The Return of Cultural Cringe

I was recently reminded of the phrase “cultural cringe”, a term which I hadn’t heard for a while, and which is often reserved for when Australian politicians resort to fawning over visiting dignitaries and royalty. (Remember Tony Abbot’s knighthood for the Duke of Edinburgh?) More usually, it reveals a misguided belief that nothing produced locally can be any good.

The latest use was in response to a discussion about Australian expats stuck overseas, who are trying to return home during the pandemic. There was a general view that the criticisms revealed in The Guardian article were “fair”; there were also some comments to the effect that the reason many Australians go overseas is to take advantage of work or other opportunities not available to them here; while another suggestion was that local cultural cringe can drive people away. Cultural cringe is part and parcel of Australia’s identity crisis and the associated tall poppy syndrome, but it’s a complex issue….

When I first came to Australia as a child in the early 1970s, I was very surprised to see how much American influence there was. From TV programmes, to consumer brands; from car makes to drive-in cinemas; from fast food chains to the local currency. While I wasn’t as crass or naïve as my schoolmates back in the UK (some of whom thought that Britain still “owned” Australia) it was nevertheless surprising how much American culture there was. Local TV content was mainly limited to sport, game shows, and a few police dramas from Crawford Productions – this was long before the heyday of Aussie soaps and the stream of pop stars they generated.

On the other hand, there was also a growing engagement with Asia Pacific (and not just a result of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war). Japanese-made electronics were available in the shops (items which were not as prevalent at the time in the UK, possibly due to the latter’s recent membership of the European Common Market). The Osaka Expo of 1970 had been a big deal in Australia, and even warranted a set of postage stamps. Then there was Gough Whitlam’s visit to China in 1971. At school, I studied South East Asia geography, and had the option to study Japanese alongside French and German.

But I was also painfully aware of being called a “Pommie bastard” (and the kids at school were equally free in their use of similar terms for anyone of Mediterranean or Eastern European heritage). In my case, the term of abuse was prompted by England winning the 1970-71 Ashes tour of Australia – as if it was my fault that Australia had lost the series, failing to win a single test match. Up to that point, I had no particular interest in cricket whatsoever – but it was a defining moment that has meant ever since, I always support England and whoever is playing Australia. Those school-yard experiences revealed a sense of parochialism, narrow-mindedness and a weird superiority complex when it comes to sport – which is still prevalent today when support for national teams leads to jingoistic flag-waving.

Anyway, when my parents took our family back to London a few years later, I never expected to return. However, I kept an interest in Australian culture, or at least the portion that found its way to the UK (pushed out by lack of domestic opportunity and/or local appreciation?). Figures such as Germaine Greer, Clive James, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes, who were regulars on British TV; films and books by Peter Weir, Peter Carey and Bruce Beresford; music by The Saints, Nick Cave, The Go-Betweens and The Triffids – all of which seemed to find a better audience outside Australia rather than within. Maybe Australians didn’t think these cultural references represented them as well as more mainstream fare such as Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil and Crocodile Dundee? Of course, Australia also has a tendency to be quite censorious towards anything counterculture.*

The other side of the cultural cringe is the belief that everything local is “world class” (whatever that means) – that anything Aussie-made is simply the best. When I came back to live and work in Australia, I witnessed the “not made here” syndrome. Working for global brands, I would often meet with local companies, to present our products and services, most of which were developed overseas. “Is anyone already using this product in Australia?”, I’d be asked. “Er, not yet, we wanted to give you the first opportunity to try it.” “In which case, come back when you have some local customers.” (Conversely, if we introduced a new service that had been developed locally, I would sometimes be asked, “Who’s using this overseas?”. “Er, no-one – it’s specifically designed with regional customers in mind.” “OK, come back when you have some US or European clients.”)

Which brings me back to the point about Australian expats having to go overseas to get access to experience and opportunities unavailable here. The irony is that many of those expats who are trying to return home will be bringing a wealth of expertise with them, that would surely benefit the local economy.

Next week: FinTech Australia Road Show

* The “Barry McKenzie” books (created by Barry Humphries) were initially banned in Australia, while Richard Neville relocated some of his publishing operations to London after OZ magazine had been prosecuted for obscenity (ironically, OZ faced further prosecution in the UK). No doubt Daevid Allen, a mercurial figure in the beatnik and hippy counterculture, and founder member of both Soft Machine and Gong, would have struggled in the Australian music scene of the 1960s and early 1970s. As for artist and performer Leigh Bowery, his achievements in London are overlooked or unrecognsied here. But he was probably too out there for local tastes, notwithstanding the Australian appetite for mardi gras, drag and high camp (as epitomised by The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert).

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