Saturday, September 10, 2005

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT AUSTRALIA (from Anna Tambour and Anne Sydenham)

Okay, I'll be the first to admit it. Despite reading Peter Carey's book on Sydney and The Fatal Shore, my image of Australia is still colored by Crocodile Dundee, Foster's beer commercial, the insanity that is the crocodile hunter, and movies like Walk About, Hanging Rock, The Wave, and, er, Mad Max. (Nick Cave, The Church, and Midnight Oil, three of my favorites, all come from Australia, btw.)

So I thought I'd kick off the Australia-ization of this blog with a couple of top misconceptions about Australia list from Aussies Anne Sydenham, who runs the Edward Whittemore website, and Anna Tambour, author of The Spotted Lily (which I shall be blogging about shortly).

More posts on Australia, Australian books and authors, will follow until Ann and I leave for Australia and the Brisbane Writers' Festival Sept. 20. Between the 20th and Oct. 10th, a number of Australian writers and editors will be guest blogging here. I'll introduce them closer to my departure.



1) Australia is down under. Easy to cure with McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World.

2) Something deadly will bite you. As likely as travelling in the US and getting kilt by rattlers, black widders, gila monsters, and bears--not to mention gunshot.

3) The typical Australian "predictably goes walkabout". Too right! Like, say, your typical American predictably leaves every seat a chewing-gum wad richer.

4) Australians are uncouth roughnecks like Crocodile Dundee or Rupert Murdoch--or beach bimbos.
A) Couthness has become such a norm in city and bush that a national identity crisis looms. One local council can't start meetings without a meal with wine for the councillors first.
B) Most Australians are hard-core city dwellers who think that something deadly would bite them if they ever ventured into the outback.
C) As for the bimbos--though the beach is iconic and Australians are mad about sport (real sport--Aussie rules football [all naked thighs and bloody mouths]and cricket) more and more people in Oz (yes, this is Oz) exercise only their eyeballs, fingers and thumbs.

5) "The appalling standard of Intellectual Life among their chattering classes...and the limpness of the humour" might very well be true.
"Intellectual Life" isn't elevated to that standard in Oz.
See OED, chattering, for a possible explanation.


I really have no idea how Australia is perceived in other countries. After a bit of research, I have cobbled together what appear to be the commonly accepted misconceptions about this country. Perhaps it could be seen as a primer for understanding Australian culture and customs. As it is a subjective view, other Aussies may have completely different opinions on how we are perceived both within Australia and abroad.

1. JOHN HOWARD - WHO? – The Man of Steel, according to George Bush; is great guy and we are lucky to have him as our Prime Minister.

Not so! – John Howard is a lying, untrustworthy bastard whom half the population of Australia can’t stand. We are embarrassed to have him represent us. The Government of this country is a joke. We even have two cabinet ministers called Abbott and Costello.

2. NATIVE ANIMALS – Australians all live in the bush (even if we live in a capital city) and have kangaroos and koalas as pets

It is indeed a rare thing to see koalas hanging from trees in a city garden, the zoo excepted, or to meet up with a kangaroo hopping down the main street. However, other native wildlife is pestiferous in the extreme. Possums take over our gardens at night, eating everything they can lay their little paws on and fruit bats fly in battalions across the evening sky and hang out during the day in noisy colonies in the Botanical Gardens.

3. BEER – Australians all consume enormous quantities of this beverage especially Fosters Lager.

Admittedly, beer is still a very popular beverage in Australia, but wine buffs are everywhere as well. International tourists are perceived as Fosters Lager or Crown Lager drinkers, as these beers are widely publicized in other countries. However, a wide range of Australian and imported beers are available even at the humblest bottle shop.

Australian wines are among the best in the world and are warmly appreciated by Australian drinkers.

4. CULTURAL DESERT – as well as inhabiting a very dry continent, the cultural scene is a wasteland as well.

The popular concept that Australia is populated with sports-mad, sun-bronzed, beer swilling, out-doors people is quite wrong. The Crocodile Dundee genus is very rare as is the Bazza McKenzie type. We’re pretty ordinary, very well read in the main, respectful of musicians and keen on art in all its forms. Even the remotest country town has some sort of drama society or book club or musical group. Country towns have, for some years, become venues for Music Festivals and are generally included in the itineries of International artists. One observes more than half the commuters on trains in the cities reading books on the journey. It’s not just the latest Harry Potter or Dan Brown, but classical literature as well. Bookshops abound; and small country towns usually have at least one-second hand bookshop where one can unearth rare treasures.

Sport is popular, I must admit. It is not surprising that one of the great heroes of Australian sporting history is a horse – Pharlap. His stuffed hide is on display in the Melbourne Museum and other pieces of him, his heart and his skeleton, are preserved elsewhere.

The Melbourne Cup, a horse race run annually on the first Tuesday in November, stops the Nation and everyone has a flutter on it, even though it is hard to pick the winner. In Melbourne we get a public holiday and just about everyone either goes to the racetrack or attends a Cup Day party. Every workplace has a sweep, which is a kind of lottery. After paying a nominated sum of money one is in the draw for a horse. Traditionally there are 24 runners in the Melbourne Cup, so each sweep is limited to 24 numbers.

The other great sporting hero is Don Bradman - cricketer extraordinaire. In summer cricket is all the rage. In winter football rules – we have three different codes and it all depends on the state you live in, your country of origin or what you played at school which code you will follow. Being a resident of the state of Victoria I would naturally follow Australian Rules, find Rugby incomprehensible and Soccer maddeningly slow in comparison to the fast and furious spectacle of Aussie Rules.


A common misconception is that the Australian accent is just another English dialect. Actually it is very hard to mimic an Australian accent if you have not been born to it. Australians can pick a false or genuine Aussie accent from a mile away. The accent varies from state to state and New Zealanders sound completely different again.

*The above term translates as “let’s talk Australian”. If read it out loud in a nasal tone of voice one will accurately imitate a broad Australian accent a la Crocodile Dundee.


At 8:46 AM, Blogger Cheryl said...

So, what's the view on the Grand Final then girls? (Yeah, I know, no Victorian teams again. Gloom, gloom, gloom...)

At 9:01 AM, Blogger Justine Larbalestier said...

Pretty much spot on. I'm a Sydney girl and know nothing about Aussies Rules. Though to be honest I'm not big on Rugby or League either. Cricket's the thing. Jeff, you should be following the current test match. Tis a very very very big deal right now.

Two years ago I posted this: my list of things USians should know about Oz. It mostly still holds, though sadly loony Christians have more sway now then they did then.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Cheryl said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Cheryl said...

Let's try that again...

"I'm a Sydney girl and know nothing about Aussies Rules"

Which is a good reason for wanting the Crows to win. :-)

At 2:02 PM, Blogger David Moles said...

Everybody thinks everybody else's English dialect is easy to imitate, and they're always wrong.

I caught a bit of Aussie Rules on the TV in the gym the other day (on, like, ESPN 9 or something) and holy bejesus, those guys are athletes. And can they ever kick! Makes football look like American football.

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Clare said...

When my husband's Australian cousins came to stay they left behind a book called POISONOUS CREATURES OF AUSTRALIA. It was pretty anecdote, no anecdote, seek medical assistance immediately... But now I'm wondering - were they just trying to scare us off making a return visit?

Agree about the cricket - I am not allowed to talk when the highlights are on. It's been very tense.

At 2:24 PM, Anonymous Clare said...

duh - I meant antidote...

At 3:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the link to your list--really good stuff!

Cheryl and Justine:

Er, you must know this--I don't like baseball very much. So the idea of watching something like baseball that lasts all day...

I do like rugby and football a lot.


At 3:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You were right the first time! Anecdotes about poisonous creatures are much more interesting than antidotes.


At 7:23 PM, Blogger Justine Larbalestier said...

Cricket is not much like baseball. I don't know why people always say that. It's not nearly as complex. Cricket is like nothing else. Plus it doesn't lend itself to horribly sentimental movies.

But that said, I do like baseball. Despite never having gotten the footie bug, there are very few sports I don't like. Cricket is more than a sport though, it's more like a religion.

At 7:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've lost interest in the Grand Final. Who cares if Adelaide beats the West Coast.

The cricket, though, has become interesting again. It's nice to see the Aussies meeting up with a bit of decent opposition after all these years.

Anne S

At 10:07 PM, Anonymous benpeek said...

cricket is so utterly boring, jeff, that it allows you to quietly read books between things happening. so it's alright in that way.

At 2:26 AM, Blogger Cheryl said...

In a typical 3-hour baseball match an average of around 9 runs are scored. Even in Test Matches cricketers manage around 50 runs an hour. These new Twenty20 games (deliberately designed to match the staging and timing of baseball) have been known to see over 400 runs in 3 hours. I rest my case.

Anne: Sorry, mis-read the web site. This "preliminary final" thing always confuses me. St. Kilda are still in the hunt. Go Saints!

Of course we mustn't give people the impression that Australia is only about sport. Shall we talk about Tim Tams now?

At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL! Well, I knew I'd wind people up about cricket. Let me just say that cricket to me is a like a novelist where I read the first 50 pages and I see it's elegantly written and that the characters are well-drawn, and yet it doesn't speak to me at all, even though people I respect love it. :)



At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Er, "novel" not "novelist", unless they have a lot of readable tattoos.


At 6:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As one of the "sports-mad, sun-bronzed, beer swilling, out-doors people" I would just like to point out while Australians would deep down like to consider ourselves cultured and arty and whatever, mostly we're still a bunch of bogans who like to go to the footy, drink beer and whinge about the poms (either how crap they are or how good they are, depending on our achievements at the time). :-)
Looking forward to seeing you Jeff!
Ben from the Gong.

At 10:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very true Ben. I spent a very enjoyable day at the races on Saturday, drinking beer, having a punt and watching the horses thunder by. It's great fun every once in a while.

Cheryl, I forgot about The Saints still being in contention for the GF. Go Saints!

Anne S

At 5:06 AM, Blogger Cheryl said...

Jeff mate, you need to be watching the play today. Elegant? Well it often is, but just look at Brett Lee going after Kevin Pietersen. The first two balls smash into the ribs (at over 90 mph). The third one Pietersen ends up punching away from his face. Luckily for him the ball spoons away safely and he's able to take a run and get out of the firing line. Top class cricket is brutal.

At 9:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cheryl, I don't even know the teams in the Grand Final, nor the sport. I'd rather watch a dead animal get magotty than watch any sport, so my choice of sport (Aussie rules) might have been wrong. I always mix those ball sports up. But I do love cricket. Reading about it, that is. What other sport mentions tea?

And yes, let's hear it for those poisonous creature anecdotes. Here's one. I was in our orchard one day with my cat. The grass around the medlar trees was pretty high, and I was looking for eggs that the chickens were laying in the long grass, when within an arm's length of me, fwah! A poisonous brown snake (it was black, but brown snakes are a range of colours) flung its head and about an arm's length of its body up, cobralike. I'd frightened it, and it did a good job to me, too, so I reared back on my heels. My cat was curious, and walked forward, so I hissed and she stopped. Then she followed me backing away. The snake stayed in that same warning position I don't know how long. After that, my cat used to jump backwards when she came upon black sticks.


At 11:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another poisonous creature anecdote...

My partner was walking along a bike path in the northern suburbs of Melbourne when he was accosted by a very distressed young woman who had just been bitten by a snake as she was riding her bike in the park. He basically had to half carry her and wheel her bike a block in order to call for an ambulance.

Even in the inner Melbourne suburbs, snakes are common. I saw a large brown snake curled up on the railway tracks once, while I was waiting to take the train to work.

We fear for our cat who wanders all over the place. I just hope he jumps back if he sees a snake, but he's pretty silly, so might try to catch it. Then again, he was intimidated by a feisty rat the other day, so may be wary.

Anne S

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At 2:05 AM, Blogger MattyDienhoff said...

Maybe i'm quite different, but I don't like any sport, really.
But anyway; Great list. Sums up it all up really well. I'll be forwarding this to a few foreigners!

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At 10:57 PM, Blogger The Modern Muse - Random Thoughts and Opinions for the 21st Century. said...

Anne Sydenham, if Howard was so unpopular why did he win 4 federal elections. Your comments on Howard do more damage to our identity in the world stage than any of the other misconceptions. Fact: Howard was, and is loved by all. Especially now that the Gillard dictatorship -corrupt, illegitimate government - is slowly and schemingly taking away our rights.

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