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"You're Terrible Muriel"
Observing Australia

Marcel d'Agneau

The closest I have ever been to Australia - and this may not qualify me as an expert in all things Australian is to regularly open a bottle of Hardy’s Shiraz Cabernet from the Stamp Collection. This is a great solid, full bodied wine, that is astonishingly always honest, always exactly the same and as you can trust it, you don’t even mind that its price fluctuates so much from supermarket to supermarket. There are few wines in the world where you can say it will taste exactly so every time, this is one of them. Of course you can’t judge a country by its wine and there are some that are just plain awful, nevertheless, I’d like to think that in Hardy country at least I’d find a welcome and enjoy myself there. (OK I know it’s a blend but I am not a pedantic purist).

Australia has other exports. You know probably know them. Muriel, Priscilla, Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, Strictly Ballroom, The Cars that ate Paris, all these films have found a worldwide audience and all of them have a common theme. They are constantly portraying Australians as uncouth, boorish, crude, overweight, scheming, angst ridden, sexually ambiguous and just slightly desperate. When not living in a post-apocalypic nation or driving across the wilderness wearing women’s clothes, they live in garish suburban houses with all the taste of sudden lottery winners who have done a splurge at Harrods and come away with all the gold taps and cerise leather sofas money can buy. So nice, so naff. They talk pretty loud and what they say often isn’t pretty.

Everyone had pretty much thought that the ‘One Nation’ party had gone away at the last election but as the last surprising result in Queensland revealed, there an xenophobic appeal to an all white Australia. I am not sure what kind of place Australia would be if it tried to send away all the asians, jews, blacks and any anyone else they don’t like (homosexuals and intellectuals) but it sends a signal to the world that Australia may not be politically or psychologically stable. The trouble is the One Nation party of Pauline Hanson comes with a pretty thick sugar coating and many Australians are falling for it. A recent quote from Senator Hanson in January this year. ‘Criticism is not racism, equality is not racism. Having a difference of opinion is not simplistic, but more times than not, regarded as a common sense approach. I see many of my fellow Australians facing loss of job security, suicide, family unit breakdowns, unemployment, drugs, escalating crime, their way of life and right to a decent standard of living in this great nation of ours, stripped away because of present and past governments legislation imposed upon Australians.'

Lovely Ladies of Porpoise Spit

Senator Pauline Hanson

The Democratic opposition are struggling - xenophobia is growing. What the Japanese must think who own most of Queensland I am not sure. Australia was where you used to go if you couldn’t stand the evils of apartheid - to see it possibly reintroduced there is an anachronism too far.

My image of Australia is of a one class paradise - if you like that kind of thing. A sort of Blackpool with sun, better food and lattes in the shade. Possibly they are as sick of seeing the Sydney Opera House in the tourist brochures as we are of Big Ben. Perhaps they would rather I didn’t think of their country as the wild west with rabid corrupt politicians and they’d try to steer me towards the civilised ambience of Melbourne. Nevertheless I know the truth is that towns like St Kilda are plagued with street prostitution, that drug trafficiking is wreaking havoc in certain city economies. I know that we are sold on Sydney and its perfect climate. (So no one noticed the hail storm that caused $2.2 million dollars of damage in 1999?)

There are, of course, famous Australians. Right now women the world over drool over Russell Crowe as they did a few years ago over Mel Gibson (who turned out to be American in the end. The men have gone weak at the knees for Nicole Kidman (who also became an American) and Kylie Minogue. We love to see the most successful films they export and now they have a pretty good secondary industry making Hollywood films as well ‘The Matrix I & 2, ‘ Mission Impossible 2’ and now ‘ Star Wars’. Nevertheless I believe it is the Aussie films we enjoy rather than these transplants. We like to see Auatralians make a mess of their lives. It’s justice for living in the sun, getting a chance at the good life. ‘ Strictly Ballroom’ was a perfect example and if you haven’t seen it, rent it and peel away the layers of pretensions and dodgy scheming. Australians are terribly good at sending themselves up. Self deprecation is a national trait.

Layered over this cultural desert is a sophisticated economy in world class cityscapes. Australians are also great architects, ruthless business people, brilliant writers, artists and great innovators. Yet squint hard and the matrix can be seen. The Aborigines live between the cracks waiting for the time the cities will disappear. Supposed icons like Bondi Beach grace Sydney, but no one mentions the tensions between racial groups there, the drug problems, the fights. Australia also leads the world in skin cancer statistics. It is axiomatic that paradise will self-destruct. The most spectacular places always seem to breed the most volatile people. The crime figures of Los Angeles, Rio, Cape Town, Sydney and Adelaide are testimony enough to that. The late Don Bradman used to say that Australia was ‘God’s own country’. But perhaps if you are an aborigine, or poor or inadequately educated immigrant it might not seem that way if you live there.

They also say that the best Australians always travel. Scratch any city in the world and you’ll find a nest of them, usually running the IT system in hospitals, schools, major companies, gap years that turn into a decade or more. Filling gaps that we can’t fill. Teachers, paramedics, doctors...they have the skills and they get the experience. Australia educates its young well and they are well equipped to handle themselves when they go abroad.

I have driven eleven wild college educated Australians in an un-aircondtioned van clear across America and they were drunk most of the way. They tried to beat someone to death with a park bench on Galveston Beach. They seemed completely oblivious to any evidence of culture or landscapes. Maybe they got more at home? Eleven Aussies may not be much different to eleven British students on a similar trip, and just as soccer hooligans don’t represent all the English, nor do these Aussies. But they are symptomatic and they do conform to the terrible stereotype that appears on the movies.

This is a personal view about the image Australia has in the world. You could turn it around and what would be the UK’s image? Millions of our animals been burned with the ruthlessness of the Gestapo, our trains seem to be constantly derailing killing passengers, our kids drunk on the streets at night, rising crime, food poisoning on the rise, schools short of ten thousand teachers, a government that has done nothing in four years except spin and spin. I guess we look pretty bad. Set us alongside Australia maybe we look crude and TV ‘The Royale Family’ typifies us. They have Muriel, we have Venessa Feltz, they have One Nation politics, we have a Tory party that wants us out of Europe, they have natural disasters on a fantastic scale, we have ‘the weather’.

I may never go to Australia, but as long as the movies remain so riveting and the Hardy’s so reliable, I have a little drop of Australia every day.

© Marcel D'Agneau 2001

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