The sun is shining and the living is easy

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The Independent Online

There is a bend in the River Murray where the people of Albury, New South Wales, go to swim and play and have picnics. Even on a weekend, when the sun shines kindly through the giant elms and plane trees, the place is not crowded. Children jump in the river and let its swollen waters carry them downstream to a landing spot around the bend. Sulphur-crested cockatoos fly overhead. In a playground nearby, a sacred ibis lazily pecks through the wood shavings beneath the swings and slides. A few teenagers are sitting on the grass, chatting, holding hands, kissing and laughing like high-school kids from a lost age.

There is a bend in the River Murray where the people of Albury, New South Wales, go to swim and play and have picnics. Even on a weekend, when the sun shines kindly through the giant elms and plane trees, the place is not crowded. Children jump in the river and let its swollen waters carry them downstream to a landing spot around the bend. Sulphur-crested cockatoos fly overhead. In a playground nearby, a sacred ibis lazily pecks through the wood shavings beneath the swings and slides. A few teenagers are sitting on the grass, chatting, holding hands, kissing and laughing like high-school kids from a lost age.

Music, distant at first but growing louder, echoes off the far bank of the river. The Cumberoona, a paddle steamer that is a local tourist attraction, is approaching. A wedding party is taking place on board. The local duo Stocker and Thompson are playing an up-tempo version of "The Wilder Side of Life". The guests wave to us. We all - including the teenagers - wave back.

Albury is a town on the state border, and it is now officially merged with Wodonga, its neighbour in Victoria. It has a primary school and a high school, a court room, churches, wide shopping streets and, of course, the river. It is like living in a Bruce Springsteen song.

To an outsider, particularly a visitor from a teeming little island across the world, it is not the sun or general orderliness that takes most getting used to; it is the space. There are no traffic jams, no queues, no crowded shops or busy pavements. If the gentle pace of downtown Albury is still too much, you can drive out of town to Sandy Creek and fish for trout, utterly alone, or head out to Mungaberrena and just sit, a can of lager in your hand, the car radio playing softly, watching the river flow.

Somewhere, I imagine, there must be misery and misfits - a stained glass window at St Matthew's Church was broken last week - but you would have to look hard to find them. "Where are the poor people?" I asked. I was taken through lush suburbs to a group of houses that were marginally smaller with slightly less well-tended lawns. That was it.

Shopping here is a pleasure. "How ya goin'?" they ask as you enter, "You all right over there?" as you browse. If there were an Olympic event for niceness, Australia would be in line for another gold.

But then, why the hell not? These people are absurdly, outrageously blessed. Ease is in the air that you breathe. If you relocated the hardest group of Millwall fans to this place of quiet, space and sun, they too would soon be sitting on the river bank, waving at the riverboat as it chugged by. Who can seriously be surprised that the Australians are good at life and sport when they are brought up in these surroundings?

In fact, to be frank, Albury is so ordered that it is the breadth of a butterfly wing away from being downright spooky. At its social and geographical centre, there is the Commercial Club, whose membership of 28,000 can enjoy food, dancing, function rooms, poker machines and every kind of sport for a basic annual membership of just $10.

We sit in one of the club's many bars. Someone talks about a visit to England. It had been cloudy when she had visited the Brighton Pavilion but, when she emerged, the weather had improved. On the beach, the English had appeared out of nowhere and were sitting, motionless, on deck chairs, in their shorts and rolled-up trousers, their thin, shiny white legs exposed to the sun. They were like beetles, she said - desperate creatures that live underground and emerge only at the first ray of sunlight.

How we all laughed.

terblacker@aol.com

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