Among the blokes
I WENT to Melbourne with my younger brother, Simon, and a whole load of preconceptions. Centre-stage in my imaginary Australia were the men — laconic, chippy, thin-lipped and strong-chinned; they drank Castlemaine XXXX and sheared sheep when they weren't presiding over barbecues. In their shadows crouched leatherskinned, bushwhacked women — strong, silent and long-suffering. Somewhere in the wings lurked the casts of Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — colourful eccentrics, or dysfunctional outsiders. And, finally, there were the bronzed gods of Bondi with their surfboards and their profile-enhancing trunks.
But people had said that the Sydney Olympics marked a coming of age; that, after two centuries of being estranged from the rest of the world, laughed at and looked down upon, this was now a country at ease with itself, So I put my preconceptions to one side and set out to discover the real Australia.
The kind people with whom we were staying had got us tickets to the Boxing Day Test against the West Indies at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Here was an opportunity to watch easeful Australians, although I can think of better ways of spending an unpleasantly hot day than sitting on a hard bench watching not very much happen and not fully understanding it when it does.
As we made our way to the ground, beneath the wide blue sky, our ebullient hosts quipped, repeatedly, 'Shame it's not the Poms.' Simon joked enthusiastically at his country's cricket team's expense, and I tried to imagine how it would have been had the tables been turned.
We took our seats in the members' enclosure, looking down on rows of hats and sun-scarred shoulders. Below us, Matthew Hayden and Michael Slater opened the batting for Australia. Worldrecord wicket-taker Courtney Walsh limbered up. The hats craned forward, 'Make it happen', screamed an advertising hoarding behind Walsh. It was a tense start for Slater: nervous, fidgety, cat on a hot tin roof. He opened the scoring then hogged the strike; it was half an hour before Hayden got his first run, Across the pitch stood Bay 13, which is where the wild young crowd comes to drink itself senseless. As the fielders paced the close-shaved green circle, hands on hips, or sat back on their flannel-encased buttocks, Simon looked over longingly. Lara dropped a catch and elicited a chorus of Aussie approval. Then Hayden was caught behind and the Australians were 1-41.
A woman beside me was outraged, and not by Hayden's dismissal. Apparently there had been a suggestion that the killers of Jamie Bulger might be sent to Australia to start a life with new identities. 'When will Britain stop seeing us as a dumping ground for its human refuse?' she said.
Bay 13 had just begun a Mexican wave. I labour under the illusion that I can reinvent myself when I'm abroad. No one knows me; I can be anyone I like. Here was my chance to conquer my fear of groupbonding exercises. The people around me had no idea that I'm pathologically selfconscious. And they were Australians; they didn't know the meaning of embarrassment. The wave swept around the stadium. My heart was pounding. Here it came. I half-rose and began to raise my arms. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed: everyone else around me was still seated. Apparently it's tradition: genteel members don't join in the Mexican wave and get heckled by the rest. So there I was, standing, arms raised to a booing crowd.
Simon needed a drink, and so did I, so we made our way to the bar. I was nervous. I had been warned that where we were going was no place for a lady. Hanging back meekly on the threshold, I tried not to make eye-contact with anyone. Simon had disappeared into the throng. I followed. I could see what looked like panic-buying at the pumps. One triumphant-looking man staggered through the crowds, red-faced, clutching a dozen beakers of grog to his chest. I caught his eye and decided to return to the cricket At 5-149 the Australians were looking shaky, despite a wayward performance from the West Indian fast bowlers, Walsh excepted. Enter the captain, Steve Waugh, returning after a niggling bottom injury. Solid and clear-thinking, sound of mind and heart, Waugh would save the day. And, sure enough, he ground his way to 98 runs, As the wind whipped up and the light began to fade, Waugh had two remaining overs in which to reach his century. Seventy-three thousand spectators willed him on. On a rubbish-strewn pitch, Walsh was stopped short of the straw-coloured strip by a Big Mac wrapper. He stalked back to recommence his run-up and a slow, restless handclap began.
Simon, recently returned from the bar, decided that it was time for a jocular comment. He got to his feet. 'Up the Windies,' he boomed. Thousands of pairs of gimlet Aussie eyes swivelled. 'Sit down and shut up,' I hissed.
Waugh didn't quite make our day and stayed on 98. Australia finished at 7-295. As the captain left the pitch to ecstatic Australian applause, I realised that I felt at home. I looked at Simon, glazed and happy, and thought that he probably did, too.
Since arriving in Melbourne, I'd felt an underlying agitation. It was as though, in this country that was so physically different from Britain, I was surrounded by people I vaguely recognised. And when I'd heard myself on the plane home saying, with the faintest Australian twang, 'I could never live here. It's too unrefined, too brutish, not like England,' my words had a hollow ring.
In a way, you see, I'd been cheated. We expect to escape from ourselves when we travel, not be brought face to face with ourselves in the raw, stripped of our historical and cultural camouflage. My superior and rather scornful attitude towards the Australians reminded me of how people sometimes behave when they meet a person in whom they see a part of themselves that they're not comfortable with; and how we're often attracted by what we're not.
I had been quick to point out that, far from having come to terms with their past, post-Olympics Australians are still chippy and defensive, but perhaps it is we who have the identity crisis. Let's face it, no matter how much cappuccino we drink, we are not as similar to our sophisticated and deep-thinking European neighbours as we might like to imagine. Whether we like it or not, we're more likely to see an accurate reflection of ourselves in the crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground: unaffected, straightforward, plain-speaking and dedicated to getting drunk and disorderly. And what the hell's wrong with that?