If you had to choose the single most awful thing about John Howard as displayed during the long, unpleasant years of his prime ministerships, what would it be?
Yes, I know the selection is bewilderingly huge, a smorgasbord, but some of us would plump for the artful ways in which he was, to use Nick Dyrenfurth's words, "mateship's best mate". Howard's insincere invocations of "mate" and "mateship" seemed to give our politics a sentimental kitschness, a khaki hue.
It's heartening to be reminded by Nick Dyrenfurth's history Mateship - A Very Australian History, that one was not alone in being driven up the wall by Howard being (surely only pretending to be) mateship's gun chum.
Here from the book is the Howard-goaded Leunig, going up the wall with us.
"Howard's use of 'mate' is all wrong, and deliberately so, for he has nicked the word from the old working class so he can pose as a salt-of-the-earth, egalitarian bloke. But he's no such man; he's from the silver-tail tribe, as everybody knows. He might as well dangle corks from his Akubra hat. Howard is not a mateship man ... he speaks fluent spin, but mateship and its language are not really in his bones."
Here I confess to being scatterbrained about mateship. I care passionately about its abuse, and yet am not at all sure that it even exists any longer. One would hate to have to define what mateship is and to point to any of it alive and virile in Australian life.
And reading the 220 pages of Dyrenfurth's scholarly but ultimately fond analysis of this, "Australia's pre-eminent national ideal" hasn't helped me to unscatter my thinking. This is partly because, being scholarly, he never tells us what to think and doesn't tell us what he thinks until right at the end in a warm and fuzzy Afterword. But we do to his credit, come away from the natty little book with a clearer notion of how and why mateship concepts and words came to arrive here and to be kept so busy in our national conversation.
But is there such a thing, now, as mateship?
Mindless patriotism (at which the Americans excel) doesn't require any thought, but to love his country the thinking patriot needs to believe that his country is uniquely lovable. And so lots of us want to believe that Australians have a special aptitude for altruistic, love-in-action friendship – for mateship. We want to believe that the famous sentiments of Gordon's Ye Wearie Wayfarer have a special resonance for Australians. But do they? Is there anything about them that would bewilder an Inuit, start an argument with a Finn, Mongol or Croatian? Surely they are just international truisms.
"Life is mainly froth and bubble,/Two things stand like stone,/ Kindness in another's trouble,/Courage in your own."
It is a failing of the book that it never tackles the blasphemous thought that perhaps all men everywhere show to one another forms of the mateship we want to think is unique to us. Dyrenfurth confuses all the time a profusion of the use of "mate" in Australian conversation with that actually meaning anything. But lots of those who address us as "mate" are, like Howard, complete fakes making a fake show of human warmth. I once went to a urologist who, putting on an act of egalitarianism as well as calling me "mate" all the way through our consultation always referred to my penis as "your old fella". I, and my old fella, have never been back to him.
Perhaps now is the time in this essay for me to confess that I may be a poor choice of essayist on this subject.
I find pure, unadulterated male company tedious. I could no more go to a bucks' party than fly to the moon or vote Liberal. I don't like beer. I would much rather spend time with a woman, a dog, or a book, or with flowers (arranging them in vases), than with a man. Men have been fun to play men's doubles with, and I think I would have enjoyed associate membership of the Kelly Gang, but other than that male companionship has little allure for me.
I was reminded of this, and had it partially explained for me, by Elizabeth Farrelly's recent piece "Let's hear it for the frightbats" (January 1) quoting statistics that show that "men no longer read fiction" and that this is both a cause and a symptom of men's feeble aptitude for empathy. I read a lot of literary fiction (between flower arrangings) and need to talk about it, and have never known any fiction-reading men to be matey with.
Dyrenfurth is excellent at showing how mateship was once essential in convict society and on the goldfields where there were all sorts of practical reasons for depending on and being fond of your workmate. He says, plausibly, that he has "endeavoured to reveal mateship's secret past". But does anything but the everyday use of the word "mate" survive in the modern, safe, idyllic, OHS-patrolled workplace?
Some thinking chaps will fancy that they have enjoyed truer "mateship" with women than with men. Dyrenfurth's quote from penal reformer Alexander Maconochie's observations of all convicts "going mates" in parties of two and being so conscientious in the sharing of work, sounds very like a description of marriage. Marriage is two-person work full of heavy lifting.
The publication of Mateship is timely in that we must brace ourselves for the sentimental, populist jingoistic hay our leaders are going to make from the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli. One would like a $1.50 for every time the word "mateship" is going to be mentioned in the same breath as the word "Gallipoli."
Dyrenfurth explains with quotes galore how our men's behaviour at Gallipoli was taken to be an expression at last, at war (the best test of all?), of the mateship ethos.
In 1917 The Lone Hand jingoed that "It was by the blood of the Anzacs that Australia became a nation. No paper constitution could confer nationhood upon a people as the heroism of our soldiers has done."
The prevailing sentiment, Dyrenfurth says, was that the Anzacs, "so the story went, had grandly exhibited our national qualities – including mateship – on the world stage for the first time ... the Australian soldiers were said to practice a form of fraternity unknown among the ranks of other warring nations."
Yes, this is how the story went and how (shudder!) it will go in coming months but do thinking Australians doubt that on Gallipoli the Turks, too, showed species of what we call "mateship" towards one another? What if our whole species, perhaps by evolved nature, shows a talent for it? Aren't we a little bewildered when on the news we see Chinese, Pakistanis, everyone brilliantly, nobly, selflessly rallying round in times of their nation's natural disaster? Aren't we bewildered because, whenever Australians do this, we are told it is a uniquely Australian response, mateship's way?
As I age and as I worry more and more about what it is I appear to love about Australia, my confusion deepens. Well-travelled, I struggle to find Australian people
Perhaps a thinking Australian patriotism would have a firmer footing in love of what's indisputably unique about our old and weird continent and the uniquely Australian fauna and flora that makes Australia so distinctive. Perhaps "mateship" with Australia, the unique place, makes more sense – a determination to befriend it, to look after its environments and its creatures. I don't know. I am a scatterbrained patriot.
MATESHIP. A VERY AUSTRALIAN HISTORY
By Nick Dyrenfurth. Scribe. $29.99.