Howard Jacobson: It would do our political system no harm to import a little of Latham's louche demotic

The health of the nation would have been better served had Brown and Blair long ago called each other toss-bag
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The Independent Online

Bad news, I'm afraid, from Australia. When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in batallions. First, the death by stingray of Steve Irwin, canoodler of crocodiles and copperheads. Next - as though the losing of one Australian male presages the loss of all - Mark Latham, former leader of the Australian Labour Party, lamenting the overthrow of the fair dinkum Aussie battler by "metrosexual knobs and toss-bags".

And now the ruling by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission that while it remains allowable to call visiting English cricket supporters "Poms", "whingeing Poms" might just be pushing it.

Whatever it does to combat racism, that ruling settles the question for me of whether to go out this winter to support our cricketers in their attempt to wrest back the Ashes to Australia. If there's no prospect of my being called a whingeing Pom and having wine or worse thrown all over me I might as well stay home and watch the whole sorry business solus on television.

Readers of this column will be familiar with my sentimentalising of Australia. I love the colours of Australia, I love the vastness of its skies, I love the hedonism of the people, their food, their drink, their laughter and their conversation, but most of all I love being on the receiving end of their rough companionship. To be called a "bastard" by a barload of emotional Australians - men or women - is right up there, as a humbling experience, with being hugged by stingrays.

But to have a mob of them in their little shorts and elasticated ankle boots - men or women - baying at you for being a whingeing Pom, is a privilege which exceeds even that. What the Human Rights and equal opportunities people never understand is that for Australians, abuse is music. For them, invective is as melodious as love-talk; indeed it is love-talk, for they know no other way of showing their affection.

In this country we tell people we admire - or we would if we admired anyone - that they are wonderful human beings. In Australia you call them bastards, drongos, galahs, or, if they happen to be English, whingeing Poms. Myself, I favour the Australian way. The other side of a compliment is always an insult.

We saw that last week in the compliments Brown and Blair traded. Hypocrisy, we called it. But it isn't hypocrisy. It is simply the slippery way of words. At the heart of language is ambivalence. To praise is to hint at dispraise. To ridicule is to hint at esteem. Australians just dispense with the hint.

I accept that this emotional short-cut might be difficult for some to swallow. Mark Latham's tributary tears for the extinction of the Australian male - all those "mates and good blokes replaced by nervous wrecks, metrosexual knobs and toss-bags" - will not move everyone.

But I ask you to attend to the poetry of his oration. Never mind whether it's true. Never mind whether - as most Australian newspapers and every Australian feminist have been quick to point out - mates and good blokes are still as thick on the ground in Oz as those comatose snakes to which the late Steve Irwin was so unnaturally attached.

And never mind that Mark Latham is reported to have been somewhat over-blokish in the fist and sheila department himself. It's the music that counts. Don't you want to catch a plane this minute to be in a country where they'll call you a metrosexual knob? I'm not sure I even know what a metrosexual knob is, but anything that inspires such exuberance of insult can't be all bad.

If the more demented of our citizens could stand with their flaming placards in Trafalgar Square and chant "We are Hizbollah!", I see no reason why the less warlike of us shouldn't with equal pride proclaim "We are metrosexual knobs!"

Toss-bags, I grant you, are another matter. Though here again the music is decisive. Allow the mellifluousness of metrosexual to linger in your mind long enough to wash over toss-bags as well as knobs - not any old toss-bags, but metrosexual toss-bags - and you have a picture of busy urban degradation - a city in a picturesque fervour of indecency - that Ben Jonson himself couldn't have bettered.

Have I mentioned that the title of the book from which I'm quoting is A Conga Line of Suckholes? If I'm not mistaken, that was how the author, when he was leader of the opposition, described the Australian government for supporting the war in Iraq.

A sentiment many people in this country shared, though they lacked the eloquence and boldness to express it anything like so well. All right, suckholes isn't up to scratch, but a conga line is good, with its suggestion of fixed grins and automatous obedience, an indecorous and interminable procession, of one mind and therefore of no mind at all. As in a conga line of Anglo-Hizbollahists.

And now, if you are beginning to get a taste for this, may I draw to your attention Latham's personal attack on the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard - a man who "has got his tongue up Bush's clacker that often the poor guy must think he's got an extra haemorrhoid".

I don't ask you to dwell too precisely on the image, but "Bush's clacker" is masterful. Onomatopoeic, ventriloquial, sublime in the heterogeneities it yokes together. As for Howard's tongue being a problem for Bush's clacker, rather than the other way around - a haemorrhoidal discomfort which furnishes the near impossible: a reason for pitying George Bush - such Rabelaisian grossness needs no commendation from me.

That Latham lost the election to John Howard only goes to prove how unreliable electorates are. Here was a man who spoke as the Australian people spoke, and the Australian people - the toss-bags! - rejected him. It would do our political system no harm, however, to import a little of Latham's louche demotic.

We have been bored rigid by politicians all week. We were bored rigid in Brighton the week before. And we will be bored rigid in Bournemouth in the week to come. A touch more tongue and Bushy clacker banter wouldn't go amiss, it seems to me. A few more ministers forever imprinted on our minds in a conga line of suckhole acquiescence.

The health of the nation would have been better served, anyway, had Brown and Blair long ago called each other toss-bag. And they might have learned to hate each other less. It's only when you've been comprehensively abused that you learn what mateship really is.

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