Wednesday, August 29, 2007

'Mateship' and the Australian way of life

'Mateship' and the Australian way of life Patrick Barkham
Tuesday August 28, 2007


Poor old Poms. Record numbers of us are desperate to emigrate to Australia but now John Howard, the prime minister, has slammed the door shut on a tantalising life of beach barbecues and cold beer. The country's new citizenship test requires that migrants hoping to move Down Under must understand "mateship".

We may have a hazy idea that being a "mate" is sharing a slab of stubbies (bottled beers to you) with burly Australians as they throw another prawn on the barbie but, in reality, almost none of the 71,000 Britons who emigrated there in 2004 and 2005 has the foggiest idea about this scary, manly-sounding concept.

Two days after I moved to Sydney for a couple of years, the telecoms engineer came to fix my phone. He soon realised I was new in town. "Do you like clubbing?" he asked. "Here's my mobile number - come out with me and my mates." Er, thanks, I replied, my mind spinning. Was this a date? Was he a drug dealer? What was his ulterior motive?

The next day, I went jogging. My neighbour, a bloke about 10 years older than me, was going on a run too. "G'day mate. I'll take you on a route to the park," he said. During our 30-minute run, I mainly pondered the question: what's his agenda?

A week later I called a photographer I'd never met to ask if he could take a portrait for a story. Halfway through our professional exchange he asked: "How old are you, mate?" He was a year older. "How about we go for a picnic next Sunday?" Baffled, I accepted his invitation and Adam became my best friend in Australia.

Mateship can be ridiculed as a cliquey, stereotypical tradition of Australianness only available to white men. But it's exactly the opposite: it is rooted in ordinary Australians' still strong sense of fair play and warm welcoming of newcomers, whatever their background.

Poms who don't whinge, don't take themselves too seriously and don't seek out the comfort of other Poms can master mateship in Australia. But mostly, it's about discarding distrust and accepting that while its government may not like most immigrants, Australia's citizens are usually far more welcoming.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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