| In it together
When I first visited Australia, 15 years ago, I was struck by some superficial resemblances to the United States of America. The signage on the highways and supermarkets, the sprawl of the cities out towards the suburbs, the popular love of the outdoors and of the sea — all these reminded me of the US. Back in the country last month, I was confirmed in my comparison, which this time extended from the natural and architectural to the political and social as well.
I had gone Down Under to participate in the Sydney Writers’ Festival, an event that brought together a hundred local wordsmiths with about two dozen foreigners. The talks were held on the Wharf, a stone’s throw from the city’s two most spectacular landmarks, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. The festival director was a woman, Caro Llewelleyn, and her assistants were women too. (So were most of the attendees, who, I was told, chose to read books while their menfolk drank beer.) The chairperson of the festival’s board of directors was also a woman, who in her spare time headed the country’s leading advertising firm.
This, I discovered as I went around, was merely the tip of the iceberg. As in the US, women have very quickly risen to a position of prominence in public life. Twenty years ago, women in Australia had not been granted the right of equal pay for equal work. Now, they run literary festivals, corporations and political parties. Appropriately, one of the country’s most celebrated contributions to the wider world is a feminist theoretician, Germaine Greer.
A second similarity with America lies in the process of assimilation of the foreigner. In both cases, the first wave of immigrants was from the United Kingdom. Then, a little later, came migrants from central and eastern Europe. These people had strange names and spoke strange tongues. At first, they were suspected and even shunned — however, as later generations took to speaking English and playing the local games (whether baseball in America or cricket Down Under), they came to be integrated into the mainstream.
Anglo Saxons and central Europeans were followed, in time, by Asians. Americans were not best pleased when the Vietnamese boat-people descended upon their shores. The Australians went further — for years they had in place a “White Australia” policy, which discouraged people of colour from settling in their country. In his book Australia: A Biography of a Nation, Philip Knightley quotes a federal minister of immigration as saying, in response to applications from Chinese families, that “two Wongs do not make a White”. The minister insisted that he would not take “the first steps to establish the precedents which will allow the floodgates to open”. This was in the Fifties — 30 and 40 years later the gates were opened a crack, to let in migrants from all parts of Asia. In Melbourne, the waves of immigration were manifest most directly in the city’s trams, whose conductors in the Fifties were Italians and Yugoslavs, but by the Eighties were Vietnamese and Filipino.
A feminism almost fully realized, and a multiculturalism painfully, but in the end successfully, achieved — these features of its civic life make Australia akin to America. However, in both instances one group that has fallen more or less by the wayside are the original inhabitants of the land. Visiting Washington, I was surprised to find that while there were museums dedicated to the African-Americans, the Jewish people, and the war dead, there was no memorial to the native Americans. Likewise, while the Australians pay lip-service to the rights of the aboriginals, in practice they live miserable lives, without access to decent schools, hospitals or homes.
Given these parallels, it is scarcely surprising that Australia has taken the side of the US in its most contentious wars of adventure. During the Vietnam War, Washington urged the ally with whom it had a “special relationship” to send at least a token contingent of troops. The British refused, but the Australian government sent 8,000 men to fight alongside the Americans. More recently, the government in Canberra has also dispatched troops to Iraq. This show of solidarity — or sycophancy — was not liked by all, such as the anti-war protesters who painted slogans on the roof of the Sydney Opera House.
America and Australia are also united by the desire to escape the patronizing shadow of the Mother Country, England. To show that they were not simply Englishmen in exile, the Americans invented their own games, such as baseball and basketball. The Australians still play British games, but do so rather better than the British themselves. As the novelist, Thomas Keneally, once remarked, an Englishman had written Paradise Lost, but it was an Australian who had scored a century before lunch in a test match, and at Lord’s too.
This Australian was, of course, the peerless Donald George Bradman. Two years after his death, and 55 years after he played his last test match, Bradman remains the most venerated of national icons. While I was in Sydney, news came of the impending auction in London of the baggy green cap worn by the Don on the 1948 tour of England. Apparently, after his retirement, Bradman had gifted the cap to his English godson, on whose death the item had come up for sale. When the story broke, Australians of all ages and ideologies were appalled. That Bradman’s cap was in England, of all places, was more than they could take. A tabloid newspaper started a campaign to “bring the Don’s baggy green back home”. Readers were asked to contribute donations, anything from ten Australian dollars upwards.
I was reminded of the outrage in India when it was learnt that some of Gandhi’s letters were to be auctioned by Sotheby’s. The comparison is apposite — for the Mahatma is to us Indians what the Don has been to the Australians, that is, the opponent of the British Empire whose person (or spinning wheel, or cricket cap) most effectively embodied the hopes of a nation in the making.
Talk of Bradman brings me, in the end, to the one significant respect in which the Australians somewhat depart from the American way of life. Thus, asked to nominate the quality of his countrymen that stood out, Philip Knightley singled out their spirit of collectivism. “Although it has faltered at times,” observed Knightley, “the one predominant Australian characteristic is their feeling that whatever it may be, come the crunch, they are in it together, one for all and all for one.” No one knows this Aussie characteristic better than the men who are so often at its receiving end. These are the cricketers of India, South Africa, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the West Indies and, above all, England.