With a few hours to fill before coming back to Sydney, I caught a taxi this morning to the National Portrait Gallery. Within seconds of getting in the taxi, the driver started a conversation about how Australian country music was the best in the world.
“A great Australian” he said, “and with a talented daughter”, he added, as a song by Brian Young about country music legend, Stan Coster came on the radio. “Yes, I saw Tracy Coster” at Gympie this year. You could see in his eyes, there was a sudden realisation there was a little more complexity to the yuppie looking bloke on his way to the gallery.
And so we chatted for a while about country music. He told me that Tamworth was full of Americans, these days, like Kenny Rogers. “Kenny Rogers could come to Bungendore, but he couldn’t perform”, he told me about the local country music festival near Canberra. To be honest, I suspect if Kenny Rogers turned up at Bungendore, the vast majority of those attending would actually love to hear a song from him.
Unexpectedly for me, the National Portrait Gallery was a rather inspiring place to visit on Australia Day. The gallery is full of images of Australians who have done interesting and amazing things. I loved walking around looking at the paintings and the sculptures, and was especially moved by a number of works. There’s a beautiful painting of the actor Deborah Mailman dressed in a sack; there’s a great work featuring the diver, Matthew Mitcham; there’s a whimsical painting of Princess Mary in Amalienborg Palace (with the Opera House in the background); and a rather stunning portrait of the classical pianist, Simon Tedeschi. I could go on.
Over the next few hours as I made my way back to Sydney to meet friends later a the pub, I saw lots of other images of Australia Day. There was an Aboriginal rights protest in Canberra, and the big Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander gathering, Yabun in Sydney. I saw a bunch of young people draped in the Australian flag, and I heard three young students on the bus wish each other “Happy Australia Day”, though they all then noted none of them was actually an Australian citizen. For me all of these were a celebration of inclusion. not exclusion.
And then later, as I enjoyed a few drinks with friends at a pub, I noted a bloke wearing a t-shirt which declared “We eat meat, we drink beer, and we speak f*ckin English”. I smiled and wondered to myself if, like me he had Irish and Scottish ancestry, many of whom came to Australia almost two-hundred years ago speaking Gaelic.
It was just the type of t-shirt that would have gotten up the noses of a lot of people on Twitter today, many of whom who were decrying some of the more overt elements of Australian nationalism. I thought there was a real snobbishness in many of their comments, declaring anyone who didn’t share their views about Australian identity as bogans. I also thought there was a real over-exaggeration about this type of Australian nationalism: the bloke in the pub, for example, was only one of a few hundred people in the pub. Unfortunately, one of the great dilemmas of Australia Day is the way in which people on the fringe have appropriated the day in the media and in a very public way.
Most of us aren’t on the extremes. We are comfortable in our notion of national identity. I’m pleased that, as a nation, we’ve gone down the path of quiet national pride compared with the more outspoken elements of American nationalism, for example. Most of us simply enjoy the holiday, enjoy catching up with friends and family and do something vaguely nationalistic which generally amounts to little more than wishing someone else “Happy Australia Day”. And that’s how I spent Australia Day: a walk around the portrait gallery, a trip back from Canberra to Sydney on the bus, and a catch-up with friends at a pub on New Canterbury Road.
There was a fairly big group of us at the pub. All of us are vaguely in the 30 to 55 age group. Most of us don’t have kids, though one couple does. About half of us were gay/lesbian, the other half were straight. The group contains people who are strong adovcates of atheism as well as a guy who plays in his local church rock group. The jobs we do include clerical work, PA work, supermarket assistance, council library, unemployed, and yuppies like myself.
In some ways, we’re a group of people who don’t easily fit into the world of t-shirt man, because we’re not all the same. It’s a world where you’re either like me, or you agree with me, and if you don’t, you’re not welcome.
My group of friends, Australia and the world, is a little more complex than that. If we were all the same, my group of friends would be pretty boring. If all Australians were the same, we would be a pretty boring bunch too.