Australia was never on our list of dream travel destinations. Despite the images of endless golden sand beaches and the incessant bleatings of bronzed expats who champion the country’s ‘unrivalled’ quality of life, we didn’t have any particular desire to spend so much time in a culture so familiar.
It’s not that we were adverse to the idea of Australia (we realise how privileged we are to be able to travel anywhere) but there was a long list of countries that would have taken preference. However we wanted to leave the UK as soon as possible and with very little savings, so for this reason alone the ease of Australia’s Working Holiday Visa programme was the deciding factor.
Beyond the images of beaches and the outback and a spattering of cultural reference points from the world of cricket and pop music, our preconceptions of Australia were very limited. In my mind the vast island nation was run amok with 20 million Shane Warnes of all different shapes and sizes. A terrifying prospect for anyone, let alone an Englishman. And although Lauren had been before and tried to convince me of a more nuanced reality, I refused in my stubbornness to be led astray from my strangely arousing, Shane Warne nightmare.
Here, I’ll outline the preconceptions I had about different aspects of Australian life and culture and compare them with my impressions on the country after living there for the best part of two years (and hopefully drive a final nail into the coffin of my penchant for ignorant stereotyping…).
Let’s start by looking at music. The most precise barometer for judging the health of any nation or culture. Beyond a handful of buzz bands like Jagwar Ma and Tame Impala and the mythological prowess of the seminal Nick Cave, Australian music was not something I had a particular appreciation for.
And it’s no real surprise either. With the exception of a few; Kylie Minogue, Nick Cave and AC/DC, Australian music is rarely something that breaks free from the continent. It took living in the country for a few years to fully understand the sense of community and pride in the homegrown music scenes and this appreciation revealed a music culture bursting at the seams and on the edge of global domination.
Take any genre of popular music and you can almost guarantee there is an Aussie muso leading the way. Sydney’s Flume has gone on to global acclaim in dance music and has become one of the most respected producers in the world. Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is driving a global revival in psychedelic rock from his home studio in Perth. And Melbourne’s own Courtney Barnett is at the forefront of female rock artists dominating the world stage. If you weren’t already, it’s definitely time to start paying attention to what’s happening Down Under.
There was a particular brand of Aussie music that left the most lasting impression on me. I grew up with a lot of punk influences due to my Dad, from The Clash and The Sex Pistols to The Ruts and beyond, and considered it to be something that was almost exclusively British. However there’s an Australian style of underground, DIY punk rock that perfectly encapsulates the dissilusionment and raw energy of its youth.
There’s a host of bands doing this that are well worth checking out, from Adelaide’s Bad//Dreems and West Thebarton Brothel Party to Melbourne’s Peep Tempel and Perth’s The Drones. Whilst none of these bands belong to a definitive ‘scene’, each of them manages to question the notion of Australian identity and culture and create a sense of belonging for those left on the fringes of the countries spike in unflinching nationalist populism.
I never expected to become so swept away by any music in Australia but in comparison to a fairly stagnant and defeated youth culture in the UK, the virility and energy of Aussie punk was a real breath of fresh air.
You can find a few of my favourites in the Sounds Of Australia series.
Sport was another area of Australia that smashed my preconceptions. Prior to our time out there I thought Australians either played rugby or cricket. You’d hear the odd story about Aussie Rules Football but I assumed that it was more of a nostalgic past time for the older generations than a proper sport.
This preconception could not be further from the truth. Granted the Aussies are particularly good at rugby and cricket, but the reality is that they are a nation completely obsessed with almost every sport you can imagine and are in the process of producing highly competitive national leagues and brands across the spectrum. The A-League is growing every year and soccer participation is increasing across the nation. Their national basketball league (NBL) is growing exponentially and has even produced a few high-profile exports to the NBA. And in cricket the Big Bash League (BBL) is beginning to rival the Indian Premier League (IPL) as the best T20 league in the world.
In short, Australian sport is not only of a highly competitive standard but is also heavily geared towards producing homegrown talent and franchises, rather than solely relying on the dominance of American brands. Perhaps its part of the national character, the years of cultural and geographical isolation has sculpted a national spirit of self-reliance and determination.
No league speaks of this sense of character and self-reliance more than the Australian Football League (AFL). Like the NFL in America the AFL is taking the national sport to new heights and is creating a real nationwide brand and institution.
The game of Aussie Rules, until recently, only held real prominence in the nation’s south and particularly in Victoria. But lately teams have sprung up in Sydney and even as far north as Rugby League mad Queensland. The league has pumped a lot of money into grassroots development and introduced a professional woman’s league in order to continue the growing participation and love of the national game.
The Grand Final is now played in the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG )to over 100,000 footy mad fans. Not bad for a sport that owes its humble beginnings to a training exercise designed to keep cricket players fit during their off-season. It is not without its problems however. AFL was condemned for its failure to act upon the racism of large proportions of its fans towards aboriginal ‘footy’ legend Adam Goodes during the 2015 season. And despite the large attendances for the Grand Final some mid-season games only draw crowds of 20,000 fans who are all but drowned out in the immense size of the MCG.
Teething problems of its national sport aside, Australian sport is in a very good place. And if organised sport isn’t your thing, there’s ample opportunity for outdoor pursuits like surfing and fishing. There truly is a sport for all.
Food and Drink
Shrimps on the barbie and bush tucker. Yep that’s all they eat down under. Hundreds of years of mass immigration from all over the world condensed into two rudimentary dishes. Stereotypes aside, I knew prior to our trip that Australia had a proud tradition of good food and drink.
Everyone in Australia seems to be able to cook and with the abundance of seasonal fruit and vegetables and the huge importance of agriculture, both economically and historically, it is no wonder why. The swathes of immigrants from all over the world, from the Mediterranean to China, have sculpted an incredibly eclectic national palate and inspired some of the best chefs in the world.
And this Mediterranean influence has also manifested itself into one of Australia’s most famous and globally acclaimed exports, wine. From the towering mountain vineyards of the Yarra Valley to the temperate, gentle hills of Margaret River, it’s no real secret that Australia is spoilt for choice when it comes to world-class wines.
There are two things however (barbeques aside), that Australians do better than anyone. Brunch and coffee. It probably has something to do with the blissful, year round warmth, but sitting in the front of a busy cafe in the dappled sun with the hustle, bustle of the city relenting around you feels archetypally Australian. And nowhere in Australia does exactly this quite like Melbourne.
Melbourne has a proud history in Australia of being a bastion for tolerance, creativity and inclusivity. And this is epitomised by the cities religious like devotion to its coffee. The influence of coffee and cafe culture is a lasting testament to the Greek and Italian migrants that moved to the country in great numbers after World War II and meant that Australia was consuming good, espresso made coffee long before it became commonplace in America and even the UK.
There’s more to coffee than mere taste in Australia, there’s an element of ritualisation to it which no matter how faddy it may seem at any one time, is indicative of a nation embracing its roots and creating a culture of its own through the food and drink it consumes.
From the outside looking in Australian politics is rarely considered on the world stage. the only time it seems to garner any real attention is when a politician manages to become embroiled in a controversy which perfectly adheres to Australian stereotypes. Case and point being when Tony Abbot achieved world-wide acclaim for sinking a pint of lager in under seven seconds.
The reality is that in such a large, varied and divided nation the political landscape is one of huge extremes. Whilst the heart of Australian politics is still very much a battle between two centre parties (Labour slightly to the left and the Liberal Democrats to the right) the margins are teeming with strange pantomime villains and heroes.
And unfortunately, like the rest of the world Australia has also seen itself fall victim to the fouls of right-wing populism. In Pauline Hanson they have their very own Trump or Farage incarnate. A vile woman fuelling the fires of hatred, particularly towards refugees fleeing to the country in search of solace and protection.
There’s also a preconception a lot of people have of Australia that does unfortunately hold some weight. Racism is rife throughout the country. Besides the frustratingly familiar disease of Islamophobia, Australia still treats its indigenous people like second class citizens and this is particularly true in the monumental failings of its government towards its traditional peoples. In the cities aboroginal figures move around like ghosts, an invisible problem that is either completely ignored and barely tolerated by many. It’s a trickle down effect from politicians who continue to ostracise and villify Aboroginal people right up to this day.
There is hope too in the Australian political landscape though, The Green Party hold fair sway in pockets of the country and the Unions hold considerable clout, meaning the high wages and incredible quality of life enjoyed by many in the country are safe for the apparent future.
The Aussie dream has manifested itself in the form of beach-front mansions, surfing after work and downing beers with friends as the sunsets behind your swimming pool. For some, this is reality but it is far from the norm.
Australians have their struggles just like us Brits and for every sandy-toed success there’s someone struggling to pay the astronomical rent in the inner cities or slaving over a debt-ridden farm. But, Australia does seem to have reached a better overall balance for its sparse population.
A rigid class system is less apparent Down Under, with builders and bankers earning enough to drink in the same bars and send their kids to the same private schools. Wages are high for teachers and nurses and hours are generally more favourable.
For admin and hospitality workers like ourselves, wages were double that of the UK and we were able to afford to live in the centre of Brisbane and Melbourne as well as funding trips back home and regular getaways to the beach. We shivered through a Melbourne winter but in Brisbane the winter months were sunny and warm. We could spend our weekends on the Sunshine Coast and our evenings going to independent picture houses or catching one of our favourite Aussie bands.
For us, the lifestyle that Brisbane in particular offered was second to none and something we’ve missed everyday since leaving. Especially as we sit now in mundance office jobs staring at the relentless grey of the British winter outside.
Overall Australia completely obliterated the preconceptions I had formed about it from the other side of the world. It’s so easy to villify and simplify a country based on the small parcels of information we see in the news and the odd popular cultural references that make their way onto our shores.
But the reality is so much more nuanced and complex. No place is perfect but with the rest of the world regressing into populist politics and vast social division, Australia at least felt like a nation moving in the right direction.