Dirty and snobby? Must be the poms

Anglo-Australian Attitudes

September 14, 2001

On the infrequent occasions that Britons contemplate Australians, they doubtless do so with a degree of bewilderment: we are, when viewed with the dispassionate eye that Michael Davie brings to bear in this thoughtful and amusing book, a curious bunch. We derive immense (and, one imagines, insufferable) joy from our triumphs over England on the cricket field, despite the fact that our Ashes victories are hardly less routine and one-sided than the triumph of the club-wielding Canadian woodsman over the baby harp seal. We make superior jokes about English cooking, dentistry and hygiene - a thirsty Australian remarks that his throat is "as dry as a pommy's bath towel" - yet when we were given the opportunity to decide our head of state by means other than an accident of birth in an English castle, we rejected it.

Davie, an Englishman who once edited the Melbourne Age, knows and likes both countries very well, but is beholden to the mythology of neither. He performs a steady-handed dissection of the episodes that have defined the relationship between England and its former colony.

The starkest illustration of Davie's disdain for conventional wisdom is ironically something that is absent from the book: he barely touches on the 1975 sacking of Gough Whitlam's Labour government by the then governor-general, Sir John Kerr, the representative of the crown. When Davie does mention the Dismissal, which looms large enough in Australian history to warrant capitalisation, he notes that it was nothing to do with Britain: whatever Kerr's ceremonial role, the Queen did not appoint him, advise him or have any power to restrain him. The Dismissal was, like a lot of the things we have blamed on Britain, a problem entirely of Australian manufacture.

Particularly refreshing is Davie's somewhat exasperated examination of the Gallipoli legend. Rightly identifying Peter Weir's 1981 film of the same name as the source of Gallipoli's modern status, Davie examines the jingoistic caricatures of the English that sour an otherwise terrific movie. The central premise of Gallipoli is that the best and bravest of our fledgling nation (Australia became a federated nation in 1901, only 14 years before Gallipoli) were slaughtered on the whim of incompetent, cowardly, cartoonishly aristocratic English officers with camp lisps. Davie puts his objections directly to the screenwriter, David Williamson, who offers a creditable, if not entirely convincing, defence.

Several of Davie's other debunkings go largely unanswered, because they are largely unanswerable. It would be nice to believe that the opening chapter, "The myth of Australian classlessness", is an epitaph for Australian's cosiest delusion: a quaint belief that they are less prone to snobbery and prejudice than the rest of the world, which maybe evolved because class is not quite so rigidly defined in Australia as it once was in Britain. Also long overdue is Davie's painstakingly reasonable assessment of the fall of Singapore in 1942. This controversy resurfaced amid the wilder pommy-bashing fringes of the Republican debate in the 1990s, at the invitation of then prime minister Paul Keating - perhaps significantly, a second-generation Australian of Irish descent. Davie, who served in the Pacific war on the HMS London , examines the case of those Australians who believe Britain's failure to defend Singapore from Japan was a vicious betrayal, and offers the more plausible explanation of an almighty balls-up.

Anglo-Australian Attitudes is a clear-headed account of a relationship that is too often discussed, and conducted, in tones of mutual misunderstanding. Like most grievances of adolescents against their parents, the grudges modern Australia can reasonably harbour against modern Britain are relatively trivial - irksome though it is to read the lyrical references to Queen Elizabeth II in my passport while standing in an interminable immigration queue at Heathrow.

Andrew Mueller is a freelance journalist who was born in Australia and lives in London.

Anglo-Australian Attitudes

Author - Michael Davie
ISBN - 0 436 20353 7 and 0 7126 67 X
Publisher - Warburg
Price - £17.99
Pages - 250

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