The Aussies have found the merits of temperance: so now they keep sober tourists out of their pubs

I'm in Sydney this week to address the Australian Sociological Congress on postmodernism and after. According to preliminary calculations I should have about seven clear days in which to do nothing but stroll about the city. The paper itself won't bite too deeply into my time. I've a standard piece on postmodernism which I always carry around with me in case of academic emergencies, and I reckon that it will take me no more than an hour to spice this up with a few well-chosen Australian ironies filched from Howard Jacobson's definitive Land of Oz.

There is, of course, the conference itself. Two whole days. But I'll feel no great guilt about skipping the four sessions devoted to ethnographic studies of aboriginal life. I've read quite enough John Pilger in the NS to know that what aborigines need is not another sensitive sociological study of their distinctive ways of conceptualising kinship but the immediate return of a few hundred thousand acres of stolen land.

There was a time when I couldn't travel abroad without a little notebook in which to jot down Forsterian insights, but nowadays I find my greatest pleasure is reserved when the reality I'm encountering corresponds to the description in one of my guide books.

In this respect, Sydney has already done its utmost to make me happy. Even if I'd wanted to write about the ferry terminus at Circular Quay, I couldn't have found a better word than Fodor's "bustling"; Bondi beach on Monday was every bit as "raffish" as Time Out insisted; waiters and receptionists all said "G'day"; businessmen dutifully set off for work in shorts and trainers, and I distinctly heard a man on the monorail refer to "whingeing Poms".

So when I went out last night for a quiet drink in the Rocks, I was confidently looking forward to ticking off a few more stereotypes. I thoroughly enjoyed my pint of Guinness at Molly Bloom's in the Mercantile Hotel ("boisterously convivial") and then strolled along George Street to "a popular drinking den with original colonial sandstone", where I was astonished to find my way barred by a large Asian bouncer.

For a second I considered the possibility that he was employed by the management to ensure that sensitive-looking tourists were not exposed to the typically noisy interior. But even as I searched my memory for a cross-cultural gesture which would convey my 40 years' experience of noisy drinking dens, he placed one hand on my shoulder and said, quietly but insistently, "No entrance. You drunk."

It was difficult to take in the words. Here I was, standing politely outside an Australian pub which my guide book described as "rough, tough and sometimes downright insane", and being told that I was in no state to be allowed inside. I reckoned I'd only compound the absurdity of the situation by loudly insisting I was sober, and opted instead for a smart shift of posture to prove I was in full control of my limbs. But even as I crossed my arms I could see from his face that he'd have been singularly unimpressed if I'd followed up with a backward double somersault. "You drunk," he said again.

Back at the hotel I consoled myself with a Cooper's Sparkling from the mini-bar and composed a footnote for the drinking section of the major travel guides. "Take care. Australians are so determined to impress strangers with their new-found temperance that it is now common practice to exclude completely sober tourists from their pubs." Otherwise, you can take it from me, as well as from Fodor's: in Australia, the cliches are still having a ball.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?