TT: The Australian Soul

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back for adventures with mermaids and myth.  Then come and join me and Alan as we investigate the Australian soul.

JANE: I’m still thinking about that fictional Australian character.

Inquisitive Wallaby

What can you tell me about Australian culture or folkways or whatever?  Are Australians really the hard-drinking party animals that automatically come to mind?  I know my friend Tori (who studied in Australia for a year) was really impressed that her classmates could party all night and still manage to do well in school.  However, students are a special breed the world over.  How about the culture in general?

ALAN: Yes, they certainly are the hard-drinking party animals you think them to be. But so are the New Zealanders, the British, the Europeans – in fact almost everybody in the world except the Americans, who have a reputation for being rather prudish about this sort of thing. I remember feeling quite horrified at my first American SF convention when I went to a room party and found only soft drinks on offer. Many times at British conventions I’ve gone into breakfast clutching a pint of beer because last night’s party hadn’t finished yet. And I’m not alone in that.

JANE: Okay.  So that one’s not a stereotype, just cold, hard fact.

Do Australians feel a need to live up to cultural stereotypes or expectations?  What I mean is I’ve noticed that when I’m away from  New Mexico, I become acutely aware of the cultural differences between New Mexico and the rest of the United States.  I notice the absence of Spanish words, of green chile routinely served with meals, of men with long hair and beards, of both men and women wearing far more jewelry than is typical elsewhere…

I remember one convention long ago – Kansas City, I think – where there was a large contingent of New Mexico authors and fans attending.  A rallying cry at some large event was “Chile Eaters over here!”  At that time I still lived in Virginia and thought this a very odd way to define oneself.  Now I understand completely.

So, is your Robin more Australian than the Australians now that she lives in New Zealand?

ALAN:  That’s a hard one to answer. Certainly Robin is very conscious of being an expat Australian and she takes every opportunity to emphasise it. For example, she makes a point of wearing yellow and green, the colours of the Australian national rugby team, whenever it seems (in)appropriate. But so many cultural assumptions are built in when you are born to them that I think it’s almost impossible to turn them off. It’s just something you do, something you take with you whether you are at home or abroad.

The thing that typifies Australian culture for me is its wry, dry humour. They have a truly delightfully ironic way of looking at the world. For example, there was an Australian Prime Minister called Harold Holt. On 17th December 1967, he went for a swim in the sea and never came back. Presumably he drowned. As a memorial, they named a swimming pool after him. It’s in Glen Iris, a suburb of Melbourne. You couldn’t invent that if you tried!

JANE: That’s gorgeous!  I bet his ghost appreciated the gesture.  I can’t resist noting that this is a very wet example of dry humor.

ALAN: Touche!

The other big influence on Australian culture is the way that the sheer size and sterility of the country has affected people’s approach to everyday living. Large scale pragmatism is ingrained in the lifestyle. Remember, Australia is mostly desert. Consequently outback stations are widely scattered. They have to be – productivity is measured in acres per cow rather than the more common cows per acre that the rest of the world uses. You need a lot of acres in order to make a living.

JANE: Actually, that sounds a lot like New Mexico.  I suspect we have some similar difficulties.  How do the Australians handle things like getting the kids to school?

ALAN:  Many children at the stations have little or no physical contact with the outside world at all. They can’t go to school – the nearest school might be a thousand miles away. And so, since at least the 1920s, Australia has broadcast very high quality educational services across the airwaves. Initially by radio, then television and now the internet. Robin has nieces and nephews in a station way out in the back of beyond, and they go to school via a satellite based high speed broadband connection. And the standard of teaching is very, very high.

JANE: That sounds almost science fictional.  It’s very similar to how Stephanie Harrington gets her education in Weber’s and my books.    But you can’t send medical care over the net.  How is that managed?

ALAN: Again, since the 1920s, a very efficient flying doctor service has provided primary health care to the scattered outback communities. Since you can’t go to the doctor, the doctor comes to you. Simple, really.

JANE: Well, I wouldn’t say “simple,” but certainly admirable.  There would be lots of advantages to that model even in a city.  No sitting around in a waiting room catching other people’s germs.  But how are supplies gotten in?  The fuel needed to move heavy goods must make everything very expensive.

ALAN: Road trains – huge trucks with several trailers attached – keep the stations supplied. Every six months they drive up, unload the  groceries, letters and parcels, then load back up with whatever the station has produced, and take it off to market.

JANE: What about water?  As you mentioned, Australia is mostly desert.  Desert conditions are one reason that most of  New Mexico’s population lives in a few urban centers.   The folks I know who live “out there” often haul water, but would that work for a sheep station?

ALAN: The stations tend to have their own wells. Some of them even have surface water! Robin learned how to sail a yacht on a lake in the middle of the Tanami desert. It’s an intermittent lake – sometimes it’s there and sometimes it isn’t – but nevertheless it’s a lake.

Australia seems to have a lot of intermittent water. The most famous is the Todd River in Alice Springs. It’s an old, dried up riverbed where they hold the annual Henley On Todd Regatta. Everybody dresses up as a boat, and they run a race down the riverbed. Unfortunately sometimes it rains and the river gets water in it. They cancel the regatta when that happens…

JANE: I can see my next question already, but I’m going to save it for next time!


4 Responses to “TT: The Australian Soul”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Haven’t been to Australia yet, but my impression is that the western plateau is *flat*. This is something we don’t often see in the US. People joke about the “fly-over” lands in the Midwest being flat, but most of them aren’t. They’re rolling. The only places I’ve seen in the US that are really flat are central Illinois, Florida, and the Central Valley in California.

    As an college student, driving to LA from Berkeley on I-5, we actually took a ruler along one day as a joke. Someone would call “horizon check.” The answer was to hold the ruler up to the horizon and answer “still flat.” The point was, when the horizon stopped being flat, we were at the southern end of the Valley, about to head up the infamous Grapevine that runs through the San Gabriels to LA.

    But the Australian western desert seems mostly like flat. All horizon, nothing like the high Sierras high on the eastern edge of the valley. That must be different.

  2. Other Jane Says:

    Love the story of the Henley on Todd Regatta. I’ll have to look for pictures of that. A waterless regatta appeals to my sense of humor.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    I grew up in D.C., which is actually very hilly. We used to tease my mom — who was born in Ohio — that she didn’t know what a hill was. She was extremely patient with us, but she did admit that a couple of times snow hills had been built after a heavy snowfall so the kids could go sledding.

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