‘Australian culture’ – two simple words that attract a lot of ridicule overseas. But are we really as culture-starved as other countries believe? EMILY MELLER reflects on bad jokes and our national inferiority complex.

“What’s the difference between Australia and a tub of yoh-gurt?”

I was having a blood test and the Englishman sticking a needle in my arm thought it was a good time to test out some new material. He had been living in Australia for ten years but told me with some pride he had almost completely lost his accent.

“If you left a tub of yoh-gurt out in the sun for fifty thousand years, it would at least grow some culture!”

I looked at him, confused. I pretended to think for a minute, count something on my fingers.

“Oh, you mean YO-gert,” I said. “Mate.”

The rest of our interaction was silent and I was not offered the usual lollipop. Mine was a cheap shot, sure, but he had chosen a highly sensitive test subject: a communications student who hopes to make some semblance of a living out of our apparently invisible culture. Maybe the joke is on me.

Somehow, I don’t think so. After all, 6.9% of our GDP was generated by the creative industries, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in its 2008-09 analysis. While most of that comes from design and fashion, the third biggest sector is the literature and publishing industries, which contributed $13 billion to the GDP that year. But ask anyone working in the magazine business, and there is not much money to be found. In a recession, the last thing that will gain political capital is ‘wasteful spending’. How did our cultural industries end up in that category?

Having lived in Glasgow for six months, I can also say with certainty that there is something very different about Australian urban life. Whether it’s the cold or a love of drinking, one thing you’d rarely see in the United Kingdom was an empty pub. Said pub would also be more than likely hosting an open mic night featuring kilted story tellers or dreadlocked jazz saxophonists. Theatre posters plastered the tube station and the clubs rarely dared play anything in the “Top 40” Chart.

I tried in vain to dissect the difference. There is no reason that Sydney shouldn’t have as thriving a culture. We have a bigger population, an equal affinity for alcohol, and you can leave the house without thermals. But what I have learned is that comparison is probably our biggest cultural problem – all it leads to is the ‘cultural cringe’. From the Bondi Hipsters to King’s Cross to the proposed giant milk crate we are apparently building as public art, a lot of the time our culture does seem like a joke. But unlike many Glaswegians, we take it a little personally. Tell someone in Glasgow about how rough and unrefined they are and they’ll laugh with you – diss Australian hip hop in public (looking at you, Azalea) and prepare for the wrath. From the outside, it makes us seem insecure. We have an inferiority complex, and it’s killing any hope of our culture developing.

So, instead of ‘Australian culture’, perhaps what we should be focussing on is ’Strayan Kultcha – something that can truly be ours. Here’s the great news – it’s already out there. It’s underfunded, poorly advertised and hard to find if you don’t have your ear to the ground, but it is definitely there, if you are willing to look.

Australian Theatre, for example, is currently thriving – particularly if you are under 25 and looking for a creative outlet. Between projects run by Shopfront, Carriageworks and the Australian Theatre For Young People (ATYP), there is an almost constant stream of raw works whose survival relies on being subversive.

Then there’s Rock Surfer’s Theatre Company based at the Bondi Pavilion, who host everything from comedy to storytelling nights, as well as the annual Bondi Feast. Westside Writers are an innovative group of Western Sydneysiders who write plays about what it’s really like in their home suburbs – outside the media hype and mildly racist Current Affairs rhetoric.

Let’s talk about Australian comedy. Sure, it’s hit and miss. But guess what? When it hits, it hits hard. It’s a personal taste though – one man’s Louie C.K. is another’s Dane Cook.

While living in Glasgow earlier this year, I went almost every week to a £1 comedy night where amateurs and seasoned comics would jump up on stage to test out their material. Imagine my delight at returning to find out that we have both Enmore Comedy Club and Comedy On Edge (Chippendale), not to mention a new weekly Comedy Circuit at the Forresters.

For a constant supply of fresh talent, the recently opened Giant Dwarf hosts plenty of new comedy. Bear Pack, who are now touring Europe for the International Edinburgh Comedy Festival, had me crying with laughter – no easy feat when your hour-long set is totally improvised. Other nights include Erotic Fan Fiction and Story Club.

Then there’s the music scene. FBi Social brings local musicians onstage for very intimate gigs at the hefty price of $10. It’s a mixed bag, sure, but it’s all local and one of the few places in Kings Cross where high heels are not the dress code. There’s also a resurgence of music at local pubs – everything from shoe-gaze to garage rock to hip hop. Lansdowne, Beach Road Hotel and the Annandale all offer free music with your brew, lockout laws be damned. Jazz is a not-so-niche but close knit community housed in places like Venue 505 and Spring Street Social.

So next time I’m faced with a yoghurt punch line, or someone talks about how crap Australian whatever is, I’ll be able to laugh along. To me, it looks like the tides are turning against the idea that our culture is low value. People are starting to stand up for our creative industries. We still need more to follow suit, but I think that it will happen, because most of the people working in these fields are driven by passion. Maybe they give up sooner when there is no money to be found, but passion doesn’t have a price tag. The truth is, if you are willing to ignore our culture in favour of the myth that it doesn’t exist, the joke is on you. Mate.


Featured image: Photography by Bryce Thomas