In a recent Chaser sketch, Julian Morrow dressed up as a “citizens’ infringement officer” in a yellow fluoro jacket. He walked the streets of inner Sydney conducting a baby-name audit. Where appropriate, he handed out fines.

“Sebastian,” a Balmain mother said proudly, holding on to the pram.

“Bit pretentious, don’t you think?” Morrow said. “That’ll be 70 bucks.”

In Glebe he found a baby with his own given name: another $70 penalty for pretentiousness. The next baby was named Maddison. To be helpful, her mother spelled it: “M-a-double-d-i-s-o-n.”

“Double fine,” Morrow deadpanned.

“What?”

“Bogan name.” He tore off the infringement notice and handed it to her. “With a bogan spelling.”

I didn’t think you could call someone a bogan. Even a bogan, I thought, doesn’t want to be called a bogan. It is a term so derogatory it is double-edged, condemning its user as a snob with something to prove at the same time as slagging off its target. Then again, in a society squeamish about identifying class differences – up or down – maybe everyone has their own private bogan, someone slightly to the west of them.

Bogans, like ‘niggers’ and ‘poofters’ before them, are reclaiming the term – only they are funnier. At the National Young Writers’ Festival, held in Newcastle this September, there was a session called ‘Smarter than your average bogan’. The blurb read: “White trash is the new black. From cashed-up bogans to Howard’s battler, everyone wants a bit of bogue up ’em. Join some of Australia’s most articulate white trash as they discuss stubbies, alcoholism, sluts, unions and other finer points of bogan culture.”

The NYWF session sounded good, but there was a lot of terrific stuff at this festival and choices had to be made for the afternoon. There was the Bad Writing Piñata of Cathartic Shame, where you could bring your bad writing, read it aloud, glue it to the piñata hanging from a tree and then whack it to shreds. There was a zine fair, where authors defying the electronic age could sit in the park and sell their lovingly handmade A5 booklets of prose, poetry and art. Shaun Tan, the brilliant graphic novelist, was giving a master class. There was a session about baby boomers called ‘You are all going to die’, which had the potential to be, at the very least, as cathartic as the Piñata.

The audiences so far had been engaged, hopeful, electric. They seemed less cynical and more original than my generation had been in the early ’90s. Back then, questions at forums seemed always to avoid whatever had been talked about by asking instead about what had been left out. These were the -ist questions: What about the feminist, racist, postcolonial angles? For this new generation, the idea that women or races other than white would have a different view of things goes without saying. It’s the bogan view that’s new.

In the morning, my husband and I took our two small girls to the other festival on that weekend in Newcastle, the Mattara Festival. The NYWF brings people from all over Australia, but the Mattara Festival is local. It consisted of a standard-issue travelling fairground with jumping castles, clown-mouth games, a hook-a-duck sideshow, a giant blue plastic slide with hessian bags, a merry-go-round in which the horses didn’t go up and down anymore, and a scary human centrifuge called the Yo-Yo. There was fairy floss and fried everything.

The NYWF co-director Nic Low told me there is no overlap between the two festivals and their patrons. “Except when some of us might be a bit drunk or rowdy in the evening, and they drive past yelling things at us,” he said.

At one end of the Mattara Festival was a stage. Kimberley Anne’s Dance Academy was performing. Teenagers in leggings and orange wigs performed a number that began in the Christine Keeler chair position. When they finished, some five- and six-year-olds in black lycra followed them on. My girls went quiet with expectation. The announcer, possibly Kimberley Anne, introduced the number. “Ladies and gents,” she cried, “We are proud to present the following item: ‘A Tribute to Bindi Irwin’.”

I opted for the bogan seminar. The festival club was full of people, mostly in their twenties, beautiful and eclectic in tattoos, porkpie hats, sundresses, pixie boots. There wasn’t much room. I sat down at a table where I thought I recognised a poet I admire, but the session began before I could be sure.

On stage were two men, one a songwriter and the other a short-story writer, and two women, a visual artist and the convenor, Kelly-lee Hickey. All of them wore false handlebar moustaches (unless the songwriter’s was real). And all of them were drinking UDLs: Black Douglas and mixer in a can.

Hickey apologised for being slow because of damage done the night before, which she wasn’t, and then launched into the first of several impromptu speeches in language as eloquent as it was liberatingly, eye-wateringly obscene. She spoke about writing as a tribute to the world and people in it, and about how Australia was founded by another country’s bogans being sent out to stake a claim to territory on the other side of the Earth, in turn dispossessing another people.

The visual artist, Chayni Henry, said she wanted to immortalise Darwin “for after my death”. Her pictures represent life as she knew it growing up in the housing commission in Humpty Doo, where people fucked under the stairwells and killed each other in the flats. There was discussion about how bogans need to differentiate themselves from ‘Howard’s battlers’ because they don’t necessarily agree with his definition of them, nor his policies.

The songwriter, Mitch Harris, spoke about writing a song encouraging girls to give union boys a “lick-up”, “because ‘union’ is now a dirty word”, and he wanted to support them. The crowd laughed and roared. Suddenly, Hickey pointed to the back of the room and yelled, “Tiiits!” Everyone turned around. A row of women had lifted their singlets as a sign of appreciation. Hickey lifted her own shirt. “Tiiits!” She turned to Harris. “Show us your tatts,” she ordered. He got bashful. “Your tatts!” she thundered. Slowly, he stood up and lifted his T-shirt over a cushiony belly. The letters were about 15 centimetres high, in an elegant font that looked like Times New Roman: H O P E.

“Yeah!” cried Kelly-lee Hickey, doing a two-fingered salute. “Tits ‘n’ tatts!” But a tit-flash is not the same as a tatt-flash, and she knew it. Her next question to the panel was about “the Sharon”, the female bogan. “She’s not some dopey moll under the thumb of her man,” she said. Chayni Henry added, “If you’re a bogan, you don’t suffer wondering what people think of you. You don’t give a shit.”

When the session opened up for questions, a softly spoken woman in a rabbit-skin jacket made a comment about bogan power, about Bec and Lleyton Hewitt “moving copies of New Idea”. Then, spurred on perhaps by the freshness in the room, she admitted that she wasn’t born a bogan but was “a wannabe bogan”.

“That’s fine,” Mitch Harris said. There are all sorts of bogans: “music-lovin’ bogans, workin’ bogans, dole-bludgin’ bogans”. The others piped in: “born-again bogans”, “po-bos [post-bogans]”. Someone said, “faux-bos”, and people laughed. Behind me a voice said, “Abo-gans”.

When the session finished, I turned around. I’d remembered who he was. “You’d be the Abo-gan,” I said.

“That’s right.” It was the Aboriginal poet Samuel Wagan Watson. We chatted for a while. He told me he never thought he’d get out of Brisbane: “I thought I’d marry my high-school girlfriend, have kids and die there.” He’s about to marry a Finnish woman. We talked about his Norwegian publisher and about how his German readers like to emphasise his German heritage.

I walked out of the dark room to find my children. I realised that what bothered me about Kimberley Anne’s little black-clad girls doing a tribute to Bindi Irwin was not boganism. It was something more like the prime minister’s ‘hogging the mourning’. It was the dishonesty of using an emotion generated by a set of events for political (or ‘artistic’) advantage. Here, the dishonesty involved using small children to give a performance with the pretend gravitas of death (Steve Irwin’s), while pretending to protect them from just that (calling it a tribute to his daughter, who is alive but in mourning). This gave the performance its false sentimentality, and its cunning unauthenticity. ‘Pretend’ and ‘pretentious’ both come from the word ‘praetendere’: to stretch forth, to claim. It is to pretend to be or do something that you are not: to honour when you use, or to be better than another because of your view of your class. Either way, it’s just not bogan.

Perhaps to be a bogan is to expect so little and have so little expected of you that you define yourself by your lack of pretension. This is not a bad place to make art from: social pretensions are not useful if you are trying to see things for what they are. All the panellists had dealt head-on with death and with sex. There was a wild, articulate happiness about them that you rarely see at festivals, along with a mordant sense of the weight of a single life. They knew where they’d come from and they knew their power, now, to show the world what it really is.

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