Thursday, November 18, 2010

The rain in Spain has nothing on Balmain

I was surprised to read today that, apparently, 31% of Australians claim English descent, compared to 37% who call themselves simply Australian.Actually, what I find truly surprising is not the number itself, but the fact that so many were willing to admit to it: I have noticed on more than a few occasions that when some native Australians ask me “is that an…. English accent I hear?” or “Excuse me, are you from… the UK?” they have done so in the same hesitant, awkward tone of voice one would use if enquiring whether someone has an embarrassing/humourous infectious disease or if it was them who just farted or if they realise that their skirt has been tucked into their knickers for the last three hours. 

The quantity of Anglo-Australians is hardly startling given that (as we just love to remind our Antipodean friends) it was the English who thought, waaay back in 1788, that Terra Australis would make a simply spiffing spot for a penal colony. Indeed, one explanation given for the origin of the word ‘pom’, that most favourite of Aussie idioms, is that it originates from the acronym P.O.M.E., for 'Prisoner of Mother England'. 

However, although approximately 162,000 people were shipped Down Under until the abolition of transportation in 1850, this number pales in comparison to the hordes of people who flocked to Australia after Edward Hargraves discovered gold near Bathurst in 1851. The following year saw the arrival of an estimated 370,000 new immigrants and the fledgling nation’s economy experienced a rapid boom. 

160 years after the goldrush, Australia is the world’s thirteenth largest economy and was recently ranked second in the United Nations Human Development Index, so I guess things have panned out pretty well, pardon the pun.

Mindful of our countries’ shared history, since moving to Australia it has been interesting to note both the numerous differences and abundant similarities that exist between the British and Aussie cultures. For example, I find endearing, but will never fully understand, why Australians are instinctively driven to shorten and affix an ‘o’, ‘y’ or ‘ie’ to every noun they possibly can, or to replace such words entirely with nonsensical slang. I also share Stephen Fry’s irritation at “Australian Question Intonation”- you know, the need to go up at the end of every sentence like this when you are not in fact posing a question. It is also beyond me why Aussies happily join in with the rest of the world in mocking British food and yet continue to venerate the meat-of-questionable-origin pie, life-shorteningly greasy chicken schnitzel and Vegemite… I’m sorry, but Marmite is by far the superior vegetable extract. On the other hand, we also share many common traits: our habitual tacit racism, penchant for snobbery and classism, weakness for binge drinking, love of charring food on barbecues, fondness for Kylie Minogue and, of course, our devotion to sport- or more specifically beating each other at it… ok, I admit that last one was just a blatant excuse to brag- it’s not like the English get to very often. One thing, however, that has shocked me, as a dyed-in-the-wool, bona fide whinging pom, is that Australians also share the oft-maligned British habit of moaning about the weather.
Now, the English, it must be said, are the time-honoured masters of weather-related casual chit-chat. As social anthropologist Kate Fox perceptively observes “English weather-speak is a form of code, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other”. However, what we really excel in is not just conversing about the weather, but complaining about it: If meteorological moaning was an Olympic sport, the English would undoubtedly take gold. In fact, we’re even better at it than we are at rugby. (Oh, sorry, did I already used that link?) 

The reason for this is, I think, pretty straightforward: we have a lot of opportunity to practise because, for the most part, English weather is really, really crap. On average, more than half the year is overcast and summer, if we get one at all, lasts about three days. Would-be visitors take note: if the temperature does manage to rise above about 25°C, half of the country will ring in sick to work and sprint to the nearest park to 'soak up the sun', whilst the other half who did drag themselves into the office won't actually get any work done because they will be too busy complaining about how this terrible 'heatwave' has turned the Tube into a cylindrical commuter pressure cooker. They will then return to their homes and moan to their spouses that this unbearable swelter is ruining the flower beds- which of course they can't water because despite five solid months of flood-inducing storms earlier in the year, the council has initiated a hose-pipe ban, citing the fact that it was the 'wrong type of rain'.

Jeremy Paxman hit the nail on the head when he wrote that "one of the few things you can say about England with absolute certainty is that it has a lot of weather. It may not include tropical cyclones but life at the edge of an ocean and the edge of a continent means you can never be entirely sure what you’re going to get". However, as my time in Sydney has shown me, Australian weather, at least at this time of year, is seemingly just as bi-polar. 

It came as no surprise to learn that Sydney actually receives more rainfall than London does, because I feel like I've been damp for about a month straight. So soggy, in fact, that I've concocted a plan to make millions from a new range of novelty tourist t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Australia gets me wet" and "I went to Sydney and all I got was soaking/the flu/trenchfoot". Of course, there has been the odd moment of respite from the dismal downpours... Unfortunately this has come via short bursts of oppressive heat and humidity that make it feel like we're living in Satan's arsecrack and turn any item of sleeved clothing into an instrument of torture. 

Thankfully, it seems most Aussies I know are similarly pissed off by the current confusing climate and, moreover, seem to be even better at bitching about it than the Brits! By way of example, let me tell you some people I encountered on a bus journey last week. Let's start with Judy. Now, Judy is most put out by the level of rain falling on Sydney at the moment because the damp is most definitely exacerbating her chronic joint pain and even the most hardcore of her homeopathic remedies isn't providing any relief. Judy's friend and travel companion, Wendy, agrees with her that this excessively wet weather is most unusual and to excuse her French, "a right pain in the bloody bum"- she was nearly fifteen minutes late for her pottery class the other day because the traffic was so bad, obviously due to the rain. Judy knows exactly what she means: her dogwalking group was cancelled altogether, but then maybe that was a blessing in disguse, because her knees really are too sore to attempt anything more than the lightest of exercise.

At the back of the bus, Kirsty is also pretty pissed off about the stormy weather, which, as she descriptively shrieked into her iphone to her presumably hard-of-hearing friend, Claire, has been "heaps crap for ages". What's more, she'll be "like toootally bummed" if there's a downpour on the night of next month's formal because she is "like, so stoked" about the "amaaazing cute shoes" she's bought to wear, but they're suede and "oh my god will be, like, totally f-ed up" if it rains!!!

A few seats forward from Kirsty, Tony (Big T to his friends) was also expressing concerns regarding Sydney's recent inclemency over the phone because, bloody oath mate, he will be spewing if he has to cancel the barbie he's got planned for this Sunday arvo- he's got some blokes coming down especially from Queensland. He's stressed out enough as it is because his son Jarrod has been crook for the past few days and Ange has been giving him a right ear-bashing because he hasn't finished painting their bedroom yet... even though he's been flat out and he didn't even want bloody 'Rustic Terracotta' anyway, but Ange had to put her bloody foot down, didn't she?

Meanwhile, Judy and Wendy (who incidentally painted her kitchen in Rustic Terracotta just last month) are debating the extent to which the rain will be "good for the garden"- Wendy thinks her herbaceous borders are lapping it up, but Judy isn't convinced and remains worried that the excess water will rot her vegetables. Concurrently, whatever words of wisdom Claire uttered from the other end of the phone call have seemingly diffused Kirsty's footwear fiasco fears and the conversation has moved to more pressing matters, such as the finer points of the music of Justin Bieber, the, like, totally retarded history homework they got today and, most importantly, whether or not Katie will come to the beach this weekend when she must know that everyone thinks she's, like, a total skank for kissing Emma's boyfriend... Of course, given Kirsty's intonation I can't be sure if that was a statement or a question and sadly I will probably never know, as at that moment the bus pulled up to my stop.

I realised that the exposure to such first-rate weather whinging was actually inducing a very mild sense of homesickness- strip away the Aussie accents and Down Under dialect and I could easily have been on a bus back in Blighty listening to Wendy from Wembley, Kirsty from Kettering or Tony from Telford experiencing the very same conversations, consultations and considerations. I've come to the conclusion that the reason for our carping comparability must be a genetic one- some sort of English 'weather-whinging gene' that has been transported, transplanted and transmitted through generations over goodnessknowshowmany years and has ended up forming part of the Aussie psyche.

Mercifully, it appears from the current forecast that Tony won't have to cancel his barbecue, that Judy will get to participate in her prized pooch parade and that Kirsty, Claire and numerous other twitty teens will be able to bitch out at the beach this weekend... But I'd be willing to bet money that all of these marvellous moaners not only fall within the 31%, but that when the heat of summer really kicks in, each of them will still find elements of the elements to grumble, gripe and grouse about. In fact, if they don't, I'll eat my hat...

...and I'll eat it with Marmite, not Vegemite, of course.

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