Peter York on Ads: Ancient land of art, myth and tourism

Australian Tourist Board
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The Independent Online

When I say Australian intellectuals, you think I'm going for the middle-brow oxymoron don't you? You think I'm trying for a cheap score. Well I can do that any day. Today I feel I should point out that, notwithstanding their second-rate public life and the whole 4xxxx side of things, Australia does have intellectuals - and I don't mean Barrie Humphries and Clive James.

The problem for The Lucky Country always used to be the Tyranny of Distance. When little Barrie and Clive were dreaming about Paris girls who looked like François Hardy and were up for it, it meant a couple of weeks at sea followed by a room in Earls Court before you got to first base. This is what became known as the Cultural Cringe - you couldn't be a full-on intellectual unless you went to Europe. It meant the brightest boys and girls leaving for six months that became a lifetime.

But the next clever cohort re-discovered Australia in a big way. Not the white bread, Gallipoli, Returned Servicemen's League type Australia of Moonee Ponds and Sandy Stone but the mystical red earth Ayers Rock side of things. Aboriginal Art, Aboriginal magic, the ancient Australia - so old it made Europe look like a latecomer - was absolutely central to Australian self-esteem from the late Sixties.

The ancient baked red earth Aboriginal Art side of things is what they're selling in the new Australia Tourist Board commercial. There's an old Aboriginal artist lady doing a picture out in deep red earth country. There's a touch of the mystical Rolf Harris beat music and some on-screen quotes from D H Lawrence in his sun-stroke outback phase. Plus a voice-over in the Aboriginal language chanting Lawrence's wisdom - "the trees open above you", "you feel free in Australia", "there's a great relief from pressure in the atmosphere".

"He understood our country," says the old lady.

Aboriginal painting is collectable and hugely expensive now. No rich house in Woollahra - the Belgravia of Sydney - is complete without some. Sad then that official Australia worked so hard for so long to wipe the Aboriginals out in the old days. Sad too that the biggest British market for Australia probably isn't the arty one but the potential emigrants who think it's heaven on earth because it's like Essex with sun and no blacks.