Hopelessly Devoted to Who?

Wednesday 2 July 2008

I was emailed by a friend who received an invite to my exhibition (now closed, so no plug) in Melbourne, and noticed that the two letters UK appeared in brackets after my name. “Good to see the cultural cringe is alive and well in the local scene,” he said. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to convince several people that it wasn’t my idea to bill me as an Overseas Artist. When asked why they’ve listed me as British, I have a guess and say it’s something to do with claiming travel expenses.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been identified as non-Australian. Last year I played a gig in Brisbane which billed me as a New Zealander, owing to my having flown in via Auckland; but that was an honest mistake, whereas the British tag was, to my surprise when I recalled it, true.

Even though I have now lived in London for three years, and even have dual citizenship, there’s nothing about me that feels particularly British; yet it appears that my Australian identity is slowly and steadily slipping away, in ways I cannot control. Does extensive time out of the country inevitably extinguish my Australianness?
Earlier this year The Onion’s A.V. Club posted the latest in a semi-regular series, “The scandal of Olivia Newton-John: 12 surprisingly controversial Wikipedia pages“, chronicling the most protracted and furious arguments on Wikipedia’s Talk pages over the past few months. Fierce debates raged over such controversial subjects as Speedy Gonzales, Rotary International, the capitalisation of the name k.d. lang, and the nationality of Olivia Newton-John:

Yes, we know she was born in England, but moved to Australia at age 5, and left again at age 17. But such details don’t settle the linguistic and existential question of her essential nationality. Nv8200p “think[s] there is no doubt that Newton-John identifies with Australia,” but the ensuing complicated discussion covers dual citizenship, British birth certificates, whether Mel Gibson counts as Australian, and ultimately whether Australians have an inferiority complex. “English-born, Australian-raised” is the phrase that currently describes Newton-John in the first paragraph of her entry, but the issue may not be settled…

A quick straw poll among friends in Melbourne got a unanimous result: Hell yeah, she’s Australian. The English themselves most likely remember her, if at all, as American or Australian more than British – despite her sterling work for the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest. At the time of writing, her Wikipedia article describes her as an “English-born, Australian pop singer”, but of course this may change.
ONJ’s Wikipedia Talk page gives a fascinating, if not illuminating, account of the debating process that went into authoring her entry, including a section titled “Gay Icon Project” and the winning reprimand of “The E! TV special on Newton John isn’t the best source for wikipedia [sic].” Probably the most trenchant observation is this comment:

She’s still technically a British person. Australia is as guilty sometimes as some other countries in looking pass[sic] the home-born and reared people in preference of a claiming tightly[sic] to famous people such as Newton-John as the representer of Australia. I’d probably decide to only pledge my undying allegiance to the country that worships me as their symbol too.

Compare Our Libby to that other accidental icon of cheesy Seventies pop culture, the Bee Gees. Singing artistes with a similar, intercontinental upbringing, they are claimed by the British and the Australians with equal possessiveness – even though they are technically Manx. Their more contested national allegiance – in the real world, if not so much on Wikipedia – is doubtless due to their continued eminence in both countries.
Incidentally, the main debate on the Bee Gees Wikipedia Talk page concerns whether their formative years in Brisbane were spent in Redcliffe or the now-vanished Cribb Island. This sticking point seems to be more hotly contested than any of the larger claims for rival nations.
Perhaps it has been the fate of all world-famous Australians to have their nationalities confused, simply by the act of entering the wider world to be famous in. Percy Grainger was born in Melbourne, established his career in England, became an American to avoid the Great War, found his greatest fame in the USA, built his museum in Melbourne, and was buried in Adelaide beside his mother, to whom he dedicated a large memorial statue (with a rather fulsome poem on a plaque beneath) which dwarfs his own, modest grave. Depending on which country you are in, Grainger is either Australian, American, or English – the last in particular, given his identification with Anglo-Saxon, if not Aryan, culture.
There are also rare instances of celebrities who have falsely claimed Australian identities. For many years there were Tasmanians who swore they had personally known Merle Oberon as a girl growing up in St Helens, unaware that her biography was faked to disguise her mixed-race origins in Bombay. Far more common are the lazy inclusiveness granted by Australians to particularly successful New Zealanders, and the affectionate, unofficial status afforded to the likes of Our Tom and Our Fred. Such status, however, can be revoked at any time.
So, what does history have to teach me? Is my case yet another example of cultural cringe? Perhaps, having left Australia’s shores, I have been disowned, fobbed off to another unwitting country, at least until I become famous enough to be reclaimed. Or perhaps during my time abroad I have changed at an imperceptible rate until I am no longer recognisable to my fellow countrymen. Worse still is the fate of those who fall between two shores, the mercenary netherworld of the professional expatriate.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)