Anglo-Australian Attitudes: Remembering and Re-reading Russel Ward

Academic Carl Bridge writes:

In my job as head of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies in London I am called upon regularly to try to explain the actions and words of my fellow Australians to the puzzled Poms and quite often I rely on stories I heard first from Russel Ward to see me through. Recently, for instance, there was a racial vilification case in Queensland where an English migrant failed to have his employer convicted for calling him a ‘Pommie bastard’. I was asked on BBC 5 Live radio to please explain. As there was an Ashes cricket series on at the time — my interview was actually interrupted to report another Shane Warne wicket at Lord’s — it was entirely appropriate that I should recall Russel’s yarn about an incident in the infamous ‘Bodyline’ tests of 1932-33. The story goes that the much-despised English captain, Douglas Jardine, went into the Australian dressing room to complain that one of the Australian players had called his prize fast bowler, Harold Larwood, a bastard, whereupon the Australian skipper, who was a very proper Victorian headmaster called Bill Woodfull, turned to his team mates and asked: ‘Which one of you bastards called that bastard a bastard?’2 Thus, of course, Woodfull cleverly used the term respectively with its positive, negative and neutral connotations. Such is the richness of the Australian vernacular.

In his first reaction to the awful tragedy in New York and Washington, Prime Minister John Howard said it was ‘an act of
bastardry’; he was surely the only world leader to call it that. For me, it was always a pleasure to listen to Russel’s vivid Australianisms: ‘Blind Freddy’ was never far away, ‘Hughie’ was often ‘sending it down’ or ‘Buckley’ having his almost futile ‘chance’. And, inevitably, nearly all those in authority over us were ‘swiveleyed bastards’ or ‘barnacles on the backside of the state’. But Russel Ward was not only a colourful character and raconteur; he was a superb historian.

“According to the myth the ‘typical Australian’ is a practical man, rough and ready in his manners and quick to decry any appearance of affectation in others. He is a great improviser, ever willing ‘to have a go’ at anything, but willing, too, to be content with a task done in a way that is ‘near enough’. Though capable of great exertion in an emergency, he normally feels no impulse to work hard without good cause. He swears hard and consistently, gambles heavily and often, and drinks deeply on occasion. Though he is ‘the world’s best confidence man’, he is usually taciturn rather than talkative, one who endures stoically rather than one who acts busily. He is a ‘hard case’, sceptical about the value of religion and of intellectual and cultural pursuits generally. He believes that Jack is not only as good as his master but, at least in principle, probably a good deal better, and so he is a great ‘knocker’ of eminent people unless, as in the case of his sporting heroes, they are distinguished by physical prowess. He is a fiercely independent person who hates officiousness and authority especially when these qualities are embodied in military officers and policemen. Yet he is very hospitable and above all will stick to his mates through thick and thin, even if he thinks they may be in the wrong. No epithet in his vocabulary is more completely damning than ‘scab’ unless it be ‘pimp’ in its peculiar Australian meaning of ‘informer’. He tends to be a rolling stone, highly suspect if he should chance to
gather much moss.”

…He describes his native South Australia in the Legend and elsewhere as the least Australian and most British of the colonies, and he calls Adelaide the ‘City of Churches’ and the ‘Holy City’. Queensland, on the other hand, was South Australia’s opposite: the most Australian and least god-fearing of the states.25

Englishmen, in Ward’s imaginary world, and in that of the Legend, were almost always ‘remittance men’. They were scheming
and disloyal jackaroos, like the fictitious Sam Holt and Jimmy Sago, who cheated on their mates. Or else they were simply incompetent: ‘He can’t ride. He can graft a bit; but he’s not much intelligence, oh no. He’s an Englishman.’ The original Blind Freddy, Sir Frederick Pottinger, the ‘new-chum English Baronet’ policeman who could not catch the native-born bushranger Ben Hall, was his archetype.27 The Australian ruling class was, in the words of old colonists, even worse, not a feudal hybrid, but a mongrel of original stamp.28 It was peopled by what one American called ‘mutilated Europeans’.29 Elsewhere, Ward cites an early example (in 1854) of disputing the colonial notion of Britain as ‘Home’. A solicitor in a Sydney court was rebuked by the police magistrate who said: ‘You may call it at home, but we Currency Lads call it abroad and this is our home.’ The Legend, by an incredible sleight of hand, makes all Englishmen middle- and upper-class incompetents. Most English immigrants, of course, as Russel knew full well, were lower-class, and became competent, else we would have had few Australians at all.

In the preface to his Australia (1965), he wrote ‘few Australians now feel any sense of contradiction between their nationality and their close association with Great Britain’.32 Later in that book he calls Australia ‘basically a remote, provincial British society’ until after the Second World War. He identified two types of patriotism in the Australian breast, an unadulterated national one, mostly found in the Labor Party, and a ‘generalized imperial, or British, patriotism’, mostly found amongst the conservatives.3

The convicts’ and bushmen’s tendencies to nicknames were similar to those exhibited in British mining communities and in the British armed services, particularly among seamen.35 The democratic ideals of the 1850s stemmed, in considerable part, from British Chartism.3

Anyone who knows working-class and provincial Britain will recognise that many of the values identified in the legend as typically Australian have close parallels in the Mother Country itself. The British working classes lampoon the British upper classes. They, too, are suspicious of authority; they, too, are anti-intellectual; they, too, worship physical prowess (though the British upper classes also share the latter two characteristics). Just as Australians were suspicious of Britain, or rather, England, so are provincial Britons suspicious of London. Is, then, Australian patriotism of the legendary variety really just a particularly virulent strain of British provincialism and working-class consciousness?3

Neville Meaney has argued recently, taking in part a conscious cue from Russel Ward, that the dominant form of patriotism in twentieth-century Australia was British ‘race patriotism’.39 We all know of Alfred Deakin’s famous descriptions of Australians as ‘independent Australian Britons’ and of Robert Menzies’ later comment that he was ‘British to the boot-heels’… When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 Curtin’s first radio broadcast in response included the words: ‘we shall hold this country [Australia] and keep it as a citadel for the British-speaking race’.41 Later, in 1944, Curtin described his countrymen and women as ‘seven million Britishers’ and Australia as ‘the bastion of British institutions … in the southern world’.42 This Britishness, he explained, included Magna Carta, habeas corpus, and the right to squabble among ourselves in freely elected parliaments.43 In other words, it was our British institutions which gave us the freedom to be Australians… Britishness and Australian-ness are not really opposites, but first cousins with a very healthy rivalry. They are, or at least were until the 1970s, two sides of the same coin.


This cluster of character-traits – adaptability, mateship, hatred of affectation and so on – was perceived as typically Australian, not because most Australians ever possessed these traits but because the minority of bush-dwellers that did differed most graphically from the average Briton and so were seen as identifiably Australian.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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