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Culture and Customs of Australia
Laurie Clancy
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.
45.00$, 216 pages, ISBN 0313321698 (hardback).

Susan Ballyn
Universitat de Barcelona

Laurie Clancy, author of Culture and Customs of Australia, is well known to most people in the field of Australian Studies as a novelist, essayist, and reviewer who has held various posts as a lecturer in literature and creative writing at various tertiary institutions in Australia and abroad. This book forms a departure from most of what Clancy has written over the years, a general introduction to the Australian socio-cultural background. However, the author’s long career as a writer, researcher, and teacher has inevitably led to expertise in a number of interdisciplinary fields: history, literature, cultural and social studies, Australian studies, politics, art and English literature, to name only a few. Clancy’s range as a writer is evidenced in his production over the years with titles that include Night Parking, The Novels of Vladimir Nabokov, A Collapsible Man, The Wife Specialist: Stories, Perfect Love, City to City, A Reader's Guide to Australian Fiction, The Wildlife Reserve. To these and other titles must be added Clancy’s short stories which have been widely anthologised.

Clancy’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, is shot through with a fine dry wit, while his writing and reviews reveal a keen critical acumen, a fine eye for detail and carefully modulated prose, this latter a hallmark of all his work. Culture and Customs of Australia will not disappoint readers familiar with Clancy’s work. First time readers will enjoy not just the valuable overview of Australian society the book affords them but also the neatly placed humorous asides, the finely toned but nonetheless deeply critical comments that abound in the work, together with the clarity of Clancy’s text.

In his preface, Clancy starts with the picture which the average American has of Australia, a picture shared by many non-Australians, due, unfortunately, to the lack of coverage in most foreign media of anything other than natural disasters, film releases, the Sydney Olympic Games, Nicole Kidman or, recently, John Howard’s policies on immigration and his alliance with America, Britain and the previous Spanish Government in the Iraq invasion. Clancy’s intention is to document the changes that Australia has gone through in the two hundred and sixteen years since the British invasion of the continent and the declaration of Australia as Terra Nullius. However, as the author states at the end of the preface, he has a target audience:

This book attempts, as objectively as is possible, to document these changes, as well as to look back at the country’s past, and place them in some kind of historical context. It is written primarily for an audience of non-Australians, but I hope it will be useful to the citizens of my own country as well. [xii]

Clancy’s study is an ideal handbook, not just for a general audience but also as an introductory reader for those doing Australian Studies outside Australia for whom, so often, Australia is almost an unknown entity. The way in which the book has been organised, the uncluttered prose, wealth of information, table of historical chronology and extensive bibliography make this an ideal text for secondary and tertiary institutions. The organisation of the material is divided into ten chapters which range over geography, history, religion and ideology, marriage, gender and children, leisure, cuisine and fashion, literature, media and cinema, performing arts, painting and architecture. There is, however, I believe, a need for a greater emphasis on the Indigenous Peoples of Australia, if only to balance out the emphasis on Australia’s socio-cultural progress since invasion in 1788. As a lecturer in the field, I have often found that, as Clancy points out, while my students will be familiar with what many would consider to be uncomfortable stereotypes such as Crocodile Dundee, the strange world of the marsupials, the odd rock star and film and not much else, they have little or no knowledge of anything indigenous. Thus I would have liked to see a whole chapter dedicated to the changes and progress that have occurred within the Indigenous communities as well.

Clancy offers a very even-handed view of his subject and each chapter while clearly written is packed with information. To take an example, Chapter Four “Holidays and Leisure Activities” [66-83], which begins with a brief discussion of the tensions between the “work ethic” and “the long weekend” [66] goes on to cover the history of every major sport and leisure time activity in Australia. For years, the outside view of Australia has been that the Australian nation is not noted for its dedication to hard work. Clancy reveals how “dubious” this judgement is and, among the arguments he puts forward, points to a specific vocabulary in common use which refutes such a view and reveals that work does occupy a central space in the Australian mind; words such as “hard yakka” or “hard slog” (hard work); […] “bludger” (the term for someone who will not work and “bludges” on his mates and perhaps the worst insult you can offer an Australian); […] and above all “dole bludger,” a term used contemptuously and often unfairly to denote those who dislike honest labour and prefer to rely on government handouts. Unsurprisingly it is a claim often levelled against Aboriginal people” [66].

A keen sportsman himself, especially in cricket, Clancy’s description of the origins, history and achievements in the field of Australian sport make excellent reading and he is always careful, as he is throughout the book, to point out the frequent lack of gender balance and discrimination that women have come up against in the history of Australian sport. Using the now common term “glass ceiling,” Clancy points out on various occasions when women while having seen their lot improve, have indeed come up against what can be termed a “glass ceiling” where higher opportunities in all fields, not just sport, may been seen but not accessed by a majority of women. However, as we all know, this “glass ceiling” is present in most western societies, though gradually changing as it is and will in Australia too.

Another chapter to which I would draw attention is that on Australian literature. For those unfamiliar with Australian writing, this chapter affords an excellent introduction to poetry, fiction and drama, with a solid critical appreciation of the authors discussed. For somebody interested in beginning to read Australian literature, this chapter offers a firm groundwork from which to then proceed. I most certainly would use this particular chapter as basic reading material for my own students doing an “Introduction to Australian History and Culture.”

There are many other interesting topics covered by Clancy, such as his discussion of the development of Australian Cuisine, which, when I first went to Australia, consisted of exactly what he calls meat and two soggy veges of the great British tradition (now also changed). Australia today has progressed thanks to its own impetus and that of its huge migrant community. The gourmet visitor can practically travel the world at a restaurant table, given the huge number of ethnic restaurants, even in private homes and of course one cannot forget the emergence of Australian cuisine as such.

For all those teaching Australian Studies in non-English speaking cultures, this book is a must on any reading list, as it is for any enquiring mind that seeks to have a better understanding of the geographically, socially, vast and varied continent: Australia.


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