Sunday, March 11, 2007

Heavy Metal Bonfire

Well, that was fun. Ten days of alternately subathing, flying, and trying to amuse laconic Australian bankers through a haze of jet lag. I have to say, though, I found the big lumpy continent a rather relaxing, and less crass, version of Disneyland, all sun and amusement and sooper pleasant locals. Probably the grumpiest person I met the whole time was the ticket agent on my departing flight.

Now you could highlight the weird state of the country's television market, the three types of rugby and the absence of coloured faces as evidence of a deeper malaise. And I went over fully expecting to come to blows with antipodeans over their brash nature. Not a bit of it - this is a society that works, for better or ill, through the energy of short, blonde, cheerful, female, teenagers.

There's something, though, a little disquieting about the Australian habit not only of fetishising informality, which is probably much less jarring to an American as to an Englander, but also of enshrining nicknames in official speech, what this academic calls "an immoderate use of pseaudonyms". Thus the nickname for a Working Man''s Club - Workie - becomeI s its formal name. There is a better example, of a government form that is now known formally by its nickname, but I can't for the life of me remember its name (actually, I think it's the Rego).

The other thing that's annoying about Australia is the prime minister, John Howard, this oily lugubrious pompous character, whose penchant for waistcoats is the least, yet most telling, of his failings. I was observing him flinging mud at the opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, who has been in a spot of ethical ethical bother of late.

I'm not exactly sure how he's managed to stay in office for 12 years, because he really doesn't come over as an appealing person. There are several reasons for his longevity - the uselessness of his Labor opponents, a dab hand with racially-charged rhetoric, that crazy nativist lady - but at the top of it is probably Howard's ability to position himself as a plan speaking type.

And here's my own theory for his resilience. It's that Australians sometimes conflate plain speaking and honesty. After a few days of meetings, particularly those where reading between the lines is important, I've noticed that they're not the same thing. A bold, slangy, even blunt statement, is not always conveying useful information. If you notice a slight preponderance of "mays" and "sometimes" and so forth, its because I'm not certain of my conclusions. But then that's what clarity demands.

Normal service, with luck, resuming soon. Hopefully without any more of that maudlin jazzing from the British Airways lounge at JFK.


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