Note: this post was written at 1AM on Australia Day, following an evening in which many traditional Australian beverages were consumed. While I stand by its emotional truth in the cold light of day, I’m not making any claims of accuracy for any of the ‘facts’ cited below…
So, today it’s Australia Day.
We’re celebrating the arrival of 11 boats full of criminals and sailors to a place that a grumpy Yorkshireman had encountered seven years beforehand, and brought a map back to London. 224 years and five days ago, the boats in question all landed in a pretty harbour, discovered that it was inhospitably awful (subsequently, they built an airport there, which is fair enough – this would have been my reaction had I discovered Hounslow), and tried to sail somewhere else.
224 years and 0 days ago, they found somewhere else. They did a bloody good job.
Sydney Harbour, or Jackson’s Bay if you prefer, is one of the most astonishingly beautiful, and yet liveable, natural harbours in the world. Fresh water was abundant; it was unreal. As someone who came here on a series of jet planes whilst having a delightful holiday before making real life here, there was still something magical about seeing Sydney Harbour, beyond the bridge and opera house obviousness. I can only imagine – by which I mean I can’t, even slightly imagine – what you’d think on seeing Sydney Harbour for the first time if your starting point had been a year on a prison hulk.
So that was a win, overall. The locals were more or less friendly, although their “not immune to European diseases” and “not having a European conception of land rights” cultural differences turned out to be a bit of a problem in the longer term [*].
This is something which makes Australia very, very different from America. America’s bicentennial, featuring enormous amounts of pomp, circumstance and dedicated Isaac Asimov novels, was celebrated 200 years after the day they told the Poms to fuck off. Australia’s, featuring great gusto, many fireworks, and a lot of Aboriginal tokenism, was celebrated 200 years after the day the Poms turned up. Every year, Australian hats and shorts and bandanas are donned to celebrate Australian-ness. Every quarter of an Australian hat features a Union flag.
And yet, Australia Day is in no sense at all British. The spirit in which I’m going to go and get blind drunk on Australian pale ale tomorrow is the spirit of Australia, and in the hope – which, normally, is reciprocated – that I’ll be understood as someone who loves Australia and wants to be accepted as an Australian. Nick Bryant’s article from Monday has some background, but basically Australia is one of the few – possibly one of the only – places that has managed to transcend its colonial past without really holding any rancour towards anyone.
And yet they probably should be pissed off with us.
Aside from obvious convict-dumping, tariff-milking shenanigans, the British used Australians as cannon-fodder in all wars up to WWI (no more so than we used Brits, but still), and attempted to do so in WWII. This led to what, if Australians were less relaxed, would have been classed as a revolution: they refused to send troops to Europe to protect Britain, because the Japanese were planning to invade Australia and that seemed a bit more important. Then, when the Americans joined WWII, a new saviour was found (if that sounds patronising, one of my proudest possessions is the US Medal of Honor awarded to John Band who died fighting for the Americans as an Australian navy officer, so it wasn’t meant to). The concept that the UK was the mother country that would always protect you was irreversibly dead.
Which, as a Pom, is a bit depressing. One of the few things that I don’t like about Australia is its Yankophilia, but hell – it’s understandable, given who saved whose arses.
Australia’s originally of Pom and Paddy descent (the courts didn’t discriminate), saved by the Yanks, and since the war copious quantities of southern Europeans (known, in a way that horrifies squeamish Brits and Americans, as wogs), south-east Asians, and more recently Chinese people and Indians, have come here to make awesome lives for themselves. It works. It’s the least grumpy and most friendly place I’ve been to out of the 53 countries I’ve been to (Facebook quiz, sorry), and the place I’d most like to live in out of all of the places I’ve lived.
It ain’t perfect, but as far as I can make out, it’s closer than anyone who has the privilege to live here could possible have the chutzpah to expect. Happy fucking Australia Day.
[*] This is obviously the massivest understatement ever, and the bit where all of the minor keys on the piano are pressed at once. Don’t blame me, blame the people who organised the holiday. Yes, obviously Australia’s success is at the complete and utter expense of the Aboriginal population. Next July 4, ask an American the same question (especially as one of the main reasons for that particular rebellion was to avoid the British government’s restrictions on stealing Native American land). Hell, why not go and ask me about why people in England who aren’t of Welsh descent are taller and blonder than me?