Australians are uncouth? Rack off!
Last week’s TV column by Patrick West, in which he called Australians ‘white trash’, caused an uproar Down Under. An Aus journalist responds.
‘The Victoria and Albert Museum is hosting an exhibition of Kylie Minogue’s costumes’ said Sandi Toksvig on a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz. ‘It’s on loan from the Australian Arts Centre, which is now presumably empty.’ Boom boom. As far as anti-Australian gags go, that is pretty much par for the course. Increasingly, British views of Australia – especially as expressed by the middle-class commentariat – take as their starting point the idea that Down Under symbolises all that is cultureless, naive and vulgar.
As an Australian in Britain, you simply get used to it. More often than not such anti-Australian sentiments find their expression in the leftish mainstream press, where ostensible liberalism often serves as a mask for cultural elitism. It was a bit of a shock, then, to open up spiked last week and find in Patrick West’s TV column every British cliché about Australian culture and life stuck into one article.
Based largely, it would appear, on conversations with a few ex-pats, West’s startling conclusion is that Australia is not the sunny, fresh-minted utopia of Neighbours, but is more like the Gothic suburban fantasy of Kath and Kim – a cultural predicament which has apparently driven from Australia not only record numbers of smart people but also just about the whole A-list of Aussies, from, er, Clive James to Germaine Greer. However, wherever they go, Australians retain a childlike naiveté which comes to the fore when they’ve had a skinful, says West, which is very often of course. Oh, and the women will push you to the floor and have your fly open before you’ve even finished your ‘scooner’ (sic).
Well, if your research sample is the front bar of the ‘Shebu Walkie’ (the Walkabout beer barn in Shepherd’s Bush, London) over a schooner (a beer) or two, then inevitably you’re going to uncover those kind of back-of-the-beermat findings. Let’s dispel a few of the myths in West’s piece.
For a start, there’s the ex-pat diaspora. There are around one million Australians living outside of Australia, or about seven per cent of the adult population. About half of them say they have left permanently, although a proportion of these subsequently change their minds (1). By contrast, the number of British citizens living overseas is 5.5 million, or about 12 per cent of the adult population; around 100,000 Brits a year leave Britain permanently (2). Their most favoured destination is a place called Australia, with Spain coming second.
True, the make-up of British and Australian ex-pat communities differs, with the British composed of more retirees and fewer professionals than Australia’s diaspora – but that is simply a consequence of Australia being part of the global periphery. Like Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland and many other fairly sparsely populated places, Australia’s citizens are responding to the increased mobility afforded by globalisation, and to the creation of global capitals like London and New York, which offer professional opportunities that are unavailable in their homeland.
The second mistake in West’s article is his claim that all Australia’s leading intellectuals have left. This leaves me no choice but to take the odious path of cultural boosterism and reel off a list of those who haven’t left, or didn’t leave, Australia: Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White; world-class poets Les Murray and AD Hope; Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty; philosophers David Armstrong and Rai Gaita; Booker Prize-winner Thomas Keneally; France’s most performed overseas playwright Daniel Keene; Pritzker (architecture’s Nobel) winner Glenn Murcutt; actor (now artistic director) Cate Blanchett; scientist Tim Flannery. There are many more.
Those whom West cites as ex-pats (and he left out the most talented ex-pats, such as novelist Peter Carey and critic Meaghan Morris) are overwhelmingly those who are either global travellers, such as John Pilger, or metropolitan performers such as Germaine Greer (who alternates between A-list work and Celebrity Big Brother-style fiascos) and former clip-show host Clive James. It’s those who stayed – such as White, Murray or Murcutt – who produced world-class work, connecting local traditions to global modernism. Maybe West hasn’t heard of them because they don’t work in his narrow world of the London media.
What is really awry in West’s piece is that he has missed the way in which the image of Australia is used within British culture and debate for purposes that have nothing whatsoever to do with the southern continent. The fashionable disdain in Britain for the suburbanism that dominates the image of Australian life is a barely disguised form of prejudice directed at working-class and mainstream culture, displaced in such a way that it can avoid charges of naked elitism.
There’s no doubt that Australia has a different set of class relations to Britain – and that is partly because Australia has a far smaller cultural elite (or core of knowledge/cultural producers, to put it more technically) and larger suburbs of detached houses with gardens and a cultural life largely based around mainstream (and mostly American) films, TV and music. In terms of comfort for basic wage-earners, Australia is one of the most congenial societies yet devised, though it is at the same time frustrating and unsatisfying for those who want a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. Hence the grousing from the professional diaspora who have either permanently relocated to London or are in the first flush of enthusiasm for London life (usually put paid to by a couple years of London rents, rain and trains).
Yet even a cursory glance around everyday British culture – from Big Brother to the half-hour lobotomy of Emmerdale or Gillian McKeith’s poo TV, to Soho on a Saturday night – should show that Britain is hardly lacking in cheerful assertive vulgarity. So why does the Australian version get such a kicking, especially from the left or ‘progressive’ direction?
The answer, of course, is because it’s safe to bash Australia. No one from the liberal or left-leaning fraternity can come out and say – as Simon Heffer or Theodore Dalrymple have done – that the British working classes are a slatternly disgrace. So instead such disdain is displaced on to a white settler country which does have – mainly in rural areas – all the residual racism common to white settler countries. And then such disdain is presented as a critical and progressive attitude. So in West’s article we find that the kind of thing once patronisingly said about blacks – that they have a joyful sense of rhythm – can now be transferred on to white Australians (or Kiwis or South Africans or the Irish) who are praised for their naive childlike drunkenness that we jaded metropolitans have long since lost.
This easy chauvinism serves another purpose, too. It assuages the all-pervasive anxiety amongst the left-liberal elite that mainstream culture is actually winning – that Jade Goody, Garry Bushell and Girls Aloud are setting the pace today, and that the remaining institutions of liberal elite culture (Radio 4, the Guardian, David-fucking-Hare) are being pushed to a position of utter irrelevance reminiscent of, well, Australia. More and more British liberals project their fears for their own self-preservation against the hordes on to a nightmare vision of Australia, where they imagine the hordes have been victorious.
The point is that Australia is ahead, not behind, the curve the UK is on – it is dealing with the problems that any society faces when it has started to satisfy the basic needs of a large section of the population. Kath and Kim is neither a clown show nor a proletarian minstrel turn. It is a slightly rueful self-reflection on the difficulties you face when you have got everything you think you wanted – the house, the garden, the holidays, the shopping centres – and now you’re wondering what else you can do. Not understanding that, Mr West, leaves you looking, well, a bit of a galah.
Guy Rundle is European editor of the Australian magazine Arena.
After the death of Steve Irwin, Rob Lyons wondered what all the fuss was about. Mark Adnum commended Cate Blanchett’s performance in a gritty film from down under; And Patrick West examined life in Oz, concluding that it was nothing like TV. Australian Muslim Amir Butler advised against hate speech legislation, arguing that it caused division and undermined freedom. Philip Cunliffe compared Australia’s response to military action in Iraq and the Pacific.
(1) Graeme Hugo, Leaving Australia: a new paradigm of international migration
(2) BBC News