Wanted: The Aussie Larrikin

January 3rd, 2011 Features, Penthouse

Within the living memory of many of this magazine’s readers, Kingswood Country’s Ted Bullpitt used to complain about his daughter Greta’s boyfriend using the term ‘bloody wog’ — and we loved him for it. Last year, a bunch of clowning idiots in a blackface dance routine on the resurrected Hey Hey It’s Saturday caused an uproar in the media. But as the chattering classes howled about what a disgrace it was, shock jocks grumbled about the smug city slickers who’d neutered our iconic Aussie sense of humour. What changed so dramatically in such a short time?

From the time of the 1808 Rum Rebellion until the football-meat pies-kangaroos-and Holden cars days of the 1970s, Australia enjoyed national representation by a very distinctive figure. He (no sexism intended, it was almost always a male figure) was coarse, disrespectful, simple and funny. We’ve seen him epitomised in characters from sport (Shane Warne), politics (Bob Hawke), entertainment (Rodney Rude) and business (Kerry Packer).

He’s the larrikin, and he’s been a staple of Australian cultural life for a long time. Until now… Around the time we stopped hearing the phrase ‘lucky country’, we also adopted other models of national character beside the stoic, sardonic rural type with little time for hierarchical authority and a unique language to share our disdain for it. When globalisation took hold in the 80s we wanted to see (and sell) ourselves as latte-quaffing sophisticates, particularly in the city-based hubs of media and social commentary.

It generated a unique social and cultural tension — even though we wanted the urbane cool of New York or London we kept contempt for ‘wankers’ dear to our hearts. Like the curmudgeonly grandparent we have to lock away during parties, we loved the larrikin even though a bit ashamed of him. Just watch some of the movies from the New Wave era — where the blokes are all ockers chasing beer and roots, their long suffering women safely distanced from such behaviour with their British accents.

The larrikin might have thrived for so long in the pre-media age because of our healthy suspicion of authority, perhaps the cultural memory of a time when it transported our ancestors to far flung, unforgiving penal colonies for inconsequential crimes.

Now, it seems the inner urbanite in our national character is winning. The onslaught of political correctness has taken its toll, and like the rest of the world we’ve been overrun by the unstoppable hegemony of American culture, tailored to appeal as much to a Yackandandah sheep farmer as it does a Hezbollah footsoldier in the Gaza Strip.

But there’s a class division in Australia like there is in Britain or anywhere else, and that’s the one between city and country. Though most of our national mythology is based around the bush, most Australians live in coastal capitals where we’re more familiar with rap music and broadband internet than billy tea.

We might consider the larrikin a uniquely rural figure, but in fact he’s never stopped cross-pollinating between the city and country. “The larrikin evolved as a cultural point of reference through early twentieth century texts like CJ Dennis’s The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke,” says Anthony Lambert, an expert in cultural identity at Macquarie University, “But the characters actually lived and worked in the city.”

But still, we’ve dropped the larrikin from the cultural consciousness of city living, haven’t we? “We may not associate larrikins with the city,” Lambert adds, “but it was the cheeky, relatively unsophisticated characters that shaped the local version of The Apprentice even though it was set in the boardrooms of the Sydney CBD. Many urban Australians would suggest this framing of identity is fairly outdated, but I think ‘larrikinism’ is alive and well in the country and city.”

More interesting is the proposition that the larrikin might merely be an illusion, or at best a local version of a universal figure. Most countries or racial groups only gain a toehold in history after considerable hardship, and it’s human nature to respond with humour. The very word ‘larrikin’ isn’t even Australian — it’s an old Irish word with the same root as the word ‘skylarking’.

“I’m sure there are some parallels, analogues of larrikins in most cultures,” says broadcaster and intellectual Phillip Adams. “Bob Hawke rolled up to me at some do and told me the one about the two corpses on the Hume Highway — one was a politician and the other was a kangaroo. The difference was there were skid marks before the kangaroo.

“At the time I thought it was wonderful, a larrikin Prime Minister telling a good Australian joke. But when I checked I found the original joke was about Route 66 and the corpse of a skunk. So it’s an illusion to think it’s exclusively Australian. We just claim it as our own.”

Adams thinks you only have to look as far as another people that thrived out of suffering, like early Australians. “There’s a great similarity between the heavy irony of Australian humour and Jewish humour,” he says. “The battering rural Australians have had is a bit like the sense of Jewish irony having to survive almost infinite problems with Yahweh [God]. It produced a similar comic attitude to expect the worst.”

Adams also points out that a lot of the larrikin’s trappings were extreme — and fictitious — satirical exaggerations. As the producer of 1972’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie he remembers scriptwriter Barry Humphries’ motivations very well. “The film was an act of exorcism,” Adams recalls. “[Humphries] hated the ocker.”

The real division of larrikinism in Australia might not be between city and country or rich and blue collar but past versus future. Political sensitivity and a more sophisticated (and litigious) society have transformed the cultural landscape — maybe that’s why we love it when a subversive example of larrikin humour sneaks past the cultural gatekeepers, like The Chaser or Hey Hey It’s Saturday (which is rating through the roof despite the commentariat being up in arms about it).

“The larrikin is never far away from the way Australians think about themselves,” says Macquarie’s Anthony Lambert. “You might also argue we’re so distant from such images — in the cities at least — we can laugh at them as lesser forms of ourselves. I have a feeling it’s a little of both. Most Australians want a foot in both camps, a claim to being ‘Aussie’ in a romantic, laid-back sense but not one that diminishes Australianness as something less than other developed countries.”

Of course, recent backlashes against larrikinism have proven what a different world we live in from when Hoges invited the world over for a shrimp on the barbie. When Tourism Australia — from advertising devised by Sydney agency M&C Saatchi — asked tourists the world over ‘where the bloody hell are you?’, the response ranged from a new cultural cringe at home to outrage overseas, the British government even banning the offending ads.

Tom McFarlane, regional creative director for Asia Pacific and the US at M&C Saatchi, is very reluctant to agree there was a backlash. After finally speaking to him after several weeks of attempts he apologised by saying that ‘after nearly four years of interrogation on our Tourism Australia campaign we’re simply jaded’.

“Forget the crap you hear about why people visit Australia,” he says. “What they like most isn’t the Opera House or Uluru. They like Australians, and what they like about us is our character and irreverence, which was without doubt born out of the larrikin era.

“But let me remind you of another stereotype in our illustrious history — the wowser, sworn enemy of the larrikin. No fun. Serious. Probably religious. Anti everything. Well, they’re still lurking around and easily offended, it seems, by words like ‘bloody’.”

McFarlane adds that the renaissance of the wowser is manifesting itself in a nanny state culture. “Frankly we could run a profitable advertising agency just running TV commercials on what people can’t do, like gamble, drink too much or have unprotected sex — all the stuff the Australian larrikin once lived for.”

So maybe even though we’ve stopped holding the larrikin up as a cultural figurehead for our values so visibly, we still love and adopt his irreverent attitudes to life. He was never much of a leader anyway…


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