Sunday, September 23, 2012

Australians lack culture

I don’t remember when the word ‘pride’ came into it.  I only know it started when I was young.  We were a proud family, or so we had been told, proud of our European heritage, proud of the fact that although we had no money, we were well equipped with books and beautiful objects from Holland.

Pride began with my mother's family.

The order, the neatness, the sense of it all.  She gave it away to follow my father for a better life in Australia.   But my mother kept hold of her pride.

We were different from the other mainly Australian families in our neighborhood.  They spent their weekends mowing their lawns and gossiping to one another over back fences while we took family drives after Mass to Gembrook, the Maroondah Dam, even as far as Eildon. 

Most of all we were proud to be Catholics.  We came from the one true faith and were destined for great things as long as we upheld the traditions of our religion.  

When Vatican Two came along and the nuns stopped wearing their habits, my mother was not surprised.  The nuns cast off their wimples and shortened their skirts.  They adopted their baptismal names instead of the ones they had chosen from among the saints, many of which were masculine names, when they took their vows.  The priest on Sunday began to read the sermon in English instead of Latin and my older sister introduced guitars and folk singing into the church choir.  

This is how it should be, my mother said.  In Holland, the Catholic church is ahead of its time.  Holland is a country ahead of its time, but Australians lack culture.

This word 'culture' made little sense to me then.  I associated it with art, the paintings of naked men and women in my father's books, which I pored through secretly, hot and tingly, stirred up with feelings I could not understand.   

I associated the word culture with all things from over the seas.  I associated it with the workmen on building sites who wolf whistled as my sisters and I in our teens walked past.  

These workmen I knew were foreign.  They came mainly from the Mediterranean, from Greece and Italy, inferior places I believed then, given the way the nuns spoke to the dark haired girls in my class at school, but nevertheless these workmen came with an open appreciation of young women, of beauty I imagined, and of this fearful thing called sex.

I found culture therefore to be an embarrassing thing, something my mother esteemed and yet at the same time, even she blushed when the workers wolf whistled.  

Surely they did not whistle at her.  Not then I thought, not after all those years, not after so many babies when she had grown stout and stolid in her appearance.  When the only day she bothered to dress up was on Sunday, though every week day she streaked red lipstick across her lips in honour of my father's return home from work in the evening.

My hearts not in the memories today.  I’m tired,  jaded, not enough sleep, too much wine with dinner and then later sitting up and waiting till two in the morning for my daughter who left home at 10.30 pm for an evening on the town and then could not find a cab to take her home given all the other young people in the city were looking for one, too.  The waiting up and worrying.  And my mind is addled with the effort. 

While I waited I watched Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and cringed all the way through.  These were the attitudes that prevailed when I was young.  Women as blond bimbos after rich men.  Granted it is a film built on artifice and yet there is something in those attitudes that stick.  

Yesterday, I read Anne Summers extraordinary piece about the way our female prime minister is portrayed in the media, the way she is vilified. All politicians are berated in this way, you might say, but our prime minister's gender is used against her in extraordinary and abusive ways that border on bullying.   

She is childless by choice.  She is in a relationship with a hairdresser but is not married.  She is irreligious and does not fit the norm.  There are many who despise our prime minister for this, women as well as men, though mostly men it seems, particularly among the political class who find it hard to take orders from a woman.    

It made me wonder how much has changed.  


River said...

I've always thought "Culture" meant appreciating things like literature and (incomprehensible) poetry instead of just reading and books; "artworks" instead of paintings, classical music that went on for hours instead of just music and songs.
If that's what culture is, I'm glad I don't have any. I don't fit in with the "Hoi Poloi", I'm quite happy being part of the Riff-Raff.

Elizabeth said...

My mother spent an inordinate amount of time today with me on the phone, exclaiming how ugly Hilary Clinton's hair was and how she couldn't understand why someone didn't style it for her. It made me ill, but I politely listened.

Andrew said...

A few weeks ago I wrote about how people are being so nasty to our PM, without respect for the institution. The PM of Australia surely deserves some respect.

Btw, is Julia childless by choice? Not that it matters, but I have never heard she was or wasn't.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glasgow was the European City of Culture in 1990. The only other British city was Liverpool in 2008 and it’ll be 2023 before the UK’ll get another crack at the whip. I remember it well. Actually what I remember is feeling uncomfortable with the term and I still am. If Glasgow was cultured it was with a capital k. Cultured is refined and no one in Glasgow is refined; we’re raw and in your face. The arts thrive in Glasgow every bit as much as Edinburgh and it embarrasses me that I’ve never taken advantage of all the opportunities to experience live theatre and concerts. Even when Carrie was healthy we only went to a handful of plays (all either Beckett or Shakespeare) and a couple of concerts (one orchestral, one rock).

I am cultured—everyone is in their own way—but I hate pretentious snobs and I’ve no time for people who put on airs and graces and make a big deal about what they know around people who clearly have no idea what they’re on about. At school it pleased me that I had friends across the social strata and I always try to get on with everyone. I can’t pretend I’m not intelligent but that doesn’t mean I know everything about everything. No one does.

My parents were common folk. They started off with nothing. Well, I’ve been there and know what that’s like. It’s why I appreciate authors like William McIlvanney and Jeanette Winterson who, despite their successes, have never forgotten where they came from. Although I never went to uni—and a part of me wishes I had—I’m pleased that I’ve managed to achieve as much as I have under my own steam. I’m proud of my achievements. Pride is a feeling I struggle with even when I have reason to be proud. It comes before a fall. It’s much easier to be proud of other people and although I cringe when I learn that others are proud of me that seems to my mind the way it should work; you can’t (and shouldn’t try to) pat your own back.

(I’ve reread that last paragraph several times and I find myself wanting to rewrite that sentence—I’m proud of my achievements—to incorporate a double negative—I’m not unproud of my achievements—as that reads as less prideful even if it is grammatically a bit dodgy.)

I’ve just read a book on Mormonism where the author talks about how she felt being brought up in “the one true faith” and now you’ve written the same and that’s what I was brought up to believe too. That kind of attitude can lead to feelings of superiority and I suppose I did feel like that: We get it and yous don’t. When I was young I have to confess I did get a bit of a kick out of knowing stuff others didn’t. Not sure where all that got turned around in my head but I’m glad it did.

Anthony Duce said...

This is very good. I remember as a Canadian living in the States listening to my parents and believing as Canadians we had more culture then our neighbors in the States. It’s funny how finding what is different about us can so easily used to create a more desirable image over those around us.

Rubye Jack said...

I don't like taking orders from women either and often wonder if it's because of issues with my mother or because of cultural issues that make us feel women are less than men. Regardless, I greatly admire women like Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and see them as role models. I think I could take orders from the Clinton women. Maybe.

Ms Sparrow said...

To many people, anything that is outside of their traditional norm violates their sense of order. A woman leader is therefore "disorderly" and must be put in her place!

Anonymous said...

A second comment: a site I looked straight after reading and posting a comment. Talking of culture and what it means; art-making, history, etc. Kindly have a look at an artwork by Willem Boshoff at An astonishing work and an astonishing and inspiring document about the work.

Kirk said...

Conformity never changes. We just find new things to conform to.

Laoch of Chicago said...

Sadly, I think that human nature has not changed much over the millennia. Yeats once wrote,

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

I hope that people will come to treat each other better and that women will obtain parity, but the forces of darkness are relentless and ubiquitous.

Elisabeth said...

The riff raff and the hoi poloi, River, such different species. It's interesting that your take on culture was for the high brow, whereas mine has the ring of something perhaps more closely related to the riff raff - those wolf whistling workers.

Thanks, River.

Elisabeth said...

We defer to our seniors, Elizabeth, out of respect I suppose, even when their conversation can seem vacuous. I wonder what it'll be like when I'm ninety three, if I get there that is.

Thanks, Elizabeth.

Elisabeth said...

You're right to speculate, Andrew. I don't know whether our PM is childless by choice or circumstance. It's something I read, however true or otherwise. It's so easy to disparage those whom we should respect at a level. Politician bashing is fashionable these days.

Thanks, Andrew.

Linda Sue said...

WOW I SO get this post- my mother was the same way...all British and proper in a cowboy town in the middle of nowhere Wyoming...I think that underneath it all nothing much has changed- the wimmin folk are not yet thought of as valid- how could they be- it is still a Man's world.

Elisabeth said...

I've been slow to respond, Jim. Sorry. All week long I have been preoccupied with the disappearance here in Melbourne of a 29 year old woman who disappeared last Friday night without trace. Finally the police yesterday arrested a 41 year old man they now suspect of her rape and murder. This young woman had the world ahead of her. She was beautiful and talented and much loved by her husband of four years and by her colleagues at the ABC here.

For some reason her disappearance has attracted worldwide attention. She was an Irish national to begin with but also she disappeared from a busy main road, albeit late at night. There's talk now of reclaiming the night.

I can be very moderate in my response to situations like these including to the attackers who no doubt at some level are victims themselves however much they behave abominably. Lord knows what provokes a man to rape and murder a young woman with whom he has no acquaintance. I know something of the theory but I cannot countenance the mind of such a man. I find myself hating him for what he has done.

In any case it connects in some ways to my childhood confusion and fantasies about culture.

I can't say much more to that now because my mind is so preoccupied, other than to reflect my sense of something shared in my fantasy at least between the Irish and the Scots. No doubt to you they are utterly different. To me they have a similarity that pleases - the lilt in the accent and the way they are breakaways from Britain. And Britain once colonised australia. My history and my fantasy all get jumbled up at moments like this.

Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

You're so right, Anthony. We can use our nationalistic fervor and/or our religious prejudices to assume superiority over other people and groups. A dangerous and illusory thing to do, but tempting. It can make us feel better about ourselves. These days I try not to indulge in such superior/inferior imaginings but when I was a child it came more easily.

Thanks, Anthony.

Elisabeth said...

It can be hard to take orders from anyone, Rubye Jack but I suspect it's easier to be told what to do by someone you respect and admire. You want to cooperate with such people. It's hard to take orders from people you despise.

Thanks, Rubye Jack.

Elisabeth said...

It's sad isn't it, Ms Sparrow, that a woman leader should be seen as disorderly, but we need to get used to it. Hopefully the future offers the promise of many more women as leaders.

Thanks, Ms Sparrow.

Elisabeth said...

I took a look at Willem Boshof's work, Pviljoen. Thanks for the link. Traces of culture indeed. It is amazing how people/artists can translate what's meaningful in aesthetic forms that have the power to endure and shape/misshape our image of ourselves.

Thanks, Pviljoen.

Elisabeth said...

We conform in ways we do not often recognise, Kirk but seem always to recognise our attempts at non-conformity. They seem to scream out at us.

Thanks, Kirk.

Elisabeth said...

'the forces of darkness are relentless and ubiquitous'.

I read your words, Laoch, and think how right you are. Earlier I wrote to Jim -see above - about the death of a young woman here in our town. She was raped and murdered by a complete stranger. He stopped her life for some crazed reason of his own. And we are all grieving.

For me, gender politics and culture pale to insignificance in the face of this.

Thanks, Laoch.

Elisabeth said...

It's still 'a man's world', Linda Sue and yet in places we are making a few inroads, though ever so slowly.

It must have been hard for your mother in the middle of Wyoming. But presumably, among other things, she had you and look how you are now, a bright blogger who cares less about the British rules and more aboutt the living.

Thanks, Linda Sue.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

Culture to me means a way of life within a chosen society or religious group and there can be levels.There are family cultures. There are city cultures . There are provincial cultures. Cultures are made op of many things and they have many variations.
comparing them makes life interesting. Judging one as better over another leads to hurt feeling and has no useful value.
I am lucky to live in a word of so many cultures.

Anonymous said...