The winners of the world cup for whingers

The nation that likes to refer 'whingeing Poms' is itself a master at the art of querulous complaint

It is getting a little hot down here in New South Wales, although the spring weather is balmy and temperate. The social temperature began to rise when the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, appeared with the Queen in London to celebrate a new war memorial to his country's dead. It nudged upwards when he made a speech thanking the mother country for having, as he put it, "tooled our natural instinct for democracy". And it has gone through the roof with the triumph of mighty England rugby team in the semi-finals of the World Cup.

There has been much talk of Pommie-bashing in the press but, frankly, it is another favourite phrase that springs to mind. The nation that likes to refer to "whingeing Poms" is, it turns out, itself a past master at the art of sustained, querulous complaint. If there was a world cup of whinge, Australia would already be holding the cup aloft, a slightly dissatisfied expression on its face.

Australians were unhappy about their Prime Minister's London speech. They whinged about having to pay for the war memorial, then whinged a bit more about the way commentators used the phrase "mother country". As for rugby, the whinge factor has actually increased with every game that the Wallabies have played.

"Boring boring boring" was the first response to England's victory. "England is killing rugby" went one newspaper headline. There have been suggestions that the rules of rugby should be changed to reward those who play the real stuff - that, is the Australians. A drearily repeated joke sees Saturday's final described as the Wallabies v. Jonny Wilkinson. Enterprisingly, some commentators have varied this approach, accusing the England captain Martin Johnson of being a cheat. Even the England fans are suspect - they sing an American song, and rather too well.

It has taken a final against the mother country to reveal Australian chippiness at its silliest. On the letters page of the Australian, a reader claimed that his nation was "genetically superior" to the British who were "roaming around castles, chasing foxes around on horseback and inbreeding."

The intensity of this crazed antipathy is startling. If our own national shrink Dr Oliver James were to put Australia on the couch, I suspect that he would identify its cause as a profound temperamental confusion.

Thanks to their sportsmen and an addiction to self-mythologising, Australians have spun themselves an image as rough, tough, plain-speaking anti-authoritarians, the spiritual sons and daughters of Ned Kelly. The myth has sold so well abroad that, disastrously, Australians have begun to believe it themselves.

So when the former swagman-turned-bootmaker RM Williams was, as we say down here, "farewelled" in a state funeral this month, it was widely agreed that his humble beginnings, his life in the bush and his ultimate success made him a quintessential Australian.

The truth about the national character is more interesting and complex. The vast majority of Australians live in towns and the nearest they get to "going bush" is looking after their small, well-tended lawns. Their easygoing, no-worries image conceals an anxious, well-mannered civic correctness that would do credit to Sweden or Denmark.

And as for Australians' legendary anti-authoritarianism, that is the greatest, unkindest joke of all. Australia is the natural home of the warning sign. Any part of its countryside that is visited by tourists will be criss-crossed by boardwalks from which no visitors must stray. Signs warn that sand dunes can be destroyed by human feet, that water can be dangerously cold, or fast, or deep, that sea-shells must not be removed from beaches, that branches can fall. When a track crosses a small road, there will be large signs, warning "Caution: Traffic".

To an outsider, this obsession with order can seem oppressively nannyish, but it is rare to find an Australian who even understands the problem. For those of liberal disposition, the bossiness is protecting the environment, while conservatives gravely remind one of the wild "larrikin" exuberance of Australians that must be curtailed.

In a way, this sense of social cohesion is enviable. The state of the countryside is an important issue here. Patriotism, exemplified by the seriousness with which Remembrance Day is celebrated - incomparably more solemn than anything that happens in England - is genuine and at the heart of the national character.

If only Australia would stop whingeing about the rest of the world and take pride in its real virtues - neighbourliness, tidiness, a quiet, suburban respect for the rule of law - then maybe it would fret less when the mother country enjoys one of its rare moments of sporting glory.

Terblacker@aol.com

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