This article appeared in The Herald
Australians pride themselves on a number of things. One is Kylie Minogue’s bottom. Another is being good at sport. And yet another is not being British, or rather being so un-British that they’d have you believe they don’t even have a class structure.
Kylie Minogue’s bottom is, doubtless, an enviable thing, and before they lost the Ashes cricket series the Aussies were demonstrably good at sport. But as for the conceit that Australian society is classless – a conceit which goes hand in hand with the assumption that us Britishers are defined our entire lives by whatever class our fathers belonged to – I am not so sure.
In the wake of England’s Ashes triumph, the writer Giles Coren provoked a minor firestorm by pointing out that the Aussies were bad losers and suggesting that their general sporting arrogance masked an unease at their lack of culture. Snob, snobbish, snobbery! they cried.
Well, I have been in Melbourne for the last couple of weeks and yesterday toasted Australia Day with rather a decent indigenous sparkling wine. And as I took off the nectar, I got to thinking about national myths and how unjust and unnatural Australia would be if the classless society they believe in actually existed.
Up until fairly recently the standard image of your average Australian was wont to involve a barbecue, a thick-jawed sort and a truck, perhaps with a bit of polish invested in its bodywork. The thick-jawed sort stood for achievement and reward (concepts Thatcher and Blair, not unreasonably, thought worth trumpeting here), but part of his achievement was that he helped to make the common man staunchly middling class. And as everyone knows, the middle classes are the most class-conscious of all castes: thrusting ever upwards, wary of falling off the ladder and becoming poor and wretched.
In Melbourne the middle class Aussie nowadays looks down on anyone who lives in the western suburbs, never mind western Australia. And there is a political class which lords it over the plebs like nobody’s business and seems intent on dismantling everything our thick-jawed friend was ever held to represent. But the biggest class division of all, it seems to me, is between those Australians who travel the world and those others who do not. When they go home, these vagabonds, they might still be fond of addressing their fellows as “mate”, but inwardly they’re no doubt pleased that they have something to be snobbish about.