In all the twenty seven years I have been resident in Australia, never once have I felt disadvantaged, seriously discriminated against or despised for being a Pom. Any disdain for the Pom’s that I have detected in people’s reactions to me, has been jocular, never anything but mild and undoubtedly well deserved. The Poms are, after all, a perfidious lot, or can be and have been.
On being Pommie
Socially speaking, to be English in Australia has for me seemed to be more an advantage than a disadvantage. People appear to love my apparently ineradicable English accent and to appreciate my Englishness.
The circles in which I usually move are of course Anglican, and for all the insistence among patriotic Australian Anglicans that we are no longer the “Church of England”, the word “Anglican” means, at least etymologically speaking: “English”. So in what is a typically ironic English way we have replaced three anachronistic words (indicative of what has now come to be seen as deplorable, derivative, cringing de-pendency) with a single word that means much the same thing. I love it!
One of the main reasons that I feel so English is because I have lived there so little.
I was nearly seven when I left Britain for the first time. Since then, as an eleven year old boy, I resided there for eight or nine significant months, and as a twenty five year old teacher, for a year and a half. All other of my five returns to the beloved land of my birth have been extended holidays or long-leave visits of only a few months.
Except for the first seven years of my life, then, I have lived for longer periods on the island of Tristan da Cunha, in South Africa and on the Island of St Helena than I have in England. Without excepting even those first seven years, I have lived far longer in Southern Rhodesia, Zimbabwe and Australia.
As a reference point and part of establishing who I am, I have felt it necessary to cling to my Englishness and embed myself in English culture. Although revelling in and enjoying enormously my life as an exile by the waters of a variety of Babylons, I have always remembered Zion, my treasured geographical and spiritual homeland.
During my Rhodesian school days there was a largely taken-for-granted affinity between Rhodesia and Australia. We were both parts of the same British Empire. In geography lessons Australia received some prominence. Merinos, gold, the Great Artesian Basin, as well as Ballarat and Bendigo, let alone Sydney and Melbourne, were all familiar to me as a school boy, long before I ever thought about migrating here. Possibly from my history lessons and certainly from comics, courageous, swashbuckling, irrepressible, Australian diggers were a part of my childhood mythology too. So Australia has always seemed, if not home then an extension of home, a distant, admired relative.
My Australian evangelist
It was the year and a half in London as a teacher, however, that introduced me to Australia’s most successful evangelist for someone like me. Coincidentally, in honour of the Australia Day upon which I received my citizenship, this personal evangelist was awarded in London the honour of “Australian of the Year in England”. He is Barry Humphries, no less.
His relationship with Australia is possibly as ambivalent as mine. He too is a voluntary exile, though the other way. When I mention him to his fellow countrymen, not a few of them deplore him. Unsurprisingly, for satirists are rarely universally acclaimed. If they satirize well. Yet there is a bitter sweet irony involved in satire, if you happen to love what you mock, and I feel Humphries does. It is an irony that I deeply appreciate and which is peculiarly English, but also, in the case of Humphries, Australian.
Dame Edna, Bazza Mackenzie, Sir Les are absurd, sometimes even despicable, but also not entirely unlovable. Even when the satire is most savage there are traces of affection. This is not only piquant, it is also heartening because it betrays the satire into being fundamentally optimistic. The mockery’s intent is not merely to expose, tear down and destroy but is also an invitation to laugh at the self for the absurdities of the self in order to see the self in better and truer perspective enabling the transcending of the self’s absurdity.
My time as a teacher in London was when the satirical magazine “Private Eye” was at its very best. I loved it, especially Humphries’ and Garland’s little comic strip “the Adventures of Barry ‘Bazza’ Mackenzie”.
On the face of it Bazza did little to raise the esteem of Australia in the eyes of the Brits. He is a parody of the uncouth, Earls Court dwelling, Fosters’swilling, okker Australian: crude, unsophisticated, loud, drunk and aggressive. The comic strip pushed the boundaries of crudity to the limits of that time and eventually even Private Eye had to terminate the story. Yet there was that side to Bazza Mackenzie, already aluded to, that elicited a sort of wry affection in me and many others. He was not unattractively naive as well as boorish. In his own gauche way he was honest, candid, an innocent if boorish buffoon among pompous, arrogant devious Brits who were mercilessly portrayed as such. Although attempting to bed every English girl he meets with single-minded fervour, Bazza never, ever succeeds.
The Chihuahua and Kev the Rev
My favourite vignette is of him boarding a tube train very late at night, much the worse for wear from grog. He sits down opposite the only other passenger in the carriage. She is an exceedingly posh lady with a tiny, pampered Chihuahua on her lap.
The hot carriage and its swaying motion have their inevitable effect upon the inebriated Bazza. He suddenly and abruptly stands up to deliver a great technicolour yawn all over the lady and her Chihuahua. She jumps up in horror, and poor Bazza is mortified. “I’m sorry, Lady, I’m sorry Lady” he keeps saying. Then, looking down at the contents of his stomach on the floor, he spots something that puzzles him. He picks up a wriggling, chunder-smothered Chihuahua and says: “Geez I don’t remember eating that.”
I grew to love Bazza, Humphries, and with him a country that could be so readily satirised, laughed at and laughed with. What is more Bazza’s despised brother is a clergyman, “Kev the Rev”. An inspired example of prophecy, Kevin Rudd’s prototype!
Why did it take so long
So it was that when the time came to settle down and rear my young family after an idyllic stint on the Island of St Helena, Australia as a possibility was not discounted. I already viewed it favourably. Moreover, my brother had migrated here some years previously, and my father and mother had recently joined them. So I wrote to a couple of Australian bishops offering myself as one of the brightest stars in the Anglican firmament. John Hazlewood, the Bishop of Ballarat, was prepared to take a punt on me and offered a position in his diocese. So to Australia we came in August 1985. I have been resident here ever since.
A few months ago I was phoned by an immigration official with a strong foreign accent, who informed me that my application for citizenship had been successful. He went on to ask, in a very friendly fashion, why I had taken so long in applying. Off the cuff I replied: “Idleness and inertia”, but is that really so?
Not entirely. It was marrying an English Diana in England and then returning to Australia that tipped me over into applying at last, after 26 years. The balance of my family circumstances and identity has now shifted markedly England’s way. Not only is Diana English, two of my four Australian Citizen children reside in England and both of Diana’s two children and their families are English and reside in England too. Inevitably we are likely to be more frequently in England than heretofore, as well as more regularly in touch with England.
All of this caused me to recognise and acknowledge that as well as being ineradicably English, I am also ineradicably Australian, that I have lived here now longer than anywhere else and that it is the best of places in the world to live.
When I am in England not only do I feel Australian, I am proud to be so. Just as when in Australia I feel English and am proud to be so. Another irony then. It is the increase and influx of Englishness into my life that makes me want to make indelible my Australianism. So a Citizen I have become.