YOU can learn a lot about a nation by seeing how it celebrates its identity.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to see several examples, but my recent visit to Australia showed me something quite extraordinary on Wednesday, January 26 – Australia Day
My long flight of over 11,000 miles took in changes in Abu Dhabi and Sydney before arriving in Hobart to speak at the big lunch before the Australia v England cricket international on Friday, January 21.
By an odd coincidence, the first person I bumped into in the hotel was Durham player Paul Collingwood, who has had a long career as a star contributor to England’s recent success.
The speaking experience was fantastic, being part of a programme which included Sir Michael Parkinson, Shane Warne, and Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting.
I was the only one there I’d never heard of!
“Parky”, or “Parko” as he’s known in Australia, has become an adopted son of the country and made history this year by becoming the first non-Aussie to deliver the Australia Day address.
My time around Tasmania showed me one of the most beautiful coastlines I’ve ever seen, and signs of deep English links are everywhere.
I stopped off in Richmond, now a lovely historic town, but once a major centre for the settlement of convicts who had been transported here after committing, often minor, offences in England.
The original prison is still preserved and it was chilling to go inside one of the tiny solitary confinement cells where prisoners were sometimes placed for weeks at a time.
By the time I took the two hour flight from Hobart to Sydney for my next engagement, preparations for the national day were well advanced.
Australia Day itself is amazing; a combination of a public holiday, day-long party and an outpouring of national pride.
As well as the original Aborigine population, the residents of Australia are a wonderful mix of most nations on the planet.
Sydney itself is packed with English and North-East links.
I spent much of Australia Day in Hyde Park, named after London’s of course, and celebrating in 85F in January is quite something.
Many people pick this day to become citizens of Australia – and their passion is clear.
Of course, the country is going through a rough time at the moment with major flooding and cyclones causing havoc in Queensland to the north.
One really nice idea was a message tree where you could add words of support to badly hit families, and I was proud to add one on behalf of Hartlepool.
My last day was spent around the Sydney Harbour area and the magnificent backdrop of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.
There’s the big connection for us of course; one of the most famous bridges in the world built by Dorman Long of Middlesbrough, with much English manpower and North-East steel.
I was simply knocked out by Australia and its people – they have a lot to be proud of.