Books: A Point of View: National Identity |
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National Identity : on national pride and humour

(S04E07, broadcast 12th and 14th December 2008)

"World famous. Within your own borders"

In my homeland, Australia, the question of national identity is once again in the news as the assembled brains of the entire country wonder whether the new film about Australia, called Australia, will finally establish the national identity of our neglected island in the eyes of the world. Let me start out by saying that I have always found this supposedly nagging question of Australia’s national identity to be a mare’s nest. Everyone in the world knows that Nicole Kidman, the leading lady of the film Australia, comes from Australia, so how much more national identity does one nation need? But I’ll get to that later because I want to start out with another question: the national identity of Lapland.

Lapland’s national identity in the eyes of the world took a bit of a hammering this week when a Lapland theme park in the New Forest closed down in response to universal lack of enthusiasm. Ticket buyers were promised snow, cabins, elves and appropriate animals. The snow was sparse, the cabins closely resembled the kind of bolt-together huts you get on a building site, some of the elves behaved in a non-elf-like manner, and at least one of the appropriate animals was made of plastic. I won’t go into further detail because the newspapers were full of it, but let’s just say that, except from people who had been optimistic enough to actually buy tickets, a great laugh went up.

The great laugh told you two things. The first thing is that the British enjoy a bungle. They have come to see a bungle as part of their national identity: a tilting train that tilts too much or doesn’t tilt at all, a Millennium Dome with not much in it, a Heathrow terminal that separates passengers from their luggage on a long-term basis, a Lapland theme park with snow-deficiency syndrome. How very British. One might even say that the nicest aspect of the British national identity is that the British can laugh at themselves.

But the other thing that the great laugh told you was that Lapland really does have an identity problem, because apart from its status as the official domicile of Santa Claus it would have had very few things notably Laplandish to offer for a thirty-quid ticket even if the theme park had been a big-budget number. Cabins and reindeer, is that it? The expectations of Lapp culture are low. Not even a British stand-up comedian would expect to get away with the suggestion that Lapland is where the Lapp dancers come from, because everyone knows that almost nothing comes from Lapland. On the international scale of celebrity, Lapland scores low unless you are deeply interested in hearing the one and only real Santa perform in a Lapp accent, hoeh hoeh hoeh. And very few Americans even know where Lapland is. Right there we get to the heart of this supposedly vital question about national identity. Small countries want America to have heard of them.

Britain counts as a big small country because it has a lot of people in it, but even the British are apt to waste time caring about whether the Americans have heard of them. Not all their time, however: for which I bless their sanity. For smaller small countries — and I mean smaller by population — it can be a continuing obsession. The clearest case is Canada, which is large in area even by comparison with the United States but is short of people. Crucially, Canada is right next to the US, and speaks the same language. Everyone knows that Mexicans are Mexicans but few of us can tell a Canadian from an American unless the Canadian is speaking French. The Canadians are forever bothered by a sense of being dominated by their famous neighbour to the south.

The Canadians try to laugh, however. There was a Canadian best-selling book recently called Coping with Back Pain. It did so well that the Americans printed their own edition. But the Americans called it Conquering Back Pain because America is a can-do nation that conquers, it doesn’t cope. A friend of mine who told me about this had already worked out her own jokes, which I gladly borrow. The Canadian version of Julius Caesar’s memoirs? I Came, I Saw, I Coped. Get ready for She Stoops to Cope and Hail the Coping Hero Comes. But the nice thing about the Canadians is that they can come up with jokes like that at the drop of a Mountie’s hat. They know they’re stuck and they’ve learned to enjoy it.

Long-time commander of the Starship Enterprise, the Canadian-born William Shatner, one of the funniest men I ever met, is full of jokes about Canadian star-fleet admirals. Canada has been supplying stars to Hollywood for a century but everyone thinks they’re American. The best the Canadians can do is laugh about it and they always have. Finally the national sense of humour is a vital factor. National identity and a sense of humour: there are two themes trying to get together here.

I should say at this point that for all I know the Lapps are as funny as a circus on the subject of their minimal international standing. Perhaps they are even now rolling around in the snow, yelling with laughter at the reports of how the lavishly appointed Lapland New Forest theme park project went belly-up. But we don’t know, because we never hear from them on the subject. This seems to me a wise attitude, for reasons I will discuss.

But not, alas, until I have discussed the national identity of Australia. It’s a duty that there’s no getting out of. As an Australian who lives in Britain, I spend a lot of time fielding calls from the media in my homeland wanting to know what Britain is thinking. These calls have been coming in every few hours in recent weeks, because the film Australia will soon open here and perhaps I might have seen it at a press screening. As it happens, I have seen it at a press screening, so I’m in a position to say that although I have no idea what the British will think when it goes on general release, I have an exact idea of what I think.

About the film’s merits I prefer to be silent at this stage, except to say that it seemed quite long, in the same sense that the Thirty Years War probably seemed quite long to anyone who had been expecting it to be over sooner. But I have a definite opinion about what the film Australia will do for Australia’s national identity. It will do nothing, because nothing needs to be done.

Unlike Lapland, Australia is world famous. Australian actors and film makers and writers and arts people have been colonizing the planet for years and all the jokes about Australia’s deficiency of culture are old hat, like all the jokes about Australians knowing nothing about wine. Australia killed the wine jokes by producing supertankers full of wine that the whole world wanted to drink and it killed the culture jokes by flooding the world with an outburst of quality remarkable for a country that looks big on the map but has fewer people in it than Mexico City.

Most important, Australia has even more great stuff at home than it sends abroad. Unfortunately it also has a whole army of commentators who are permanently anxious that the world hasn’t heard of them. Well, there’s a reason for that. It’s because they are talking nonsense. There is no Australian national identity crisis and never has been. Indeed Australia after World War II was a desirable destination for people from countries that really did have an identity crisis: Poland, for example. When Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union have ruined your country from two different directions, that’s an identity crisis.

Australia’s only problem was that it felt itself to be a bit of a backwater, and that is obviously no longer true. But it isn’t obvious to the people who draw a salary for saying Australia must do something to put itself on the map of the world. Just such anxious minds are behind the notion that the film Australia will make all the world’s tourists aware of Australia. They hope the film will work like the Paul Hogan commercial in which he threw another shrimp on the barbie. They think an epic film like Australia can act like an advertisement.

If these tireless promoters think that people will come to visit Australia after they have seen the film Australia, I can only say that those people will be very old when they arrive. But I also have to say, with reluctance, that the movie has plainly also been made in order to impress the Yanks. Australia, says the film Australia, is even bigger than Texas. Any Americans who make the trans-Pacific trip on the strength of this movie are going to be disappointed not to find Hugh Jackman, who plays the drover, droving a herd of cattle down one of the main streets of Sydney. They stand a better chance of bumping into Nicole Kidman, who is now once again living in her home town, and probably for two main reasons. One reason could be that she finds the relative obscurity a nice change after all the Hollywood hoo-hah: rarely, in Sydney, is she trailed by more than two car-loads of paparazzi at once.

Another reason could be that Australia has got its own sense of humour, which not even the Americans can take away, re-package, and sell back. Finally, it doesn’t have to care about national identity. All that a nation needs is national pride, and it only needs that if it’s a nation. At which point it might be time to reveal that there is no such nation as Lapland. It’s just an area, some of which is in Finland. But judging from the advertisements it puts on the web, Lapland is probably the best place to meet Santa in his grotto, with proper elves. Better, anyway, than in the New Forest, where the remains of the Lapland theme park are even now being loaded onto a skip. Hoeh hoeh hoeh.


Having admired Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom so much, but his Romeo + Juliet and La Bohème a good deal less, I admired his Australia so little that I declared open season on it, and in my stage solo act I would spend a full fifteen minutes evoking its leitmotif of a hundred and fifty thousand head of cattle crossing Australia very slowly, each animal being awarded an individual close-up. The house, I felt, was with me, but later on, when I was signing books, there would be people who protested, thereby reflecting, on a small scale, the undoubted fact that, out there in the world, a lot of people, not all of them Aussies, thought that the film was marvellous. I suspect them of being the type of people who once bought sets of plastic-bound encyclopaedias on the instalment plan, but there is no point doubting the genuineness of vociferous enthusiasm. If people dance up and down when they disagree with you, they always have a belief, if not a point; and there was something about the film Australia that inspired belief. Especially among British people who had never been south of Benidorm, the movie evidently stirred dreams of mankind returning to simplicity through contact with the wide open spaces.

But the dreams that mattered were stirred in Australia itself, where some quite bright people took it for granted that the movie had played a noble part in the necessary task of establishing Australia’s identity on the international stage. The argument that there is nothing necessary at all about this task is still thought treasonable in my homeland. In the script I make fleeting reference to an example which in other forms of writing I am usually careful to elaborate much further: the example of Poland. In the period up to, during and after World War II, Poland’s national identity was deliberately torn apart from two different directions, and the chaos never really took shape again except as a totalitarian regime so repressive that the Pope, when he came to visit, was hailed as a freedom-fighter. Some of those lucky enough to survive the earlier phases of this catastrophe ended up in Australia, where they were bewildered to discover that there was a whole chorus of locally reared intellectuals bewailing Australia’s fate as an immature nation. Hailing from a nation whose maturity had killed off a large number of its inhabitants, the refugees were stunned, but usually too polite to comment.

As for the intellectuals, no amount of international recognition for Australian arts, sciences, sports and industries is enough to satisfy them, and they persist in cherishing an inferiority complex so at odds with the facts that it amounts to a psychosis. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s evident determination to cut a figure on the global stage — God help him, he thought that the United Nations was where the global stage might be situated — was one of the earliest signs that he was unfit for his post. John Howard, so despised by Rudd’s admirers, had always made it clear that he thought Australia’s ranking among nations to be sufficiently important and its Prime Ministership a sufficient honour. While he was in power, such evidence of realism was regarded by his enemies as a mere tactical distraction from his tyrannical aims. Later on, under the rule of Rudd, Howard’s enemies were obliged to think again on the topic — an obligation that only made them angrier, because, even though Howard’s faults were numerous, they preferred to believe he had been without any virtues at all.