Strangers in a familiar land

Divided by a common culture

THERE ARE THINGS you miss about Australia when you live in London, but you need never want for Australian company. There’s an Australian teacher at my kids’ school. I find Australians serving coffees, working at reception desks, handling public relations, running tech start-­ups, churning out think-­tank papers, poring over spreadsheets at accounting firms, publishing books, designing buildings. They may not be in Earl’s Court or Shepherd’s Bush anymore, but they’re in Clapham, Putney, Islington, Whitechapel – all points of the London compass.

Even in the era of coronavirus – when our government and our families are urging us home, and the sense of geographical distance between Britain and the Antipodes feels greater than it has in many, many decades – there are probably more Australians living in London than there are in Darwin. It’s a source of constant bemusement to our English hosts. What are you doing here, the Brits always ask us; what’s wrong with you, choosing bleak and bleary Blighty over Australia’s eternal sunshine?

It’s a good question. Our presence in Britain is so commonplace, and so enduring, we often don’t ask it ourselves. Why are we here? Why do we come, why do we stay and what do we make of it?

I’ve been living in the UK for more than eleven years, this time around. I first turned up in the early 1990s, as a completely unready and unsuspecting eighteen-­year-­old, to spend three years at Oxford. My own journey into Anglophilia and expatriation captures something of the kaleidoscope of Australian attitudes to this confounding place, a country at once so reassuringly familiar, yet so subtly alien.


MY MATERNAL GRANDMOTHER, born in 1911, was of the Australian generation and background – North Shore Sydney, middle class, mildly Protestant – that was perhaps the last to refer to England as ‘home’, despite not having been born there or ever lived there.

She had a lovely picture book, The Story of an English Village (Macmillan, 1978), which charted the evolution of an imaginary, idealised southern English hamlet from its origins as a rustic, agrarian medieval settlement through to the somewhat benighted 1970s present. We used to leaf through it together, bathed in a mutual feeling that perhaps we belonged to that story more than our own.

She and many of her familiars regarded most aspects of Australian life – the landscape, the weather, the culture, the history – as inferior. They couldn’t visit Britain regularly – distance, time and cost were still an issue in those days – so they were like plants that yearned from their window box towards the distant sun.

Their children, including my mother, shared the inclination to England, but also had the means to get there, almost on a whim. They were a rebellious lot, coming of age in the early 1960s. For them, Britain – or London, really – represented a siren antithesis to the supposedly stifling social climate of Australia in the 1950s.

For some of them, like Clive James, it was the lure of all that art, culture and libidinous opportunity in the Old World. For others, it was fuelled by restlessness in, and revulsion towards, Australia itself – as in David Malouf’s Johnno (UQP, 1975), where ‘mediocre’ Brisbane was ‘a place where poetry could never occur’. The titular character suffers a feverish desire to escape – literally to shed his Australian skin.

Perhaps it was both push and pull. Either way, there they were, dialling up the counterculture in swinging London – Richard Neville and Martin Sharp with Oz magazine, Germaine Greer with her brash feminism, Barry Humphries raising English camp into an art form – and all of them redefining Australia’s interpersonal relationship with Britain as they instilled among the British a new familiarity with their former convict colony.

My grandmother’s generation saw England in sepia, and wanted to keep it in aspic. My mother’s generation wanted to revel in London’s flux and dynamism. My grandmother’s reverence was respectful; my mother’s affection was cousinly.

This wasn’t all that was going on around the country over those years, of course. To stick with the gross generalisations: many working-­class Australians, often of Irish descent, were chippy and dismissive of the Old Dart. Many thousands of Brits were emigrating to Australia, suffusing the picture with nostalgia for their old home mixed with a romantic, adventurous attachment to their new one. Many thousands of Europeans were arriving in Australia, with their own awkward bundles of contradictory feelings about their heritage, but a general indifference to Britain. And in many thousand an Australian breast, a sense of national pride, both patriotic and republican, was swelling.

This was my inheritance: born just after Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, but brought up still looking at England through my forebears’ rose-­tinted spectacles. My dad was Dutch, but as a new and excited emigrant to Australia, he played it down: we didn’t learn the language or visit Holland much. England was the distant terrain I explored.

When I was done with the English landscapes and mores of Winnie the Pooh, I read Rosemary Sutcliff and Susan Cooper – the children’s writers who celebrated Britain’s actual and mythic history (alongside CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien). I watched Doctor Who and The Goodies. My imaginary life, like my grandmother’s, was partly lived elsewhere.


NOBODY REALLY KNOWS how many Australians live in the United Kingdom. The official data usually puts it at around 100,000, which doesn’t count those who also have British or European Union nationality – probably at least as many again.

As an Australian diplomat in London for the decade to 2018, and now as a foreign correspondent, it’s been part of my ongoing job description to talk to Australians in Britain almost constantly. And an almost constant theme of conversation among Australians is, of course, Britain and the Brits (although mostly we’re really talking mostly about the English). A conversational trope among us is that we Australians are a sunnier, more direct, energetic, hardworking and can-­do people – which is why we often thrive in this alien soil. It’s said so often that I now feel I have no way of knowing if it’s true.

Australians often gravitate towards each other in London and occasionally exchange sentiments of reassuring self-­congratulation – because the English are, frankly, a bit baffling in close-­up. The thing is, we think we know the English: we grew up speaking the same language, watching their TV shows, reading their books, following their politics. But the longer you stay, the less you seem to know. The English have a mode of discourse and a weltanschauung that is unlike ours. In a nutshell, they really are more oblique than we are.

Of course there are straight-­talking Yorkshire folk, but – at least when sober – the average English person makes requests and offers opinions largely by inference. And they need to start any conversation with a bit of weather talk or banter. I remember once arriving with my then two-­year-­old at a friend’s party. We’d said hello but were still standing on the doorstep. Sensing a gap in the conversation, my son craned up at the sky. ‘Looks like it might rain later,’ he said. It was an early sign that I was bringing up an Englishman.

What’s more, conversation in Britain is an art or skill – particularly the art of making people laugh – and enthusiasm or directness can be embarrassing.

This is not immediately obvious, because an English person will take their cues from you, and if you’re earnest or sincere, they’ll just go along with it. But at heart, they want to toss jokes around. Once you master this and offer it back, you’ll see the relief, even delight, on their faces. Yet they’ll wear the polite mask until you do.

I learnt the ropes at Oxford, but when I returned to Sydney after three years there, I found myself coming across to my Australian friends as a bit obnoxious. Australians like a bit of banter, but the British style is indefinably different – more relentless, more competitive and often dangerously cutting.

In my job at the Australian embassy in London, I’d often take an Australian government official, visiting from Canberra, into a meeting with their British opposite number. Both sides assumed it was going to be easy, given the shared history and commonality of purpose and culture, but so often I watched as both sides got it wrong. The Australian might fail to engage in the necessary five minutes of warm-­up social chat. Or the Brit wanted to politely bat something away, but the Australian didn’t take the hint. ‘That’s an interesting idea,’ is, in Brit-­speak, ‘let’s park it somewhere and hopefully ignore it forever.’ Eventually, I pinned a notice in the office that offered a handy translation of this and other easily misunderstood anglicisms.

Beneath this tip of discursive miscues lies the iceberg of social class – the finely graded appraisals that the English make of others based on their social adroitness. Australia has it too – the whole idea of boganism is predicated on it – but, at least in my starry-­eyed view, it’s milder and not usually definitive. As Australians in Britain, we sit outside their sometimes stifling class matrix. Sort of. I have a theory, which not all Australians or Brits I’ve tested it on have wholeheartedly endorsed. It begins with a puzzle. Why do all my English friends – upper middle class, basically – have such scruffy, unloved cars? The exteriors are mud-­flecked from some camping weekend they went on six months ago. The interiors look like a looted convenience store of lolly wrappers, CD cases, clothing and coffee cups. It’s not something you can really ask anyone. So it remained a mystery until I read Kate Fox’s jaunty work of anthropological self-­examination, Watching the English (Hachette, 2004). She enumerates a whole number of small class markers that only the English see and understand. One relates to cars.

Aristocrats are so secure in their position that they are often uncaring about appearances. When not out in the fancy Bentley, they tend to drive muddy, scruffy Land Rovers – practical for use on the estate. The upper middle class unconsciously aspires to the aristocracy, so they compulsively ape this behaviour. If a car does need washing, a middle-­class person might take it to the carwash. It’s only the lower orders who would be so infra dig as to take their cars out onto their driveways on a Sunday and lovingly sponge them. Australians, though – even CEOs in Mosman or Toorak – often relish a good session on the driveway with the hose.

It’s my theory that, in calling a settee a sofa and a napkin a serviette, in washing our cars, in speaking too directly, we mark ourselves out, collectively, as working class. This is why the English like to think of Australians as uncouth or uncultured; this is why they lap up Barry McKenzie, Crocodile Dundee and David Warner – it confirms the class status we’ve unwittingly taken upon ourselves.

So after a decade of living in England I’ve come to feel that Australia is far less English, or British, than we Aussies typically tend to assume. We don’t intuitively grasp the social codes and customs that govern this society. My grandmother, my mother and I predicated our Anglophilia on an illusion; we were strangers in a familiar land.


IT’S THIS ILLUSION, this imagined England, that lies behind many an Australian view of the great British issue of our time: Brexit.

Australian opinions on Brexit actually did, and do, matter. Britain, unusually, allows citizens of Commonwealth countries who reside in the United Kingdom to vote in its elections – which meant that those 100,000-­plus Australians were eligible to tick a box in the Brexit referendum of 2016.

This wasn’t lost on either the Leave or Remain camp, both of whom, in the run-­up to the referendum on 23 June that year, asked the Australian High Commission if we had a list of Australians on the UK electoral register. We didn’t. All we had to go on was anecdote and educated guesses about what the Australian community in London was thinking.

My impression was that those Australians who were living in Britain on European Union passports – of which I was one – were unsurprisingly opposed to Brexit, whether for reasons of self-­interest or principle, or both. Those who worked in finance were mostly also opposed, again for both reasons.

But it wasn’t hard to find Australians who supported Brexit. In many cases, they cleaved to that old Anglophilia, the inherited tradition from my grandmother’s generation. They felt Britain’s membership of the European Union had been bad for Australia and had undermined those longstanding ties. A Tasmanian reminisced bitterly to me over lunch about the destruction of the Huon Valley apple orchards in the wake of Britain joining the European Economic Community. A bilateral free-­trade deal would restore those lost relations, she hoped. A Melburnian businessman said he wanted to see Britain break away from the red and green tape that was increasingly spinning out of the European machine. Many Australian diplomats lamented the loss of a trusted partner who could promote our interests inside the European Union – yet hoped a post-­Brexit Britain would lift its gaze to the Indo-­Pacific and flex its muscles in ways that might be even more beneficial to Australia than swinging the occasional favour in the corridors of Brussels.

But the most common thing we heard at Australia House was that Aussies wanted to feel like they mattered to Britain again. The semiotic totem of this was the passport queue at Heathrow. Why were Australians, the Brits’ kindred spirits from the Antipodes, shunted into a queue with everyone from Azerbaijan to Zambia, when Bulgarians and Slovaks could cruise through the EU lanes unhindered? Why was it so hard for an Australian teacher or nurse to get a visa, when a Polish plumber or Latvian turnip-­picker could turn up and sign on? Who’d actually fought all those wars with the Brits?

‘I’d hope [Brexit] leads to a greater chance of free movement between our countries,’ twenty-­seven-­year-­old Oxford resident Rohan Watt told my Sydney Morning Herald colleague Latika Bourke before the election last December. He was voting Tory to ‘get Brexit done’, as Boris Johnson’s slogan had it.

This was a common refrain among the Conservative voters in Bourke’s sample of Australian voters, and also among those I met. Yet she also picked out an equal number of anti-­Brexit Australians, whose left-­leaning principles informed their dim view of the country leaving the European Union.


I WAS THE first Australian official to use the word ‘Brexit’ (coined by political advisor and solicitor Peter Wilding in 2012) in a diplomatic cable in January 2013 – more than three years before the vote took place. I can’t remember what prompted me to use this phrase, but I do remember that I never once wrote a cable predicting that Britain would – or even might – vote to leave the European Union.

On the night itself, I’d gone to bed early, assuming ‘Remain’ would win – and woke at 5.30 am to the news of ‘Leave’s’ success. Stunned, I walked out my front door, not with any conscious purpose, but perhaps just to see if, after such a perception-­shattering shock, the world was still physically as I’d left it. I found my English neighbour standing outside his front door as well, in equal disbelief.

But I must have had some inkling. About two years beforehand, I’d become eligible for British citizenship. It was expensive, and there was a citizenship test to pass, but I thought I’d better go for it – just in case my Dutch passport became less useful at some stage.

In early 2015, I went to a citizenship ceremony to collect my certificate and become formally inducted as British. We were told not to be late, or we’d have to rebook at great inconvenience and delay. But after we arrived, something like half an hour passed while we all stood around drinking tea and eating cake to a backing soundtrack of Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ and Vaughan Williams’s ‘A Pastoral Symphony’.

Finally an official entered. ‘This is how we do things in England,’ she told us brightly. ‘A cup of tea before we get down to business.’

This is not how we do things in Australia.

Emerging back onto London’s streets that morning, I felt somehow different. I had been formally told I belonged. I was far more moved than I’d expected to be – this English Other, this strange ulterior universe in which my grandmother had imagined she resided and through which my mother had frolicked – was now a part of who I was.

But what sort of place was this, this country and idea to which I now belonged? And what sort of country is it now, in 2020?

Right now, nobody is really quite certain. Brexit has ripped up the old sureties. All the country’s constituent parts – Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales – are reappraising themselves. This country was known for its temperate, conservative and phlegmatic character – a bit of eccentricity, yes, but a nation of shopkeepers and all that. After three years of Brexit bitterness and division, what now?

The famous British humour is often more hard-­edged. The debate is often more shrill. The formality or reserve can be as much truculent as polite. Contemplating Britain on the world stage, some see the return of a self-­respecting British bulldog, others a benign liberal-­internationalist exemplar, others still the dismaying sight of an insular enclave of ruddy-­faced Little Englanders.

If the British themselves are no longer sure of their place in the world, how are we Australians supposed to relate to that? Perhaps this explains many Australians’ fascination with Brexit: we are seeing something we recognise transform before our eyes into something we don’t.

That said, perhaps that degree of rubber-­necked interest – evident from the click rates on my Brexit articles for The Australian Financial Review last year – belies a sense in which we care less than we used to. The sources of Australian-ness are now so eclectic. The cultural influences are so diverse. The familial connections are fading.

Maybe Australia will never have another prime minister with a Rhodes Scholarship behind them. Maybe many of the young Australians flocking to London will be more interested in the availability of private equity funding for their tech venture than in steeping themselves in an Australian ur-­culture.

Australia and Australians will always have an outsized, particularistic presence in Britain, and vice versa. Like cousins who grew up together, we’ll retain the easy familiarity – misconstrued though it often is – even as an inevitable distancing takes place.

If there’s still a silver lining to Brexit for Australians, it’s this. As I’ve suggested, we’ve always understood each other less than we have liked to think. Australians have never been as akin to the English as we imagined and are becoming less so.

Perversely, perhaps, Brexit has made this clearer. Our confusion and disorientation in the face of Brexit, our divisions over it, have helped us see more clearly that the Anglo-­orientation of previous generations is a historical relic.

Brexit can refashion Australia’s relations with Britain – just not at all in the way the backward-­facing Brexiteers of this world might have fancied. It won’t restore what we no longer have; but if it sharpens our sense that we are in fact distinct and different, it may actually make for a healthier and happier bond.

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