Being British in Australia; no joking matter

Arthur or Martha? © Sara Campbell 2015
Arthur or Martha?
© Sara Campbell 2015

What happens when a planeload of Poms lands at Sydney airport? What I’ve always found intriguing about this Australian joke is that it only seems to have one punch line: When the engines stop, you can still hear the whining. It’s a model joke: Concise, based on a neat double meaning, and it delivers an ethnic slur with devastatingly effective understatement. Even better, it isn’t offensive. You can quickly test this proposition at your next dinner party: Replace ‘Pom’ with ‘ Chinese’ and watch the eyebrows shoot up in alarm and confusion.

I was prompted to think about this by a Guardian article[1] that proposes that British jokes about Australians are more to do with the Poms’ attitudes towards their own class system than about Australia itself. But back to my airport joke: The reason that this potentially productive joke stem only has one ending may be that British Australians (as opposed to British visitors) occupy an indistinct zone in the Australian ethnic spectrum, and putting aside the standard stereotypes about whinging and personal hygiene, aren’t particularly joke worthy.

I felt a twinge of doubt when I threw in the term ‘ethnic slur’ just now. I’ve lived permanently in Australia since 1977, or for more than half of my life, and I’ve never been described as belonging to an ethnic group in the way that Armenians, Thais and Somalis might be categorised. So, what kind of insult is it that the Poms are supposed to suffer if the airport joke isn’t an ethnic one? I’ll come back to that in a moment, but I’ll firstly make some remarks on the nature of being a British Australian … or is it an Australian Brit?

The essence of being British in Britain is the negotiation of social diversity along class and geographical lines. Like exotic beetles, the Brits develop – metaphorically speaking – huge antennae, which they wave around when they meet a new acquaintance, sniffing for clues about where this person was born, where they are in the pecking order, and what they are worth. To complicate things, the class signalling system has been subverted over the decades, so that the British are happy to accept the irony of concert pianists who sound like scrap metal dealers. Britain revels in all of this, egged on by a comedy industry that is supercharged by the exploitation of class differences.

Fresh Poms arrive in Australia with antennae flapping, but can’t tune into the signals. The huge things are as much use as an extra pair of nipples, and they soon shrivel. Adrift, the recent arrivals resort to crude judgments linked to their memories of Britain; when I arrived in 1977 I soon decided that Australians were very much like people from British council estates – just about the most damning class slur available to someone whose childhood was spent in such places. Homesick and disoriented, I immersed myself in the novels of Thomas Hardy for a few months, bathing my violated sensibilities in the bucolic balm of an invented rural England. I was saved by Australian literature; authors like David Ireland, Hal Porter and Patrick White helped me draw the social blueprint of my new home. At the same time I was writing the grammar of an Aboriginal language for a Masters thesis at the Australian National University, getting the first real clues about another way of seeing Australia. Like my fellow migrants I was gradually absorbed into the land of Arthur and Martha that is Australian Britishness.

So back to that joke. It’s obvious that a British ethnicity in Australia is difficult to pin down: A common language softens the definitional edges; millions of Australians have British forebears just a  generation or two away; the UK is still on the pilgrimage route for Australian travellers; and the ABC often seems to function as a southern branch office of the UK TV drama industry. There isn’t really a clear ethnic target at all, so there’s no incentive to make jokes.

I’m inclined to think that the airport joke survives simply because it’s very well-constructed and therefore worth retelling. I spent some time trying to create some alternative punch lines such as ‘The soap factory goes onto overtime’ and  ‘Australia’s average IQ goes down ten points’.

You’re right – they are lame, and you might also agree that they look much more like ethnic slurs than the original, because of course they could be applied to any ethnic group. There’s a fondness about the whining joke, a self-deprecating acceptance of British cultural roots, an irony in the joke’s lack of sting.

Now I wonder what colour socks go with these sandals?

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/08/what-british-jokes-australians-mean . Downloaded 29 May 2014.

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7 thoughts on “Being British in Australia; no joking matter”

  1. Wonderful post, deep and thoughtful. The joke is funny too.
    Here’s my Aussie joke. Ahem:

    Q: What’s the difference between Australia and yoghurt?
    A: Yoghurt is a live culture!

    Boom, boom.

  2. I live in Canada, a country with historical tendrils reaching into Britain and France, major influences from First Nations peoples and always the tug to the ways of our cross-border behemoth – the USA.. I have never had the opportunity to travel to the UK or Australia but I’ve read many novels by UK and Aussie authors. I’m often struck by differences in language usage, attitudes and so many little things. As you point out in your post, Stuart – and we are speak (supposedly) the same language. Fascinating. Great post.

    1. Yep, there’s a lot in common between Canada and Australia. I visited Toronto some years ago and it seemed like a dislocated Melbourne in so many ways.

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