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Only snobs would call Australia a ‘country with no culture’

A long line of people, especially from England, have run down Australian culture.

“A country with no culture”. That sledge against Australia at the start of June won headlines for former England cricket captain David Gower. Gower decried the amount of verbal abuse from Australian cricket crowds:

The trouble is, if they’ve had ten cans of lager, their ability to come up with something akin to Oscar Wilde diminishes.

Australia is far from alone in having some boorish sports fans. And you can well ask whether crowds in other countries would meet the Oscar Wilde test. Indeed, the prodigious drinker Wilde himself was not always on song (and probably not an Earnest cricket fan either).

Yabba Statue at the SCG. Wikimedia Commons

Any Wildean cricket quips could well pale compared with Sydney’s Yabba (Stephen Gascoigne), the redoubtable Sydney Cricket Ground fan in the 1920s and 1930s. Slow batting one day was met with, “I wish you were a statue and I were a pigeon”.

Another English star, Jack Hobbs, who died in 1963, took a rather different tack from Gower. On his last appearance in Sydney, Hobbs walked around the ground to find and shake hands with Yabba.

Does any other country claim “the world’s greatest barracker”? Or have an entry in its national Dictionary of Biography for a witty heckler?

Gower joins a long line, especially from England, who have run down Australian culture.

As my previous article argued, those critics have very little evidence to back them up. On most measures of cultural attendance and involvement, Australia has similar, if not slightly better, stats than the UK, or other countries.

So why have so many persisted with myths such as “country with no culture”?

The agendas of the commentators are the key. Gower admitted that his comments “would almost be sledging” – part of the normal scene-setting for a sporting tussle. The aim is to unsettle opponents. Like a lot of messages, the key thing is impact, and the quality of the evidence is almost irrelevant.

Given England’s success in the mid-year Ashes Tests, Gower might think he had an effective impact.

Going back in time, other commentators had similarly clear agendas. In 1893, British critic John Fortescue wrote an influential article on The Influence of Climate on Race. He included gems such as:

in summer even Sydney people showed the “limp parboiled appearance” sometimes visible in “degenerate whites” in the West Indies.

Fortescue and his ilk needed little evidence to justify their imperial snobbishness. It was “obvious” that the colonials would never amount to much. And when Australians turned out to be rather good at sport and social democracy, there had to be other measures that showed us clearly inferior.

Especially for conservative groups in England that opposed radical nonsense such as votes for women and reasonable wage levels.

Dear mother

For much of the 20th century, some Australians kept strong hankerings for the “mother country”. Many accompanied that with a “cultural cringe”, seeing Australian culture as always second-rate.


But it’s a mistake to see this as a universal attitude. There is never just one monolithic national culture. And the diversity gives a range of evidence for commentators to pick and choose.

Take Australia in the early years of last century. There was plenty for critics to lambast. Australia had a flourishing prohibition movement, with wowsers sceptical of most artistic efforts, especially if they took place on sacrosanct Sundays.

The country also had some of the most active censors around, banning some 5,000 books that might “offend morality or good order”.

A Bulletin journalist in the 1930s found that access to the list of books banned was itself restricted!

But, at the same time, we had a rebellious larrikin culture. It supported a remarkable piss-taking cartoon milieu which nurtured some of the world’s most prominent cartoonists.

Sydney’s Bulletin hosted cartoonist David Low before he headed to the UK in 1919. Pat Oliphant [sharpened his pen](]( ) at the Adelaide Advertiser before moving to the United States in 1964.

Views and agendas similarly differed in the Australian arts renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s. Faced with The Adventures of Barry MacKenzie (1972), starring Barry Crocker as an Australian yobbo who travels to the UK, “sophisticated” critics decried the uncouth and brash. Others celebrated breaths of fresh air disrupting stuffy conservatism.

Gerry Balding

Various agendas still run today. Gower’s sledge found some ready listeners in the UK, especially those who still like to look down imperial stiff upper lips, bemoaning Australian (and any other) culture.

Indeed, over the years that audience has provided a lucrative market in London for some prominent Australian expats.

Other markets also give strong agendas. Arts and culture – and especially major cultural institutions – can be expensive. In recent years, all Australian governments have allocated significant funds for arts and culture – and also for sport. The sports connection gives an analogy.

Shortfalls and windfalls

Sports bodies lobbying for government funds have been most successful when they can emphasise shortfalls in international competition.

Is there a similar incentive to downplay our achievements in the arts as well? Perhaps funding applications will be more successful if we can point to problems? Or more generally convince people that Australian cultural achievements lag behind others? And build on media interest which seems to focus more on problems rather than successes?

When Julian Meyrick questioned Australians “getting” culture on The Conversation, he noted some Australian successes in developing arts policies. Rather than dwelling on supposed shortcomings, maybe it’s the goals of those policies we should focus on.

More artistic and cultural achievement can indeed be encouraged. Whether or not we’re currently all in the gutter, some of us can look at the stars.

Hmm. Reminds me of something someone once said.

Further reading:
Does Australia ‘get’ culture?
Australians ‘getting’ culture – continued

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