Friday, 13 July 2007

Why Australians are entitled to get angry about that nincompoop Patrick West from "Spiked!"

Here is the highly polemical, slightly tongue in cheek response I wrote to Patrick West's scabrous attack on Australia, which I'd read in Spiked! Online. It turned out that Guy Rundle wrote a very cool headed appraisal which was published in response and, in any case, my letter was way over the permissible word limit cited by Spiked! It is not intended to cause any offense, and is reproduced here for the purposes of infotainment.

I found Patrick's article interesting only insofar as it typifies the genre of "cultural journalism" I have recently critiqued in my review of John Pilger's "A Secret Country".

Expanding on some of the salient points raised in that brief capsule review, if one examines the relevant quantitative data, it quickly becomes evident that a greater proportion of British citizens migrate to Australia than Australians becoming residents of the United Kingdom. Applying West's own criteria in light of this fact, raises an obvious question: why do so many Britons leave the UK [and choose to stay in Australia] then if the UK is so good, and Australia is so bad? But rather than conduct any empirical social scientific research, West is content to confirm his prejudices merely by talking to an anonymous Australian expat in London.

Furthermore, West's other choices (Pilger, Humphries et al) of confirmatory authority for his thesis appear quite revealing. Contra West, it could plausibly be argued that such figures typify the transnational cosmopolitan elites who realised early in their careers that by aligning themselves with an economic centre, and then telling it what it wanted to hear, a modest investment of effort/talent could be parlayed into a small fortune (i.e. the infamous so-called "cultural cringe" promulgated by some expat Australian intellectuals).

In this context cosmopolitanism merely denotes an urban bias which defines itself against suburbia. West and co. are therefore in effect simply reenacting Tocqueville's thesis that social egalitarianism produces mediocrity. It follows that West's decision to venerate high cultural achievement over nation building projects of benefit to more than an enlightened elite, brings to mind Marie Antoinette's infamous quip, "let them [i.e. the starving masses] eat cake". Several years ago Leo Bersani wrote an interesting book, "The Culture of Redemption", critiquing this morally impoverished view, for its assumption that culture would somehow redeem the catastrophes of history. The book's appeal is tilted toward the kind of ethical constituency that would have motivated the likes of, for example, Frank Furedi, most especially during his "Living Marxism" period.

But such an acknowledgement might even be extended to Ned Kelly, West's caricatured dustbin helmeted murderer. Again, a more finely grained, scholarly analysis than West's would have attempted to situate Kelly as an Australian folk hero, on the basis that his populist appeal was connected to radical nationalist sentiments, which extended to a plan to establish an Irish free state in the state of Victoria. Such an analysis would have further situated his actions with reference to the pauperisation and colonisation, that followed on from the Dickensian transformation of England into an industrial superpower. These facts also go some way towards explaining why so many Australian historians take their cues from E.P. Thompson's magisterial study, "The Making of the English Working Class". And why not consider, in a more global context, the case of the Molly Maguires in the Pennsylvania coal fields? Such comparisons are crucial if we are to adequately understand whether or not internal developmental processes are at stake. And I won't even begin to comment on West's failure in this instance to situate his own Irish ancestry. Ironically, he has written columns for Spiked! castigating others for illegitimately claiming his heritage!!

Moreover, such reference points may have helped expose West's [previous] faulty reasoning that the portrayal of the United Kingdom as a slum is a recent invention of American television. On the contrary, if anything, it is merely a return to an earlier form. By the same token, West could just as easily have pointed his browser to the "Classic Cafes" website, where one can find the likes of Julie Burchill seizing on British entropy as, paradoxically, the last vestige of distinction from the optimism, and newness, of the American Dream.

In conclusion, it appears to me that all West has done in his article is testify to a failure of imagination; an inability to arrest a state of terminal decline. His one point of departure is an attempt to broaden the entropy trope with reference to not only the United States, but Australia as well. But I seriously doubt that any "colonials" reading his piece will in any sense become better informed on this important topic.

Therefore my recommendation for proper contextualisation would be to refer instead to the quantitative social science data collected, for example, in the text, "How Australia Compares". Those on the other hand seeking further evidence of West's symptom formation of British entropy by his preferred "aesthetic" means, would be better advised to read the novels of J.G. Ballard. At least these alternatives would spare the reader from West's ill-informed patronising drivel.

Guy Rundle
Australians are uncouth? Rack off! Last week’s TV column by Patrick West, in which he called Australians ‘white trash’, caused an uproar Down Under. An Aus journalist responds.
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‘The Victoria and Albert Museum is hosting an exhibition of Kylie Minogue’s costumes’ said Sandi Toksvig on a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz. ‘It’s on loan from the Australian Arts Centre, which is now presumably empty.’ Boom boom. As far as anti-Australian gags go, that is pretty much par for the course. Increasingly, British views of Australia – especially as expressed by the middle-class commentariat – take as their starting point the idea that Down Under symbolises all that is cultureless, naive and vulgar.

As an Australian in Britain, you simply get used to it. More often than not such anti-Australian sentiments find their expression in the leftish mainstream press, where ostensible liberalism often serves as a mask for cultural elitism. It was a bit of a shock, then, to open up spiked last week and find in Patrick West’s TV column every British cliché about Australian culture and life stuck into one article.
Based largely, it would appear, on conversations with a few ex-pats, West’s startling conclusion is that Australia is not the sunny, fresh-minted utopia of Neighbours, but is more like the Gothic suburban fantasy of Kath and Kim - a cultural predicament which has apparently driven from Australia not only record numbers of smart people but also just about the whole A-list of Aussies, from, er, Clive James to Germaine Greer. However, wherever they go, Australians retain a childlike naiveté which comes to the fore when they’ve had a skinful, says West, which is very often of course. Oh, and the women will push you to the floor and have your fly open before you’ve even finished your ‘scooner’ (sic).
Well, if your research sample is the front bar of the ‘Shebu Walkie’ (the Walkabout beer barn in Shepherd’s Bush, London) over a schooner (a beer) or two, then inevitably you’re going to uncover those kind of back-of-the-beermat findings. Let’s dispel a few of the myths in West’s piece.
For a start, there’s the ex-pat diaspora. There are around one million Australians living outside of Australia, or about seven per cent of the adult population. About half of them say they have left permanently, although a proportion of these subsequently change their minds (1). By contrast, the number of British citizens living overseas is 5.5 million, or about 12 per cent of the adult population; around 100,000 Brits a year leave Britain permanently (2). Their most favoured destination is a place called Australia, with Spain coming second.
True, the make-up of British and Australian ex-pat communities differs, with the British composed of more retirees and fewer professionals than Australia’s diaspora – but that is simply a consequence of Australia being part of the global periphery. Like Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland and many other fairly sparsely populated places, Australia’s citizens are responding to the increased mobility afforded by globalisation, and to the creation of global capitals like London and New York, which offer professional opportunities that are unavailable in their homeland.
The second mistake in West’s article is his claim that all Australia’s leading intellectuals have left. This leaves me no choice but to take the odious path of cultural boosterism and reel off a list of those who haven’t left, or didn’t leave, Australia: Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White; world-class poets Les Murray and AD Hope; Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty; philosophers David Armstrong and Rai Gaita; Booker Prize-winner Thomas Keneally; France’s most performed overseas playwright Daniel Keene; Pritzker (architecture’s Nobel) winner Glenn Murcutt; actor (now artistic director) Cate Blanchett; scientist Tim Flannery. There are many more.

Those whom West cites as ex-pats (and he left out the most talented ex-pats, such as novelist Peter Carey and critic Meaghan Morris) are overwhelmingly those who are either global travellers, such as John Pilger, or metropolitan performers such as Germaine Greer (who alternates between A-list work and Celebrity Big Brother-style fiascos) and former clip-show host Clive James. It’s those who stayed – such as White, Murray or Murcutt – who produced world-class work, connecting local traditions to global modernism. Maybe West hasn’t heard of them because they don’t work in his narrow world of the London media.
What is really awry in West’s piece is that he has missed the way in which the image of Australia is used within British culture and debate for purposes that have nothing whatsoever to do with the southern continent. The fashionable disdain in Britain for the suburbanism that dominates the image of Australian life is a barely disguised form of prejudice directed at working-class and mainstream culture, displaced in such a way that it can avoid charges of naked elitism.
There’s no doubt that Australia has a different set of class relations to Britain – and that is partly because Australia has a far smaller cultural elite (or core of knowledge/cultural producers, to put it more technically) and larger suburbs of detached houses with gardens and a cultural life largely based around mainstream (and mostly American) films, TV and music. In terms of comfort for basic wage-earners, Australia is one of the most congenial societies yet devised, though it is at the same time frustrating and unsatisfying for those who want a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. Hence the grousing from the professional diaspora who have either permanently relocated to London or are in the first flush of enthusiasm for London life (usually put paid to by a couple years of London rents, rain and trains).
Yet even a cursory glance around everyday British culture – from Big Brother to the half-hour lobotomy of Emmerdale or Gillian McKeith’s poo TV, to Soho on a Saturday night – should show that Britain is hardly lacking in cheerful assertive vulgarity. So why does the Australian version get such a kicking, especially from the left or ‘progressive’ direction?
The answer, of course, is because it’s safe to bash Australia. No one from the liberal or left-leaning fraternity can come out and say – as Simon Heffer or Theodore Dalrymple have done – that the British working classes are a slatternly disgrace. So instead such disdain is displaced on to a white settler country which does have – mainly in rural areas – all the residual racism common to white settler countries. And then such disdain is presented as a critical and progressive attitude. So in West’s article we find that the kind of thing once patronisingly said about blacks – that they have a joyful sense of rhythm – can now be transferred on to white Australians (or Kiwis or South Africans or the Irish) who are praised for their naive childlike drunkenness that we jaded metropolitans have long since lost.
This easy chauvinism serves another purpose, too. It assuages the all-pervasive anxiety amongst the left-liberal elite that mainstream culture is actually winning – that Jade Goody, Garry Bushell and Girls Aloud are setting the pace today, and that the remaining institutions of liberal elite culture (Radio 4, the Guardian, David-fucking-Hare) are being pushed to a position of utter irrelevance reminiscent of, well, Australia. More and more British liberals project their fears for their own self-preservation against the hordes on to a nightmare vision of Australia, where they imagine the hordes have been victorious.
The point is that Australia is ahead, not behind, the curve the UK is on – it is dealing with the problems that any society faces when it has started to satisfy the basic needs of a large section of the population. Kath and Kim is neither a clown show nor a proletarian minstrel turn. It is a slightly rueful self-reflection on the difficulties you face when you have got everything you think you wanted – the house, the garden, the holidays, the shopping centres – and now you’re wondering what else you can do. Not understanding that, Mr West, leaves you looking, well, a bit of a galah.
Guy Rundle is European editor of the Australian magazine Arena.

"Pom's Passports Tell the Truth"

The Daily Telegraph

March 14th 2007
THERE is a well-known newspaper term used to describe where unwanted stories go - they are spiked.
A story is spiked when it is deemed not newsworthy, badly written and researched, or if there is simply not one spare column centimetre left in the paper to run it.
This week I discovered another spiked which, according to its mission statement, is "an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms".
All it needed to say is that it is a website at times dedicated to publishing rubbish written by British social commentator Patrick West.

West's latest drivel Life in Oz: Nothing like Neighbours is most certainly worthy of being spiked.
West pontificates: "Answer me this – if things are so great Down Under, why do so many Aussies leave?"
He then attempts to answer his question: "It's because Australia is not the paradise it is portrayed to be on Neighbours. One of my Aussie colleagues is often asked why she chose to live in miserable, rainy Britain . . . her answer was simply: Australia is nothing like Neighbours. It's more like Kath and Kim."
West continues: "She went on to explain that the land Down Under is not populated by the hearty, the gregarious and the welcoming, but by white trash . . . Australians are some of the most coarse, racist people on earth, as Kath and Kim rightly portrays.
"For example, an American girl who seeks courtship will tentatively ask you for a meal and weeks of getting to know you; an Australian girl will come up to you at the Walkabout bar in London's densely Aussie-populated Shepherds Bush and inquire, 'Would you like a f. . .?' "
Quite frankly, I'm relieved Australia is nothing like Neighbours, with the likes of busybody Harold popping in and out of your home all day.
Give me Kath and Kim (who are not racists, by the way) any day.
Unsophisticated, perhaps, to Londoners – but racist? How? When?
Strangely, West makes no mention of English soccer fans banned from Europe because of their racism and violence over the years.
Ever heard of an Australian sports supporter being banned overseas?
We all know Kath and Kims. Every city has them – New York's live in Queens, London's reside in Essex and ours in Melbourne's Fountaingate.
Yet however they may dress or speak, most Kath and Kims would be the first to support their neighbours and complete strangers – more so than the sophisticated inner-city slickers (like West) that look down their nose at them.
It is also a gross over-generalisation to say Australia is full of white trash.
But West's argument collapses when he says all the "clever" Australians flee to Britain.
"Because despite all of their protestations against Barry Humphries' character Sir Les Patterson, Oz's own farting, swearing reprobate cultural attache, Australia remains a philistine country," he writes.
"Think about it. Who do the Americans celebrate as national heroes? George Washington, George Gershwin, Ernest Hemingway, Franklin D. Roosevelt and so on.
"We Brits revere Chaucer, Shakespeare, Elgar, Nelson and Churchill. And who do the Australians put on their postal stamps? Ned Kelly, a murderous bandit who famously put a metal dustbin on his head and tried to kill coppers."
And to think all this time I thought modern Britain worshipped Posh and Becks, reality TV stars such as Big Brother's resident racist Jade Goody, and the articulate Gallagher brothers.
But West, who is also the author of Conspicuous Compassion – which was reviewed in Britain's The Times (by one of his own countrymen) as "utterly devoid of insight . . . nonsense . . . pandering to the fashionable pull your socks up, preachy attitude" – continues with more gibberish.
"This is why all the most cerebral Australians, such as Clive James, Germaine Greer, John Pilger and Peter Singer, have lived for so long either in the UK or the USA. They all wanted to get away from the land of Kath and Kim," he adds.
How does he explain then how England got Pete Andre and Jason Donovan? What West should have said is not necessarily the smartest Aussies flee to Britain, perhaps just the most opportunistic.
And what he doesn't acknowledge is that your Clives and Greers are caught in a time warp. They think Australia is still the Australia they left decades ago, ensuring most of what they say is irrelevant.
As for Singer? The US can keep the academic who in 2001 stated that "mutually satisfying activities" of a sexual nature may sometimes occur between humans and animals.
The immigration department granted 28,821 working holiday visas for Brits in 2005-06. In the same period a further 32,152 UK residents gained permanent residency here.
For "the most coarse, racist people on earth"' we've sure got something going for us that Poms love.
Maybe West could come and investigate in person. I know some welcoming B&Bs in Fountaingate where he could stay.
 Anita Quigley is joint Australian/British passport holder who lived in London for six years

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