As I flew out of Australia, wishing there were such things as child-free planes, I started to read Manning Clark’s A Short History of Australia (1963; Penguin 2006), which for its periodic sentences, its allusions to the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and its finely poised irony deserves the epithet “magisterial”.
By reading the historical context I’m slowly beginning to understand a little of what I’ve seen. I begin to see how each of the states came to adopt its own attitude to the others, how development was bedevilled by inter-state disagreements, from differing railway gauges up to the vehement present-day disputes about water distribution, how the different “interests” of the emerging nation – colonialists, convicts, settlers, squatters, Protestants and Catholics – set up a network of snobberies that governed politics for generations, how the utter inability to reach out to the Aborigines and the effects of the explicit early twentieth-century policy of “White Australia” are still not fully resolved.
I can’t presume to make judgements about any of these matters, but as I become aware of them I see how fascinating this great nation has been and is.
Almost without exception the Australians I met were charming, open, keen to share the delights of their country. I talked to a man in a coffee shop who came from Dundee, was demobbed from the British Army in Malaya, came to Australia for a couple of years and stayed: he’d travelled from Brisbane to a sports event in Melbourne on his pensioner’s entitlement of four free rail-tickets a year, and was looking forward to a cruise from Fremantle to Plymouth, England, which he said would take the Biblical forty days and forty nights.
Post-1960s multiculturalism now means that people of any ethnicity may be in fact Australian. An African taxi-driver compared at length the land-use in Western Australia with Kenya and Uganda and the resultant effect on lifestyles. An Indian lady in a lift described the weather as “muggy”, and when I remarked that was an English expression said her grandparents were indeed English. Oriental hotel receptionists greet you with “G’day”.
Over my three weeks’ travel I’ve come to associate the Australian accent with honesty, cheerfulness and an interest in other people. In my experience, it goes with unabashed eye-contact, straightforwardness and a desire to please. To me it’s inimitable: at least, I can’t work out how to change a simple syllable like “No” into “Niye”.
I can’t wait to come back.