By Mark Simpson, Independent on Sunday (December 3, 2006)
We all know that Australians are better than us. Better looking, better at sport, better at partying, better at sex, better at reality TV shows. Mostly because they told us so. Very loudly.
Little wonder recent Government figures showed half the population of the UK is giving up on Britain and moving to Australia – while the other half is trying to become Australian by watching Neighbours or Kath and Kim or by wearing shorts and flip flops and drinking lager until they hurl. Even the UK’s version of Big Brother is clearly just a bunch of Brits pretending to be Australians living in a shared house in Willesden. In this topsy-turvy, antipodean world, The Mother Country now wants nothing more than to be the Lucky Country. Mate.
But not everyone is completely open about their Ozspirations. Richard Beard’s Manly Pursuits: beating the Australians (Yellow Jersey Press) is clearly about a nice, middle-class sporting Englishman’s quest to stop being English and become Australian – while pretending to research a book about why the Australians are so much better at sports than we are. But he doesn’t say this. Instead, he says he wants find out why the fifty-third most populated country is fourth in the medals table at the Athens Olympics – and always spanking our much more populous country’s puny, pale not-very-sporting bottom with a big, firm, sun-tanned hand.
So, he travels to Manly, Australia (so named by Captain Arthur Philips because, Beard explains, of the manliness of the naked aborigines on the shore shouting ‘Go home whingeing Poms!’) and takes on the locals at bowls, shooting, golf, swimming, surfing, running and… pub quiz trivia. He mostly gets thrashed. Even by pensioners and ladies. In between thrashings, he waxes lyrical about the strength and beauty of the sporting Australian male, compares and contrasts Oz and Brit culture (they’re great; we’re rubbish), and dips into some colonial history (they’re plucky; we’re just guilty). He of course, like most people, isn’t really interested in beating the Australians so much as joining them. Even if he hasn’t quite admitted it to himself.
I have to say that while Mr Beard is a good, thoughtful writer, and his book is certainly more fun than a game of rugby against Australians on steroids, I didn’t find his shameless Oz-worship something to smile about. But then, I’m very peculiar. You see, I don’t believe Australians are ‘better’ than us and certainly don’t want to become one.
Oh yes, I once shared Beard’s – and everyone else’s – enthusiasm for all things Australian. Raised on Skippy, Rolf Harris and swimwear catalogues I too yearned for a country where the sun shone all day everyday, where everyone was your mate, kangaroos could talk and ‘Speedos’ meant ‘Y-fronts’.
And then I visited Australia. And it quickly dawned on me that Australia, like Australian skin, is much better in long-shot. Australia is much more Australian from a distance. Close up, it’s just not really worth 24 hours of recirculated flu viruses, deep-vein thrombosis and Love Actually. It’s been left out in the sun too long.
There is though one thing that Australians are indubitably good at: selling Australia. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising since they run the world’s media. Oh, and, sorry, all the best-looking Australians we’ve seen already – either in their visiting rugby teams, their TV soaps, the Hollywood movies they hog, or in the Escort section at the back of gay mags. Leaving behind those hit with the ugly didgeridoo to mind the Barbie.
OK, so they are actually better at sport. Beard comes up with some reasons why. These are: the weather, booze (if you’re an Australian social club the easiest way to get a license is to organise ‘sporting activities’ – so playing sport in Oz is quite literally a way to get drunk), the weather again, all that meat in the diet, and the German Democratic Republic. Apparently, Australia slavishly copied the GDR’s hugely successful centralised approach to Olympic sports in the 1970s. And, I’d like to think, for much the same reason: both were tiny countries that everyone was leaving that desperately needed some good PR.
Oh, and: homosexuality. ‘Sport allows men to stare, in detail, without homosexuality alleged or feared,’ Beard explains. ‘Especially in swimming, where in this all-male club bodies are straining, on their fronts, buttocks up, naked, except for tiny lycra Speedos. It’s surely nothing but coincidence that everyone’s favourite words are “mate” and “fuck”.’
Now, I’ve always wanted to believe that Australian sportsmen and their Speedo-clad butts are gagging for it – or rather me – but now I can cite Beard, someone I presume is happily heterosexual, in case any Oz sportsman dares to disagree.
I have a crazy hunch that, lycra fetishism aside, the main reason why Australians are better than us at sport is because they don’t hate themselves.
Beard’s oh-so-English self-deprecation, amusing for a while, does end up sounding like self-hatred (though when he really lets rip, as he does at the cringeworthy Mike Atherton for example, he can rise to dazzlingly spiteful poetry). On the perennial Republican campaigns to redesign, i.e. de-Brit, the Australian flag he offers: ‘My own idea is to shrink the Union Jack in the corner of the existing flag by half a centimetre each year. No one will notice, and in twenty years it’ll be gone.’
This seems to be Beard’s and much of today’s English middle-class’ attitude towards their own identity. They hope their embarrassing, awkward, damp, guilt-ridden Englishness will just wither away unnoticed and one day they’ll wake up something innocent, tanned, laid-back and athletic with a swimming pool and actually be able to barbecue meat without sending people to hospital.
Sorry cobbers, it ain’t gonna happen. Australians have got not use for self-hating whingeing poms and their whimsical self-mutilating sense of humour. They’re too busy telling the world how great it is to be Australian. And conquering it.