recorded the strongest annual population growth of all the states, driven by heightened interstate migration,’ Dr Powell said.
‘This interest [has been] supercharged by the opening of international borders, eased social distancing rules and high vaccination rates – particularly from young families seeking better affordability, lifestyle, work-life balance, and the expanding jobs market on offer in Queensland. Also, the 2032 Olympic Games will underpin strong infrastructure, population, and economic growth over the next decade.’ (https://www.smh.com.au/property/news/the-australian-city-where-house-prices-are-growing-by-olympic-proportions-20220427-p5aggm.html)
But whatever it is that’s fuelling the fire, the floods did little to abate the feeding frenzy. Most houses sell at auction here, and a house for sale in Graceville – an area wiped-out by the 2011 floods and with a record stretching back in time for being adversely affected by the flooding of the Brisbane River – eventually sold for $1.8 million, with 10 bidders forcing the sale price way above the reserve price. (https://www.news.com.au/finance/real-estate/buying/brisbane-flooding-doesnt-halt-booming-property-market/news-story/ccbdc2a0ea1df903eecfb496f086d39b)
I use this example because we know Graceville and we know how our friends lost everything there, when their house went under in the 2011 floods. Luckily, they were insured, and they rebuilt their house. But the 2022 floods came along and managed to wipe them out again. (https://www.suncorpgroup.com.au/news/features/queensland-floods-10-years-on-rebuilding-after-flood)
If it weren’t so heart-wrenching, the upsetting stories we were watching on the evening news – hoping for signs that the waters were finally receding – could be considered Python-esque. I’m thinking of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when a land-owning nobleman attempts to inspire his insipid son:
‘When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So, I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that’s what you’re going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.’
The spirit and characteristic of these Aussies is of being utterly indomitable; and it needs to be in this land of geographical and meteorological extremes. Being here during this flood has showed me how they possess it in spades, and it’s impossible not to have the greatest admiration for the courage, resourcefulness and kindness of the people here. They have my highest respect.
For our part, we hosted a family of four plus a dog and a cat for 5 days, until the danger of water entering their property finally diminished enough for them to feel safe enough to return home – the speed at which the water rises is frightening. In a country like this, it’s heartening to see how community and family pull together at times of crisis.
I am immensely grateful that we escaped lightly, with nothing more than saturated ground causing our gardens and patios to overflow to our thresholds; but the house remained watertight. Heather had lived in the Western Brisbane suburbs for 9 years before she moved back to the UK and we became a couple, and she chose the location of our rental house very shrewdly; and all the more commendably so (or probably with much less impediment) as it was whilst I was away at the Olympics and Paralympics in Japan. Yet again, I thanked my lucky stars for marrying such a capable and well-organized woman.
High on the side of a valley, with few properties above us, Sinnamon Park has quickly become a house very close to our heart, and we care for it just as lovingly as if it were our own. Oh, that our tenants might have done the same for us with our UK home.
Leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again…
At the beginning of July I’m returning to the UK, ostensibly to work as a Sound Supervisor (known as an Audio Director over here) on the Commonwealth Games – which I’m looking forward to immensely. It will be my third ‘Commonwealths’ (after the Glasgow 2014 and Gold Coast 2018 games) and it’s incredibly convenient that it will take place in my hometown of Birmingham.
But my solo return is not without some challenges: not least of all that our house has been all but trashed by the tenants that were clearly poorly vetted in the first place, and by 12 months of inactivity on the part of the Managing Agents (yes Rice Chamberlains of Moseley, I’m absolutely talking about you).
Despite promises of inspections every 3 months (as we have here in Australia), platitudes that Covid made it oh so very difficult to carry out any periodic inspections – and my increasing frustration and unease at the agents lack of interest – meant that my worst fears came to fruition when at 9 and a half months, the first report came back with photographs showing an expensive bath tap snapped off, a missing toilet seat in the family bathroom, burns in the carpets, a roller blind in a child’s bedroom shredded… (I could go on, the list is truly extensive, but the tears are welling as I write this).
Each month we paid 10% of the rental income over to the estate agent for them to do, as it now turns out, precisely nothing; and so, even with a tenant’s deposit that must surely be forfeited, we will be thousands of pounds out of pocket by needing to employ tradesmen to put the house back to something approaching the immaculate state it was handed over in; and in a timely manner, too, because we’re dependant on the income from this house to pay for our rental property here in Australia. We’ve carefully calculated and budgeted our costs, and by not living the lifestyle of David and Victoria Beckham, we’ve made it work – but only just. There are some reserves that we prudently put aside for any void periods between lets, but this development will severely erode that.
Living the lifestyle that we do in these early days – with the constant balancing of our costs – comes at a mental as well as financial cost, (for me, anyway… Heather has complete confidence that the universe will never see us homeless) and I know that many would gladly swap places with our set of circumstances.
But it has been desperately dispiriting to see the damage inflicted, either carelessly or wilfully, by the tenant. Although what seems worse to me somehow is the inexorable ineptitude of the estate agent, who we entrusted to simply do their job. In my most recent email to the Manager of Rice Chamberlains, I rather dramatically summarised the depths of our disappointment in this way: ‘Every member of staff that was supposed to have had an active interest in managing this property on our behalf, should hang their head in shame.’ It took all my years of personal development to leave it at that.
Coming back to the UK also means I’ll get to see my parents again, after over a year of twice-a-week phone calls, that frustratingly we couldn’t convert to video WhatsApp calls – despite the purchase of a new smart-but-simple phone that we felt confident my mother had mastered before we left. So to see them and to measure their well-being is my first priority. (There are a few more heads that should hang in shame too, as my Mum and Dad have been unable to see a GP in all the time that we have been away.)
It will come as no surprise that to leave them at their advanced ages took some mental gymnastics on my part; swayed in the end by an acute and accelerating realisation of my own advancing years. It was tough, it is tough, and it is going to be tough seeing them in poorer health than when we left them; but I will be back there in a very short time, now. There are many here that have trod the path that I now tread, including Heather, who brings calm to me when, from time-to-time let’s say, I get discomforted.
Joyfully, I’ve also scheduled in visits to my 3 adult children, all busy and at different points of the compass in England (and Scotland) and friends who have been so loyally in touch on a regular basis, and made us truly understand that ‘closeness has nothing to do with distance’. An impending rail strike might put that to the test, however.
Of course, it seems no trip to or from Australia is without jeopardy for me, although this is not the kind of excitement I crave: I had to leave for the Tokyo Olympics without a Returning Resident Visa in place (and that’s a big deal that gets you taken to a special office at the departures security desk, where it’s explained to you in no uncertain terms that you won’t necessarily be allowed back in to the country. They’re terribly protective like that, the Australian government).
Due to Covid, the processing time of visas was greatly extended; although thankfully my visa was granted in time before I left Japan in 2021. This time, due to a lack of Covid, and everyone wanting to travel again, processing times have grown exponentially longer. Covid – it’s the excuse that keeps on giving.
As I write this, with about 2 weeks until my departure, there’s still no sign of the visa; and I applied for it weeks and weeks ago (funnily enough though, the fee was taken straight away). So what with one thing or another, I can’t help but think that this is going to be a rather tense and somewhat emotional journey.
And what will Britain be like after just one year away? Notwithstanding a possible summer of discontent thanks to industrial action and rampant double-digit inflation, are all the service industries as lethargic as the estate agent I had the misfortune to engage? (This might well be an international phenomenon, however.) Is the population anxious, resigned or worn-down by the seemingly incessant round of lies and incompetences from those entrusted to manage the country’s best interests? (Again, ditto that universal uneasiness at the ‘inverted totalitarianism‘ being played out by multiple governments in the ‘developed world’.) Or, will life simply have carried on in much the same manner as it always has, in my absence?
There’s an old saying that goes ‘you find what you’re looking for’. Which is good. Because I’m desperately looking forward to the company of our good friends and family, the opportunity to do great work as an audio professional engaged on a world class sporting event, and a Diwan Balti. And of course, to get our cherished Moseley house back into great shape. Because let’s face it, if my visa doesn’t come through, I’m going to need somewhere to live.
No doubt the joy of re-connecting with my parents, children and friends, the joy of the Commonwealth Games and the joy of refurbishing a home on a tight budget and an even tighter time-frame – but who knows what else is likely to happen?
Cover picture: The Lawo mc² 56 mixing console inside the NEP HD2 OB truck. [All pictures © Neil Hillman 2021 – 2022]
Annus Mirabilis is a poem written by John Dryden and was published in 1667. It commemorates the year of 1666, which despite the poem’s name ‘year of wonders’, it was also one of great tragedy, involving both the Plague and the Great Fire of London. Samuel Johnson wrote that Dryden used the phrase ‘annus mirabilis’ because it was a wonder that things were not worse.
I live and work on the lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I recognise them as the Traditional Custodians of this country.