My Love-Hate Relationship with Australia
THINGS I LOVE ABOUT AUSTRALIA
1: The Landscapes
After Namibia and Mongolia, Australia is the third least densely populated country in the world. And given almost everyone lives in cities and the nation has the money to build roads, it has the most easily accessible big, empty landscapes on this earth.
The horizons are huge… The drives are long. It’s road movie territory par excellence, whether through the deep reds and rich blue of the outback, golden fields of corn, unimaginably ancient gorges or aeons of scrub, topped off with a big, big sky.
Even in the deep Sahara, where there’s a road there’s human life aplenty. Not here. In the intense, warm light that comes in the late afternoon, on a good day, there’s nowhere like Australia.
What’s a ute? It’s a pickup. A truck. A 4×4. It’s what you put your plants and patio furniture in when you’ve been to Bunnings, and your camping gear for the great wide open.
Stocking the esky, packing the tray and heading out high above those big, wide, empty roads is a quintessentially Australian experience. As is working the 4WD, up implausible tracks, through flooded creeks, over boggy, rutted mud…
3: The Language
Australian English knocks the socks off British or American English. Take “hoon”, the sound of a foot on an accelerator replicated as both noun and verb for speeding, or “rort” for benefit fraud. “Trifecta”, originally a type of three-way bet, is used for some hideous triple occurrence.
When it comes to booze, the language is especially rich. There’s “stubby” for a can of beer, “darts” and “nails” for cigarettes, “esky” for a cooler, “flat white” for milk coffee. Not to mention the late, much-missed “wowserism” as a term for temperance movements and general fun-spoiling, and the
*ing evocative “exy” for expensive.
4: The Friendliness
Coming out of amiable, chatty Indonesia, a place where, at times, we could barely move for mobile phone photographers, into an Anglo culture, I was half expecting the legendary Aussie matiness to be, well, a legend.
In fact, it’s not. At Scienceworks, Melbourne, with three kids in tow, one on crutches, the lady behind the counter drove us to the station when we couldn’t find a taxi big enough for five. We’ve had free lifts aplenty in Indonesia. In an Anglo culture, that small-country helpfulness stands out.
And, yes, male or female (in fact), you’re never alone in a bar.
5: The Good Sport Thing
Australians are obsessed with sport. Schoolchildren know which sports hold the possibility of making the Olympic team; tropical ice rinks advertise for kids to improve on the Vancouver medal team; science museums have whole areas devoted to various sports.
Matches, international and interstate, whether cricket, rugby league or Aussie Rules, are the main way both states and nations bond. And the sense of fair play, of being a good sport, is branded deeply into the national psyche from kindergarten stage.
Until, I guess, they start losing regularly. Then, my friends, we’ll see…
6: The Architecture
That first sight of Sydney Opera House (and, for that matter, the Harbour Bridge) is one of those wow! moments up there with the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. Though the optical illusion Customs Service building in Melbourne is pretty eye-opening too.
But there’s also grand Victorian architecture and later architecture, expanded during the time when a newly federal Australia saw itself as a serious rival to America for Pacific dominance. Beautiful Raj-style homes with elaborate ironwork. Pretty clapboard and picket fence bungalows.
And, yeah, some godawful out of town slab constructions, and some hideous shipping container edifices. But, on balance, especially in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, there’s a great deal of beauty on even the most mundane of streets.
This surprised me, quite a lot. But almost any bottle shop has an infinitely more inventive and better produced range of beers than the English equivalent, with craft-brewers around the nation knocking out seriously good beers in styles from lagers to ales. If you want to experiment beyond bland lagers, Australia is not that far behind Belgium and the US as a place to do it.
8: Meat Pies
The quality of cooking varies widely across Australia. In Melbourne it’s almost impossible to get a bad meal in any style, at any price. In parts of the bush the menu will put you off your food before you even get to the prices.
If there’s one thing that everywhere in this pastoralist country does well, and could count as the national dish? Pies. Meat pies. Aaaamaaazing.
9: The Wildlife
It would require a heart of stone not to melt when you see a koala with a baby koala in the wild. And there’s nothing quite like playing with kangaroos, or watching them hop off, balancing with that muscular tail, to bring home the fact you’re on a different continent.
SIX THINGS I LOVE AND HATE ABOUT AUSTRALIA
1: The Male Body Beautiful
Discussing Australia over a cleanskin or several with a lady of an age to have been around the block quite a few times, she exclaimed, “But our guys! They’re so much better than your guys! Why are English guys so weedy?!”
She had a point. Not just in England, but in all of Europe, a guy with pectoral definition in a pair of tight Speedos is, essentially, gay. The body culture in most Australian states and cities (sorry, Melbourne) makes the beach a sight for sore eyes. Billboards advertise everything from protein shakes to workout systems with all the vigour that the diet industry targets European and American women.
And yet… I’m a feminist (which doesn’t, if I’m being honest, stop me from subscribing to quite a bit of body fascism, or make me like my post-baby breasts as much as I liked them before they’d gone from C to G and back again). And I’m mother to a son.
Do I want him, or his friends, to be facing all the body image issues that girls do as they head into their teens, with additional physical strength and sporting prowess concerns thrown in?
No. Australia may have leveled the playing field on this one but they should have knocked the damn thing down.
I’m 36. Which tends to be the sort of age at which the type of sexist comment or joke which would have had one up on a chair making like a Spare Rib era Germaine Greer slips easily past the zen cloud. And I’ve traveled extensively amid cultures where the position of women is infinitely less equal than in Australia.
All the same. It is the default assumption that, say, women cook, wash up and do the childcare (and work, too). Men do the barbie and drive the ute. It’s not unusual to see a woman driving a male passenger in the UK. Here? It’s very rare indeed.
On some levels, there’s a gentlemanliness which is rather sweet. On the others? Well, thank you for opening that door for me, sir, and congratulations on your female PM and Governor-General. Now, how about sorting out that over 35% pay gap, chaps?
3: The Weather
The Australian climate is savage, harsh, extreme, with South Australia now experiencing the Biblical trifecta of droughts, floods and locusts. When it’s hot, it’s very hot. When it’s wet, it’s very, very wet. When it’s dry, it’s a drought.
Right now? Well, the weather sucks. In Queensland, once marketed as the Sunshine State, the first cyclone of a week in which two are expected is dumping gallons of grey drizzle into dams already filled beyond capacity.
It’s English weather. In a country a bit like England thirty years ago. Yet without the aeons of indoor entertainment we weather-whingers provide. Or even, so far, the drama of hiding in the basement from an oncoming storm.
4: The Empty Cities
Landing in Australia, ten months into a longterm trip that originated in crowded, cosmopolitan London, and passed through seven Asian nations, each with their own rich, vibrant and (yes) multicultural street life, the trip into Darwin from the airport felt like something out of 28 Days Later.
You know. The bit where Cillian Murphy wakes up in the locked room in the hospital and walks, bewildered, through a surreally abandoned CGI city (the odd welfare day wino made a satisfactory substitute for howling, RAGE-infected zombies but, sadly, the heaps of abandoned notes were AWOL).
A city lot which would, in London, hold, say, four tall terraced houses, converted into twelve or so flats, housing twenty-plus people here holds, well, a family of three. And everyone, nay everyone, drives everywhere…
On the one hand, it’s good to have space. On the other? The cities just feel dead.
5: The Burbs
If you’re old enough to remember Kylie as half of Kylie and Jason, Australia’s suburbs will be wonderfully familiar. Because Australia does suburbia like nowhere else.
Even inner-city neighbourhoods are called suburbs. And the outer suburbs, true burbs, stretch for mile upon monotone mile outside the cities.
On one level, the community spirit and good neighbourliness is lovely. It’s utterly charming that, say, a major ice rink can hold a raffle for sporting funds with prizes donated by the local quilting society. On another? No wonder so many Australians travel long-term or emigrate.
6: The Drinking Culture
Australians drink. They drink a lot. I’m British, with Polish heritage, I’ve travelled to forty-ish countries on five continents, worked in the drinks industry and hung out with a bunch of bartenders, and the only place I’ve seen more drunk people getting drunker faster than Sydney CBD in the run-up to Christmas is Reykjavik on a Saturday night. Any Saturday night…
On the one hand, this is nice. It’s actually good to see people relaxed enough to take a bona fide lunchbreak and go to the pub, or drink over a working lunch. And it’s good that the default mode of meeting someone new is a relaxed beer.
On the other? Record-breaking levels of alcohol-related violence (as in Iceland, drinkers are used to so much personal space that they bump into each other all the time, at which point the macho crap takes over and “mateship” dictates the rest pile in). Relatedly, high levels of drink driving and deaths on the road.
THINGS I HATE ABOUT AUSTRALIA
It’s relatively little-known that, at the same time as white South Africans were formulating the apartheid policy, white Australians were working on a similar policy called White Australia, which lasted until the 1970s.
Race is still a very obvious element in some political discourse. And the “whiteness” of Australia is visible, too, on the streets. Coming out of England, where people of every colour permutation are, well, English, end of story, it’s quite a shocker.
Negative stereotyping and offensive terms for indigenous people are horrifyingly common. It’s rare to see a non-white face in politics, business or an official uniform, and Aboriginal features are rarer still. While the official colour bar on immigration went in the 1970s, it is still far easier for citizens of Europe to enter Australia than for citizens of Asia.
I do not, of course, mean to say that all Australians are racist, and I’ve got no glib solution to the problems indigenous people face here. But Australia is the most segregated society I’ve visited since apartheid South Africa and there are more than a few discomfiting parallels.
Crikey! We’re in Australia! That’ll mean no jaywalking without a fine even if the road’s clear for miles, smoking only in designated outside areas at airports, no overtaking without two lanes clear on the other side of the road, plus a whole bunch of the sort of well-intentioned health & safety stuff that means children in the developed world are growing up incapable of managing risk; and, well, the dress codes.
I’ve mentioned before how particularly special I felt when a security guard at Darwin Airport took it upon himself to ask me to stay within arms’ length of my almost ten-year-old son (quietly reading a book in a cafe while I went upstairs) at all times otherwise “anything might happen”.
The problem, I think, is the national self-image as a nation of larrikins, along the lines of Ned Kelly, Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin. Which means, in effect, that officious instructions will be tagged with the word “mate”.
Oh yeah. The amount of paperwork required for something so simple as, well, buying a secondhand car is eye-watering. And, yep, I’m an EU citizen.
Australia’s economy is currently turbocharged by a combination of ravaging the natural environment, selling houses to one another at hugely inflated prices and demanding pay rises from the state to pay for the next house.
This makes for a strong currency, and pain for the visitor. I’ve ranted about the prices in Australia previously, so I won’t go on. But…
Almost three dollars for a Kit-Kat?! Eight dollars for a cheese sandwich like the ones they used to sell on British Rail?! And, yep, the Australian dollar is worth more than the US dollar…
4: Rampant Consumerism
A natural Grinch, I honestly never thought I’d miss our tawdry, tinselly English Christmas, with carol singers, houses burning up the national grid with illuminated, inflatable Santas and fake snow in every shopping centre from the first of December.
Then I went late-night shopping for stocking fillers in suburban Brisbane. There was all the crass commercial misery of Christmas present and correct. Parking rage, an Australian speciality, was evident as drivers entirely unused to the concept of nipping into a space drove round and round and round several blocks trying not to bump into each other or get bogged down in the swampy grass…
Stressed women dragged kids round supermarkets and loading up on unimaginative gifts for people they hated… People mortgaged themselves to the hilt to keep up appearances in December…
Yet without any of the festive trappings and spiritual sense that make the British Christmas frenzy actually more than bearable. No sense, for example, that anyone here might be taking the kids to Midnight Mass… Not even, honestly, much by way of decoration…
5: Dress Codes
Now, neither Z nor I have a problem with dress codes. We wore our sarongs and scarves correctly for our genders when we went to the funeral of the king of Peliatan in Bali; I’ll cover as many joints in as much drapery as respect requires, topping off with a headscarf if needed; and, no, I would not wear a skirt above the knee when going to the members area at Henley.
In Australia? Dress codes are a bloody minefield. The South Australian Cricket Association provides photos (above) to explicate the mystifying dress code which governs entry to the members area at Adelaide Oval.
So, collared shirt and the right kind of shorts? OK. T-shirt, suit jacket and the right kind of trousers? Not OK. Very short skirt? OK. Micro-mini skirt? Not OK.
Yet, for arsey dress codes, I’d say Sydney leads the world. Why on earth, in a tropical climate, in a first world city, in the twenty-first century, a man should have to wear a collared shirt, long pants and closed toe shoes to get into a bar beats me.
Where’s it coming from? Well, good old-fashioned snobbery, I guess. Stores here sell books on how to avoid being a “bogan” (you may be able to detect a few in the “Unacceptable” photo above), as the UK a few years ago majored on how to avoid being a “chav” and some Americans are keen to avoid being “white trash”. Which again sits oddly with the national self-image as a nation that’s moved beyond class snobbery.
BUT… WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Australia is half my son’s heritage and home to much of his family, also home to my aunt and my cousin, so I’m really working hard at liking it and I think I’m not doing badly.
But I’d be interested to know your take on things. Is Australia on your bucket list? Have you been? What do you love and hate about Australia? And, Australians, where am I completely off-beam? Are there other things I can add to my list of things to love? Like I say, I’m working on it…