Alexei Sayle: Jittery and ashamed: the truth about Oz

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Indy Lifestyle Online

I have just returned from Australia, where I was appearing at the Sydney Writers' Festival. I hadn't paid a visit since 1996, and it was a good opportunity for me to reacquaint myself with the Australian motor industry. Australian carsresemble Australian wildlife in that they have managed to flourish in isolation, without natural predators - and thus, have evolved in weird and fascinating ways.

During my first trip, in the early 1980s with the Comic Strip team, I noticed how the cars of the two main domestic manufacturers - Holden (owned by General Motors) and Ford - had been strongly affected by US design. But this US influence was already starting to change. Later, in the 1990s, when I returned to Australia, influence was almost entirely native or European.

But one vehicle has always been distinctly Australian: the "Ute", short for "utility". The Ute is essentially a pick-up truck. Yet, the Aussie Ute is unlike US or Japanese pick-ups in that, while those are generally built on truck chassis, the Ute is based on a big Holden or Ford four-door passenger car with a pick-up back sculpted on to its rear.

The Australian Ute also differs from its American cousin in that it is always used as a genuine working vehicle rather than some four-wheel affectation bought by owners who like to think that if they buy a tough, no-nonsense vehicle then - in some magical way - some of that toughness will seep through the seats and make them less of a lard-ass.

During the festival they took a group of us writers to a retreat in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. On the way, we passed close to the town of Newcastle. I suddenly recalled another time in Australia when I tried to be cooky and different in my choice of car - which ended in shame and humiliation, and completes my trilogy of vehicles that I thought would make me happy but instead brought me great sadness and embarrassment.

In 1992, I was working on a movie in that part of Australia. I decided to rent a Ute for my personal transport rather than some more conventional car. We were filming in a seaside town, and the only place that hired out Utes was a 45-minute bus ride away. It turned out to be a video-rental store in a Newcastle suburb. There is a myth that Australians are friendly, but, outside the big cities, much of the small-mindedness and pettiness of suburban Britain has flourished like a weed in the hot sun.

I have never been greeted with as much contempt as I was in that shop - I sensed that they though of me as some kind of conceited pommie fop renting a Ute for my own perverted reasons. The aged Ford Falcon they showed me was a wreck, and the money they demanded for it was outrageous. By now jittery and ashamed, I accepted their terms. I climbed into the plastic seat, turned out of the yard and, 200 metres down the road, drove into the back of a bus, putting a big dent in the car's nose.

The whole of the following week, in which I'd imagined swanning around in my Ute being cool, wasspent worrying about the reception I'd get back at the video shop. When I tried to weasel out of forfeiting my deposit, the derisive way the girl behind the counter treated me far outstripped the contempt I'd received seven days earlier. Chastened and humiliated, I abandoned the Ute and my money, went into town and hired a little Toyota.

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