One Big Polite Refrain

Germaine Greer has written this year’s traditional expatriate Australia Day article for the UK press, and the Australian press have continued the equally venerable tradition of reprinting it and berating its author. The ripples spread as far as Metafilter, where the debate turned to other prominent expatriates and their “abandonment” of their homeland.

But what can a high-profile expat do? If there are one million Australians living outside the country at the moment, the number who have any kind of public profile is relatively minute. These few are ambassadors for their native land whether they like it or not. They will, like anyone taken by circumstances away from their homeland, have mixed feelings about those circumstances, their home, and what it all means to them; and yet they’re supposed to put all that aside and speak as impartial witnesses to the true Australian experience? They’re just speaking for themselves, as Greer made clear. It’s not their fault that the UK press grab the Aussies they’re familiar with every time they want a column on the subject; it’s not their fault that the British are, obviously, unfamiliar with Australians who have never had a high profile in Britain. Are they supposed to pass up every opportunity to make a few quid?

Germaine Greer does sometimes appear out-of-touch with current Australian opinion. But at least some of that may be down to a generation-gap effect exacerbated by expatriatism, not caused by it. Besides, she was always out of step with contemporary Australian opinion, if not out of touch, even when she was in her twenties. The Female Eunuch was ground-breaking because it was out-of-step.

And she has revisited her views on Australia; and so has Clive James, and so has Robert Hughes. They’ve been back again and again since at least the ’70s. I picked up a copy of Greer’s essay on Australia and aboriginality when I was last there, and it wasn’t the work of someone who hadn’t thought about the place since 1964. But her assessment of it is filtered through her own eyes and opinions, and those are shaped by more than Australia alone, because she’s lived in more places than Australia alone. What else can she do? She is who she is.

Some of Greer’s criticisms appear too harsh, but we’re all prone to making over-sweeping generalizations from time to time—and some of her other points are true enough. Greer says that “for the vast majority, life in Australia is neither urban nor rural but suburban”; “vast” is a rhetorical flourish, but it’s essentially true. She says that “most Australians don’t know their next-door neighbours”; I would say that’s true, too (knowing other people in your town or suburb isn’t necessarily the same as knowing your next-door neighbours). One of the ripostes linked above takes offense at her comment about quiet rush-hours, but compared to the nightmare of London the Sydney and Melbourne rush hours are pretty modest.

Her comments about wage differentials aren’t as well-founded: they’re true enough for the white-collar middle classes and above—food and eating out are much cheaper in Australia than here, but a ticket to Melbourne costs far less of my take-home pay than a ticket to the UK would have in Oz—but for the working and lower-middle classes, the purchasing power of salaries and resulting standard of living are much better in Australia than they are here. That difference goes a long way to explaining why many white-collar Australians stay away, and why so many working-class Britons would like to emigrate to Australia.

These debates always come down to the same few people: Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Barry Humphries. These people were not only contemporaries (though Humphries was a slightly earlier generation), they were friends: bright, ambitious friends, who came of age when it wasn’t possible to do what they wanted to do in life within Australia. This was before mass air travel, when it took weeks by ship to get from there to the UK, and before it was really possible to gain renown in the wider English-speaking world while still living in Oz. The country had only had television for a few years; the foundation stones for the Opera House had barely been laid; art and literature were alien subjects to most Australians; and if you wanted to study beyond a three-year degree, you were encouraged to head to the old country. They happened to reach it at an exciting time, the mid-’60s, and were bright and ambitious and did well, and life kept them here. Until the mid-’70s they could hardly afford to do other than stay, because a trip home would have meant taking months out of the year and spending half of them at sea.

That’s a very particular set of circumstances, and it won’t play out the same way for today’s young Australians living overseas, thanks to cheap long-haul flights and improved communications. Yet there seems to be an assumption that James’s and Greer’s experience of expatriatism—which they’re reporting honestly as they have experienced it—is what everyone continues to experience. It’s not. It’s not even the same now as it was in the early 1990s. I spent a year in England then, and news from home meant the occasional TV report (Keating touches Queen, shock), sitting out the weeks it took for letters to reach home and replies to reach here, or watching the phone eat pound coins as I talked to my folks at some ungodly hour. Sometimes I’d go to the university library and read a month-old Age or Sydney Morning Herald. Now I can read them the day they’re printed, and email friends and family about the contents and hear back from them overnight. It’s a very different experience; in many ways I felt more “away from home” in that year than I have in the past three.

Yet the daily reminders are always there that this isn’t home; I know I’m not Scottish, and there won’t be some magical point where I wake up and say “’cnoath, I’m not an Aussie no more”. The most that would happen (after many years of being away, not a few) is that I’d become both, Australian and not-Australian. It isn’t an either-or proposition; you don’t forfeit your childhood—your formative years—just because you go away for a bit.

Expats aren’t foreigners. Australia will never be foreign to us in the way it is to a visitor or new immigrant. It might be foreign in the Go-Between sense (the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there) but only if we never go back to visit, which most of us now can and do. For that matter, today’s Australia might feel almost as foreign to a 70-year-old who never left as it does to someone who left twenty years ago.

Nowadays any kind of criticism aired in any kind of press is made in front of the whole world, thanks to Reuters and the web. If someone writes “John Howard is a tool, and so are the Australians who voted for him”, does it matter whether they do it in Melbourne or Manchester? What if they say it in Melbourne, then move to Manchester, and say it again? Six weeks later? Six months later? Six years later?

One might say that six years is too long to hold the same opinions unrevised. But what’s changed? John Howard hardly has in his thirty years on the Liberal front bench, however much people wanted to believe he had in 1996. And there are certain persistent features of the Australian character—the ones we hear about every Anzac Day—which any expats know as much as current residents. Yes, some things change, and it’s those details that glare at us when we read the quaint criticisms of the long-term expats. But that will be less of an issue in this age of mass travel and better communications.

I’m concerned, I suppose, that the kind of outrage that greets every pronouncement from high-profile expats like Germaine Greer or Robert Hughes has a chilling effect on the rest of us; if they’re dismissed out of hand, what hope do we more anonymous expats have, writing our occasional letters to The Australian? “Many Australians surveyed on why they live abroad appear at pains to avoid criticising their homeland,” we’re told. Do we really want some of our best and brightest refraining from any criticism or analysis of their native land—a population the size of Adelaide removing itself from the national debate? And if they feel that way, is it any wonder it gets harder and harder for many of them to see themselves going home? It’s not the only factor involved in that decision, I know, or even the most important, but it can’t be helping.

Certainly, there’s something impolite about over-criticising another country; I usually refrain from saying anything too harsh about the one I currently live in. But if my homeland becomes similarly off-limits to criticism, then life will feel like nothing but one big polite refrain.

Here’s what people said about this entry.

Hmm. If Adelaide itself magically upped and left for, say, Paraguay, would anyone notice?

Added by Graham on a Tuesday in February.

Paraguay would. Womadelaide can get pretty loud.

Added by Rory on a Tuesday in February.

i know i am disgustingly late but i only just read this properly now and i think it's a cracker of a post and intelligently argued.

as for this sentence, "I usually refrain from saying anything too harsh about the one I currently live in" i only have two words: Viscount biscuit


Added by shauny on a Friday in February.

(speaking of chocmint goodness, mint slice is the biscuit of the week! )

Added by shauny on a Friday in February.

What I meant was I usually refrain from saying anything too harsh *here*. Mockery of Viscounts in the privacy of offlineland is another matter entirely...

Added by Rory on a Monday in February.