This month I have been back in the UK for exactly one year. For the three years prior to my return I lived in Australia, Sydney’s Inner West to be precise. By far the most frequent question I get asked by my countrymen when I tell them that I have just returned to the small green land, from the wide brown one, is “why?”
Australia is an impossibly upbeat nation, a nation of can-do people that say hello to you in the street (for no reason), that give you directions if you’re lost (without you even asking for help) and that seem to love and laugh with the type of abandon that can be quite confronting to us prickly Brits.
Take the global financial crisis for instance; while the rest of the world went into meltdown, the Aussies just decided that they weren’t going to go into recession. So the government set about “stimulating” the economy… by giving money to people.
As a Brit Abroad I struggled with this notion for weeks and remained convinced that there was some hidden catch, because where I come from the idea of the government just giving everyone in the country a wad of cash, and then effectively encouraging them all to go out and buy themselves something nice, is about as likely as England winning the World Cup.
But there was no catch, in total the Australian government pumped over £30 billion into their economy, of this, over £7 billion was spent on the tax bonuses (or Free Money Scheme, as I like to call it!), £1.5 billion was given in tax breaks to small businesses, and over £14 billion was ploughed into infrastructure.
And it didn’t stop there, in order to stimulate the housing market, the government extended the already-generous first home-buyers’ scheme (which gives first-time buyers a one-off payment of £4000 to help them get on the property ladder) to £8000, and if you wanted to buy yourself a plot of land and build your own house, you got even more.
And then there’s the baby bonus; if you have a baby in Australia and you earn under £43,000 per year you qualify for a one-off payment of £2800, which makes Britain’s rather paltry little Child Trust Fund payment of £250 (soon to be axed by the Tories) look rather pathetic by comparison.
You see, that’s the thing about Australians; the concept of giving everyone a “fair go” is central to their psyche. They just get on with it, with a positively Thatcherite work ethic that could only have been born of a nation that knows what it is to land on an impossibly unforgiving continent that tries to kill you at every turn. Nation-building is not a new concept to them.
So while the rest of the world was going under, America was busy passing the buck to anyone that stood still for long enough and Britain was downing scotch and sweating profusely like some ageing politician caught with his pants down, Australia just kept its head down and quietly grafted away, whilst repeating the mantra “we will not go into recession” over and over again. And you know what, it didn’t.
And this is what I mean by their indomitable upbeatness. In Sydney there is actually a suburb named Sans Souci – which roughly translated means, “no worries”. Once again, an example of positive reinforcement at work. Can you imagine a town or suburb named the same in Britain? And then there’s erstwhile rock star-come-eco warrior Peter Garrett
Garrett was formerly the frontman of Aussie rock group Midnight Oil and was a vehement, and often controversial, environmentalist, but in 2007 he was appointed Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts in the Australian government after the Labor Party’s election. Since that time opinions have varied as to how well he has actually done in office, but the fact remains that he got there.
I cannot think of a situation where a similarly controversial figure would ever be given the opportunity to enter the British government. It would be like having one of the Levellers in the Cabinet. And it would never happen. In Britain, no one gets a “fair go”. And the sad truth is that your background all too often still dictates your path in life.
So, why would we move from such a sun-filled utopia back to old Blighty, the soggy little island in the north? It is true to say that oftentimes life is easier in Australia. I can’t deny it. But Britain to me is like an ageing Hollywood star that has retired (or been disgraced!) from public life. Once the toast of the town, now she just rambles around in a big old house, crumbling through years of neglect, trading on her glory days.
I find her exasperating and infuriating, but I love her, she’s family, what can you do? The thing is, beyond the decay and the waste and the neglect there is still such beauty in this old girl. Still so much to learn. She may be rough around the edges now, she may be world weary and shabby, but scratch the surface and you’ll still see a flash of that old spirit.
There is so much that is ridiculous about Britain – the fact that nothing works, from our archaic infrastructure, to our health system, to our outdated notions of monarchy and class. The fact that we unquestioningly pay a licence fee to watch TV and we still queue with impeccable manners, that we never want to make a fuss, that we say the word “sorry” in conversation more than any other nation.
I love that our black cab drivers have The Knowledge, that we still love a good old cream tea, that when the whether hits 25 degrees the tabloid press start splashing “heatwave” across the front pages. I love that we always rally for the underdog, that once every four years the whole country gets behind “our boys”, whether they like football or not, and for a few weeks we all convince ourselves we might just win, even though we never do.
I love the fact that amidst all that so badly needs repair and reform in our country the British people just continually battle on, finding increasingly bonkers ways to overcome adversity. Like when the people of Lewes launched their own currency in 2008 – the Lewes pound – in order to keep money circulating in the hands of its local traders and out of the pockets of big business.
But most of all I love the fact that people continually ask me that “why” question. Why did we move back here from Australia? Because of that very humility that makes so many people ask the question.
This is a nation of people who never quite believe in themselves, in their own ability, who are self-effacing and humble, when in reality we have spawned some of the greatest thinkers, musicians, artists and entrepreneurs the world has ever known. As a nation we are so incredibly prolific and yet we always think everyone else is better than us. I can honestly say for the entire time I was in Australia I was never asked “why” I had moved there.
On the world’s stage Australia is the eager young graduate, bounding in with limitless energy, ideas and enthusiasm, making everyone else feel totally inadequate with the sheer scale of her abilities. Britain, of course, is the old soak, once a ravishing beauty, now a crumbling wreck – hard-bitten and cynical, swigging from a hip-flask, quietly resentful of this smug new kid on the block that seems to do everything so much better, with such effortless ease.
Australia is a graduate of the new world and I cannot deny that she is charming, breathtakingly beautiful and immensely capable, but Britain has lived, she has already earned her stripes, and like all veterans, she no longer needs to impress in quite the same way, what makes her great is the gravitas she has acquired through centuries of endeavour.
And so, while Australia is the belle of the ball, confident in her youth, Britain sits quietly on the sidelines, exhausted from wars and plagues and miners’ strikes and recessions, battle-weary and bloodied, but unbowed. And that is why I love her; because even though she may no longer be the prettiest, or the most productive, there ain’t nothing this grand old dame don’t know about life.
© Laury Jeanneret, 2009.