Down Under

Last Sunday, The Guardian published a delightful opinion piece by Guardian producer Madhvi Pankhania entitled ‘So long and thanks for all the flat whites: an English view of Australia’.

She began: “Recently my colleague Paul Owen shared his experiences about being an Englishman in New York, from the volatile customer service, to the way bragging is completely normal. This was after American Scott Waters FaceBook post about being won over by the England’s quaint villages where pubs are “community living rooms” went viral. I lived and worked in Sydney, Australia, for two years until this July, and I got to know its people and its outsider’s view of the rest of the world. Australians know something of the English – there are enough expats over there, and they also still have our Queen. Here’s my take on Australiana”.

I was amused and inspired enough to write a response from the land down under.

Dear Madhvi,

Seeing the title, for a moment, I thought you were writing about me. I enjoyed your article immensely, and was inspired to pen (type, really, but you know what I mean) a detailed response. Here it is, your points, one by one, and my perspective thereof in parenthesis.

1) Government policies on asylum seekers, prime ministerial cock-ups and sports achievements drive the international perception of Australia.

Sadly so, but our embarrassment of a prime minister was replaced and even though his replacement is still a Tory, it is as though a dark cloud has lifted. Politics dominates our front pages to the extent that old timers pine for the days when sport dominated the front pages. These days, it does so only when there is corruption, inappropriate behaviour or a doping scandal.

2) Don’t feel guilty about not tipping – unlike the US, businesses are responsible for paying staff decent wages and benefits, so anything extra you give doesn’t serve to prop up pay, but is a bonus. Cuts to take-home pay on weekends and public holidays, though, are a big current issue.

“Penalty rates” as we call them, on weekends and public holidays, including double-time on Sundays, are sacrosanct to unions and to those who have to work on weekends, but a shibboleth to conservatives and business who would like to see them smoothed out if not abolished.

3) Many Australians are the sons and daughters of migrants from all over the world, and have incredible stories of their journey to the country. And they’ll share these with you.

4) Australians have the gift of the gab; you can expect to hear some great stories.

5) There’s never a wrong time to strike up a conversation – the taxi driver, the barista, the dentist, the guy fixing your internet – they will ask how you are and tell you about their day. And why wouldn’t you want to hear their opinion on Tony Abbott’s latest blooper?

Yes indeed. But don’t let some people loose on issues like Muslims, asylum seekers, and immigration. We can be quite a conservative country at heart. And ironically, it is the naturalized immigrants who can be quite opposed to our “humanitarian intake” policy (Australians have a great penchant for euphemisms). And we do love a tall story. Like this one.

Number Six is missing? Was this censored or self-censored? Australians are great ones for conspiracy theories, especially those subtly alluded to above, though no here near as bad as the Americans.

7) But a word of warning, Australians can be sensitive – convict jokes will go down like a lead balloon.

8) In fact, making quips about Australia – unless you’re Australian – is a big no no.

Strange observation these. Apart from historians and politicians who like to engage in culture wars no one really thinks or cares about our convict heritage. And as for quips about Aussies, you might’ve been talking to the wrong Aussies. Generally, anyone and everything is fair game.

9) Europeans in Australia are ubiquitous. Try not to fall into the trap of only hanging out with other British people, as many others do – how else will you ask them about Peter Andre and Shane Warne?

Certainly true. There is a world of diversity here, and some great stories. See 3, 4, and 5.  As our National Anthem says, “For those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share”, (except if you arrive in small, leaky boats).

10) Whether it’s state, postcode, sports, media, or politics, competition between teams can fierce. Pick your side and be loyal. This is truest for contests like State of Origin – a rugby league match between states where the real prize of winning is the feeling of superiority.

We are quite a tribal bunch, and yes, irrationally loyal to our mob of choice. It’s often a bad case of “my mind is made up – don’t confuse me with the facts!”

11) In politics, even within parties, rivalries can go on for years. Prime ministers come and go, ousted by colleagues driven on by the spectre bad opinion polls. They are usually replaced by a former PM whose resentment has been bubbling for years. It’s the Dynasty of political entertainment.

12) Politics is the entertainment. Live, routine interviews with politicians’ scripted responses is considered prime time television. No one seems to get bored with impromptu press conferences, maybe because the rerun shows on other channels are about as interesting as watching paint dry. It’s either that or sports.

Indeed. Politics is our very own “blood sport”, and prime- time entertainment. And views can be quite polarized, predictable, and passionate. Virulent too – Games of Thronesy, even, but without he blood and bonking. Loyalties and hatreds linger for year – generations, evens.  Voting is compulsory DownUnder, and elections are full-on, emotional, high octane events. Election Day at the booths is one big party whilst the evening coverage of the counting, on all free to air channels, is all-night family entertainment, often filled with argument and alcohol.   

13) A politics/current affairs show is the most popular TV programme. Q&A is a politer version of a Question Time panel because why would they interrupt each other? British comedians and Greek singers are invited to make the panel more lively. And if you don’t watch it, you’ll be completely out of the loop with stories in the newspapers for the next few weeks.

Q&A is a strange beast, part current affairs, part reality TV show, loathed by the more extreme partisans of left and right, and often used as the whipping boy for conservative  politicians who would like to see the ABC abolished or owned by Rupert Murdoch. And yes, those British comedians and exotic singers often look and sound like lost extraterrestrials. But Nana Mouskouri and Joan Baez gave the oldies some sublime kumbaya moments at the end of all the partisan posturing.

14) Many politicians become big media presences. Like Clive Palmer, the Australian version of Donald Trump. He was a billionaire, says what he thinks and before he was an MP he was the owner of a dinosaur park and twerked for the public. It’s true! Some other politicians have done strange things, too, like threaten Johnny Depp’s dogs, or eat raw onions.

Queensland mining magnate Clive Palmer is a legend in his own longlunchtime, larger than life literally and figuratively. Not only was he actually elected to parliament – quite an achievement for an independent, but he formed his own party (which very rapidly disintegrated), and he donates his parliamentary salary to charity.  And yes, Tony Abbott’s onion eating was very peculiar, and the less said about Neanderthal Party deputy leader and wannabe dog killer Barnaby Joyce, the better.

15) Remember when Australia passed the law mandating plain packaging for cigarettes and another one imposing a price on carbon and people thought they were a new progressive force in the world? Now they can’t even pass gay marriage legislation, even with widespread public backing.

Relax, Madhvi. The world will be set aright. The carbon tax was abolished by the next, and now defunct prime minister, and Big Tobacco is taking us to court in Singapore to overturn the plain packaging legislation. Gay marriage will get through in the short to medium term now that the dead hand of Toney Abbott is taken off the wheel of state, but the Republic is still a long way away. Though we love Her Maj to death, and have no time for Chuck and Camilla, young and old alike are mad about Kate, Wills, George and Sophie.

16) is missing. See 13 above.

17) If you didn’t guess it yet, everyone’s really into politics.  And sport. Football is Australian Rules football (AFL), and football is soccer or A-league, rugby league is NRL. Or you could just follow the international cricket – but don’t mention this year’s Ashes.

19) Fancy learning to surf? It will only take years of practice and dedication to tame those waves – and most of the time you’ll feel like you’re drowning and being slammed against the bottom of the sea floor. And if you break surfing etiquette, you’ll feel the hard anger of professional surfers and wave police.

Sport certainly is a national religion, although we are quite ecumenical. Anything with a ball is divine, and horses, dogs and pokies are holy too.  Even politicians who hate sport are obliged to attend the various Finals and look enthusiastic about it. Serious interviews are interrupted with questions about which team they are barracking for on Saturday, or their tips on the Melbourne Cup. When one bookish state premier was filmed reading a volume from the western canon (probably Flaubert in the original French), he was ridiculed from Bendigo to Broome. Scandals, whether of substance abuse or sexual excess, are salaciously savoured with a mix of sadness and satisfaction.

20) The birds are beautiful, but why can’t they just stop squawking in the mornings and respect that you need a lie-in?

The birds are indeed amazing. They rise at five o’clock in the morning and sing, cackle or squawk all the live long day.  Bye the bye, item 21 is missing too. See 13 and 16. What was it you were not permitted to say in print? The fact that we have some of the most venomous snakes and spiders in the Universe, and some pretty mean denizens of the deep? Wouldn’t want to scare the tourists away.

22) Cockroaches will enter your home without fear, swivel their antennae and scuttle across your floor.

Yes, roaches can be very cheeky. As can fleas, ticks, sand flies, blowflies, horseflies and leeches which refuse to respect one’s personal space.

23) Queues are non-existent. Apart from when you wait to get a sandwich at lunchtime as they’re making it from fresh ingredients for every customer.

24) A sip of coffee is nectar to your lips, and even the cheap coffee is good. Some places even measure the water to the “perfect” temperature in chemistry beakers, and guys with big bushy beards hand you your flat white in the street.

Queues for good coffee are ubiquitous. Especially first thing in the morning when you crave a slug from the wonderful jug before you hit the hamster wheel. And yes, coffee here is the world’s best. Starbucks went broke in Sydney because it couldn’t compete (which is why it pays very little tax in Oz – but that, and the matter of Google, Apple, IKEA, and others paying their jus and fair share of income tax, is another story,  and another upcoming political battle).

25) A daily commute for some people is sailing past the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, watching the occasional pod of dolphins.

And don’t forget the whales that play in Sydney Harbour, one of the most beautiful in the world.

25) People regularly sell all of their unwanted clothes and furnishings in front gardens, like an impromptu garage sale. You can go out for a walk and return with an old salad bowl.

In England, car park sales are held in, well, car parks. In Australia, garage sales are held, well, not in garages, but in front yards, and on the pavement. You can find everything that you never really wanted, from china to chainsaws, books to banana chairs, dildos to desks.

26) Cars are king of the roads and cities mainly have highways running straight through them. If you do walk in the centre of cities, the minutes spent waiting for the lights to change will feel like an eternity. Jaywalking is illegal though, so you’ll need to not let impatience get the better of you.

The car is indeed king (it was forever thus) and public transport neglected. Politicians promise public transit infrastructure, and pledge millions of dollars or our money, and all we get is roads, roads, and more roads. It could be to do with influence of the road transport and fossil fuel lobbies, but that is probably just another conspiracy theory – see 6. And yes, jaywalking is illegal and you can actually be fined in Sydney – although this is often to do with the fact that incredulous pedestrians start arguing with the enforcement officer.

27) Avocado is fresh, ripe and ubiquitous. Order it served on toast with some lemon and pepper and you will be told it’s the best brekkie in the world. It is.         28) Vegetables aren’t sold in packages of plastic. Then again, it’s just easier to eat out; Vietnamese pho is one of the great migrant dish imports.

Ah! The fruit and veggies. In abundance, but can be pricey in the wake of droughts, fires, and floods. The Thai, Arab and Turkish restaurants and cafes are great too.

29) If you get homesick, there’s a UK shelf in some supermarkets that stocks Marmite, PG Tips and Tunnocks caramel wafers

And there’s Barry’s Irish tea and Harrogate Yorkshire Tea, digestive biscuits, liquorice allsorts, and Dr Who tea pots. And of course, UK TV and BBC First channels on FOXTEL cable with a surfeit of English soaps, comedies and drama. Not to mention the History Channel’s stodgy diet of long-dead kings and queens.

30) There are English people everywhere. Most still believe they’ll move home one day.

31) There are none of the familiar comforts of high-street chain stores. No Marks & Spencer, Primark, or WH Smith. Small independent stores and restaurants do a better trade, and you tend to get better quality, individual products

And there ARE English people everywhere. And most will never go home. Why would you when this place is perfect one day, paradise the next (except for all the usual first world maladies like racism, refugees, child abuse, domestic violence, ice, corruption, inequality, and poverty). Lots of Irish people too, but the way. And Indians. Almost like home, really.

32) Anyone who’s everyone is on social media, and Instagramming every small achievement is standard … breakfast – delicious! New casual sportswear – so hot! Selfie on the beach – so amazing!

Social media is definitely full on, though no more so than in the UK, where wi fi availability is streets ahead of us. Here, it is patchy, depending on where you are, and vulnerable to political posturing and promises. We live in the bush and we are definitely the forgotten people.

33) Flying between states is the equivalent of taking a really luxurious bus.

We have forever suffered the tyranny of distance. It is a very long way between places, and whilst road trips are fun, and the scenery magical, the bush does tend to go on and on and on. Bus and train services are neglected (see 26), interminable and uncomfortable, so, unless you really like driving very long distances, flying is always the preferred option. Expensive but – it is cheaper to fly to Bali for a beano. See 44.

34) Australian slang – arvo, onya, sledge – is more fun, loose and creative than proper English, and the shortness is useful for Twitter. I remember hearing “ranga”, though, about someone with red hair and reeling at how mean it sounded. The words are good ammunition for Australian humour that laughs political correctness in the face. They laugh at everyone and everything, politicians, friends, family, but most of all you. Self-deprecation is a form of modesty, guys.

Language is fun in Oz. and yes, Madhvi, you are spot on. But I reckon the Poms are more politically-correct, particularly the liberal, middle class ones. You would never get Greek, Arab and Vietnamese comedians doing things like “Wogs out of Work” in the UK. Offensive. Off-colour (sorry about the pun). Tsk, tsk!

35) Finding a late-night drinking venue is an arduous journey that reaps few rewards. You think it’s because you’ve missed hidden spots, but no, they just don’t exist. Fun has a curfew of midnight; some Cinderellas have to go home. And no, one seedy hotel does not count as a late-night venue. What happens is that karaoke replaces real going out. Yep, it’s either that or a casino. Daytime weekend electronic music festivals also don’t count.

There is a good reason for this. Innocent people were literally getting killed on the streets at night. The “lock-out” laws have seen the level of booze-induced violence decrease dramatically. The owners of the swill palaces and 24 hour party people would dispute this, but.

36) Listening to Triple J’s Hottest 100 will keep your finger on the pulse of cool.

There is music for all tastes and passions on the dial, from hip hop to be bop, and all beats in between. Concerts by big name overseas artists require a small mortgage, however.

37) Everyone goes on about which is better – Sydney or Melbourne. What I’ll bring your attention to though, is that Brisvegas (Brisbane) has the better nickname.

Melbourne is cool, but Sydney is better. Brisvegas? Must be a Pom term. We don’t use it around here.

38) Wherever you are, you’ll have a great time commemorating Anzac Day. This national day, to mourn and respect soldiers who died at war, is when crowds come together to hoot, whoop, get steaming drunk and bet on the winner of … a coin toss.

This is the uncool picture of Anzac, our secular Christmas, Easter, Eid, and Hanukkah rolled into one. It is now a political and marketing extravaganza as people get up at dawn for the memorial services, watch the parades and the  piped bands, and endure hours of History Channel commemorations whilst Aussies young and old wonder the globe, suffering crowds and cold on the scattered battlefields of old. But folk still do get drunk and play Two Up on the “one day of the year” that it is legal.

39) The Australian way to drink beer is: on tap, all day long.

An old and increasingly inaccurate. stereotype. Wine sales overtook beer sales a long time ago. And Australian wine is world-class and reasonably priced in Sainbury’s, Tesco’s and M&S.

40) Indigenous Australians tend to be ignored on national holidays. They don’t really celebrate much – they’ve had their land stolen, their children taken, and have high suicide and incarceration rates. Many Australians do care about these issues, even though there isn’t a quick fix solution. A referendum in 2017 may give them recognition in the Australian constitution.

Yes, the indigenous Australians are still with us, contrary to the expectations of early twentieth century missionaries who endeavoured to give them comfort on their way out of this world. Our treatment of the aborigines and their present predicament is our original sin and national stain. Many care about these issues, and many don’t. Much has been done, and much still must be done. It’s a long winding road strewn with lost opportunities, good intentions, broken promises, and political expediency. But, as Martin Luther King once said, “Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what were gonna be, but thank God, we ain’t where we was!”

41) Most Australians aren’t racist. Not everyone is on board with the government’s hardline treatment of asylum seekers.

Most Aussies are not racists, sure, but there is a xenophobic streak that emerges in times of economic and political stress. Our divided response to asylum seekers and boat people, and Islamic terrorism shows us at our best and worst. But at most times, the better angels of our nature come to the fore.

42) Some of the vast outer suburbs of cities have thriving small communities, with kick-ass restaurants, though inner city dwellers stay away. This could be due to the hours of driving it takes just to get there. Or maybe its ruthless tribalism – a friend who grew up in Sydney said beach suburb kids weren’t too keen on “westies”, and north and south goad each other too.

43) Tasmania in winter is a dark and bleak land of no hope. The exquisite food and wine won’t be therapy enough for seeing barely any human beings. And definitely don’t visit Port Arthur in winter, unless you get a kick out of cold, austere tragedy.

We are a broad, wide land, and a diverse, multicultural society, twenty first century in many places, twentieth in others. That’s the joy of the place.

44) If you want sunset cocktails, Australians decamp to Bali over winter to spiritually revive. Or party.

Ah, to be young and free and living in Australia! But we do have a wee problem with alcohol abuse and binge drinking, and quite a bit of ancillary violence.

45) Australian women have swagger. They’re confident, powerful and words will not puncture them.

But, in Australia, there is still a toughened glass ceiling in politics and business, and two women are killed by domestic violence each week. Confident and powerful, maybe, in some places, but frustrated, exploited, vulnerable and frightened in others.

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