Opinions, Column

In Defense of Tall Poppies and Mountain Ponies: A Lorikeet Among the Eagles

“And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast,
He was something like a racehorse undersized
With a touch of Timor pony – three parts thoroughbred at least –
And such as are by mountain horsemen prized.”

This is no way to introduce a hero. Australia’s featured horse isn’t Whitman’s “gigantic beauty” of a stallion, nor does it wield Longfellow’s “heavy stride.” In fact, as far as figures of grand national poetry go, this weedy pony is a bit understated. But such is the protagonist of Banjo Paterson’s uniquely Australian poem, “The Man from Snowy River.” It’s a story so steeped in national lore that it graces the nation’s ten-dollar note. And it’s a story that maybe, just maybe, gives some insight into being an Antipodean in the United States.

But before I charge headlong into the column proper, let’s get our bearings straight. Who am I and what am I doing in your newsfeed? Well, this semester has seen me swap my native home of Melbourne, Australia for the Heights. And once you get past our nations’ mutual murder of the English tongue, there are a lot of deep and fascinating differences between us. So, every fortnight in these articles, I’ll take a look at the things (whether about BC, Boston, or the United States in general) that confuse, intrigue, and challenge me. Whether you’re a lifelong Bostonian, a traveler who moved across the world, or anything in between, I hope you find novel points of view, hidden histories of the everyday, and perhaps a few wry remarks and bloody good yarns in the writing of this lorikeet among the Eagles.  

For this week, there seemed no better place to start than in the classroom—where perhaps the biggest cultural difference may be distilled into what Australians call “tall poppy syndrome.” This is the distinctly Aussie mentality that “tall poppies,” those high achievers who brag ad infinitum, need to be cut down. As the Sydney Morning Herald once put it, those who “consider themselves to be above the law and lore of the land, and take to behaving like pricks, will sooner or later be cactus.” Bragging, self-promotion, and “pitching yourself” don’t sit quite as easily with the Australian mentality as its American counterpart.

Don’t get me wrong: In the Australian classroom, we work hard and do well … but we would sooner die than admit to it. That’s why you get stories like the one about a mate who said he had only “put a few hours in” after pulling an all-nighter. To tell the truth would have been to show off, to brag about work, and to think he was ‘special’ or more hard-working than anybody else. Likewise, take the tale of the academic who began a talk with “I’m not the most qualified on this, but … ”—because to do otherwise would have presumed she was the smartest in the room, an arrogant assumption for any Aussie. In class, if you have an answer, you’ll wait to give everyone else a fair go first. This is not just a student phenomenon either—the egalitarian spirit extends beyond the classroom. It’s not unheard of for professors to catch up with students or plan serious faculty business over a pint or two down at the pub, where the pompous pretensions of titles and hierarchies can be let go.

From the BBC to the New York Times, it’s been argued that this attitude dates as far back as the beginning of British settlement in Australia. It’s easy to think that in a colony composed mostly of convicts and lowly sailors, any pretensions of aristocracy or intellectual supremacy were viewed very suspiciously indeed. After long enough, I suppose, the poppies learned to stay low, and egalitarianism became the lore of the land. It’s a story I can’t imagine playing out here in Boston, whose European settlement came in the form of the Puritans—folks so prim and proper that even the Pommies kicked them out!

This mentality sits at the heart of Australian literature, too. In the poem I began with, The Man from Snowy River, a prize colt escapes, joining the wild bush horses. The colt is eventually captured, but not without the help of a small mountain pony and his rider (the titular Man). They were brave enough to follow the colt down a steep and stony hill before bringing it back, those fleeting moments disappearing into legend. It’s not the American dream—it doesn’t end with fame and fortune, nor comeuppance for those who underestimated him. Instead, it’s the Australian ideal—putting the hard yakka in and being content to let the rest speak for itself. 

In many ways, the behavior of the Man and his small mountain pony stands as the antithesis of the tall poppy. It’s not about doing poorly or failing to get the job done—it’s about not advertising your accomplishments afterward, shunning praise and accolades for yourself while generously offering them to everyone else. Where the tall poppy is convinced of their own self-worth, determined to let everyone know they are the most capable person in the room, the mountain pony does their duty flawlessly and contents themself with knowing that, even (or especially) if nobody else ever finds out.

That is not to say there isn’t a dark side to this deeply egalitarian approach. It was former Prime Minister John Howard who famously declared that “if there’s one thing we need to get rid of in this country, it is our tall poppy syndrome,” blaming it for everything from economic recession to unambitious productivity. Indeed, in 1964, journalist and academic Donald Horne declared Australia simply a “lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.” 

On the other hand, the larrikin spirit—that quintessentially Australian distaste for titles, ceremony, and those who seek acclaim—isn’t all that bad. While I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend a nation composed completely of cynical bastards (like your author), I would suggest that suspicion of wealth, power, and authority is not a terrible thing. After all, brave indeed is the demagogue who would dare face the dry wit of an Aussie pub crowd.

At its best, the attitude of the mountain pony, that quiet achiever, makes us kinder and more perceptive, seeing through the veil of status with sardonic self-deprecation. At its worst, cutting down tall poppies makes us parochial, stifling progress, innovation, and even the most well-deserved pride.

So, my stateside friends, why don’t we meet in the middle? I’ll try and take on a touch of the tall poppy: have a bit more reverence for authority and wisdom, do my level best to skip the side commentary on ambition, and maybe even take a bit more pride in the day-to-day. But, as for you: that next time you’re stuck in a queue and itching to move forward, the next time that you feel you haven’t got the credit you deserve, the next time that you’re worried that things might pass you by …

Stop, think of that mountain pony from Snowy River, and take a breath—because whatever comes next … as they say back home, “she’ll be right.”

October 1, 2023