Thursday, 6 September 2007

total:spec: Australia

Australians are bloody lovely. I say this not because I have another month in their country and I’m trying to further the already perfectly healthy and don’t need any help thank you very much Anglo-Australian relations, but because they really are genuinely nice people.

I put it down to the weather. It might be a bit gloomy in Sydney at the mo but that’s probably as much to do with the presence of George Bush for the APEC meeting than it is to do with the grey clouds. Australians don’t let a bit of grey cloud and rain (or a bad day, or a grumpy English tourist, or really anything) bother them, and with good reason. They know that pretty much the rest of the year they will be basking in glorious, unfettered, unadulterated sunshine, lucky, lucky people that they are. They know that no matter how bad a day they have, they’re going to have a nice one tomorrow.

An Australian friend of mine gives a different reason for the easy-going nature of his fellow countrymen. He feels that my experience of cheery conversations and warm demeanours in shops, on the phone and even on the street when I look a bit lost is enhanced because I’m British, and all the Aussies love a Brit. He reckons they’re almost grateful when we decide to come and pay them a visit. They’re so remote out here, so far away from the rest of the world, that it’s a pleasurable shock when they meet someone who has ventured this far into the outer reaches of Western society.

I think he’s affording Australians too much humility. In my experience meeting Aussies around the world, they’re just as happy to shout about the calibre of their nationality as we Europeans and those Americans are. But there is a difference – no other nationality travels the world with quite the sense of wonderment and enthusiasm than Australians. For example, Australian travellers are ten a penny in London. There are loads of them there, suffering the rainy weather and high rents for the two year stint their visa allows. Coming here to their country I have to ask why they bother. Why forgo this easy-going lifestyle for the stress of going to work on the Tube?

Well the fact is, by leaving their home far behind, they’re actually on a hunt for some roots. Australia, as the society that it is today, is a mere newborn in comparison to much of the rest of the world. Even the youthful America stopped using nappies a long time ago (though they still like to throw their toys out of the pram, it seems).

It’s this infancy that strikes you when you first arrive in Australia and start to look around at the architecture. I mean, they don’t do themselves any favours - it’s apparently common in most parts of the country that if a building is older than 10 years then it gets knocked down and a new one built. This might have been a jokey exaggeration on the part of my Australian friend, but his point is clear. That is very much the attitude of Australians to their surroundings.

The same friend went on to tell me that to have a look at some old buildings and get some historical culture, most Aussies head to Sydney. I found it hard to stifle a chuckle at this. As pretty as Sydney is, the closest they get to historical landmarks are the Harbour Bridge (completed in 1932) and the Opera House (completed in 1978).

Older buildings are there – I myself have had a look at Hyde Park Barracks, which now makes a very interesting museum but is certainly not a noticeable landmark, and Cadman’s Cottage, which may be the oldest house in Sydney but is a cottage like any other you might find in Britain. I was distinctly unimpressed.

But then, even those two examples were only built in 1810s. The cement is barely dry by British standards. Of course I’m guilty of exhibiting that British arrogance and slightly condescending manner that comes out in various forms in Brits abroad. Don’t get me wrong, there’s more than enough to see here – probably more than you could pack in a lifetime, it’s such an immense country. Australia has some breath-taking natural sights for a start, such as the Rock formerly known as Ayers (now called by its Aboriginal name of Uluru), the haunting rock formations at Hanging Rock, and Australia’s own Grand Canyon in the form of the Blue Mountains, to name a few. Plus they do man-made sights with a sense of humour – the Big Banana, Big Prawn, and Big Pineapple you see on the way up the East Coast are more entertaining than they have any right to be.

But it is true to say that it is our history and culture to which Aussies look for a better sense of their roots. They’re mostly descendants of Brits after all, and it’s our history they’re taught at schools. Talking to an Australian friend of my Dad’s I was visiting about her interest in British history, I asked whether she’d ever felt a bit deprived when it came to Australian history. She just laughed and said, “Not at all! We’ve got yours!”