Talking Straight

1 03 2009

[You can listen to this episode here.]

If there’s one thing that a gap year in Australia has taught me it is this: Australians like it simple, straightforward – no poncing about. That, I think, is why Kevin Rudd, their Prime Minister, has managed to tap the national psyche and come out of their recent tragedy as a hero of the people.


I don’t know how many people have been following the news of the wildfires raging through the state of Victoria. It seems the worst of the damage has now been done, but the fires are still burning and many people still face losing their homes. At the peak of the tragedy over two hundred lives were lost in the space of just a few days – the greatest loss of life in Australia’s peacetime history.


This is not a country unfamiliar with tragedy, and mourning innocent victims. The enormous losses suffered by Anzac troops in the first world war are still clearly carved deep into the Australian character. More recently, the Port Arthur massacre saw thirty-five men and women slaughtered in 1996 by a gunman, and Australia was particularly badly hit by the Bali bombings in 2002. Indeed, every year the wildfire season claims many properties and often lives.


But Black Saturday, as this summer’s fires have been colloquially named has shaken the country simply by the scale of the devastation. So, it has fallen to Kevin Rudd, an unassuming former civil servant propelled into government last year, to speak for the nation.


Rudd has never been one for poetry. One of the first acts of his premiership was to apologise on behalf of the government to the aboriginal communities for the actions of the white majority in the past. To many leaders this would have been an opportunity to make a great speech, filled with emotional rhetoric about abstract ideas. But that is not Rudd’s style, and he was criticised for making the apology sound like a budget statement.


And it was classic Rudd that was saw react to the fires. He did not make any ministerial broadcast from the Prime Minister’s lodge in Kirribilli, in Sydney. Instead he headed straight to Melbourne and appeared on the Australian equivalent of GMTV. There was no quote from Aeschylus, no flowery rhetoric on the basis of humanity. Just a crack in the voice, and arm round a grieving mother. This was the Australian’s Australian speaking. He gave it straight from the heart, and they loved it.


I don’t know why Australians like things straightforward, in the way they do, but I do have a theory. It’s something about superiority. Having been treated as a colony for so long, and some would say abused by their British partners (here, again, Gallipoli is a powerful word), the Australian nature is particularly sensitive to anybody with an attitude of superiority. Nothing displays such an attitude better than flowery language, intellectualism and, well, poncing about.


This hatred of superiority goes some way to explaining the peculiar arrangements around Australia’s capital city. It is not, as any foreigner would assume, Sydney that is the capital, though most of the country’s financial economy is based there. And it is not Melbourne, as any visitor to that city might say it should be. Australia’s capital is a little-known, and little cared-for city called Canberra. How this happened to be is an interesting, and illuminating tale.


The two largest cities of Australia – Sydney and Melbourne – had, by the 1890s, each developed a claim to be the greatest city in the land. Melbourne, with its European flavour, sophisticated architecture and unpredictable climate; and Sydney which, at this time had neither the Harbour Bridge nor the Opera House to help it achieve international recognition. Just at that time it was decided that the whole of the country should cease to be a rag bag of British colonies. Instead, all the states – Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania – should come together and form the Commonwealth of Australia. Together, they would have a Parliament, Prime Minister and of course a Capital City.


Well, there were two ready contenders for that. After several months, negotiation was getting nowhere. The problem was that whichever city lost out would end up being subservient to the other. Most importantly the citizens of the winning city would assume an intolerable arrogance and not let anybody forget that they lived in the capital. Well, that could not be allowed to happen.  So the Australian instinct kicked in and a slightly whacky compromise was reached. A completely new city would be created in New South Wales on the condition that it was no closer to Sydney than one hundred miles. This would be the Capital of Australia.


So, roads were put down, houses, and buildings erected and the new city was born. Most importantly, and in true Australian fashion, a Parliament building was hurriedly cobbled together. The grand idea was that this would act as a put-you-up for the legislators until a properly thought-out building could be arranged. I quite like to think that after the last brick was laid on this temporary, but substantial, structure, the Aussie builder took a step back and said to his companion: ‘She’ll be right, mate.’


In the end the Second World War distracted everybody from building the replacement and it was not until 1988 that the new building was completed. Today it stands valiantly above Canberra, a city made up almost entirely of civil servants and politicians. This may go some way to explaining why the capital is so rarely included on the Tourist itinerary.


Of course, telling you that Australian’s are straightforward folk is probably not telling you anything you can’t pick up from Neighbours, and is probably doing that great nation a terrible injustice. I maintain it is true that Aussie culture likes to strip things down to their bare essentials, but that does not necessarily mean they lose out. Us Europeans, for example, have a fondness for remarkably extravagant food. Not so the Aussie bloke or Sheila.


More than anything else it is the common Barbie that characterises an Australian summer. Strictly a male affair, though a woman may occasionally be invited to put together a salad, this is the ultimate outdoor dining experience.


An overdone ‘snag’, or sausage to me and you, on a plastic plate, an unstable garden chair for support and a disturbingly sandy texture to the mayonnaise. All are standard. But it all comes together to form what I can only describe as the ultimate outdoor dining experience. In fact, there is only one flaw I can find in the Australian culture of food and drink.


Their standard drink, understandably, is a cooling lager – straight from the esky (Ice box to me and you). Here’s the catch, though: the lager is drunk from a small glass bottle called a stubby – on account of its short neck. The stubby is favoured for its low centre of gravity, light weight and easily stored shape. The perfect vessel, you might say, for a barbecue. Well maybe, that rather misses the point. Three hundred and seventy -five millilitres, the approximate contents of a stubby, is, quite simply, the wrong size for a drink.


The one thing us Brits can be relied on to get right is drinking in pints. They are the perfect measurement for drinking in – enough to satisfy even the driest tongue, but finely judged to allow conversation to flow over the top. More importantly, drinking in pints is perfectly synchronised to the body’s bladder regulation, meaning that you should never half to leave a half-drunk glass unattended.


Now, it is possible to find a pint in Australia. New South Wales, Sydney in particular, accommodates many tourists, and their tastes demand lager served in a pint glass. In most of the other states, however, you will have to seek out one of the few pint-serving pubs, such as the Claremont in Western Australia – a very fine destination for an Englishman on his gap year.


Otherwise you will have to make do with the baffling array of glass sizes on offer. These depend on which of the seven states and territories you are in, and range from the ‘pot’ in Queensland, to the ‘handle’ in Darwin, or the ‘pony’ in Canberra. On the whole, though, your safest bet is to ask for a ‘Schooner’ which is as close to a universal unit of measurement as exists. It’s only about five fluid ounces short of a Pint, but at the end you will still find yourself strangely unsatisfied, and your bladder will get very confused.


I am very fond of the Australians. We have seen in the past couple of weeks what a extraordinary bunch of people they are. Their fondness for a charming simplicity serves them well, and makes them even more endearing. However, they still need to get one thing right. Who would want to drink a schooner?




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