Old folk at lunch

Friday, October 31, 2008



A small reflection about the relationship between England and Australia

Most Americans feel proud, pleased and blessed to be born in America. And rightly so. Australians and the English feel similarly and for similar reasons. But from the large and constant stream of English immigrants arriving in Australia, one gathers that a lot of the English like some sunshine with their English heritage. And there is more than sunshine to it. I remember a recent arrival in Australia who hailed from Yorkshire saying to me that Australia is "Yorkshire with brass", where "brass" is Northern slang for money. He was oversimplifying but there was a lot of truth in what he said nonetheless. The ties between England and Australia are a lot closer than either side will normally admit. Australians speak derisively of the English (calling them "Poms") and the English speak derisively of Australians (calling them "colonials").

But it remains true that both nationalities feel very much at home in the others' country. And I am probably a rather extreme example of that. When I was growing up in Australia in the 1950s, I grew up into a society that was very Anglophilic. Many Australian-born people still copied their parents' usage and referred to England as "home". And we had a Prime Minister (Sir Robert Menzies) who described himself as "British to his bootstraps". And I remember crying -- aged about 9 -- when it was announced that the King had died. An even stronger influence than all that, however, stemmed from the fact that I was a great book reader from an early age. And most if not all boys' books available were written and published in England for the English. So I grew up in a mental world that was half-English: Which was a very good start on understanding English thinking.

So when I first arrived in England in 1977 I found a few peculiarities but in general had no social difficulties -- which is saying something if you know the intricacies of English social rules. I imagine that I did transgress in various ways from time to time -- but never enough to be a bother. In fact my high level of social acceptance would have been the envy of many Englishmen. I was materially assisted in that by the fact that an educated Australian accent is quite close to RP ("Oxford" English) and accent is enormously important in England. Any Australian accent is in fact closer to RP than are many regional English accents. So I was often told in England that I had a "soft" accent -- meaning that although detectably Australian it was not beyond the pale in in the Home Counties. My conservative politics tend to go down well in the Home Counties too.

An amusing effect of this close but usually denied affinity is the way that some Australian women have constructed for themselves a version of English "society". In England there really is such a thing as "society" -- basically the English aristocracy. The Australian version is of course self-selected rather than genetically selected but they do a moderately good job of imitating the English original. And part of that is that they do a rather good job of imitating the speech of the English original. I remember one example vividly. When I was talking on the phone to Laurie, she sounded to me just like Margaret, who is an English lady I know who really is a born member of the English aristocracy.

So who was Laurie? She was the daughter of my father's accountant. In other words we both grew up in a small Australian country town -- going to school in bare feet in a tropical environment -- an environment beset by such perils as taipan snakes, funnelweb spiders, box jellyfish, finger cherries and crocodiles, rather than the more pleasant English phenomena of crocuses, daffodils, cuckoos and skylarks. From that humble beginning, however, Laurie had acquired all the language, mannerisms and values of the English aristocracy. And I imagine that she did so without ever visiting England.

It reminds me of something that someone wrote (probably Andrew Ian Dodge -- an Anglophilic American) when I first started putting up my "Eye on Britain" blog. He said that this is a blog about England from an outsider's point of view -- but the author really isn't an outsider because he is an Australian. Very insightful.

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