Myths and misconceptions about modern Australia

From a talk by the novelist, Kate Grenville, sponsored by the Australian Council and given at London's Royal Festival Hall
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The Independent Online

It's confusing being Australian, just at the minute. Most of us wouldn't know which end of a sheep is up, but our national identity depends on an image of "dinkum Aussies". And an Aussie isn't someone stuck in a traffic jam. An Aussie is a bloke with an Akubra and a sheepdog, squinting at the Outback. The fact is that 98 per cent of us don't live anywhere near the Outback. Never have; never will.

It's confusing being Australian, just at the minute. Most of us wouldn't know which end of a sheep is up, but our national identity depends on an image of "dinkum Aussies". And an Aussie isn't someone stuck in a traffic jam. An Aussie is a bloke with an Akubra and a sheepdog, squinting at the Outback. The fact is that 98 per cent of us don't live anywhere near the Outback. Never have; never will.

My mother was born in a dot on the map called Currabubula and grew up in a cottage with a dirt floor. Her dad was a shearer; her mother milked the backyard cow twice a day. But in one generation all that changed. For my mother's three children, the country is somewhere you need subtitles.

We grew up in the city, with our teachers laboriously teaching us "Waltzing Matilda". We felt obscurely guilty, not knowing what jumbucks and billabongs were. Our classmates were Italians, Greeks and Yugoslavs. Our children's classmates are from Vietnam, Hong Kong and Lebanon. None of them knows what a billabong is, either.

Yet, against all the evidence, our image of ourselves remains doggedly rural. We buy big four-wheel drives with 'roo bars, even though all we use them for is going up to the shops, and spend a fortune on bushman's oilskins and elastic-sided boots. (In the real bush, of course, they wear sneakers from K-Mart.) One of the few boom industries out in the country is subdividing properties into "bush blocks". When you get to your "bush block", you go "bush-bashing" - that is, you aim your four-wheel drive at a piece of bush and, in the manner of a tank, simply grind your way over it, leaving a satisfying wake of devastation.

This is all a bit pathetic, but there is a sinister flip-side to this sentimental fantasy about being close to the land. Underneath the fetish for the bush is hatred for it. Just go back a few generations and you can understand it: that arid soil, that prickly scrub, the whole place scary and utterly foreign to people from soft, damp Britain.

Something of their fear lingers, though we'd never admit it. We clear-fell our native forests for woodchip: we strip-mine the beaches. We smash beer bottles along every track and make sure the sewage works gets built in the middle of the most awe-inspiring view. We don't want to be awed; we want to dominate.

There's another sinister development, too. If we persist in thinking of ourselves as true-blue Aussies in the old mould, how do we accommodate the fact that Australia is now, in many ways, part of Asia? It also leaves us with the indigestible little fact that we can be dinky-di Aussies only because our ancestors stole the land from the people who were here first. The Aboriginal people didn't do what the authorities hoped and quietly disappear. The need to work out a proper relationship with them is just about the biggest item on the national agenda.

Perhaps Britain's fascination with Australia (or at least with our soapies) is the flip-side of our own denial. The Australia we export is, by and large, the old one, with few confusing Asian or black faces. Our soap-opera suburbs are like the country towns we all feel we grew up in, even when we didn't - a place where people are "there for one another". Hate to break it to you, folks, but it ain't like that.

People, such as me, who write what is pityingly referred to as "literary fiction" are in a tricky situation in Australia. Generations of writers went into exile; plenty still do. For those who stay, there's a dilemma. If we write for the domestic market, lack of numbers means we can't make a living. But if we aim for international sales, it's tempting to stick a few wombats and witchetty grubs in: if overseas readers are going to read an Australian novel, they want it to sound fair dinkum.

My solution was to plop a couple of ignorant city folk into an Australian country town and watch them get everything wrong. Instead of trying to sidestep that feeling of being a foreigner in your own country, I could make it the heart of the book. Overnight, I've become an expert on "the rural crisis" on talk shows. It'll be fine, just so long as no one asks me what a billabong is.

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