Manly Pursuits: Beating the Australians by Richard Beard

We're better than you at everything, mate
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The Independent Culture

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 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 by wearing 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 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 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. He says he wants to find out why the 53rd 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 Cook because of the manly chests of the 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, isn't really interested in beating the Australians so much as joining them. Even if he hasn't 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 Oz-worship something to laugh about. But then, 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 and Rolf Harris, I too yearned for a country where the sun shone all day every day, where everyone was your mate and kangaroos could talk. 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 much better at than us, and in fact better than anyone else in the world: 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, or movies.

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 licence is to organise sporting activities), the weather again, and the German Democratic Republic. Apparently, Australia slavishly copied its successful centralised approach to sports in the 1970s (and probably for much the same reason: both were tiny countries that everyone was leaving and were desperate for something to feel good about).

I have a hunch that 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 Mike Atherton for example, he can rise to inspiredly spiteful poetry). On the perennial Republican campaigns to redesign (ie, de-Brit) the Australian flag: "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 20 years it'll be gone."

This seems to be Beard's (and much of today's English middle-class's) attitude towards their own identity. They hope their awkward, guilt-ridden Englishness will just wither away unnoticed and one day they'll wake uptanned, laid-back and athletic with a swimming pool - and the ability to barbecue meat without sending people to hospital.

Sorry cobbers, it ain't gonna happen. Australians have got not use for self-loathing poms and their whimsical self-mutilating sense of humour. They're too busy telling the world how effing great it is to be Australian. And conquering it.

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