I first went to the Walkabout in Covent Garden in 2008. It was Melbourne Cup, but London was dark, rainy and indifferent. That all changed when I set foot in the Walkabout. It was wild: some sort of Bacchanal or Daily Mail spread come to life. Girls in arse-skimming skirts and eye-gouging fascinators drunk and falling down; the boys, bleary-eyed and leering, in huddles playing drinking games.
After two years away from home, the concentration of Australian accents was jarring. Did I really talk like that? Did I really drink like that? The answer to both questions was yes. Just not in an Australian-themed pub.
I Ran-about from the Walkabout – ending up in some quiet old pub in Holborn, where there was no music, just a few old guys sitting around reading the Telegraph and drinking half-pints of bitter. This was more like it!
A class system of sorts forms as soon as you arrive in London and get your bearings – and the Walkabout is an important signifier in this. Are you the type of Australian who drinks at an Aussie-themed pub? Do you hang out for the free sheet TNT and circle the listings? Wonder when Wil Anderson is doing a gig in Shepherd’s Bush, how easy is it to get tickets to see Empire of the Sun, and whether you can stream hottest 100 or if it’s geo-blocked?
This type becomes more Australian when they leave Australia. “It’s the best country on earth,” they say, thinking of the sapphire glint of Sydney Harbour as they survey the silty Thames with pity. The Walkabout is their home away from home.
There is another tribe – let’s call them the globalised Australians – who try to hide any hints of their nationality. Their accents became neutralised; they could be from anywhere (or so they hope). They take their cues from the Guardian’s listing pages, rather than TNT.
They strive to make English friends, are wary of other Australians and drink proper warm beer in proper English pubs. The past isn’t erased, exactly but this tribe doesn’t want to draw attention to their nationality. They take on that particularly English characteristic: they don’t want to stand out. In their reinvention you can often detect a violent rejection of all things Australian. To have a drink in an outback-themed pub isn’t just a simple nostalgic exercise but the prime symptom of some deep character flaw, an inability to let go of the homeland and fully participate in the new place.
Needless to say – each group is embarrassed by the other.
Sometimes the worlds collide. The globalised Australian might have a cousin in town, weepy and needy, wondering why she travelled to London, and why it’s so cold and everyone is so rude. The cousin, comfortable only traveling on the Piccadilly Line and yearning for home, will want to meet at the Walkabout– the one place where she feels understood, and has her bearings. Her cousin will want to head south to Bermondsey to this fabulous Jamaican place he’s read about. He was invited to the Walkabout once, to watch the AFL Grand Final, but even though he desperately wanted to see the game, his rejection of the Walkabout (and what it stood for) was too absolute to overcome.
Those that assume there is no Australian class system might like to witness these fraught plans to meet for dinner.
Although I didn’t revisit the Covent Garden Walkabout, in other parts of the world, I have visited Australian-themed pubs. Usually I have been travelling on my own, and felt lonely. I go in hoping to find a kindred spirit, another Australian who’s washed up on some strange distant shore. (Brussels, in the fishing village of Sagres in Portugal, in Amsterdam). Usually it’s just some local guy behind the bar, who doesn’t even care that you are from Australia.
But travel weary and low, nursing your pint of Fosters in an empty bar under an Australian flag, while Men at Work sing of a land down under, can sometimes just be enough to remind yourself that you have a home.