I don’t know if I’ll ever be proud to be Australian
As I told my British-Australian wife the other night, I don’t know if I’ll ever be genuinely proud to be Australian. Australian pride, in my experience, almost always seems fake or defensive. Australians (at least white Australians, those whose families have spent several generations in Australia) suffer a twofold shame: (1) that their ancestors massacred the continent’s indigenous people; (2) that their ancestors themselves were sent to the continent against their wills. No-one, I suspect, from among the first settlers really wanted to be in Australia — it was desolate, frightening and near-infinitely far from home — but somehow this deep-seated unease has since gone underground. We’re “The Lucky Country”, and (maybe because we feel so inherently guilty about how we got it) we’re meant to be glad of what we have.
I don’t know what value — or accuracy — there can be in such generalisations about nationhood. In their defence all I can say is that they came from me spontaneously and passionately during my second week in London, as I discussed how, so far, I felt inspired and welcomed here. In response my wife — who I think is very pleasantly surprised at how glad she is to be back here — said, “I know what you mean. I feel like I belong here. I feel…” (she blushed slightly at the apparent truism, since she is a UK citizen after all) “… as if I have a right to be here.” “I do too,” I said: “I feel like I belong.” Then my voice caught in my throat: “But I don’t have the right to stay.”
There followed the discussion (we have it periodically) of European and American influences on Anglo-Australian childhood and Australian “cultural cringe”. As I’ve done before, I used the example of her children: “They only ever say ‘Aussie’ in quotation marks, about others, as if to say, ‘We’re not like them; we’re not real Australians.’ So they give over control of their national identity to people they have no respect for.” (This instinct is so strong that when one of the children, 11 years old, was acting rowdy on a train in Tokyo recently and I told him, “You’re an ambassador for your country — you have the chance to decide how you want Australians to be perceived,” he missed the point entirely and amplified his bad behaviour. “But you said I should act like an Australian,” he said. “That’s how Australians act.”)
In contrast to Australians (for whom appearing “sooky”, at least among males, is probably the great faux pas), my wife is apt to comment on the “whingeing Pom” phenomenon — a cliché which she assures me is all too real. But when the British come to Australia, she says, they don’t generally see much to whinge about: they put their feet up, enjoy the sunshine, behave as if they’re on extended holiday. All the more tragic, then, that Australia as a nation is so Xenophobic, because the influence of other peoples (not just British, but those fleeing war/famine/persecution) might just help us see the beauty in our own country. Yes, we need to face our shame, and give voice to it, but not inhabit it 24/7. We need to learn to love ourselves.
Pride. I’m not sure I know, even now, what it’s all about — but I know it when I see it. It’s when you stand tall, breathe easily, inhabit every inch of your frame. Look people in the eye — not combatively, with confidence. It’s when, even though you come from grey Manchester (for eg, since Manchester, in 2009–11, is where I last really encountered or took note of it) you speak with warm enthusiasm of your origins. When, I guess, you can speak of the achievements of your people no matter their lack of opportunities — not, as in mine and my people’s case, of how many opportunities we’ve wasted. And, I suddenly realise, it’s when you can lay claim to a place, when you feel you belong. (Thus does the indigenous Australian have more right to that pride than the white Australian.)
It’s a peculiar fate, being Australian. What’s at stake for us, I can’t help thinking, is probably pretty obscure to others. The Mancunian creation myth, by contrast, is a simple overcoming-of-odds story, blended with a sense of centrality and entitlement like that of some heir-to-the-throne-in-rags-among-the-people. (Manchester was “The Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution”, after all; in a sense it’s the most modern city in the world.) In Manchester, just the weather is reason enough to feel a sense of righteousness, if you rise above it. But in Australia, land of the sun, what is there to fight for?
I don’t know what to tell you. I could say so many things, but none of them, I suspect, would really get to the core of the matter. One thing I do know: I’m not alone. Otherwise why was it that, upon my return to Adelaide, after “the two coldest winters for 100 years” in Manchester (during both of which I was frequently asked by gobsmacked Mancunians, “You’re Australian? What did you come here for?”), I bumped into an old music-scene friend at a gig in Adelaide and he said, “What did you come back here for?”
What do I think? I think that maybe, just maybe, Australia is a great place for a certain type of person. But for others, it’s sheer suffocation. The helpless, enraged but suppressed shame of a would-be trans-national minority, forced to watch and be dragged along in the wake of a rowdy, boastful, pretentious, cruel, ignorant, anachronistic, nationalistic, Xenophobic majority. Not to labour the point, but it’s just about the furthest thing from pride I can imagine.
(Handwritten May 4th 2017)