Notebook

What koalas and Lib Dems have in common

A.A. Gill's Christmas notebook: From a food festival in Margaret River, Western Australia, with sleepy koala bears

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

 Margaret River, Western Australia

I’m here for a food festival, and to help along my autobiography. The Blonde had cashed in turn-left, en-suite tickets, and said we were going to take the twins. I pulled faces and sucked my teeth, and whined that it was an awful long way, and it would mostly be work. But as usual, she was quite right. Travelling with the kids has made everything brilliant, intensely observed fun.

But I have spent a lot of time standing under eucalyptus trees in the dusk, being lectured about marsupials by men in shorts. The marsupials are interesting, though oddly unempathetic or winning, and they remind me of someone or something else. A decidedly irascible collective of single-minded obsessives, with issues and dietary requirements. And then we hear the noise a koala makes. It’s an unexpectedly guttural, grating, grunting, constipated groan of entitled complaint. And it comes to me in a flash — they are the Liberal Democrat party! Every Liberal you ever come across is halfway up a gum tree with a bulging pouch full of nascently brilliant, though ungestated, ways to do old things.


Koalas sleep for 20 hours a day. Not because they can, but because they have to. They are unimaginative to the point where they have only got round to eating eucalyptus leaves, which contain infinitesimal amounts of carbohydrate, and don’t generate enough energy to stay awake for more than a couple of hours, which then have to be spent eating. It’s the stupidest condition in all of creation. Our young guide finds a grunting koala who’s fallen out of his tree, and he asks in an encouragingly play-school voice, if anyone can think of a name for him. ‘Vince,’ I shout. ‘Vince?’ he replies. Yes. He’s definitely, uncannily a Vince.

The world’s resistance to antibiotics due to profligate prescription is becoming acute, so the Sunday papers tell me. And again, here the liberal marsupials may have got an out-of-the-box (or rather, out-of-the-pouch) answer. Apparently, lady wallabies’ handbags, where joeys grow and suckle, are utterly disgusting: full of poo, mucus, half-eaten dinners, dirty socks, and grotesque amounts of belly-button jam. It’s a Gladstone bag of potentially lethal infection. So wallaby milk has prodigious antibiotic capability, and it may be part of the answer to the next generation of drugs. Any day now it’ll be offered to you along with soy, skimmed, coconut and almond milk.

Promoting a memoir about alcoholism to provincial Australia in a landscape of vineyards is interesting, if not terribly profitable. People don’t want to buy the book, but they do just want to come and look at me, in the way you might look at a particularly zealous Indian fakir. I’ve noticed there is a markedly telling difference in what the Australians and the English ask. At home, they inevitably want to know how much I drank. In Australia, they want to know how long I haven’t drunk. ‘Thirty years,’ I say, with Hugh Grant-ish deprecating apology. ‘Jesus,’ said one Ocker, with a mixture of awe and disgust. ‘What do you do for mates?’

I was on Kangaroo Island, in the great Australian Southern Ocean, when I heard about the terrorist attack on Paris. It was Paul, an abalone diver, who passed on the brief story of atrocity as we bobbed in his chaotic old rubber boat beside black swans, piebald cormorants and piping oystercatchers in the silver morning chill. He was putting on his wetsuit and checking his air line, strapping on his weights before slipping over the side to collect urchins and purple-shelled king scallops. ‘It’s terrible, just terrible,’ he said, in a tone that implied I must be used to this sort of thing. ‘It’s why we live out here. Nothing happens. It’s quiet and safe.’ Just before this, he’d been telling me about the increasing number of great white shark attacks. Overfishing has forced them into shallower, narrower corridors of plenty. He’d had 11 encounters with them. Two abalone divers have already been eaten. His diving partner has been crippled by the bends in a panicked escape from gaping jaws. Abalone diving is now one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The silent, committed ripper killer can sidle out of the dank darkness behind you at any time, and it’s only a matter of the wrong place and the wrong time, like being in the wrong café.

The perception of danger and fear are all relative to what you know, and your own sense of competence in an infinitely unknowable world. The king scallops straight out of the ocean were a glottal-stopping, ozoned, umami’d, sweet, complex flavour. Some of the best I’ve ever eaten. And a reminder that the globe is still more wonderful and miraculous than it is benighted and tragic.

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  • davidshort10

    AA Gill knows they are called koalas but the airhead writer of the intro below the headline thinks they are called koala bears.

  • Todd Unctious

    Grey and timid. Endangered. Living on a bland diet…….yes Koalas are like Liberals.

  • oresme2

    At first I thought you confuse the koala with the giant panda. These Chinese bears eat 50 kilograms bamboo per day. Zoos all over the world have trouble to find this material, while the Chinese government still owns all these animals. Typical communism. The rest of the world can pay for their mess.

    But it is about the koala, which could find enough food in Australia.They are in trouble, because the British go to Australia for centuries and they take their loved pets with them. Cats, dogs, horses, rabbits, rats, snakes and many other animals. We know, why th australian fauna is doomed.

    The U.K. itself is much more doomed than either of them. A political system unfit to give its citizens the wealth it wants. In the eighties Thatcher tried to give at least half of the population the wealth normal in North America and north west Europe. The other Britains can only hope. Since 2001 the debt percentage of the U.K. going up sharply. We will see how far it goes. The Italians and Japanese save enough for it to finance their horrible state debt. The U.K. is unable to do this.

    Perhaps this Gill is one of these famous Tory bullies. I do not know, but I think in the end the Liberals will have to clean up the mess again.

    • chiefwhippet

      Infamous for killing a baboon. He was sent to a private school that promoted vegetarianism. Presumably this has made him rebel at any animal that is one.

    • OscarJones

      It’s true, the Americans had an amazing burgeoning middle class and a growing wealth which was spent and in turn enriched other Americans who could survive quite well on the income from one job even if working in a supermarket.
      But that was built on the original efforts of FDR and his New Deal which had generous social welfare benefits. Indeed when i worked first in the USA in the late 70s for 4 years I was shocked to see social welfare was far more generous than the UK apart from generous subsidies and investment in private business. This lasted for 50 years until Clinton came along, a faux Democrat flogging harsh far right Republcian policies (as opposed to genuine middle ground Republicans)

      To infer that Margaret Thatcher ushered in age of great prosperity for even half the masses is a downright fantasy. And with Blair’s ghastly New Labour adoption of Thatcherism on steroids, welcome to the new UK where money talks and the joint is an unmitigated mess. Thatcher’s fanatical attempts to redefine the UK people in her limited vision of how she thought people should behave has been a disaster.

  • ohforheavensake

    Good question.

    They both write better than you?

  • Edward Studor

    The Lib-Dems have more in common with the dodo.

  • Harry Pond

    Why don’t you shoot one? you could mount its head on the wall next to the baboon.

    • Frank Marker

      Better he mount his buddy Clarkson’s head instead.

  • Todd Unctious

    Timid, endangered, live on a mono-diet……yes that’s the Libdems

  • Hamburger

    When l lived in England I thought that AA Hill was a made up name, a byline for any piece which was meant to be amusing but not enough for the journalist to want to be identified. It appears that he is real and writes dull, self congratulatory articles for the Spectator. Why?

    • chiefwhippet

      Nobody else will employ him. That’s why he writes about being an alcoholic, in the hope Australians will empathise and cough up the cash for his book. How deluded.

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