It’s all up there Down Under

Britain and Australia, geographically diametrically opposed, and so far apart that the separation is indelibly impressed on the mind.

By John Sims

Published: Thu 19 Aug 2010, 10:36 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:10 AM

That simple fact of extreme physical separation, once in the consciousness, seems to hamper every effort to bring the two nations closer together in spirit. Britain and Australia still stand apart in so many ways, and will probably never achieve the rapprochement, which they could so easily achieve, if they wanted to. Therein lies the rub – the two have so enjoyed the rivalries, the teasing and taunting, and the occasional quite serious disagreements, if arguing over how to chuck a cricket ball properly and fairly can be seen as a serious disagreement. In any case, if that’s as serious as things are likely to get, then Britain and Australia can look forward to a long bright and cheerful future tossing little red balls at each other. Who needs rapprochement if that means having less fun?

Australia is peripherally green and pleasant, but the vast mineral wealth it possesses is in areas much less kind to humans who have not evolved, as have the indigenous peoples, to withstand their unrelentingly harsh conditions. Britons will plead for the adversities inherent in a northerly and oceanic climate, but the interior of Australia has a climate for which pale and frail Northern Europeans are not physically equipped, unless they are prepared to toughen up, which is exactly what Australians have done.

One can barely imagine what conditions were like in Australia’s early days, but one has only to speak with an elderly inland ‘Aussie’ to know what sort of people it took to survive, and not only to survive, but to prosper. To build a nation like modern Australia in just less than two-and-a-half centuries, from a little penal colony, is a remarkable achievement, and Australians are fiercely proud of it. Britons on the other hand, have a heritage, which is colossal by comparison, but much harder to mentally embrace and feel chummy with, as do the Australians with theirs.

Australians vie for association with the convict fleets, and adore their heritage of being the issue of the many wretched souls sentenced to anti-podean exile for often the most petty of crimes. That pride is evident even in the conversion of the Queen’s English into a knockabout, weather-beaten lingo, which cocks a snook at Britain with every roundly modified vowel. Even in Canberra, the language is no less colourful. Margaret Thatcher may have felt pleased with her invocation of the dialect of her home county by accusing a ‘gentleman opposite’ of being ‘frit’ (frightened), but in Canberra, such idioms are the lingua franca of parliamentary debate. The provenance of the Australian approach to life and its vagaries is enshrined in the language of daily life, which I think is much envied, albeit secretly, by those whose forebears missed out on the long voyage East.

On listening to the lively talk around the modern ‘Aussie’ barbecue, one almost expects Ned Kelly to be somewhere on the guest list. Australians seem to act out their heritage as the sausages are sizzling in the background, and speak of long, long journeys around their beloved land in pursuit of nothing more than a real live slice of what it is to be, and what it has always been, to be ‘Aussie.’ The British have barbecues now, and Google Earth tells of a proliferation of backyard swimming pools, albeit tiny rubber ones to just sit in. Their barbecue talk doesn’t, however, have one expecting Robin Hood to be on the guest list, nor anywhere on the horizon. Robin Hood is not an old pal to Britons, as Ned Kelly is to Australians, although what the legend symbolises was real enough. The British, thanks to muddled school curricula, don’t know very much about their history these days, legendary or factual. While Australians rock with laughter around the barbecue, with a humour which one feels derives directly from the old penal colonies, the British seem to have lost even the lively humour of the Blitz, although given the political turmoil of the post-war years, that’s maybe not too surprising.

British history has provided modern Britons with institutions, which most would rather not have, and not have to pay for so dearly. Australians only pay to have a monarchical Head of State when the Queen or her offspring deign to visit the dusty red land of the Commonwealth. However, they have paid dearly in other ways, and confusion over what to do with their absent Head of State is a very high price to pay. The failure of the 1999 referendum on just what to do with it was probably a result of a population of migrants from every corner of the globe scratching their heads over what the darned fuss was all about.

Britons, enjoying a warm beer, seated in their tiny polypropylene paddling pools, must have groaned with collective despair at the failure of Australians to seize an opportunity, which to them is but a pipe dream. The heavy baggage of the past, which Australians are carrying with them must at some point be shed. And the very Australian ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ philosophy can only result in the eventual discovery of just how broke things really are.

On the sporting field, in the home, and at work, Australians and Britons can if they wish to do so, find parallels and alignments a-plenty, but it is in subtle departures and differences where the real joy of being linked but not cemented together is to be found. The two protagonists must learn to ignore the vile rantings of commercial talk-back radio for example, and keep their focus on a relationship not about politics or economics, but hearts and minds, and those two glorious assets Australia and Britain have in spades. And distance need never be a problem, as Robert Louis Stephenson discovered when he felt able to do his best writings about home in far away Samoa.

John Sims is a British-born expat living in Australia

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