Memoir

London calling

A capital adventure

WHEN I TOOK my first job in advertising in 1994 – in my home town, Melbourne – the last thing I was looking for was a career.

Like most graduates I was busy going out, drinking too much and fumbling my way through my first serious relationships. Careers were for grown-ups – my dad’s generation – the one job for forty years, gold watch, thanks-for-your-loyalty generation.

Advertising was interesting because it seemed to hedge its bets, with one foot in serious commerce and the other in ripped jeans, long lunches and a bar in the office. And because it paid a (terrifyingly small) salary and wasn’t based in a pub (at least not officially), my folks were off my case. Twenty-six years later the career I never went looking for has taken me around the world and back again, with twenty of those years abroad spent in London, plus a little hiatus in New York for good measure.

IN 1997 I was meandering through the gaudy halls of Melbourne’s new Crown Casino, wondering what all the fuss was about, when a news flash appeared on a giant-sized screen. Princess Diana had been injured in a car accident in Paris. Two days later I was in Hong Kong, finally on my way to London – a mecca for creatives, where the world’s best ad agencies created their famous campaigns. I’d never been to Europe, but had been reassured that London was right up my street – and while in the UK was keen to learn more about my Scottish family tree. I’d also decided that if I really wanted to make it in advertising, I needed to test my talents among the world’s best. After all, Australia – even Melbourne – must be but a backward outpost compared with the dizzying sophistication of London and wider Europe.

In Hong Kong I stayed at my sister’s apartment fully primed for a night on the town. The overwhelming sound of wailing British expats watching the news of Diana’s death unfold on the TV caught me a little off guard. I was shocked at just how much they cared for their princess and, for the first time in my life, I was genuinely lost for words. Sure, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke held the world record for sculling a yard glass of beer, but bawling my eyes out over an Australian leader’s death – even Bob’s, which came in 2019 – still seems utterly unthinkable.

This was the first of many experiences that exposed me to what makes Australians and the British so different and yet so very similar.

 

AFTER ARRIVING IN London, I spent an obligatory month dossing on the floor of two Melbourne mates in their flat above the Balti Hut in Tulse Hill, just near Brixton in south London, before completing step two of the relocation guide for Aussies-in-London: moving north to a truly terrible flat-share in Camden with water pressure so erratic that it must have contravened some United Nations convention or other. My job, when it began, was intense. I worked hard, arriving at the office early in the morning and leaving late when it was dark. During that bitter winter, I distinctly remember a terribly posh colleague called Harriet telling me how we Australians were different from the natives.

‘The thing is,’ Harriet said, ‘you lot just work your arses off, that’s why so many of you get jobs here. Everyone knows that you’re not here for long. So they get you in knowing that even if you only stay for a year, you’ll probably get more done than we will in two.’

I couldn’t help thinking: Is that really how we’re seen here? Not especially bright, but mostly good fun and bloody hardworking? Upon reflection, for many Brits, I think the answer would be a resounding absolutely. I didn’t particularly like Harriet’s generalisation but, generally speaking, I also think it’s true. Aussies working in London have a certain reputation, and it’s not always hugely flattering. Between wild brawls at the Oval, the Walkabout pub chain and Neighbours, we haven’t always covered ourselves in glory. Having said that, if I had a dollar for every ribald convict joke I endured over twenty years I would be typing this on my yacht instead – named Struth!, obviously – in St Tropez.

The differences between Australians and the British are myriad: accents, sporting codes, place names. But the ones I most enjoyed were the ones I least expected. I’ll default to my own comfort zone of brand recognition.

Pop quiz: What do these things have in common? Hey Hey It’s Saturday, Hawthorn footy club, Twisties, the Holden Monaro, Channel 9 News, Milo, Molly Meldrum, Chopper Read, the Herald Sun, David Boon, Trevor Hendy, Cliff Young, Nutri-Grain, Totem Tennis and Tim Tams. Answer: I’ll bet you Paul Hogan’s stubbies collection the average Brit has never heard of a single one. So the thing that blindsided me immediately upon arriving in the UK was that nearly all my day-to-day cultural reference points were gone. And this made working in advertising a minefield. I’d never tasted a Penguin biscuit bar, watched Top of the Pops, snacked on Peperami, sipped on a Tango, done my washing with Persil or plied my full English breakfast with HP Sauce. Nor did I have a natty Bruce Forsyth impersonation (‘Nice to see you, to see you, nice!’) or know the gossip about Chelsea’s latest manager to discuss in order to ingratiate myself at the water cooler.

And things got more curious from there. In my first year at TBWA\London, an ad agency at the top of its game in 1998, I eagerly volunteered to help with the agency’s graduate recruitment program. We were due to take on three or four fresh grads that year. We’d had over six hundred applications. Interviewing these eager young applicants was enlightening in the extreme. Many were graduates from some of Britain’s finest universities, where they had ‘read’ geography, literature, theology, history, art or a science subject. What on earth were they doing applying for jobs in advertising? In time it became clear to me that there were huge differences between attitudes towards tertiary education in Australia and the UK, Australia being much more vocationally oriented. Here were students who had studied history or theology to learn – not in order to become historians or priests. The distinction gave me much pause for thought. On more than one occasion since, I have looked back and wondered whether I might have taken a different path at university.

Academic attitudes aside, I was also struck by how many of these graduates had gone away to study, rather than staying in their home towns. In Australia, at least when I was younger, going away to university was a bit of a big deal – the exception rather than the rule. But in the UK it seemed that despite growing up in Leicester, Norfolk or Glasgow, many had studied at colleges in Manchester, Oxford, Leeds, Edinburgh or Bath. While I was still thick as thieves with my mates from high school in Melbourne, for most of these young people, their lasting friendship groups were formed at university.

Meanwhile, another aspect of work was blowing my mind in an altogether different, and much more pleasing, fashion: travel. As the shiny new account director responsible for all of the agency’s accounts beginning with ‘A’ (purely coincidental), I was busy on campaigns for Absolut Vodka, Air Miles and Apple, as well as a rather large French insurance company called AXA, who were naming sponsors of the FA Cup at the time.

And so it was that in 1998 and 1999 I attended several meetings at AXA’s Paris headquarters in Avenue Matignon. The majority of these journeys were made by Eurostar, and my abiding recollection is simply how cool it was to be ‘going to Paris for a meeting’ at all. The sheer proximity of Paris to London – the sheer proximity of dozens of other places – opened up an entirely new and exhilarating world of travel that I will never forget and always recall with a smile. Even for a vaguely worldly twenty-eight-year-old, Paris for lunch, Madrid for the weekend, a conference in Copenhagen or a party in Prague simply never got boring. We Australians may well be more intrepid than the average traveller, but I’ll take two hours on a Eurostar train ahead of twenty-three hours in cattle class every day of the week. Draw concentric circles around London, overlay them with two, three or even five hours’ flying time and you’ll cover many of the greatest cities on Earth. Obvious? Sure, but the experiences this afforded someone used to travelling a minimum of ten hours just to go abroad were sublime. In my first job in Melbourne my most exotic work trip involved taking a rental car to Wonthaggi. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Wonthaggi – it’s just I liked San Sebastián more. (To be fair to Wonthaggi, it’s a lot better than a heap of European cities. Like Brussels.)

 

LAST BUT NOT least, no recollection of working life in London would be complete without a reference to ‘the pub’ – and I now realise that every single agency I worked at in London was either next door to, or across the road from, a pub. The Carpenters Arms. The Blue Posts. The Clachan.
The Crown. Although we like to think that ‘we know pubs’ in Australia, I can guarantee you we don’t know them half as well as our British friends. ‘The pub’ was like the master-key answer to any question, situation or conundrum. ‘Where shall we meet?’ ‘What you doing after work?’ ‘What you doing now?’ ‘Where you gonna watch the game?’ ‘No plans this afternoon?’ ‘Got plans this afternoon?’ ‘Fancy a bite to eat?’ The list went on. One of the agencies I worked at actually owned a half-share of the pub over the road, reasoning, ‘If we’re gonna drive them over there we may as well enjoy some of the upside.’ Very creative thinking indeed.

I’ll end this loose sally of the mind by recalling my first trip to Scotland in 1998. After bustling myself into a black cab at Edinburgh station (yes, they have black cabs in Scotland), I proceeded to share the details of my parents’ ancestry. Both of their families originated near Glasgow.

Fixing his eyes on mine in the rear-view mirror, my driver, in his thick accent, asked:

‘Where they from?’

‘Kilmarnock,’ I replied excitedly.

‘Oh…it’s a wee shithole,’ he replied.

I never got around to completing that family tree.

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