The Ashes cricket series represents a scheduled opportunity to re-visit relations between the Mother Country and its former colonies beneath the Southern Cross.
The subject may be serious in various ways, but it is manifest as a kind of fan-based popular performance, a ribald mixture of national cultural stereotypes, creative wit and abuse covering most of the less edifying “isms”.
Ashes’ contests are about a great deal more than the game of cricket. What other explanation can be offered for England fans, in the final 2005 Ashes test at the Oval, paying premium prices for tickets, praying for rain and calling on the umpires to stop play because of bad light?
The dubious weather prompted some delightful bi-play between the sets of fans, with the English raising their umbrellas towards leaden but dry skies, while Australian fans stripped off and absorbed the non-existent bright rays of sunshine as if savouring Bondi Beach on Boxing Day.
The English wanted only to share the moment of national celebration in a series win over the Australians, who have dominated them in so many sports for so many years.
The overriding imperative for many England fans was victory not play, and it was not just about cricket, or even sport. It was a broader patriotism - sometimes described as the “banal nationalism” produced by potently “flagging” the nation in the age of globalisation - that stimulated wild celebrations among the populace and Queen’s Honours for the players.
The English ambivalence towards Australia is strong. They have enthusiastically admitted Australian soap operas, entertainers and social commentators to their media sphere, but there’s also a nagging unease that down under lifestyles might be unreasonably cushy, and even superior. Hence there is frequent resort to the comforting conclusion that the price of all that healthy space and sunshine is a lack of cultural refinement and intellectual seriousness.
The reverse Australian image, of course, is of sallow, pasty-faced English nerds with knotted handkerchief hats and socks-with-sandals. This comic book dialogue continues as if multiculturalism never happened, pitting northern hemisphere Anglos against their antipodean cousins, with people of more diverse backgrounds - not least Aboriginal Australians - as more or less interested bystanders.
The Ashes re-activate in the new millennium debates of the 19th century about the virtues and vices of the currency lads and lasses who established and developed the colonies. But now, as then, the spectre of convict origins hangs close. For all the claims of their Australian ancestors that the convicts were wronged, transportation history means that a certain disreputability clings to the nation’s origins.
The easily activated convict jibe, often linked to the Queen of England’s persistent status as head of the Australian state, provides many opportunities for England’s Barmy Army of travelling supporters to make their own sport with Australia. So, among the “Barmy Harmonies” on their website currently devoted to the Australian team, all refer to transportation, with such lines as, “We came here with backpacks, you with ball and chain”.
Well-known melodies and lyrical structures by English acts like Oasis and the Beatles provide the foundation for sung sentiments such as “Cos I don’t believe that anybody’s quite as thick as you AUSSIE CONVICTS” (Wonderwall) and “You all live in a convict colony, a convict colony, a convict colony” (Yellow Submarine).
Such hackneyed pronouncements, bellowed by the lubricated lads and, increasingly, the ladettes, who have made the Ashes tour to Australia a major form of sport tourism, are undoubtedly effective irritants in the rhetorical battle of the stands.
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