When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

And as for being on the receiving end of a dazzling smile from Kylie Minogue...

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The Independent Online

We take the good times with the bad in this column. Life isn’t all Twitter and terror and porn. In proof whereof I am pleased to share with readers the news that I have been made an honorary Australian. In my heart I’ve been an honorary Australian a long time, but now it’s official.

The title was conferred on me by the Australian high commissioner, Alexander Downer, at a moving ceremony in London last week. I have a medal to prove it. The only downside is that the honour lasts a mere 12 months. This time next year, someone else will get it and I’ll just be any old Pommy bastard again.

Between ourselves, reader, it was being called a Pommy bastard that made me fall for Australia in the first place. Written down, it doesn’t have much to recommend it, I grant you, but breathed into your face in situ – which might be a sophisticated cocktail lounge peopled by bankers and newspapermen in the middle of Sydney, or an outback bearpit with sawdust on the floor and 20 stockmen in Chelsea boots and ankle socks leering at you from the bar – the phrase “you Pommy bastard” expresses a warmth, I’d even go so far as to say a sentimentality, it is near impossible to convey to anyone who has never been its recipient.

I’d led a sheltered life before I went to Australia. Until that time no man had poured a flagon of red wine on my head, knocked me to the ground, sat on my chest, called me “Pommy bastard”, then wept into my neck. Time goes slowly while this is happening – slowly enough for you to decide you’re going to report the incident to the local constabulary, unless it’s the local constabulary that’s sitting on your chest, or for you to acknowledge that in some hitherto undiscovered recess of your maleness you’re enjoying it. The former denominates you as a “whingeing Pom” – the worst sort of Pom there is – the latter frees you from ever being referred to as a Pom again. From now on you’re just plain “bastard”. In other words, you’re mates, and mateship in Australia can flower quickly into love.


But it isn’t love as love is understood in this country. It skips all the usual courtship rituals and doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes. It isn’t, that’s to say, a prelude to another level of intimacy, hetero or otherwise. When, with a watery eye, you call a man a bastard, you aren’t looking to take the relationship to another level. This is where you want it to stay, with you calling the bastard a bastard and the bastard calling you a dag – a dag, for the uninitiated, being the dung-matted locks of wool that hang from a sheep’s behind. Only someone who knows why it’s a compliment to be likened to what’s sticking to a sheep’s arse will ever make it to be an honorary Australian.

These reminiscences date me somewhat, I accept. Manners are smoother in Australia than they were when I spent time there in the 1960s and Seventies. And while I do still have Australian friends I call mate when their wives are in the room and a dag when it’s just them and me and all the beer we can drink, I’m beginning to suspect from the half-hearted way they call me bastard in return that they are allowing me this for old time’s sake but otherwise indulge it with no one else. So before you go out there and call the first bloke in an Akubra you meet a dag, I’d check that the customs of the country remain as I’ve described them.

But no matter how much Australia has changed, there remains a nostalgia for the old ways, as I discovered the other night when I publicly thanked the High Commissioner for the honour and riffed briefly along the lines of the previous paragraphs. No sooner did I finish speaking than 200 Australians called me bastard, eager to reinvest the word with all its old wild gusto. One of those Australians, also there to receive an award, was Kylie Minogue. The moment I returned to my seat she flashed me one of her most dazzling smiles across the table, through the singed ferns and flickering candlelight. “You bastard!” she said.

Ah, reader, you should have been there.

Australia – and this is why I love the place – is the only country in the world where the word bastard is an endearment. There are obvious reasons for this. Australians don’t define themselves by their legitimacy. The more dubious and rough-edged their origins, the prouder they are. A bastard, therefore, is one of them.

There was a period when Australians tried to conceal their past in a suburban social primness of the sort Barry Humphries first parodied and subsequently apotheosised, making a Melbourne housewife a figure of the most anarchic mirth – but once that cat was out of the bag, and especially at the margins, in bohemia and in the bush, they rejoiced in whatever was outlandish in their lineage and welcomed every sign of outlandishness in others.

The times we live in are too nice. Allow the wrong word to slip out and you have to grovel in apology. Let a joke get out of hand – and where’s the point of a joke if you don’t let it get out of hand? – and you’ll be terrorised out of ever making a joke again. And the word terrorist itself, remember, is now to be eschewed lest it offend. All of which pusillanimity I refer to only by way of praising the easy give-and-take of Australian manners. We all live better when we make a social virtue out of giving offence.

But enough of this. In just six days, Noam Chomsky has accused me of missing the point – which means I haven’t – and Kylie Minogue has called me a bastard – which means I am. What a joyous week it’s been!