Australia’s national Day is January 26th. It is also the same day that the First Fleet landed in Australia in 1788, holds laden with convicted felons, to establish a penal colony far from the rectitude of upper class Britons. Perhaps not the best choice, to celebrate our invasion of Aboriginal land, but there it is.
After much debate on Sunday about our memories of childhood celebrations, it was with some relief (having none at all) that I realized that Australia Day was not pronounced a national holiday until 1994 – over two hundred years after those British settlers landed on the east coast of an apparently ‘dry and barren land’. Nor did we have Australian citizenship until 1949, and our anthem was not voted into our national repertoire until 1984. These obvious discrepancies highlight the fact that nationalism is a relatively new concept in Australia. For years we were simply distant – and distinctly less important – cousins to our more Significant Others in the Home Country.
Cultural cringe was a term coined in the 1950s, to describe our colonial inferiority complex in the face of the older, more sophisticated cultures of our European antecedents. Henry Lawson, renowned Australian writer, recognized this phenomenon through bitter experience way back in the nineteenth century while struggling to gain a foothold in London. Sadly, this cultural cringing went hand-in-hand with obsequiousness to Britain and all things British, that, in recent generations, has been replaced by a deferential hero-worship of the United States.
It is a sad reflection of the identity crisis from which white Australians suffered for generations; of low self-worth and self-denigration; of cultural dislocation from both our roots and our adopted country that left us with a confused sense of cultural identity. It spawned the tall poppy syndrome, where a long history of celebrating the Aussie battler or “underdog” evolved into a national sport for cutting down anyone with pretensions of grandeur. Yet, in its favour, it has created a culture more truly democratic than any other I have ever experienced; the unspoken national ethos that no Australian is better than any other. And I am proud of our image as fair-minded, hard-working and ever-so-slightly irreverent.
Back in the 1960s, Charmian Clift wrote that during years spent living abroad she kept an image of her fellow Australians as ‘frank, fearless, independent, astringent, tough, highly original,’ an image she claimed was sustained by art, literature and film. She observed, however, on returning to her homeland in 1964, that there was little sign of this idealized Aussie, and that ‘ideas seem to spring timidly from borrowed or transplanted roots.’
A generation later, as I wandered the world in my turn, I watched the gradual burgeoning of national pride amongst my fellow Aussies, as Charmian Clift’s aspirations for Australia came to life: a nation mustering its forces for spiritual change; ‘a real cultural and social flowering’ from which has stemmed ‘an Australian way of life developed naturally from its landscape, climate and its own heritage.’
Initially a somewhat self-conscious attempt to stand on our own two feet and recognize our achievements, Australia’s growing wealth, excellence on the sports field and international recognition for film, music and literary achievements have all boosted our confidence and assured us we are worthy to be included on the world stage. We may not be a weighty presence – mere teenagers amongst the Grey-Haired Eminences of Europe and Asia – but seem to be generally perceived as the nice kids on the block, and we can be proud of that too. “Australia doesn’t misbehave” Bill Bryson notes, in his book ‘Down Under’. “It doesn’t have coups, recklessly over-fish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner.” (That last may be changing in view of our current administration, but we can always pray for a coup.)
So, enough introspection, let’s introduce a little “sense of ‘umour,” as Kimmy would say. A recent Facebook posting stated, amongst a long list of Australian characteristics, that you know you’re Australian when you believe the letter ‘L’ in Australia is optional, and it’s perfectly ok to call it ‘Straya’. And, you know that it isn’t summer until the steering wheel is too hot to handle! This immediately brings to mind my cold-blooded Northern Territorian flatmate of university years explaining how, after a ‘freezing’ Adelaide winter, she would park her car in the Woollies car park in Alice for three hours, by which time it had heated up like an oven, and she would climb in and thaw out.
Like many expatriates, I have become far prouder of my Australian heritage while living abroad. Twenty five years ago, freshly arrived in London, I stubbornly refused to move into Earls Court – aka ‘Kangaroo Court’ – stating adamantly that I had not travelled all that way to hang out with loads of Aussies, for that I could have stayed at home. A quarter of a century later, we celebrated Australia Day with some of our favourite dislocated Aussies in the Philippines and a handful of sympathetic mates from the far-flung reaches of Canada, Finland, Germany, Malaysia and America, proudly displaying our flag, our Esky* and our favourite Aussie bands. We weren’t among the gum trees, but the back yard pool summoned us for a paddle, and there was a barbecue of course, sizzling with steak and snags – although without wishing to cast nasturtiums (yes, I know its aspersions, thanks) on our kind and generous hosts, I did miss the charcoaled chops! However, the coleslaw and the spud salad put in an appearance, and we poured copious quantities of red Aussie wine down our throats, and sang ‘Waltzing Matilda,’ ‘Bound for South Australia’ and ‘I am Australian,’ with voices loud enough to entertain the whole village.
I love this tribute to Australia. Written by Bruce Woodley of the Seekers and Dobe Newton of The Bushwackers, I am Australian is a popular choice as an alternative to our dry national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. It makes eyes water and skin prickle – mine, anyway – and the words describe our multi-cultural, mixed bag of a nation beautifully, although there is probably room for a verse or two about more recent immigrants than the usual cliché of convicts and diggers. But the chorus is all-inclusive, and we roared it out:
We are one, but we are many, And from all the lands on earth we come. We share a dream and sing with one voice: I am, you are, we are Australian.
So here’s to Australia, and Australians everywhere! I hope you had a happy Australia Day.
*An Esky is an Aussie ice box for transporting beer to outdoor venues!