Sunday, February 04, 2007

The state of the states

Unlike America, Australia has always been in some denial about the differences in character and attitude between the states. While America is proud of the contrast between, say, New York and California or Georgia and Vermont, we have been a bit secretive about state contrasts - seeing it as some sort of dirty family business. The feelings between Australian states have not been exactly affectionate.

Hence, the immense schadenfreude we now feel at the Sydney Morning Herald's report of English psychologist and author Oliver James's analysis of the Australian states. He has said the things that we mutter to each other but dare not declaim. He has said that Sydney is the most vacuous city of superficial people obsessed with real estate, personal prestige and appearance.
The "Dolly Parton" of Australian cities!

He has hit the nail on the head. He has not mentioned, because he may not have known, that Sydney also produces the most astonishingly arrogant attitude towards the rest of Australia - a sense of absolute superiority. It would eliminate the other states completely, if it could. If it cannot ignore them, it will demean them. It is all-wonderful, all-powerful, it is simply all.
We call it "Sydneycentricity" here in the south.

Sydney has created its own image of the other capital cities - none of them friendly. We, the arts capital, are always dubbed "the city of churches" and accused of a conservatism which does not apply. We are also dubbed a "poofter" city because of our emphasis on the arts.

Melbourne is the upstart, greedy city, in the Sydney view. If Sydney disdains Adelaide, it loathes Melbourne - a feeling that is reciprocated by Melbournians. Hobart and Perth? Well, they are not worthy of Sydney interest at all. They are so remote, they are country towns in the big city view of the country.
Now, of course, Sydneysiders are in a lather of indignation. They have been internationally exposed as the vain and vapid, materialistic drears that they are. All they have is more. More people and more money, more traffic and more tourist.
I've always described Sydney as a "blousey" city - like an overblown rose. It is showy, gorgeous and big.
Adelaide is the pink bud rose - delicate, pretty and rich with promise. If one was to continue the rose metaphor, Melbourne would be the yellow climber, Hobart the wild bramble and Perth the standard rose, staked tall and isolated, but lovely.

Sydney has dominated the country like a schoolyard bully (yes, changing metaphors) - and we have all cowered in our geographic corners, quietly seething resentment but not nationally disloyal enough to repay the rudeness. Certainly in Adelaide we have always known that we are the creative crucible of the country. We export brains and talent to the rest of the country - and the world. The more we lose, the more we make. Perth may have had the first art festival, but we are the Festival city - simply because, like Edinburgh, we were made for festivals. We have the cultured population and the physical dimensions to make arts festivals into all-embracing happenings. Our festivals are not just a program of events scattered around a vast area, as is the case with Sydney. They are a city coloured in the arts.

Melbourne, our nearest capital neighbour, is jealous and predatory - thieving what it can from Adelaide's events. I quite like Melbourne, but I find its inability to come up with its own ideas a bit tiresome. I find Melbourne's pathological loathing of Sydney most amusing, however. Melbourne wants to be what other cities are. It lies and contorts history, it steals and generally behaves rather badly.


Adelaide? Well, at a million people it is just the right size. It is small enough to have a sense of community but large enough to have a thriving metropolis. It has a vast stretch of superb beaches and lush, agriculturally productive hills - along with fertile wine and dairy valleys. We eat extremely well - living an enviable quality of life which is untrammelled by congestion. We are what they call "a lifestyle city". A gentle decadence prevails. We neither need nor want what Sydney has. Particularly its attitude.

So why haven't we blown the whistle on the ugliness of Australia's most beautiful city?
Perhaps it is because we have a population of only 21million versus the USA's 310 million that we have kept a loose sense of nationalism rather than state identification, allowing the most populous city to stake its claim as gateway to the country. Perhaps we simply don't want to wash our dirty linen in public.

It took a foreigner.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

sydney is the "Dolly Parton" of Australian cities? Can that mean that it has a sly, somehat vulgar country charm? Strikes me as a bad analogy. Sydeney is more the "Paris Hilton" of Australian cities: vacuous and image obsessed, whose great charm is its wealth. (The entirely false sense of self-regard works here as well.)

Sydney is blessed with a gorgeous natural setting, however, this is marred by the ugliness of much of what has built upon it. Admitedly, this is true of most Australian cities, however, in most other places they haven't torn down as many of the pleasing older buildings.

geoff said...

Adelaide is a city and that is often demeaned from within with the archaic "Big Country Town" label it is given by residents who live there. Drawing a comparison to times long past in the City of Adelaide's history. Australia is a competative nation and among ourselves it is never done with malice.

Anonymous said...

Sydney is what it is. A too-beautiful, too-smug, but still world-class city. Decisions which affect the rest of Australia politically, economically and culturally are made in Sydney, not in Adelaide.

Melbourne chases "major events" to give it an international presence. Cities like New York, London and Paris don't need to do this (other than the Olympics of course!)because these cities are interesting enought in their own right.

Poor-old Adelaide is a place for smug semi-retired people or service industry workers. It lacks the entrepeneurial nature of Perth or Brisbane. Its youth flock to the bright lights of Melbourne, Sydney and London...and once there they realise that it is very difficult to return to Adelaide for anything other than so-called "life-style" reasons...

Just because Adelaide has a bi-annual festival doesn't make it a cultural hot-spot. Quite frankly, once you go abroad you realise that lots of people know about the Edinburgh Festival while very few non-Adelaideans know the Adelaide Festival even exists!

Anonymous said...

Please tell me Adelaide is over that whole "Melbourne stole the Grand Prix" thing. That was 12 years ago, for God's sake! It also sounds so bitter and tragic. Having lived in Sydney for 8 years, I can agree with much of what you've said and I have at times made similar comments myself. It does have one major thing going for it that Adelaide doesn't: acceptance of diversity. I'm shocked by the racist and homophobic comments I regularly hear when visiting SA (or from South Australians gawking at "All the Asians" in Sydney). Not the kind of lifestyle I'm looking for.

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