From a nation of bastards to a bastardised nation by Stuart Littlemore

Wattle Day Address – 1 September 2008

Lachlan’s Restaurant – Old Government House Parramatta

Even as recently as a fortnight ago during the Olympic Games, I noticed in the ‘letters to the editor’ page of the Sydney Morning Herald yet another reference to green and gold being an unfortunate combination of colours, and (I’m pleased to say) a rebuttal to the effect that – if that’s true – flowering wattles must be a blemish on the landscape.

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When Peter Consandine asked me to speak today, he suggested that I give you the great benefit of my thoughts on cultural change, in the context of thinking about a national day at a place where the wattle is in bloom.

That got me to thinking about my childhood, a great deal more than half a century ago, growing up not so far from here at Beecroft. We used to ride our bikes down North Rocks Road to Parramatta in the holidays, and always considered it quite the metropolis. North Rocks Road was lined with wattles then, and the housing boom hadn’t taken place. There were acres of open space, and not too much traffic. I wouldn’t want to ride my bike on it today.

Those were the days of some certainty (at least in the minds of children) about our Australian media culture… the Argonauts on the ABC, Dorothea Mackellar’s poems to learn, William Dobell winning the Archibald prize, and Peter Dawson singing The Floral Dance on the radio. But there was a hint of  the exotic, with Bob Dyer presenting ‘Pick a Box’ on Saturday nights in a Tennessee accent, and talking about such foreign concepts as pocketbooks, even if Dolly still sounded like a Tivoli showgirl. Still, Superman didn’t sound like a Yank – he was Leonard Teale.

And at school on Wattle Day, we dressed up in costumes our mothers made from crepe paper, and we had a concert.

At the risk of sounding as though I’m auditioning for a part on Grumpy Old Men, I miss all that.

So much of the change in our culture and of the standards in our culture is so regrettable that one seeks to attribute it to a cause, rather than powerlessly accepting it as an inevitable by-product of progress.

Where does cultural change come from? And why do we accept it? The answer to both questions may well be: the mass media.

Here are some random observations of everyday cultural change that I consider are worth resisting:

The use of the Australian flag, for a start. Until Pauline Hansen did it, nobody ever wrapped themselves in the Australian flag. Perhaps typically and eloquently, that lady did it with unconscious irony.

The expression ‘wrapped in the flag’ is American in origin, and it isn’t literal, but refers to hypocritical and corrupt politicians of the 19th century, who claimed that their policies were for the benefit of the nation, when they were actually no more than self-serving. To say that anyone wrapped himself or herself in the flag was an insult.

Even that great jingoist Kipling condemned it, writing in Stalky & Co of “a flopshus cad, an outrageous stinker, a jelly-bellied flag-flapper.”

There is (to me, at least) something repellent in Australians who wrap themselves in the flag at the Olympics, even if they’re not aware of what they’re doing – and they do it for the cameras. Someone ought to get them to read what Dr Johnson had to say on the subject of patriotism – that it is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Even more fundamentally offensive is so many broadcast journalists’ pronunciation of the name of this country – not Australia, not even Afferbeck Lauder’s Ostraya – but the bizarre insertion of the letter ‘e’, so that it becomes Austrelia. Where does that come from?

The spoken culture we have today is unrecognisable from the one that existed a generation ago, and the changes are everywhere – even in the minute interplay of our everyday lives.

Introduced to a new acquaintance – people don’t say ‘How do you do?” any more. It’s ‘pleased to meet you.’ Where did we learn that? The Partridge Family? The Brady Bunch?

Somewhere everyone has a nice day. Or someplace, as one hears so often.

Railway stations have been abolished, and all we have now are train stations.

Whatever happened to blokes? They’ve been bastardised into guys. Sheilas have ceased to exist, never mind tarts. And when’s the last time you heard anyone greeted as ‘digger’ or ‘cobber’? Worst of all, ‘mate’ is disappearing, replaced by ‘buddy.’

I’m told that a majority of schoolchildren in this State believe that the emergency telephone number – for police, fire or ambulance – is 911. They didn’t get that from Skippy.

There’s nothing more irritating for a grumpy old man than to ride on a train or a bus, and listen to the schoolkids speaking Paris Hilton American: I’m like, Omigod, I can’t believe you said that.

There was a time – a brief one, it now seems – when Australian English did a bit of colonizing of its own. The English now refer to protests as demos; they stole ‘uni’ from us, too, and perhaps our most dubious linguistic achievement is in having the Poms adopt the word poofter.

But it’s all one-way traffic with the land of the free. Speech generally, but even in the law – testa moaney, protest (not protest against), the witness stand, appeal the decision, counsellor, cross (not cross examination). Straight out of  Boston Legal.

One of my friends, who is something of a philosopher, says the thing he will never understand is the alacrity with which people surrender their will. And it’s true. We volunteer to be dominated.

Language changes and grows, but need not defer. The quality of our language is being debased, and you can’t put that down to its being (as the apologists would have it) a ‘living language.’ The word ‘maven’ even appeared in the SMH a month or so ago, without explanation. Look! says the journo, I can speak American. And here’s something of real cultural significance: the Yanks have stolen our superlatives… you may not have noticed – yet – but ‘higher, stronger, faster’ has become ‘more high, more strong, more fast.’ The one I’m waiting for is ‘more big.’

What we have as a result of this mindless toadying, this enthusiastic submission to inferior standards, is a society whose very self-expression has been surrendered, a bastard culture. Whatever happened to hooroo and hooray? The only place I know where you’ll still hear those words is Newcastle.

You can also see the surrender in the way we dress – it’s not just the home boys in Adidas, with their underpants showing above their trousers, but Australians now dress for weddings in rented grey tailcoats and ascots, just like on TV. American TV. Shopgirls and insurance company clerks go to the horse races dressed up to the nines, but when they’re summoned for jury duty, you’d think they were just nicking out to the supermarket. It’s a fascinating cultural study.

Have you ever watched a funeral on the TV news – they all wear sunglasses! It’s a dress code learned, I suppose, from mafia funerals in New York.

Given the off-kilter consequences, the question becomes: how do we do something to redress the balance?

Why it is enough to replace the British culture (that of the hated ascendancy) with the American (that of the ridiculed Philistines)? Why do we accept that, giving in without a fight, rather than speaking for ourselves?

It is quite impossible to overestimate the significance of what we have lost, and continue to lose. What we are losing is our own identity.

Television is probably the greatest cultural force in our lives, like it or not. So why doesn’t Australian television depict Australian life? (not McLeod’s Daughters – that’s Mills & Boon; and please don’t suggest Neighbours or Home & Away – we don’t live out our lives in soap operas).

What we lack is writers, journalists and program makers with some awareness of Australian history and culture. They must be ignorant of those values, or they couldn’t be doing what they do.

I was reading an interview with the retiring Chief Justice of Australia recently, and he had a bit to say about sectarianism, which got me to thinking: there’s probably no one under the age of 40 who knows what he’s talking about. But – just as that was a terrible period in the Australian culture – it’s not something we should sweep under the carpet.

We can’t go back to who we were – who would want to? – but shouldn’t we get a grip on who we are before we’re nobody but inexpert imitators of the world’s strongest non-culture? Strongest, and most pervasive – through its media dominance.

It’s pretty staggering to drive in America these days and see yellow ribbons tied around the trunks of trees for soldiers serving in Iraq (that passes for culture) Think about that, and its origin.

Here, we have a once-PM who makes great play of his rococo taste, French Empire clocks – but his figures of speech and literary allusions were all to the Road Runner cartoons of his youth.

And our culture is more than sport, isn’t it?

By all means abolish the Queen’s Birthday holiday – but let’s not replace it with the fourth of July.

For too many years, I have been railing against not just the decline in standards of journalism but also the way popular culture has ignored our history, or treated American history as our own, or the only one that matters to us. We have not even been troubled to define ourselves to ourselves. While the ABC – two generations ago – had Australian writers tell Australian stories, today it fails us utterly. To give you but a mere example – and one very close to home:

The Vinegar Hill Rebellion took place not far from here in March 1804. It was the product of the tensions, fears and hatreds that formed this country and – truth to tell – still runs deep beneath the republic debate.

It’s a ripping yarn: Irish rebels from a country brutalised by Oliver Cromwell, failing in their rebellion there but inspired by the French Revolution, deported from their own land, transported to the colony of New South Wales, flogged by Samuel Marsden, and imprisoned on government farms dotted between Toongabbie and Castle Hill. After a number of betrayals from within their own ranks, a new uprising was planned, and about 250 of them armed themselves by looting about one-third of all the weapons in the colony. The Rum Corps sends just 29 troopers and 50 militia out to confront them.

Can you imagine the scene? The rebels confront the troops somewhere out there on the old Windsor Road, and challenge the redcoats to give them liberty or death. And the troops, who’ve marched all night from Sydney, open fire.

Terrific story as it is, that’s not going to be on TV this week. What is? The Bill, the Footy Show, NCIS New York and Ugly Betty.

If we don’t value our culture, we get the society we deserve – bread and circuses; McDonalds and the Olympic Games.

Am I the only one who finds it offensive that people like the Macquarie Bank advertise their services as Private Wealth Managers? Certainly one aspect of contemporary British and American culture that we don’t need is its mindless adulation of wealth and celebrity – but try telling that to the newspapers. We’ve gone from a people with no respect for wealth to people who think the job of the media is to show us photos of Nicole Kidman’s baby.

Twenty years ago, the ABC asked me to create a program for them about the media. I still have no idea what they wanted, but I knew what I wanted to say:

I wanted to say that the standards of Australia journalism were, to a very great degree, unacceptable and had to be raised. Twenty years later, the role of the program is as vital as ever.

What we need even more is a program called Culture Watch – something that chronicles the debasing and dispersal of our culture and cultural values. I’m not talking about high culture – what the ABC and Les Patterson are pleased to call The Yarts (opera and art galleries), but about the ways we see and depict our own society – or fail to depict our own society.

Government policy isn’t the answer. There is so much implicit stupidity in politicians’ references to Australian values: they’ll tell you that the greatest character attribute of Australians is mateship – as if it’s a quality unique to us, as if Thais and Ukranians and Greeks don’t understand concepts of empathy and community. They’ll compromise for fear of offending the drifting One Nation constituency. It’s eleven per cent of the electorate. And present them with the Bill Henson controversy, and even the most liberal of our national leaders will spout red-necked sentiments for fear of a flogging on the front page of the Daily Telegraph.

I suppose I should volunteer for Culture Watch: it might be fun – counting the deckchairs on the SS Australia as it slides beneath the waves of American mediocrity, looking for all the world like the Love Boat, with the band playing hiphop.

Or I could stay at home, and listen to the Argonauts on my crystal set.

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