Exciting cities, exotic animals, incredible vistas — it’s just what the travel
Exciting cities, exotic animals, incredible vistas—it’s just what the travel folders promise. But the once-swashbuckling Aussie—he’s vanished into legend
AUSSIES LOVE TO TELL JOKES and sing drinking songs. It’s expected of them. One joke I heard on a recent trip back there equates the attractiveness of the ages of women to the continents of the world. The punchline, about the oldest age-bracket, has it that they are like Australia— everyone knows where it is but nobody wants to go there.
True, Australia is a long way from Canada. But it’s no longer true — if it ever was — that nobody wants to go there. More and more people, including Canadians, are going there and finding why it is that although Aussies are the world’s most determined wanderers, they always seem to finish up back in their sunny homeland.
As a place to visit, Australia may never replace such popular destinations as Europe or the Caribbean. But for travelers who've been to most of the obvious spots, visiting Australia can be rewarding. In many ways, it's a surprising place for Canadians, even though not all the surprises are welcome ones. You're aware from the tourist literature, of course, that Australia is an outdoorsy sort of place. But most visitors still find it surprising, and pleasantly so, to discover that it’s one of the few remaining places where the best things in life really are free.
Sydney — a city as big as Montreal and twice as beautiful — has 30 first-class ocean beaches within the city limits, along with 65 golf courses and 200 lawn-bowling clubs. There are hundreds of nearly perfect places you’ve never heard of, such as Rottnest Island, 12 miles from Perth, where the water is as clear as blue crystal, and you can catch a free lobster dinner to eat on the beach that would cost you $15 in a restaurant back home.
There’s the Outback, where the colors are unbelievable and the changes of mood are infinite. You can crawl through caves decorated with aboriginal paintings that rival Lascaux. In the rolling uplands of southeast Australia, the snow lasts for six months on the high slopes. Within a morning’s drive of the ski chalets, the deep-sea fishing is as good as the world’s best. And trite though it may sound, the sight of a herd of kangaroos bounding across the limitless Australian landscape can be an unforgettable experience.
But the most surprising aspect — as I, an
ex-Australian, rediscovered on a recent trip back home — is the Australians themselves. Along with the rest of the world, they are trapped by the Great Australian Lie.
The conventional image, shared by Canadians and the rest of the world, is that Australians are aggressive, outspoken, cussedly independent frontiersmen, scornful of authority, incurable gamblers, almost obnoxiously egalitarian and always on the lookout for a party or a fight. It’s an image that Australians can't help projecting to outsiders — especially when they're traveling abroad, which is frequently. The reality, as I was forcibly reminded on my recent visit, is almost the opposite. Despite the wide-open spaces, the vast frontier and the anti-authoritarian tradition that dates back to the first convict settlers, today’s Australians are probably the most conformist, suburbanized, security-ridden, creatures on earth.
The sheep, once the symbol of their economy, now symbolizes their conformity. It is, perhaps, the inevitable result of becoming a rich industrial nation in a part of the world where everyone else is poor. “We are conservative,” Prime Minister Harold Holt told me, “in the sense that we have much to conserve.
“The Australian has a dislike of humbug or cant,” he added. “Rather than build up public figures, we tend to pull them down somewhat below life size.”
The reality, however, was Holt’s aloof manner, the deference shown by his aides hovering nearby. He was obviously used to being treated somtwhat above life size. The atmosphere was so different from the genuine egalitarian warmth I’ve always found in dealing personally with two Canadian prime ministers, Pearson and Diefenbaker. If Holt hadn't been putting me on, the typical Aussie he described — if he existed — would have laughed most of Australia’s political leaders out of public life long ago. Meanwhile, the Holt coalition government keeps winning elections by seeing the Australian as he really is: worried about his pay cheque, his insurance, his mortgage; easily frightened by the bogey of Asian Communism; an insecure suburbanite.
The brash Aussie insecure? Of course he is. There’s the natural insecurity of a prosperous white nation living in a sea of Asian poverty and
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THE ANCIENT LAND
THE SON PEOPLE
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Behind the brashness: insecurity
also a sense of cultural inferiority that makes an Aussie writer like me come to Canada — of all places — for recognition. While 1 was there, for instance, the showbiz set was boasting because a second-rate Broadway musical, Sweet Charity, had opened an Australian tour with an all-Australian cast. The cast was really excellent, but the rejoicing was out of all proportion to the event.
1 also saw an Australian movie (with foreign director and star) called They're a Weird Mob, based on a best-selling book about a lovable immigrant and heart-of-gold Aussies, who get on fine once the migrant adjusts to the endearing slanguage and proves he can take it like a real man. It delighted Aussies, showing them as they think they are. The Great Australian Lie again.
The myth, and the insecurity it fosters, are dramatically apparent in Sydney’s Kings Cross, to Aussies the last word in bohemianism but, in fact, a neon-lit mecca for tourists, prostitutes. queers and hoodlums (the real bohemians go elsewhere). The Cross can swing: it stays open late and the clubs and acts are no worse than most along Yonge or St. Catherine streets.
I went to Les Girls, the most famous spot, which features gorgeous female impersonators. The Aussies love it, just as they love to tell barroom jokes about “poofters” (Australian for queers). The myth is that the Aussie is a super male, which of course he is not. But Australian social pressures force the men to scorn women and enshrine the male togetherness of “mateship.” Is it any wonder the poor old suburban Aussie male is caught in this anxious love-hate relationship with homosexuality? It has its effect on the women, too, who try to be like men—sport-and-sun-Ioving—to catch a man and at the same time assert their femininity by emphasizing their shape. A blond mother of three, who still looks great in a bikini, tells me she never goes to the socializing beaches any more because her figure is starting to go. An attitude like that, in a girl like that, just has to be a symptom of chronic insecurity.
Even in the Outback, where all the frontiersmen are supposed to be, there’s a pervasive sense of timidity and small-mindedness. Like Canadians, Australians are frightened of investing in their own natural resources. And so the mineral riches are being flogged by the million-ton lots, to investors from Britain, the U.S. and Japan. Local investors, says Western Australia’s Industrial Development Minister Charles Court, are “too lazy or too unimaginative.”
The Outback has been plundered for 100 years or more, and is still being plundered. In one territory, aboriginal stockmen went on strike several years ago and won near-parity with the lowest white workers. Where 1 went, the aborigines were getting a few dollars a month, basic rations for their families, and a place to camp. The men who set the policies on the stations (ranches), typically, are financiers from the south.
1 visited one cattle station in the
north, more than a million acres with enormous potential. Yet it isn’t even fenced and carries about 18,000 head of scrub cattle of unknown pedigree. “They ate the guts out of the country and never put anything back,” spits Bob McCorry, one of the workers. He cares. So does the station manager, Bill Maher. But they get their orders from the south, from the boardroom pioneers, who are the true Aussies. McCorry and Maher are outsiders, men who could not live in a city, who can’t understand city life. Ironically, they are close to the city Aussie’s ideal of himself, resourceful and egalitarian, but since this ideal is a lie, it is not surprising that McCorry and Maher are aliens in their own land, sociological fossils.
Poor old Australia. Is nothing the way it’s supposed to be? When I tried to film an aborigine throwing boomerangs, he couldn’t make any of the damned things come back to him. And the world’s champion boomerang thrower is a white man.
At Mt. Tom Price, another frontier myth, the one about enduring hardships, was exploded. The company town is named after a U. S. Kaiser Steel executive. All the houses are new and air-conditioned and there is a town - company swimming pool. What’s more, there’s hardly an Aussie in sight. Most of the pioneering these days is done by immigrants.
At this stage of my journey, I’d begun to suspect that trying to live the Great Lie is becoming a bit tedious to many Aussies. But I was wrong. A few nights later, the syndrome's classic symptoms erupted at a party in Derby, in the far northwest.
This was in the Outback, but it was a backyard party that could have been almost anywhere on the continent. The guests were mostly smallbusiness men and their wives, doing a speil of duty away from southern suburbia. One of the specially leveling things about Australians is their uniformity. You can never be sure from their speech, their dress or their manner what part of Australia they come from or what social or economic class they’re in. They have no more regional identity than a flock of junior executives from IBM.
Anyway, it was one of those parties where all the old songs are sung. I know them all. But as a guest I was told I'd have to sing a Canadian song. A Canadian drinking song? In five years in Canada I'd never had cause to sing one, if indeed any exist.
However, one of the Great Australian Lies is that Aussies always have fun and do wild things at parties. This was a party, therefore fun was going to be had, like it or not. When it seemed likely I was going to let the side down, the host stepped forward, manfully. After all, his reputation as a partygiver was at stake.
“Al—oo—wetter, jontee aller—wetter ... ” he roared.
We all joined in, with glasses of beer slopping in our hands. Nobody knew the words. Nobody cared. The party ritual had been observed. The Great Australian Lie had been kept alive. ★
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