Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The sacred cow that is Australia

Does Australia matter? The topic came up over lunch with two Australian journalists in Melbourne at the very start of this trip. To be fair the question barely came up again unless I raised it, so it isn't as if that is such a thing to worry about. But now, as we leave, is as good a time as any to revisit, maybe broaden it.

We were talking of sacred cows in various countries; most nations have a few. One of the journalists said the matter of whether Australia matters to the rest of the world is as close to a sacred cow as you can have here. Australia was a major ally in the war on terror, he said, adding, even if the US President thought it was Austria.

It is worth reflecting upon. The country is so far from much of the world. It is also out of place; its neighbours are vastly different cultures and peoples. Perhaps that's why there is a need not only to be distinct but to be involved and known.

Ads about Australia Day, great over-the-top stereotyping ones, seemed to suggest so. A number of other ads loved to begin with 'Australians love to do this' or 'In Australian homes' or some such (in Tasmania replace with Tasmanians of course). I only caught snippets and bytes of the news during my stay. I looked for Australian links to big, international news; an Australian casualty in the Haiti earthquake, how Australians fared in a TV and films awards show and even something about Australian security after the failed attempt to blow up a plane in the US. But I only did so because a colleague had told me to keep an eye out for it, as he reckoned it was Australia trying hard to be part of the world.

This happens everywhere, though, and it is increasingly the nature of news, to localise it, to make it relevant to its viewers; dog no longer bites man, dog bites you, or an Australian, Pakistani or Indian.

But in no other field or realm of life globally does Australia seem to matter as much as in sports. It is how I first came to know of Australia in early life; squash players, cricketers and hockey stars who mingled with and often beat Pakistani counterparts. Later only did I find out about Rolf Harris and Kylie (I preferred Danni because she was more anti-establishment somehow), Vegemite, 4X, Neighbours, Home and Away but later Heartbreak High. Much later, I learnt a little about how Australia came to be and the story of the Aborigines.

But sport is an opportunity for Australia to be relevant; few sports that they take part in actively are they poor at. Football (soccer) is picking up and it would be no surprise if a decade or so down the line they become more than just competitive. Having not heard much Australian music, or seen much of the country's art, sport is the most visible way in which Australian-ness seems to be expressed. They just know how to do sport, how to play it, structure it, nurture and develop it and respect it. Few countries show the world how important sport is to life.

There is much more to the country than just sport. Life, in all its tastes, seems to be lived well in the bigger cities. Certainly in Sydney the question of whether Australia matters just because it is so much a part of today's world. It is, like the other great, big cities, an overwhelming multicultural experience and there is so much of the rest of the world in it - as well as its own character - that it must matter, to many parts of the globe. Melbourne has become much more cosmopolitan just in the last few years apparently.

But it was in Tasmania, beautiful, lonely and a little spooky Tasmania, where we felt at one remove from the world. The clouds of Hobart were so angry and so alive, so vivid that it often seemed they were conspiring with the city's people as they floated on by, sniggering at some little shared secret or joke outsiders didn't know about. Here, it felt, whether Australia - or Tasmania as may be politically correct - mattered or not didn't really matter at all. The rest of the world didn't seem to matter much to Hobart.

At the plainest level of course, whether a country matters in the way the world goes round doesn't really matter anyway, for the world will go round regardless and the country will too. Living in Pakistan it sometimes seems like it might not actually be a bad thing if people stopped noticing for a while. And certainly it isn't as if the deepest imprint on my mind as I leave is that Australia is obsessed with proving itself. That would be that everyone wears skinny jeans here.

A late discovery: many young kids play tape-ball cricket here in their backyards. Perhaps Pakistan might be able to beat them at that. Perhaps not.

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