A few years ago, as 2004 slid into 2005, I was offered the chance to spend Christmas – and New Year – in Melbourne, Australia. It was with relish that my wife and I jumped at the opportunity to be overseas for the holiday season, a time of year that we generally associated with dripping noses and chapped knuckles. It felt perversely decadent to be contemplating cocktails on the beach while our families tackled frostbite and frozen pipes.

When we arrived in the Victorian capital we dusted off the residue of our 23-hour flight with a stroll along the Yarra River, admiring the leisurely stroke of the crews, before throwing away most of our stack of waxy Australian bills in the nearby casino. Even as I began to wilt in the sunshine, I marveled at the Melburnians’ dedication to relaxation and the indulgence of the senses. It was as if someone had relocated the Vegas strip to a British river town. Only with a thousand acres of clear blue sky, and temperatures in the hundreds.

The Australian climate shouldn’t have been a shock. I’d visited friends in Oz before, and this time I’d packed accordingly: board shorts as well as jeans, t-shirts more than sweaters, flip-flops instead of snow boots. But as we strolled past the cornucopia of eateries on Lygon Street the next day, regaled on every side by the impassioned cries of Italian waiters, I felt my sweating shoulders slump inside my Billabong shirt. What I’d intended as a Christmas getaway felt about as festive as the paper cup of gelato we shared on the walk back to our rental apartment. Kicking off my flip-flops beneath our three-foot plastic Christmas tree, I tried desperately to dredge up some holiday spirit from my swollen, sandy toes.

The next few days drove the point home with all the subtlety of a blowtorch. As my skin reddened and peeled beneath an unrelenting sun — one which, apparently, would give me sunburn even through dense gray cloud cover — I tried my hardest to rescue the drooping, heat-stricken holiday. Away from our families, my wife and I were buying gifts only for each other — but my shopping expeditions proved to be hopelessly flawed. The stores in Prahran were filled with bikinis and sarongs, not cardigans and knitted scarves. Even Christmas dinner became a carb-heavy marathon, three courses of fried and baked food endured in a climate better suited to salads and smoothies.

The experience was all the more unsettling because my head repeatedly told me that this was how Christmas should be. The Biblical story took place in a desert, not a snow-filled forest; the Three Kings traveled to see the baby Jesus on camels, for Santa’s sake. But over the years I had somehow disconnected the Nativity from the festive experience, and bringing the two back together seemed sacrilegious in its wrongheadedness. My Christmas had always been dipped in the icy heritage of Europe, recycled by Hollywood in classics like It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. It was ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’, ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’. If Jesus had been born in my version of the Nativity, Mary and Joseph would have been praying that the Three Kings came bearing blankets along with the gold, frankincense and myrrh.

For a Northern European with his heart in the snowy wastes of winter, Australia’s sunshine and merriment were simply too much to bear. In the end, we did the most festive thing we could imagine: dragging ourselves through the heat to South Yarra’s multiplex cinema, to catch the latest Pixar movie in a theater empty enough to feel like our own personal screening room.

It wasn’t my ideal Christmas, and there still wasn’t a single flake of snow in sight. But, thanks to the miracle of air conditioning, it was at least deliciously cold.

 

With thanks to Facebook’s search function, apologies to Dave Gorman, and gratitude to Northern Hemisphere Simon Smithson, who agreed to answer my questions and be my friend.

Hello, Simon Smithson! How are you, who are you, and what do you do?

Who am I? A 34 year old Englishman, father to my 21-month-old daughter Libby, husband to my lovely wife Becky.

What do I do? In a nutshell, I work in an office. It’s a very nice office mind, (we even have an escalator), but still 9 to 5 office drudgery. Sometimes I feel like a battery hen.

Not quite the glamorous, globetrotting lifestyle that you, my namesake, appear to lead. Strangely, since befriending you on Facebook, my Gmail inbox has been replete with invites to parties and other exciting gatherings. Though it seems possible that I might be invited to parties on the other side of world by strangers, it seems more likely that your friends have instead been confounded by our similar, yet mirror-image like, email addresses and have sent me these invites in error. However, I am now able to explain that I am not the handsome, literary Kiwi to whom they intended to extend the hand of friendship, but am in fact a grumpy, exhausted, Yorkshire-dwelling Englishman who simply happens to share the same name. They must find the experience confusing, and slightly disturbing.


I am glad to hear you’re good – and in three months, happy birthday to Libby!

You know, I’ve never worked in an office with an escalator? And now I really, really want to.

I’m afraid I have to correct you, however. I’m an Aussie, not a Kiwi. If I let that one slip through to the keeper, I’ll never hear the end of it. It’s similar to being confused for a Welshman – something I learned from my grandmother, who, as a matter of fact, was from Yorkshire, as is my mother. They were from Rotherham – are you anywhere nearby?

Which brings me, by a neat piece of coincidence, to something I’ve been looking into recently. Yorkshire puddings. I’ve never had one, and I’d always had a mental image of a creme caramel kind of thing. Tell me, is this something you’d regularly eat? I realise this is perhaps not the kind of question you saw coming.

The escalator is overrated. The office is supposed to be one of the most energy efficient in Europe, though how they can acheive this with an escalator (in actual fact 4 escalators!) that run 12 hours a day, and a glass roof is entirely beyond me. Perhaps it’s just one of those self-fulfilling proclamations, like ‘this is the longest bar in the world’ (my university bar) or ‘this is the longest pier in the world’ (Great Yarmouth Pier), both of which are blatantly untrue, but have entered local folklore.

My humblest apologies about the geographic confusion (I notice you didn’t contradict the ‘handsome’ or ‘literary’). I can’t claim that geography is a strong point of mine; this I can only blame on poor choices early in my education (choosing German over Geography is a somewhat confounding choice; I can now speak the language, but have no idea where Germany is, or how to get there).

Rotherham is about 40 miles from my doorstep. It seems a strange coincidence that your family originate from so nearby. I’m not a native Yorkshireman, though I’m rapidly approaching the point where I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived elsewhere, so will achieve honorary status. My father’s family originate from the next County south. Maybe we share a common ancestor?

You’ve fallen into a common trap with regard to Yorkshire Puddings, which are not in fact a dessert, but an accompaniment to a ‘roast dinner’, which otherwise consists of a roasted meat (typically chicken, beef or lamb), roast potatoes and boiled vegetables, all served with gravy. In a bizarre twist they actually have identical ingredients to pancakes, but rather than made thin and fried are made thick and baked in an oven. If done properly they come out delicious, light and air-filled. If I make them they come out thick, heavy, and much like an unpleasant pancake.

My university bar was never going to lay a claim to anything; I worked there, and let me tell you, it was a decidedly low-rent operation. But speaking of bars, and Yorkshire, is there still a bar called The Atlas, opposite a cemetery, in existence, that you know of? Apparently my great-grandparents ran it for a little while.

I wonder if we do share any ancestry – my English ancestors went by either the surname Walton or the surname Dewick; and I think they got around a little.

As for backgrounds, did you know we have a crest? We have an actual, honest-to-God family crest, that, I guess, we can officially use. I’m not sure how one goes about using a crest, but it gives me a sense of belonging that feels strangely comforting. Typing my own name into Google has never been so rewarding.

So how is life in England, at present? I’ve always meant to visit, but never gotten around to it. My great-uncle, who’s an ex-Royal Marine, keeps telling me I should go back and visit.

Yorkshire is a pretty big place. However, a brief bit of research on Google Maps shows this.

Which appears to be a pub of the same name, opposite a graveyard, in Rotherham, so perhaps this is the very place! At the point at which the Streetview car captured the image the pub was up for lease (and given the state of the UK economy it probably still is) so if you feel like a return to your roots it presents an interesting option!

Neither Walton nor Dewick ring any bells, though I do know that at some point my family name was ‘Smithson-Hogg’. Thankfully they dropped the second of the two barrels before I came along. Simon Smithson is quite long enough thank you.

Not sure about the correct usage of a family crest. Does it have a motto? Are there eagles on it?

I often wonder whether our name has any link to the Smithsonian museum; is this something that you’ve thought about? Have you ever been?

Life in England is currently fair to middling, it’s a pretty average kind of place. Where are you currently? You seem to spend a lot of time alternating between Australia and the US, why is this? Talking of Australia, are you affected by the floods that I hear so much about? Coming from such a small, and thankfully generally natural-disaster-free, country events on such a scale boggle my mind.

I was wondering recently how similar the signatures of different people with the same name will be. This then got me thinking about the possibilities of fraud between two people with the same name; to prove I’m me all I need is my passport or driving license bearing my name and picture. This I could also surely use to prove I’m you. How does this work if one has an entirely common name like John Smith? Can I just go into a bank with my passport and withdraw all funds for any one of the inevitable gaggle of John Smiths on the banks records? How fragile this concept of identity!


A pub landlord you say? Well… I’ve heard of worse ideas. Although I don’t know about this whole warm beer business. Is that true, or just a cruel and unusual stereotype?

Simon Smithson-Hogg? I can’t even imagine what kind of person you, or I, would be, with such a name. It’s just so… so very different. The emphasis on the syllables is all different, it changes the sounding out of it… how strange. Maybe this is something people should do as a daily meditation; throw a ‘Hogg’ on the end of their name to see how it sounds.

The crest has a knight’s helmet, three suns, and a number of feathers. I’m not sure how it’s officially used, but apparently you can get it in mousepad form. Which must have been what our ancestors had in mind…

I’ve never been! I’m not sure if James Smithson had ever been to the States – I know he charged his son with founding an institute for the benefit of all mankind, and he had enough ready cash that he could just up and order such a thing done and be reasonably confident it would be taken care of.

Which segues neatly into my back-and-forth to the US and back. I used to live there, until I was left jobless by the GFC and moved back. Now I’ve got friends from my first stay, from back here, or from TNB, and that makes it a lot easier to go over. And, honestly, I just love it. Have you yourself been?

I’m in Melbourne right now, and, thankfully, unaffected by the floods. Queensland has been hit the hardest but my home state is also not faring too well, with record flood levels in some towns. What’s been great is the reaction of the country; people have been so good about coming together to support those affected.

Hmmm.

I think we’re going to need a passport comparison. Mine is shocking, by the way. It’s a horrible scrawl I developed in primary school and never trained myself out of.

We probably shouldn’t publish them to the internet though.

Glad to hear that the floods haven’t affected you directly. The news coverage in the UK has pretty much stopped now, which is either an indication that the situation has improved, or that something sensational involving either X-Factor or Pop Idol has overtaken events.

The warm beer thing is a bit of a myth, though until recently bitter (served at room temperature) was more popular than lager (obviously served chilled). I’m not sure Rotherham would prove a good location to cut your landlording teeth; it does have a reputation for being ‘a bit rough’, which generally means you’ve got a much greater chance than is acceptable of ending a night out with fewer teeth than you started with…

It would be interesting to know the origins of the family crest, though I suspect these things are just generated at random by some dubious website nowadays. Does it have a motto? I’m fascinated by the idea of having something potentially inappropriate in modern times as an official family slogan.

I can’t believe that with all your cross-Atlantic (does that apply if traveling from Australia to America? Remember my lack of geographical prowess!) traveling you’ve not yet been to our museum! I’ve got some friends who live in Washington DC, so I really ought to visit at some point. Unfortunately I’ve only visited the US three times, and I doubt either can be considered a real taste of the place; the first was to Orlando with my wife’s parents, the second was to Las Vegas to get married, and the third was to Los Angeles to do some work for Harbor Freight in Camarillo.

I have to confess I had to look up the meaning of GFC; I’m going to blame it on the late hour, and the lousy week I’ve had this far. What did you do before the redundancy?

You’ll be glad to hear that I’ve resumed reading Sparks. I absolutely need a break from Infinite Jest, which isn’t as riveting as I was led to expect. I’ll let you know my thoughts as I progress further, though so far I’m enjoying it very much.

There is no motto for the family crest; we’ll have to come up with something. ‘Orbis non sufficio’ would seem to have the requisite amount of flair – although I think that may be taken.


And no – I think that’s trans-Pacific. I’ve yet to set foot across the Atlantic; between the two of us, though, we’ve crossed the two big oceans. Maybe after the next redundancy I’ll have a crack at the Baltic, or the Adriatic.

Two jobs before the redundancy I was in PR; one job before I was in consulting, for the redundancy itself, I reviewed porn sites.

I know. Best job ever.

And speaking of which – I think it may be time to say good job, Simon Smithson, and adieu, on this interview – we’ve covered a lot of ground and the internet is a tyrannical master on how much space we can allocate. Sir, it was a pleasure, and I’m honoured to share the name.

What’s your middle name, by the way? Mine’s Nicholas.

Unfortunately we don’t also share a middle name, mine’s John.

It’s possible the redundancy was a blessing. I can image that job would play hell on your joints.

Thanks for the opportunity to get to know you better, though it may turn out that few others find this conversation interesting I’ve found it rather enjoyable!

Carpe Botulus!

This is all Brad Listi’s fault. He had to go and talk about the weather, didn’t he?

I was sitting in my car yesterday, watching as, in the space of about five minutes, the sky turned black. Soon after, something hit the roof with a high-velocity ‘clunk!’

What the fu- I thought, and suddenly hail started to cascade down around me. I had five minutes to go before a pickup, so all I could really do was sit there and watch as the skies opened and hope none of the hail would shatter the windows of the car.

When the call to come and collect came, I had to shout to be heard over the sound of the ice cascading down from the sky.

The next couple of days have been a document of the crazy weather descending on Melbourne this weekend. Houses, train stations, cinemas… all of them have had holes punched through their roofs by the force of the frozen water that the sky threw down at us over the weekend. Reports have come in about hailstones the size of tennis balls, flash floods that swept through the streets of the CBD, trees swept over roads.

Mother Nature appears to be mightily pissed off. Lightning and thunder are still rolling in the distance, and, thanks to Irene Zion and her musings on the same subject, I’m wondering if this is a sign.