Monday, July 20, 2009

Cultural Cringe

I haven’t written much about the Ashes (although believe me I am as preoccupied with them as I can be, given the paternal circumstances), largely because The Old Batsman does it so well.

But given England’s tremendous, Flintoff-inspired victory yesterday I went to have a look at some of the Aussie papers, to see how they were taking it. Dear me. We have great fun whacking the English Space-Phillers, but some of these Australian writers make Dan Brown look like Nabakov. In The Australian, Ben Dorries opens with this corker:

Storming in on just one good leg, Flintoff (5-92) carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders….

Then tops it with:

Clarke could hardly lift his head as he wandered off the historic ground after missing the full ball which spun back into his stumps as he was left stranded down the pitch.

Peter Carey, Clive James... and now Ben Dorries.

Poms v Convicts, eh? It's usually good natured, blokey fun, but the Cultural Cringe is still a big barrier to happy relations. At its mildest the Cringe manifests itself in a slightly pathetic wish to be liked (Australians are weirdly obsessed about what US and British celebs think of their country). At its worst it can be a quite ridiculous chippiness.

Funnily enough, one of the worst examples I've encountered was a Sheila. We were eating at a friend’s house, a few years ago. A fellow guest was an Aussie making her first visit to Britain, on business. As hosts, we were all busy being self-deprecating in the English style, bemoaning our sporting inferiority and rain and traffic and overcrowdedness, and praising Aussie overacheivement, wildlife, beaches, weather etc.

Unfortunately it eventually became clear that this lady was not playing the same game. Instead of self-deprecating back, playfully bashing Aussieness and praising the praise-worthy bits of Blighty, she was taking our self-laceration at face value, wholeheartedly agreeing with it, and trumpeting Aussie superiority as the literal truth. Not only that, but she moved on from sport and landscape to literature, television and film stars.

Well I mean, the impudence! We tolerated this with increasing discomfort until finally she got on to pop music: “I’ve noticed that on Australian Pop Idol the singers are much more talented than the British ones. Yeah Australians aren’t really interested British music, it’s more our own or Americans”.

“Robbie Williams is quite popular Down Under, isn’t he?” observed someone, reasonably.

“No, he hasn't really made it in Oz. We don't know much British music.”

At which point I finally gave in. “What about the Beatles then? Have you ever heard of them in Australia? Or the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Clash, the Jam, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Oasis, The Smiths, Radiohead, Blur, Coldplay? Ever heard of any of them? Have they had any success at all in Australia? Hmmmm? Mind you, you did give us Kylie and that one about the vegemite sandwich so yes, I suppose that's another area that Aussies rule.”*

She did a goldfish impression. Score one for the Poms, maybe, but really I felt a bit rotten.

*Obviously I probably wasn’t quite that fluent or chronological, but honestly not far off, you get the idea.


Gaw said...

...and even Kylie was a Stock Aitken Waterman invention! Sorry got carried away by your flow there.

Reminds me of when I was in India watching the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final in a bar with a bunch of Aussies and Kiwis (I was supporting England). Once the drop goal went over and the Poms were hugging each other I overheard one Antipodean saying to another with condescending pity: 'It just means so much to them doesn't it?'

'At least we haven't had to build our entire sense of national self-respect on this sort of thing!' I said. Or rather, thought.

Brit said...

Very true. But given the history it is of course our duty to try to take a Zen approach to Aussie triumphalism, however difficult they make it for us, and to treat the twin imposters both the same. Flintoff's pat on the back for Brett Lee in 2005 was the finest moment in Anglo-Aussie relations I can remember.

(And their sporting overacheivement is, after all, genuinely amazing - whether driven by chippy rage or not).

Anonymous said...

The Aussies are lucky to have you to fuel their triumphalism with all your clever putdowns. Whenever we try to pump ourselves up to master the rapacious Yankee trader, we're just met with bland looks and "Nice little country you've got here."

Gaw said...

Peter, your comment reminds me that the Welsh secretly enjoy being insulted by the English as it indicates they've been noticed.

Brit said...

The Americans have the Cringe towards the Brits and the Brits have it towards the French.

Got to feel sorry for the Canadians, who have it to all three.

Gaw said...

The cringe exhibited by the Quebecois to the French has to be seen to be believed.

I once worked with a Quebec company who were trying to build a European export market, starting with the UK. They thought my suggestion that they instead start with their fellow francophones was totally ridiculous: 'they'll never buy from us!'

In this situation the French don't really do self-effacement: they prefer le withering contempt.

The Old Batsman said...

Ben Dorries sounds like a fake byline, doesn't it... Still it must be intimidating sitting in the press box next to our boys as they send their great tablets tumbling down the line. They do have Gideon Haigh, though. And AC/DC.

Sean said...

Btw, they did get a couple of big things recently right.

1, they did not allow their banks to take each other over thus averting the worst of the banking crisis. (something we cannot do as we are subject to the EU)

2, they did not spend like drunks in a Thai brothel in the good years so the recession is likely to be less severe for them.

So if it comes to a choice between our fantastic culture,Oasis and the rest, versus their political system delivering better economic results, the uncultured Aussies have us pasted.

They did not forget how to govern themselves unlike the old country, I call that high culture.

Brit said...

Politics, Sean? We're talking about important stuff here, not politics.

malty said...

Convict island has Pop Idol ? who does the pre show interviews with the kangaroos then. Top of the class Brit, keep the colonists firmly in place. The have hated the British ever since we banished Tony Hatch there. As revenge they sent us Greer.

sean said...

And I am talking about self confidence which you seem to dismiss as arrogance.

Warne was interesting was he not? he never saw the game beyond the next step to win, although one eyed in the aussie corner he was always pretty much in the present, unlike us who think in terms of bashing the aussie tommorrow, going straight through them like some yesteryear.

we think in the arc of history, they think in the present, i know which works best and wins the most.

culture drives politics and economics is a reflection of that, its all the same thing.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I think it's time the British stopped being so self-deprecating - I can say this now I'm an ex-pat ;-) - and started the extremely firm handshake malarky that has been meted out to us by colonials for so long now.

AC/DC were born in Glasgow, Olivia Newton-John in Cambridge and The Bee Gees mostly on the Isle of Man. Scratch the skin...

Brit said...

Damn straight, Gadjo. When someone gives me the macho handcrusher shake I simply go: "Owwwww! Jesus Christ, what's the matter with you man? Can't you shake hands properly?"

And we're sending Sean straight out to Oz on the next convict ship for his treasonous nonsense.

Gaw said...

Sean, ever heard the word Gallipoli? They're just as obsessed with history, it's just they have a lot less to work with.

David said...

Cohen's Law: History is bad. The more of it you have, the worse off you are.

The Old Batsman said...

The curse of Brit:

Ben Dorries has swine flu,8659,25821611-23212,00.html

Brit said...

Instant Karma.