Jaysus! Is it really December? Sometimes it has felt like the year of our lord 2020 – with its fire, flood and plague – might never end. But soon it’ll be Christmas, then New Years and, before you know it, you’ll be celebrating Australia Day. After 52 years I still don’t know how to feel about Australia Day. If it’s a call to display national pride, I’m not sure why we bother. I was born here; certainly not something I’m ‘proud’ of, because I had no choice nor played any meaningful role in the matter. Being proud to be Australian seems about as rational to me as being proud to have brown hair. It just happened. Same goes for migrants who swell with newfound national pride: I can’t imagine myself being proud to have moved to Sweden or New Zealand, as pleasant as they may seem.
Do I feel fortunate to be Australian? Yes. Proud? No.
But if others want to beat their chests, wave the flag, listen to John Farnham’s Greatest Hits, paint their faces green and gold, eat lamb and shout, “Oi! Oi! Oi!” as they do bombs in the pool, I say, “Have a blast! Rejoice! Knock yourselves out!” I just won’t be joining in. It’s not that I’m anti-Australia Day, I’m just a bit bemused by it.
I mentioned this to a mate a few years back and he said my attitude was un-Australian. I asked him what he meant by un-Australian and he struggled to give a cogent answer. “It just…yeah! It’s just un-Australian, mate!”
I’ve thought about the term a lot since John Howard took office in ’96. ‘Un-Australian’ got a good flogging in the years after Honest John took a big step to the right to soak up all those votes that looked like they might migrate to One Nation following Pauline’s first maiden speech.
I’ve heard ‘un-Australian’ used clumsily and stupidly in politics and pubs to denigrate, divide and attack people and ideas. It’s such a hollow, pointless put-down it has virtually no meaning to me. Except…
Except for the very first time I heard the term. Even today it remains, for me, the most perfect example of its proper meaning. It made immediate sense and has served as a lifelong compass for how I treat my neighbours. It was first spoken to me by my dad around 1982 while I was mowing the lawn.
Like a lot of Aussies in the ’burbs, we shared with our neighbours a common stretch of council-owned grass – aka ‘the nature strip’ – between our respective driveways. Our nature strip was about the size of an NRL in-goal area and a right pain in the arse to mow.
So there I was, 14 or so, doing my chores. I mowed the backyard, then the front yard, and then I had to pull the hefty machine up our steep driveway to mow the nature strip. It was one of those wet, hot, humid summers that made the grass grow like a bastard and I’d already emptied about 10 catchers full of ankle-high grass clippings. I was buggered and over it. I mowed the nature strip, but only up to the invisible line that marked the division of our place and the neighbours’ property. Our side of the street frontage was Victa neat while theirs looked comparatively shaggy and decidedly crap.
“All done champ?” my dad asked as I staggered back inside the house for a cold glass of Cottee’s lime cordial.
“Yep,” I gasped.
“Good onya,” dad said. “Here’s yer two bucks.”
About half an hour later, the old man went to the shops and when he pulled back into the driveway he saw I’d only mowed our side of the nature strip.
“Come ’ere,” he grumbled, ordering me back outside. Out on the nature strip he jerked a thumb at my handiwork.
“Mate, you know what that is?” he asked.
“It’s un-Australian! Go get the mower and finish the other side. And gimme that two bucks back.”
Ever since that day, at a dozen homes I’ve rented – and now at the place the bank is letting me stay in – I have mowed every single nature strip I have shared with a neighbour. I’ve taken as much care of their side with the whipper snipper as mine and even swept clippings off their driveways.
Conversely, I once rented a place that shared a nature strip that was honestly about the size of a billiard table. The week after I moved in, the people next door mowed their side and left mine long. It was a mound and looked like the crown of a big, green, half-shaved head. Un-Australian.
So if you happen to be mowing the lawn on Australia Day next month, you know what to do.