Stay out of the shops!

There were two reasons why I was excited, a few months ago, to walk into my second favourite bookshop.  Firstly, the senior partner wasn’t with me.  This meant I was to have the rare pleasure of slowly pondering the tomes without him huffily checking his watch and telling me I don’t need any more cookbooks.  Secondly, Berkelouw Books has a toilet, so I knew I could relieve the effect any bookstore or library has on my digestive system, and then carry on browsing, clench-free.  I was looking for something new, an author I’d not read before, maybe a whole new genre.  So I asked the two assistants behind the counter for their opinion.  They looked at me with blank faces and there was an awkward silence, until one of them said: ‘Er…I don’t really read.  Much.’

I resisted.  Honestly, I did.

Then I said:  ‘You know, I don’t have to come in here.  I can buy any book in this shop, online, for less than half the price and have it delivered, free of charge, to my door.  Or I can use my kindle and have it instantly in a format which is easier to read than a book.  And cheaper.  But I come in here because I like this bookshop and I want to support it.  And because it provides me with a shopping experience.  So don’t tell me you don’t read, much, because all you’re really saying is that you’re completely unqualified to do your job, both in terms of experience and attitude.’

Of course, I didn’t say this in the shop.  I said it about twenty minutes later on the way home, and I said it in my head, but I think she got the point.

Here’s another one.  Last winter I had the shopportunity to get a new ski jacket.  That’s a big purchase, so I did lots of research online and carefully chose the one I wanted.  Then I went to a store in Sydney and almost cried to find it was a whopping $900.  Back online, I found it in the States for $300.  Not on sale, that’s just how much it cost.  Except, guess what, they don’t sell online to Australia.  So I paid a shipping firm in California $10 to buy it for me and another $20 to deliver it to my door.

Then, on Sunday, I was in David Jones.  By the way, I don’t spend my life shopping, honestly, these examples cover twelve months.  Anyway, three shop assistants – three! – chatted around me as I struggled to reach a teapot at the back of the shelf.  Now, I know they were all on the tired side of fifty, and I know it was a Sunday,  and I know department-store lighting plays merry hell with your skin, but all the same.  Ladies, come on, the job title is Shop Assistant, there’s a bit of a clue in there.  Anyway, then I saw the price and thought ‘I’m not paying $345 for that!’, came home and found it for $119 online.

If you’re reading this in Australia you’ll have your own examples.  For the rest of you, people in Sydney swap these stories almost as much as we talk about property prices.   Surprisingly, both conversations are great social levellers.  This is because everybody hates being ripped off and nobody can believe how much property costs.  Investors in their sixties cashing in their pensions to buy an investment;  couples in their fifties moving into their last house;  people in their forties looking for something they can pay off before they retire;  thirty-somethings trying to get on the ladder.  We all struggle to believe what we have to pay.  And the twenty-somethings?  Don’t be silly, no-one in their twenties can even think about buying property over here.

Recently, though,  something interesting has started happening.

Firstly, the guilt at buying online  – ‘I know I should by local but it’s just too exxy’  – has begun to assuage.  This is partly because of the price difference, but mostly it’s because of the appalling level of service.  You feel less guilty threatening someone’s job if they can’t be arsed doing that job in the first place.  (On the other hand, I know full well I could get my sports-shoes cheaper online, but those guys at The Running Company are knowledgeable, helpful and charming, so I’ll always go there.)

Secondly, a few people have started whispering that Australia ‘needs a recession’.  After all, we haven’t had one in over twenty years.  Then property prices would fall.  Shops would learn to give a fair price, and service would have to improve because people would be competing for jobs and sales.  This kind of talk makes me curious: why are we Australians the only people in the world to call it the GFC  (that’s Global Financial Crisis for readers overseas), when we’re one of the few countries to prove it wasn’t a global phenomenon?

But, more than that, talk of ‘needing a recession’ makes me very uncomfortable.  It’s not as bad as saying we need a war, but it’s on the same scale of Be Careful What You Wish For.  Because let’s look at it another way:  maybe I should just stop my white whine.  “Boo-hoo!  I have to go online to get a good deal on a top-end ski-jacket.”  “Boo-hoo, a twenty-year old science student working part-time in a bookstore isn’t more widely read than me.”  “Boo-hoo, ageing shop assistants aren’t so desperate for commission they’ll massage my ego.”

Property prices are different:  it’s a national disgrace that successive governments have done nothing to make housing affordable for young families, instead structuring taxes to favour wealthy investors.  But the rest is just whining.   Everything being expensive is the price we pay for living in a country with a decent minimum wage, close to full employment and half the raw materials China needs to build its cities.  We need a recession?  Give me a break.  Say that to anyone in the US or Europe and see how they react.  We are the lucky country and we should never, ever forget it.

Anyway, must dash.  The postman’s at the door with some Australian wine I found cheaper online in London.



Are you a dude?  I bet you are.  I bet you’re such a dude you don’t know what a dude you are.

When we were moving to Australia, I remember watching Finding Nemo on the plane.  Or, I should say, I think I remember that.  Increasingly, these days, the senior partner tells me I’ve inherited one of my mother’s strongest tendencies:  to never let the truth get between me and a good story.  It’s a curse, or maybe a gift, at the very least a family trait.  And, no, it’s not lying.  It’s just a trick of the memory which makes facts fit a better story.  So maybe it wasn’t actually on the plane but it was certainly around that time.  I know that for sure because it’s bundled closely with my perceptions of what I wanted life in Australia to be .  I wanted to become like Crush, the surfer-type turtle who helps Nemo’s dad find his way down the East Australian Current.  I wanted to be a dude.

I love the word ‘dude’.  I particularly love it when it’s used genuinely and without affectation.  During beach volleyball games there is an unwritten rule: if a hottie walks past, the game can subtly pause so all players can have a good look.  Fair enough.  It’s normally the server who introduces the lull, as otherwise your wandering attention could lose you a point.  I was once about to serve when a really hot bloke crossed the sand in an appropriately tight pair of shorts.  My team-mate that day, who clearly didn’t know me very well, looked at what I was looking at and swung round confused.  ‘Dude!’ he yelled.  ‘That’s a dude!’

Another occasion which springs to mind was when a friend rescued me from One of Those Days, got me stoned and took me to play crazy golf.  This, by the way, is a highly recommended rescue-plan.  We were on Hole 8, trying to get the ball through the spinning windmill, onto the hippopotamus and down the winding path (at least that’s how I remember it), when the kids behind us started to play through.  There were six or seven of them, excited ten-year olds who just needed telling how to behave.
‘Dude,’ said my friend,  ‘that’s not cool, just wait up, yeah?’  And then next time it happened:  ‘Dude!  Just wait back!’
‘Don’t call me a dude!’ said the affronted ten-year old.  And then, as he turned away to his mates, we heard him say.  ‘What does that mean, anyway?’

Which says a lot really.  You see, the word ‘dude’, so often confused with coolness, is actually sadly out-of-date, like a teacher dancing at a school disco.  You can only use it ironically.  Which comes to my other favourite use of the word.  It’s when I go to the ocean with my mates, who politely ignore the fact that after four years of trying I still can’t really surf.  ‘Dude, surfs up!’, as an sms, is a wonderfully sympathetic invitation.  (Isn’t it?)

But the ten-year-old golfer asked a good question.  What is a dude? Well, it’s not what I thought it was when I first saw Finding Nemo.  Crush is a dude, but not because he says things like ‘Tja’ for yes, or can surf the current, or is sleepy-eyed or low-voiced or slow-thinking or cool.  You can be all of these and still not be a dude.  Like a guy I used to know.  This guy is six foot something, slowly spoken, an awesome surfer, a gnarly mountain-biker, a fearless snowboarder.  He’s quiet, extremely good at fixing things and almost always half-stoned.  ‘Whoa’ I thought when I first met him.  ‘What a dude.’  But I was wrong.  Because, long story short, this guy turned out to be a bit of an arsehole.  And you can’t be an arsehole and also a dude.  Cool is cool, but decent is way cooler.

And that’s why Crush is a dude, because he helps Nemo’s dad find his way to his son.  And that’s why all my mates are dudes.  Some might surf better than others (most don’t surf at all), some might smoke more weed than others (I’m clean six months, two weeks and six days today!) and some of them might even be cool.  I, personally, will never be cool.  I have many qualities, but coolness is never going to be one of them.  But I will cross the street to help a stranger, I’ll always avoid a fight and I will even, if it makes the world a better place, shrug my shoulders and let myself be wronged.  All of which makes me a dude.  Because, basically, a dude is like an old-fashioned gentleman.  Or even better, it’s a modern gentleman, without the brylcream, the bias or the bullying.  And if you’re reading this – and I hope you are – then you’re probably a friend of mine and you probably behave this way all the time.  So chill out, man.  You’re a dude.  Even if you’re a chick.