Thursday, September 01, 2005

Oh brutha

Gah. I knew this would happen. That blasted "mate" business in parliament. By now, the episode will have leaked out to overseas bloggers who will all have their innocent misconceptions about Australia reinforced, ie Australians are mostly descended from diggers and all live in little dry towns with no rain and cover their heads with corked hats and once a year ruminate over Ned Kelly, and call each other "mate" a lot.

The Truth About Australians: we do not call each other "mate" a lot. Not in the city, not in the country, and not within the three mile perimeter of "our" shore.

When you do hear "mate" over here it is in contrast to "our" (will discuss how Australian I feel further down) in contrast to our reputation for being all beery and "matey". It is most often used in instances which do not have much to do with being mates at all.

F'rxample.

Times when an Australian is most likely to hear or use the word mate:

  • When someone has done something stupid: "Ooh MATE" someone will say, and then laugh very loudly. (This is when you learn who your real friends are. Not).
  • When teens are speaking that backtofront language that means the opposite of what it means to everynormal one else and everything they say looks sarcastic "mATe".
  • When grownup teens are reliving their carefree teenhood angst, and making fun of the Australia that is not: "mate giv's a tinny, ta darl". This is somewhat subversive useage and a play on mythmaking with other peoples legends. Noting that "legend" is used in a similar manner too. "Legend!" one might say of something extremely ordinary, and dull.
  • As an insult "thanks MATE" accompanied by hand gesture (one of several). Note "thanks" means the opposite as well, as in teen use.
  • When someone else (usually a New Zealander) is making fun of Australians, and sez it in a wrong accent.

The laughable bit is that most Aus pollys (politicians) are so far removed from language outside of parliament that it's, almost, as if they refer to decades old volumes to find out "how to appeal to the people" and being slower then Dana and Mulder in repeat have not caughtup with generation X yet who write quite a bit and are getting ready to enter the retirement bracket in another thirty years or so and have "moved on" from the akubra set. So you can see how some ministers miss out on the subtleties. Sarcasm is utterly lost on them, while their jokes about eating cake are never lost on us. And this is why they address visiting foreign dignitaries "mate", to impress, while serving roo steaks (Howard says he calls Bush mate all the time).

Which brings me to the other Australia. The bush Australia, which really is shrimp shrubs and has almost nothing to do with the US except where various military tests have taken (are taking?) place. The hidden Australia, which faces it's unforgivable history anyway and is not afraid to speak with it's past in small ways, not afraid and not hiding it's head in other tamer variants. Where blackfella and whitefella are used by indigenous and non alike and mean more then "mateship" ever could in a land torn apart by home grown apartheid and the "white Australia" policy. These words are used by few but when they are, they are used with a certain awareness and with a sort of, well, with a sort of fellaship really. A sort of togetherness in spite of the segregation that tore parents hearts and mothers eyes out. "Mate" sounds hollow in comparison, a throwover. A phrase to hide mistakes with.

Suffice it too say, I never say "mate". And I think the two worst words in parliamentary lexicon are "mateship" (of which they show very little) and "larrikin" (which parliamentarians use as an excuse for pinching bottoms and gesticulating at each other but will not appreciate in fine young men who climb all the way up to the top off the Opera house with decorative tile paint).

For years, whenever I saw "mate" in writing I couldn't help but pronounce it in my mind "mahteh". Oh sure context tells what it's supposed to sound like, but when you have no place in particular and are born one zone, grow up another, move around, go to the city in your teens, chase your fleeting dreams all over the show and then end up back where you were born, you accumulate a whole lot of stuff and other meanings which don't fit into any particular "culture". Even when you stay static, your thoughts travel and mark you as different. So for example, where I grew up "mate" means "death" "kill" and "blood" (including menstrual and abortive) and any number off illnesses, including "AIDS" and "cancer". It is pronounced with a long(ish to medium) "a" and a short "e", unlike the "mate" Howard addresses Bush with which appears exactly the same way written down but is pronounced as in wait, late, skate, fate and eight, and according to anzac's reinvention means "comrade" or something like it.

I don't know, was a kinship for all things "matey" lost on me somehow. Was there a guidebook that I never read, telling immigrants and returned citizens how to integrate. Did it have "mate" in there? Along with how to conserve water and only flush the toilet once a day in the dry season?

Long'n short ofit, not only have Australia's government's politicians decided that a disgust for war is unpatriotic, they have decided also (also, another one of those incongruent word uses that doesn't "fit" anywhere but places a big tick over the "wog parents" box) that an aversion to "mate" as per stereotypical anglonised version, is "Un Australian". So where does this leave me? I never could stand the phrase, but I was born here, I feel a deep connection that I can't put into words with the gritty pavements (I think it's related to childhood memories when your nose is closer to the ground) and the dry grass and the nine month long summers and the smell of burning tarmac with fat rain landing on it and smoke stained skies and clear clear clear, skies, and eucalypt bushburning in the dry fire season on the city fringe. I don't love Australia. It is in my bones, or my bones are in it, and that is as it should be.

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