'Brits are winning, call an enquiry'

The Olympics are over, the tumult and the shouting have died, the athletes won or lost and the spirit of friendship and sportsmanship have triumphed. All is well with the world. Not quite. Britain and Australia are at each other's throats because the impossible happened — Britain finished ahead of Australia in the gold medals table.

By Phillip Knightley (ONE MAN'S VIEW)

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Published: Sat 30 Aug 2008, 10:05 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:11 AM

This has not gone down well Down Under and there are accusations of a fix. "Brits are winning, call an inquiry", said one headline. At the very least, complain the Aussies, Britain is guilty of triumphalism.

But wait a minute. Aren't the Aussies guilty of the very sin they have always accused the Poms of — moaning. They have been keen to hand it out. After Team GB's early successes at swimming, Australia's Olympic boss John Coats said Britain wasn't doing too badly for a country with "few swimming pools and not very much soap."

But now the unthinkable has happened, now that after years of defeat by the Aussies at cricket, Rugby, tennis — you name it — Team GB has put the Aussies in their place, they have revealed a talent for moaning that is of gold medal standard. Britain, on the other hand appears to have kicked that state-of-mind that the Australians have always claimed to have detected in them — of not really being happy winners, of being uncomfortable in victory and bewildered in defeat.

In 2005, despite the bus tour of London and the fireworks that accompanied the Test cricket victory over Australia, Australian sports writers claimed to have noticed in Britain the usual feeling that, well, isn't all this winning and celebrating a bit vulgar.

In short, Britain and Australia seem to have swapped places. The Brits now regard themselves as a sporting nation with victory as the natural order of things. Australia, on the other hand, is reduced to moaning and finding excuses : "It's unfair that the Brits get all that lottery money." And "They may have won a few gold medals but most of them come from sports that you do sitting down, like yachting and rowing."

There are powerful historical reasons why Australians and the Brits are given to slanging each other off. They go right back to the convict era. The convicts, mostly Irish and lower class Brits could only get back at their jailers by spreading gossip and scandal about them. This grew into contempt for authority and for anyone who showed respect or deference. "Call no biped lord or sir and touch your hat to no man," said the historian Manning Clark.

Australians see the British as past masters at deference and enjoy pointing this out. In turn, the Brits like to draw attention to the so-called cultural cringe, the much-exaggerated shortcomings in Australian artistic and literary achievements. Australians have always used sport as a weapon in the fight against this perception. As author Thomas Keneally puts it: "Our only history was European history. Poetry cut out at Tennyson. If we spoke of literary figures, we spoke of Englishmen. Cricket was the great way out of cultural ignominy, for while no Australian had written 'Paradise Lost', Don Bradman had made a hundred before lunch at Lord's." But the era which produced the greatest friction between the two nations, the origins of all those insulting clichés that linger today, was the late 1940s and l950s, the time of mass migration of Brits to Australia under the famous "ten pounds Poms" scheme.

To populate Australia — which only had seven million people — and frankly, to keep the country white, the Australian government subsidised virtually any Brit who wanted to emigrate. Ten pounds would get you passage to Australia where accommodation and a job awaited you. Hundreds of thousands took up the offer — there are now 1.3 million permanent Brits in Australia — but not all were, or are, happy with the move. They thought they were doing Australia a favour by coming.

The Australians thought they were doing them a favour by accepting them. There were misunderstandings and recriminations. Australians were arrogant, ignorant and unwelcoming. Their food was terrible, their beer frozen. There wasn't enough housing, it was too hot, shop assistants showed no respect, you couldn't get a drink after 6pm or a meal in a restaurant at weekends. Above all, nobody appeared to be in charge. As D.H. Lawrence put it in "Kangaroo": "Nobody is supposed to rule and nobody does rule". The Poms were vocal in expressing their opinion of their new country, so they quickly became known as "moaning or whinging Poms".

And Australians, who fought their country's climate by showering once or twice a day, found the British habit of a bath once or twice a week and a wash in between as appalling, hence the jokes about a shortage of soap in Britain and a lack of swimming pools. How's it all going to end. The two countries have too much in common to let it go too far. Language, culture, common values. There's hardly a Brit without a relative or friend in Australia. And in all the exchanges, no matter how insulting they may seem, there's always a touch of tongue in the cheek. But what has changed is the British attitude. They used to take it from the Aussies. Now they give as good as they get.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist and commentator

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