Australia: a cultural wasteland?

Laid back ... Splendour in the Grass at Byron Bay.
Laid back ... Splendour in the Grass at Byron Bay. Photo: Edwina Pickles

A German mate of mine loves living in Australia. He's crazy about the weather, the year-round sunshine. He raves about the lifestyle, the fact he can walk to work in the morning and then cycle around the park in the evening.

He'd stay in Australia the rest of his life, he says, except for one small thing: "You just don't really have any culture."

Um, yes we do. Don't we? It's popular to cringe at Australian attempts at culture, but surely we have something to boast here apart from good weather and former sporting glory. Surely we host some events or festivals that demonstrate cultural significance.

It's not high culture, but it's fun ... the Birdsville Races.
It's not high culture, but it's fun ... the Birdsville Races. Photo: Dean Saffron.

We do. If I was trying to introduce a foreign visitor like my German mate to the cultural side of Australia, this is where I would send them.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival

The Ekka once had a pig that jumped off a diving board. Now that's culture.

This event isn't just a couple of comedians over a few nights, it's a festival that takes over the whole city in Melbourne. While its Sydney counterpart seems to be a sideshow in wider city life, the Melbourne Comedy Festival is inescapable. Want to learn about how Australia really sees itself? Go see a comedian.

Splendour in the Grass

You could select any one of the Woodford Folk Festival, Meredith Music Festival, Falls Festival, East Coast Blues and Roots or plenty of others, but my favourite Australian music event has to be Splendour. Held over a couple of days in Byron Bay mid-year, its laidback vibe is everything that's good about Australian music and festival-goers.

Barcaldine Goat Races

It's hard to hold up a bunch of farm animals being jockeyed by school kids as high culture, but this is fun all the same, and a trip to Barcaldine for the annual races is a journey into "real" Australia. Your visiting friends can smash a Fourex or two, have a punt and see how people amuse themselves in the country.

The "Show"

It might be Sydney's Royal Easter Show, or Brisbane's Ekka, or Perth's Royal Show – doesn't really matter. The annual shows in any Australian city are a microcosm of rural culture brought to the big city, as blokes in cowboy hats rub shoulders with prettied-up urban types. Oh, and the Ekka once had a pig that jumped off a diving board. Now that's culture.

Boxing Day Test

A full MCG, a party atmosphere created by 90,000 people on summer holidays, the cream of world sporting talent on the pitch, the taste of a cold beer in the hot sun, the first illegal Mexican wave, the juicy slices of watermelon, the playful banter with the opposition fans ... all of these things are perfect distractions for the fact that we're not very good at cricket anymore.

Archibald Prize/Bald Archy

Whether it's the serious arty award or its tongue-in-cheek spin-off, this is how to show those skeptical foreign buddies of yours that Australia possesses more than just a love of sport and ale. We have an arty side; there's creative talent here. A stroll through the Archibald Prize exhibition or the Bald Archy should confirm that.

Mardi Gras

What began simply as a gay rights march has morphed into one of the world's great parties, when Sydneysiders of all sexual orientation come out in support of the gay community and in support of having a really, really good time. This country can seem a stuffy, overly officious place sometimes – Mardi Gras is the perfect antidote.

Tropfest

More creativity! Tropfest, the annual short film festival, isn't just a great way to introduce your mates to Australia's filmmaking prowess, but it's also the perfect excuse to sit in the park on a warm evening and share a bottle of wine with them. Everybody wins really.

Birdsville Races

Again, this isn't high culture. It's not a trip to the Opera Garnier, nor is it even a genteel afternoon at Royal Ascot. But it is a lot more fun. Birdsville, a small town snugly tucked into the middle of nowhere, comes alive for the races, when the party atmosphere often distract from the event itself (What race?). It's country Australia at its most boisterous, and it's well worth the trek out west.

Australia Day

I hate the flag-waving glee, and the choice of date seems ridiculously insensitive. That's not what's good about Australia Day. What's good about it is the barbecue at a friend's house, the conviviality of mates enjoying Australia's true passion – the public holiday – with the Triple J Hottest 100 playing in the background. Now that's something worth celebrating.

Which festivals or events do you think best demonstate the cultural side of Australia? Post your comments below.

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