The treacle

We lived in Adelaide for nearly a year, back in 1998 / 1999. It was a lovely town, full of parks and museums and beaches and galleries and good food and good wine. The pace of life seemed slow, pleasantly so.

We moved back at the start of 2008, nearly 10 years later. In the decade of our absence, it seemed that nothing had changed. At all. The only developments that I noticed was the extension of the tram line from its former terminus in Victoria Square, to West Terrace, and the building of the freeway from the south eastern corner of Adelaide, up to the hills. Nothing else. And during the three years we have been here, the only development has been a further extension of the tram line.

The pace of life is not just slow in Adelaide. As friends of ours described it, living in Adelaide is like swimming in treacle. The sun is shining, the food and wine are good, life is easy, and if there is a problem to be solved, well, it can wait, can’t it?

I have met some dynamic individuals during my time here, impressive people who are working hard, with vision, and making a large contribution to Adelaide and South Australia and its institutions. A tax partner in one of the large accounting firms, a senior manager in the public service, the principal of my children’s school, some academics doing world class work. But there are plenty of people who are just pottering along, looking for someone else to solve their problems, saying it’s not my fault, not my problem, who can I divert you to so that I don’t have to do anything.

I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing. A relaxed and easy life sounds pretty good to me, and perhaps we shouldn’t be so concerned about getting ahead and getting things done. On the other hand, I have heard that federal politicians complain that whenever they meet with a state pollie from South Australia, the state pollie has her or his hand out, asking for something. They never fly to Canberra with a great idea, a plan for something that would benefit the whole country, a vision to be shared. Perhaps relaxed-and-easy slips over into lassitude. Yet South Australia has a tremendous reputation as a reforming state: first in Australia to give women the vote, and the state that coped and found a whole lot of tolerance and even celebration of Don Dunstan and his pink shorts. But then there’s the whole private school scene, which seems to be about buying privilege rather than trying to get a good education for your children. All the more so when the top state schools are level pegging with the top private schools when it comes to educational achievement. For example, until very recently the upper echelons of the legal establishment in South Australia was reserved for boys from St Peter’s, or perhaps St Ignatius. Where you went to school, where you send your children to school, matters in South Australia. One of the things I found disturbing was some academic colleagues who were determined to send their children to private schools, even though they could read the statistics perfectly well for themselves. The contortions they went into about character and extra-curricular activities, and the type of children they wanted their children to associate with, astonished me. Anything to justify the purchasing of privilege. I’m fine with people sending their children to a church school because they are church people, or with sending a child to a particular school because of a particular programme that is available there that suits that particular child, but worrying about a child’s associates, as though the kids in your local neighbourhood aren’t quite good enough for you, makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. And it seems to me to be a manifestation of the treacle: this is the way things are done around here and really it’s too difficult to change and let’s have another glass of wine and chat about the weather.

I’m curious to know what other Adelaide people think about the treacle.

And for all that, let me stress how much I liked Adelaide. It really is a very pleasant place to live, and I will miss many, many aspects of it very much. It could well be that what I am perceiving as treacle had more to do with the institutions where I was working, and the area in which I was living, instead of a being a particular thing about Adelaide. The naming of “the treacle” made sense to me: it aptly described parts of my experience in Adelaide. But I’m well aware that it could be just my experience. Thoughts?


11 responses to “The treacle

  1. I’ve noticed similar in Melbourne, with regards to class, education, and conservatism*. I do think that a situation where a lot of people have a lot to lose from a shift in affairs breeds a society where things are justified without recourse to justification, not just by the rich but by all, and Adelaide and Melbourne fit this. Non-“white” groups usually attach to particular margins in Melbourne, and adopt the languages and social positioning of the rest rather quickly. Canberra is slightly different, in that it is so small that everybody fits more comfortably into slots without the need to enact such strong markers of class (without contradiction, it also has the highest percentage of private schooling, over 40%).

    *(Its much feted ‘cultural’ ethos being limited to a small and geographically defined region where it can be picture framed and displayed for the consumption of elites, Melbourne, and foreign cultural consumers (usually tourists)).

  2. As a young person who has lived his entire life in Adelaide, I can honestly say I was a little astonished when I first realised that things are not like this everywhere.

    I love living in Adelaide, but it almost feels like the tutorial level of a video game, where nothing is all that challenging and no big changes happen until you’re ready to move on. It’s like a capital city designed to prepare you for other cities. These days, I tend to think of it as a base of operations; I can spend two weeks in Brisbane or a month overseas (or ten years, as you say) and be confident in the fact that, upon returning to Adelaide, nothing meaningful will have changed.

  3. I don’t know Adelaide, I’ve just had Adelaide expat friends. Your description is pretty spot on with their stereotype of the place (although treacle is a better word than I’ve heard before).

    But your description of the private school ethos sounds very like Sydney, to me, at least in the constant conversation we all have about where to send our kids to school. Our large number of immigrants (both internal to Australia and genuine foreigners) means the law firms can’t be that exclusive at Partner level. But they and the investment banks do a fair bit of that at graduate level, sadly.

    Best of luck back home, I’ve enjoyed your strange land blog, so I hope it will survive the transition to a less strange land.

  4. Adelaide resident am I (and I might add, happily so!). I must admit however that progress is slow and I wonder if, in part, this is due to the size of the city. As with slightly dysfunctional committees, everyone has to have an opinion and everyone must voice said opinion and no-one can vote on it until there is an option that everyone can agree on, 100%! The status quo will do quite nicely in the meantime, thankyou very much! I can’t express how much this infuriates me.

    I also wonder if it has anything to do with the disintegration of the influence of ‘the founding families’. Up until the 70’s the power base of SA had more to do with the influential families of the state (with many a deal done at The Adelaide Club) while the government provided social direction and infrastructure based on what this powerbase suggested. While not a politically correct system, it was one that worked and did provide our state with momentum, vision and vitality. Sadly the last 30 years have provided a vacuum of these three things so while Adelaide is a beautiful place in which to live, the opinionated residents, who can claim no town planning expertise (excet to say that things have always worked this way so why improve them), will continue to hold our town back

  5. I’m from Auckland and there’s a bit of the ‘right’ school going around. I always get the familar ‘oh’ when I mention my high school which happens to be a very brown school

  6. You’ll be recognising the impressive tax partner to whom I refer, I hope, Melissa.

    excet to say that things have always worked this way so why improve them

    I think that may be it in a nutshell…

  7. I grew up in working class Adelaide in the 60’s & 70’s and have lived in most Oz cities in the time since and I find distinct differences in cultures between States/Territories which very much derive from their history. There is even a cultural differences between them in their attitudes to the first peoples of their State/Territory.

    Adelaide was settled by rich anglicans who brought acreage “off the plan” – usually by fiddling the books so that they could buy larger allotments than allowed.

    Those rich anglican’s essentually divided all of the arable land between them and then brought out their own peasants to farm their land and build their mansions. There were no convicts and blackfellas were dealt with by poisoned flour rather than crass hunting parties or wars.

    All of that still remains in Adelaide – it is more class stratified than any other city, the east-side produces accents like Alexander Downer & Chrissy Pyne for god’s sake.

    Even the bohemian latte drinking class that dominate’s adelaide’s coffee shops is directly traceable back to the State’s Anglican, landed genrty, ‘free settler’ (ie no squatters) roots

  8. Island View, not sure where you’re getting your history from. Most of the SA colonists were religious Nonconformists (ie formal breakaways from mainstream Anglicanism); the land thing was far more strictly regulated than in other states so even the most blatant attempts at land grabs were only partially successful; and the relations with Indigenous people, while still often regrettable, were much better than in most other states (not that that’s saying much, I know).

    Also, Hugh Stretton argues that the Adelaide Club and the OAFs (Old Adelaide Families) were less powerful than popularly supposed, although of course they liked to think they were.

    I’m really interested in (and quite relieved by, in a sick sort of a way) the people on this thread who are saying that the private school thing is just as bad in Melbourne and Sydney. Deborah, I was thinking while I read the post that you may have been mistaking a national effect for a local one. It’s not Adelaide as such, so much: it’s more eleven years of the Howard Government systematically white-anting and running down the public system, not just by siphoning money away to the private schools but also by the rhetorical running down of state education. (Example: ‘If you really loved your children you’d send them to a private school’, which is only a slight exaggeration of what the Howard govt was saying to the Aust populace for 11 years.) Similarly, the universities have suffered on a national scale from the attempt to turn them into profit-making entities. Genuine scholarship and research and intellectual endeavour have given way to things with money in them.

    I agree with you absolutely about the lotus eating though. And if you think the schools and universities are treacly, apparently the public service is MUCH WORSE.

  9. The old school thing is one of the first things I noticed about Sydney when I arrived her nearly 13 years ago. In NZ I’d never been asked where I went to school, but it is a common class marker in Sydney – despite the fact that so many people didn’t grow up there so the answer is essentially meaningless in Sydney terms. My late partner swore she got a job in her 40s because of the school that she attended for a short time, more than 30 years before, was the alma mater of the chair of the interview panel – she was as good as told so by that chair when she commenced.

  10. Yes I think the private school thing happens in Sydney but by virtue of its being a much larger and more dynamic city, there is much more variety; ie. many more and different types of private school, whereas Adelaide only seems to have two or three that ‘matter’; and of course there are literally millions of Sydney inhabitants for whom the private school thing is irrelevant.
    I had a long relationship with someone from Adelaide when I was young and I always had the impression of a very codified society. It’s interesting that you think of it as treacly Deborah as Adelaide is the Australian city that seems most like New Zealand (eg Christchurch or Wellington) to me.

  11. Treacle – YES!
    I’ve been living in Adelaide for six years now and this is one of the things that really irritates me about the place. The complacency, the hidebound rigid thinking, the refusal to stray outside of the deep rut formed by always doing things the same way forever and never changing because even though it doesn’t work, this is the way we do it.

    The socioeconomic stratification in Adelaide is also quite striking compared to other cities, as is the influence of what is evidently the ‘old money’. I think the private-school thing is a manifestation of that.

    Hope the move is going well!