As somebody old enough to remember British Empire Day (aka Cracker Night) in the 50s, through an uneasy transitioning to the official nationwide Australia Day public holiday in 1994, I have to admit I have never been particularly enamoured of the latter. The cultural and political significance of Empire Day was always overshadowed by community bonfires and endless backyard pyrotechnics. Any thoughts of jingoism were quickly displaced by the thrill of a double bunger dropped in a cranky neighbour’s letter box.
So when I was asked this year to join a Meetup style group, convened with the idea of ‘rediscovering’ Australia Day, I was immediately cautious. However, when the organisers had assured me that is was not a front for the Hillsong Church or the Australian Monarchist League, I was prepared (in the great Aussie tradition) to give it a go.
A disparate group of about 30 people had signed up for the ‘Meetup’ and the old ‘Sydney By Nite’ bus had been hired to ferry us around between the various Australia Day events. We had each been designated to bring a distinct item of Australiana, be it one of those sex doll like blow up kangaroos, an old Blinky Bill t-shirt or simply a plate of lamingtons. Unfortunately, I had drawn the short straw and been lumbered with the Australian flag.
Having never actually owned one, I was lucky enough to call on my Kiwi neighbours and borrow their New Zealand flag. “Nobody, will know the difference bro,” my neighbour confided and as it turned out nobody did. Rather than wrap myself in the flag Pauline Hanson style or like those hoons at a former Big Day Out, I managed to fashion it into the shape of a turban. This immediately drew cries of protest from a number of members of the group, one accusing me of a “cheap and patronising concession to multiculturalism.”
First stop for the ‘rediscovery’ bus were the free concerts at the Opera House and Darling Harbour. “Hey, they always feature the usual suspects,” I reminded some of the younger members of the group. “A lot of ‘professional’ Australians and runners up from TV talent shows, who only ever perform at these kind of events – where the hell is Joe Dolce?”
Nevertheless, despite my initial cynicism, we soon got in the spirit of the music and the endless exultations from the stage on ‘how good it was to be an Australian’ – and no doubt receive a sizeable sling for their appearance. I was starting to feel the vibe myself when one of the group, an elderly gent in his early 70s, whipped out a wobble board during a rousing version of John Williamson’s Old Man Emu. Nearby parents and their kiddies looked horrified, particularly as he bore an uncanny resemblance to Rolf Harris. Luckily he was quickly shuffled off by security and that was the last we saw of him that day.
It was time to move on and the bus soon delivered us to Hyde Park, and the at times controversial statue of James Cook. Not surprisingly there were numerous locals and tourists gathered around for various photo opps and a slightly awestruck reverence, prompted perhaps by ScoMo’s plans to blow over $50 million on various Captain Cook memorials. “So where is the statue of William Janzsoon?,” asked the only Dutch member of our group, “He first set foot on Australia, way back in 1606, long before your Captain Cook.”
“What are you, some kind of party pooper?,” interrupted one of the more conspicuously patriotic members of our group, clad in a corkscrew hat and a pair of well-worn Uggs. “Bloody foreigner, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he bleated. Other similarly inclined members of the group soon rallied to his side and I could feel the rediscovery group splitting into two distinct sides.
“How about a game of touch footy in the Domain?,” I suggested, hoping that a bit of sporting interplay might ease the growing tensions. “Bugger that, the splinter group roared at me. We’re off to catch the last few songs of Eskimo Joe at the Opera House.”
As the patriots left for the Quay and the remainder boarded the bus to take them to a sausage sizzle at Botany Bay, I decided to bail out and leave the group. Standing in front of the monolithic statue of Cook, a pair of clucky pigeons attempting to mate on his head, my thoughts flashed back to the less politicised days of the late 50s and the much loved Cracker night. How I longed for one of those two shilling sky rockets which strategically directed I could fire right up Captain Cook’s arse!