Australian politics, society & culture


America’s Australia

Instructions for a generation

Cover: February 2007February 2007Medium length read

2006 seemed to be a year of disliking America. The opinion polls said so. People muttered stories about ‘George W’ over glasses of beer and despaired of neo-cons in coffee shops, lamenting ‘ugly American’ activities. They observed the Congressional elections intently, with a mixture of hope and trepidation. The results were something of a safety valve, making people feel a little better, a bit hopeful.

In November, Rupert Murdoch came on a special visit and gave us a lecture, in a well-publicised keynote address to an audience of Sydney's rich and famous. He said that he was worried about a "regrettable" anti-American sentiment in Australia. From his perspective, the concern was hardly surprising.

Murdoch has a quaint sense of humour. He didn't have much to say about the intensity of distaste for the Bush administration. But perhaps that's understandable: his media outlets, particularly Fox TV, have been the most slavish supporters of the war in Iraq and the US government's domestic agenda. He did acknowledge that these matters were "unpopular with many Australians", but warned that they should not be allowed to "cloud their long-term judgement". After all, he said, "wars end. Administrations come and go."

The long-term judgement is, of course, important. It should not preclude judgements about the present.

The relationship between America and Australia has always been sustained by a common language, similar colonial beginnings and strong democratic traditions. In the past, it has been strengthened by a common cause in each of the world wars, and particularly the war in the Pacific against the Japanese. The wars in Vietnam and Iraq were less successful in igniting the sense of a common cause in either country.

In more normal times, the relationship is characterised by vague impressions and fuzzy understandings. Australians are not particularly well informed about the US. Americans are generally ignorant about Australia: many of them don't know where it is. In surveys conducted by the Austrian government in the 1980s, 60% of Americans surveyed confused Austria and Australia, and 75% thought the kangaroo came from Austria.

It is when the countries share a cause that the two peoples have got to know each other best. Between 1942 and 1945, when Australia's population was seven million, one million US service personnel came to Australia. They were made welcome, and strange things happened. American sporting results and recipes were published in the newspapers; ‘The Star-Spangled Banner' was played at the start of theatre and concert performances. Australians were introduced to the hot dog; Americans, reluctantly, to the dim sim. Ten or 15 years after the war, there were stories of New York cab drivers who knew Australia well and spoke warmly of their wartime visits. For years, letters between Australia and the US went back and forth between pen friends (or ‘pen pals', as the Americans call them), following up friendships developed during the war.

In 1945, a US Marine captain wrote in my autograph book, "To a young man who would make a fine Marine." Though intended as a compliment, it turned out to be a huge error of judgement. But we kept in touch until he died last year.

My father was a postgraduate student at a university in New York. He liked Americans, but thought they were "soft". He attributed this to central heating, claiming that when he wanted to get rid of visitors to his student digs, he just opened a window, letting fresh air into the room. "That," he would say, "is the way to get rid of Americans." This became an established hypothesis in the family. It was one I never had the opportunity to test.

My father's opinion seemed to be confirmed towards the end of World War II, when Australian families played host to visiting American servicemen. One regular guest at Sunday lunch was an army major. He was 6'5" tall and a big eater. As lunch concluded, my father would say, "Well, Major Franz, how about a brisk walk round the lake?" The major always had an answer like, "If you don't mind, sir, I'll take a rest. Whenever I feel the urge to walk, I lie down until it wears off." He was true to his word. When my father returned an hour or so later, Major Franz would be flat out on the family couch, his head on one armrest, his legs dangling over the other.

So, as children, we believed Americans were soft. We also suspected they were funny, because of the comedians Abbott and Costello, whom we sometimes saw at the local picture theatre. They specialised in wisecracks and throwing custard pies at each other. When American servicemen said things like, "Melbourne is half as big as the New York cemetery and twice as dead," we thought this must be funny, although not everybody seemed to agree.

In September last year, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University republished Instructions for American Servicemen in Australia, 1942, described in the introduction as a short guidebook. It's an information manual without an identified author, prepared by the Special Services Division, Services of Supply, United States Army - which sounds like a bunch of conscientious objectors in a basement somewhere in Washington DC from whom not much might be expected.

In fact, it's better than that. There are maps to show where Australia is. (It seems to be situated at the centre of the world.) There's a potted history which is accurate enough, and which includes a sensitive reference to Australia being settled by 160,000 "so-called" convicts. Historical similarities between the two countries are pointed out, with a hint that the US is just a couple of centuries ahead. The climate and geography are described. All in all, the nation emerges as a kind of pastoral symphony of vast empty spaces, quaint wildlife, 120 million sheep, a few rather dull cities and a lot of very dull Sundays.

 "Important" differences are listed as the absence of central heating, the Australian habit of drinking tea, rumours that Australian housewives make coffee with a pinch of salt and a dash of mustard, some of the food, and everyday speech, which is "just about the slangiest of all the brands of English".

The population was not even remotely multicultural in 1942. Australians are described as "nearly 100% Anglo-Saxon stock - English, Irish, Scotch and Welsh"; "70,000 or so" are "primitive ‘Abos' who roam the wastelands". (The authors had earlier identified the Aboriginal population at the time of the First Fleet as "several hundred thousand".)

The guide tells us that Australians are "sports loving". But which sports? The national game is cricket, which is "polite" and "not a very lively game to watch". Australian Rules football, on the other hand, is "rough, tough, and exciting", and the "referee" is usually very unpopular and carries "a rule book the size of the ordinary Webster's Dictionary". The greatest addiction, however, is gambling, a "fever" shared in part by the Americans. But Australians "gamble on anything", such as flies walking on a window.

They didn't like our food much, and they were right. It wasn't a particularly interesting diet. There were, it is true, a few Chinese restaurants with pretty limited menus and very average food. In the main street of almost every town, there was a cafe called The Liberty or The Victory, usually owned by Greeks, which served variations on steak and eggs with ‘garnish', a tasteless heap of shredded lettuce without dressing.

According to the manual, we were "meat and potato guys" who ate much less salad, fruit and green vegetables and much more beef, mutton and lamb than Americans. We also consumed more flour, butter and tea. There is an illustrated table to prove it, with comparative drawings of pigs, sheep, cattle and bread. Only in coffee and ice cream did Americans come out on top. It's a table which is alarming and which prompts the question, Why did Australians not become a nation of fat people before the US? The only new things introduced by the Americans to our diets were hot dogs and hamburgers, which might have made things worse. Australian entrepreneurs were quick to respond to the arrival of US troops, with signs like "Try Digger Danny's Toasted Dachshunds".

Apart from these fast-food specialties, Americans seem to have had little influence on the Australian diet. The real change, of course, came a few years after the war, with migrants from Europe and Asia bringing new restaurants and cafés and the tastes of many countries. New industries began to produce wine, dairy and horticultural products. It's now a standard Aussie boast that we have better coffee than the Americans and food that is as good and diverse as anywhere in the world.

"Australians", the Instructions for American Servicemen observes, "like Russians, are natural group singers." It's hard to know the origin of this opinion, and difficult to find anyone who agrees with it. "Australian soldiers and girls," the guidebook goes on, "know every American popular song ... the very latest jive stuff may confuse them a bit, but they're catching on." ‘Waltzing Matilda' is printed in full in the book, with a glossary of colloquial terms used in the lyrics: "swagman = hobo" and the like.

The visitors found that the local money was "something else. Instead of dollars and cents they had pounds, shillings, pence and things. They talk about quids and bobs. Nobody could figure it out." It was Australian slang that the Yanks couldn't figure out - a member of an advance party observed that "the Aussies were hard to understand and we had to ask them two or three times what they said" - and a chapter of the guide is devoted to trying to explain it. It is an explanation which only partly stands the test of time. What is described as a "choice selection" of Australian slang to "help you understand what they are talking about" would be almost as incomprehensible to an Australian today as it would have been to a US soldier during the war.

There are often complaints about the extent of America's influence, from films and TV, on the Australian language. On the whole, it has not been an improvement in terms of sound or imagery: we use words like ‘guys' instead of ‘blokes', ‘dickheads' instead of ‘drongos', ‘cops' instead of ‘johns', and ‘dollars and cents' instead of ‘quids, bobs, deenas and zacs'. But studying this glossary of Australian slang of the '40s is like dipping into a volume of Old Norse. We still talk about ‘pommies' and ‘diggers', but we are more likely to say ‘Krauts' than ‘Jerries' and ‘Japs' than ‘nips'. We still ‘shout' drinks (maybe at the ‘rubbadedub') but go to a ‘party' instead of a ‘shivoo', where we may get ‘shickered' (Yiddish in origin, but attributed to Australian slang) by drinking ‘plonk'. But expressions like ‘poke borak' (to insult), ‘Fitzroy Yank' (a flashy dresser), ‘moke' (a nag), ‘cliner' or ‘sninny' (girlfriend), and ‘ding-dong' (a fight) have disappeared from our spoken language. Perhaps some of them, rich in history, should be made national treasures or incorporated into an Australian edition of Scrabble.

The preface to Instructions quotes an un-named American soldier who came here relatively early in the war. "We knew nothing about this place," he says. "It was like from another world." Perhaps it still is. Between C Hartley Grattan's Australia (1947) and Bill Bryson's Down Under (2000), it's hard to point to a book about Australia written or published by an American which captured the imagination of readers either here or there. We are not seen as a particularly interesting subject. Australia was edited by Grattan as part of a UN series to encourage mutual understanding between the Allies of World War II, and was largely written by Canberra mandarins before being published by University of California Press. Apart from commissioned books and Bryson, we have to do something really quaint to attract the attention of American writers. But somehow, we continue with a benign relationship which should stretch into the future. Australians, particularly academics and journalists, will write about the US and the interface between the two countries at the drop of a hat. For us, it is important. It has become a literary industry.

Politicians can, of course, stuff the relationship up, making it something less benign than usual. George W Bush has done this by alienating a lot of world opinion, including opinion in this country. And Australian politicians can do the same thing by being too uncritical and subservient to our great and powerful friend. As Les Murray puts it, "we kiss arse more than we need to".

In the guidebook, an anonymous Australian "statesman" is quoted as saying to an American in the 1920s, "What we are, you were. What you are, we will some day be." Well, maybe, but there is a long way to go. Perhaps we will continue on parallel paths, sending friendly signals to each other but remaining very different, which is surely a good way to go. This statesman was a man of grandiose ambition: even then, it must have been difficult to imagine that Australia, riding on the sheep's back, had any hope of matching the size, diversity and dynamism of the American economy. He was also sowing the idea, in the minds of lazy and parochial politicians and sometimes economists, that American economic and social policies were necessarily relevant to us and ripe for copying.

Quite apart from size and diversity, there are other powerful historical reasons which explain why we haven't become what the US is. One of them is that Australia has always had an alternative model, Britain, from whence comes our legal system, the Westminster parliamentary tradition, cricket and rugby - not to mention a swag of family connections and relationships.

Just now, because there seems less to admire about American society than there used to be, we tend to say, like Henry Higgins, Why can't they be more like us? So, we imagine, if the archetypal American had a better sense of humour, was less religious, less patriotic and more sceptical, and understood mateship and had a sense of irony, then we'd all get on better.

We spend time trying to describe our differences from Americans because they are the people we are most like, and our identity as Australians depends on difference. In the process, we end up defining some things which are these days described as ‘Australian values'. The prime minister has been good at this. In speeches on various important occasions, he has referred to our virtues as being "a fair go and practical mateship" (part of our ‘creed'), "a sense of fair play and a strong egalitarian streak", "decency and pragmatism in a classless society", "tolerance and hospitality" and "those laconic characteristics which we hold so dear". But according to opinion polls published on the tenth anniversary of Coalition rule, one in two people thought we had become a meaner society in that decade, which suggests these splendid virtues are not easily reconciled with much of the ideology of the Howard government.

Perhaps ‘Australian values' are not as immutable as might be believed. The things we "hold so dear" - the mateship, the sense of fair play, the egalitarianism, the laconic characteristics - came out of a convict heritage, and later from the shearing sheds, the mines, the construction sites, the trenches of World War I: from all those places where hardship was endured and collective action was the most meaningful response. And whatever the shortcomings of collective action, the excesses of dry economics and the moves towards an authoritarian workplace, based on the dubious theory of the bargaining equality of individuals, sit uncomfortably with the national values endorsed by our prime minister. As frequently happens with ideology, means come before ends, and quality of life will be traded away for higher incomes.

It is possible that Australian society may come to resemble, by default, some of the worst aspects of American society. For me, this would be a tragedy, because I like John Howard's stated Australian values, and neither an individual nor a country can live on nostalgia. And if this happens, there's no way we can blame the Americans, which we sometimes like to do. As our forebears used to say, we might just end up looking like a mob of drongos.

About the author John Button