Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Capital! Capital!

Last week, former prime minister Paul Keating (who, apart from this particular little stuff up, has always been one of my favourite Aussie ex-PM's) decided to engage in a little bit of Canberra Bashing.

Getting stuck into the National Capital isn't exactly a new sport. Ever since Canberra was built as the nation's capital, it's become somewhat de rigeur in Australian conversation to express regular and loud dislike of the city. I suspect that part of the reason for this is that the four main industries in Canberra are Government, Public Service, Defence and Tertiary Education and all of these tend to be rather transient by nature - the fact that a big percentage of people who come to Canberra do so knowing that their time here will most likely be temporary makes them, I believe, maintain something of a distant relationship with the place: You're better off not to really like a place that you're just going to have to leave in a year or two, after all.

Now, I'll admit, I've been guilty of this myself. Hell, when we moved here, going on 3 years ago now, I wasn't a particularly happy little camper. I'd always thought Canberra to be a cold, sterile, dull and contrived little place, and wasn't about to change my opinion any time soon.

But here's the thing - Canberra won me over. Pretty damn quickly, too. To the point where I now get mighty pissed off when people can't resist the urge for a cheap shot or two at my adopted home town. Then I blog about it.

But let's not get all negative. Here are a few:

Things I like about Canberra.
(or, Paul Keating can kiss my arse on this one)

Right, to start off; Canberra isn't a big city. It's basically an overgrown country town, and I'm the first to admit that this won't be to everyone's taste. It suits me, though. There are places here where you can drive between cattle paddocks, while still in full view of Parliament House. I think that's cool. (I also think it's cool that the ACT govt actually employs cows to graze alongside the roads in some parts of the city, in order to keep the grass down for bushfire management purposes. Don't see that in Sydney now, do you Paul Keating?)

But - and here's the good thing - owing to the close proximity of a lot of Senior Public Servants and Pollies to Canberra, we also have pretty much all the facilites of a major city - good cinemas, nice restaurants and so on. We also have Sydney a mere two hours drive up the road, which for an ex-Western Australia boy is just like a trip to the mail box.

But that's all general stuff. Here are some specifics...

This is Black Mountain Tower:
When it was built, there was a fair bit of controversy about it. A lot of people didn't want a big, concrete spike on top of Black Mountain, but I love it. Just about wherever you are in the city you can see it. One of the things I love most about it is that whenever you're driving in to Canberra, from any direction, you can see it from about fifteen or twenty kilometres out - it's generally the first sign you get that you're nearly home. When we did our big drive over from Perth, after six days on the road, the sight of Black Mountain Tower there just a little down the highway was a really welcoming one.

Next: Parliament House:
(Actually, this picture shows both the old Parliament house in the foreground, and the new Parliament house in the Background.) Another former PM, Malcolm Fraser, used the same booklaunch as Paul Keating to suggest that the new Parliament House should never have been built. This makes me sad. If you get to Canberra, take the time to visit NPH - it's an iconic building, a masterpiece of architecture and design, and despite the fact that it's now over 20 years old, it doesn't look at all dated and, according to an interview I heard on Radio National recently (but can't find a link to) is still one of the most functional parliamentary buildings in the world. It's also layered with meaning, which appeals to me. The lawns that you can see running up either side were a deliberate aspect of the construction, designed so that the public would have free and open access to the 'roof' of the parliament at any time, day or night - this was to symbolise that in Australian democracy, the people would always be above the politicians. It's a lovely piece of symbolism that was ruined only when the Howard Administration, sick and tired of all the terrorists who were driving their explosive-laden 4WD's up on to the roof and blowing up the parliament, installed chain link fencing and concrete crash barriers to effectively block off the roof to anyone not prepared to go through a full security check. Thanks, John.

That aside, Parliament house is a seriously beautiful building.

Okay - now the bibliophile in me:

This gorgeous looking building is the National Library of Australia. Words cannot express how much I love this place. I wrote all of Into White Silence and Nathan Nuttboard Upstaged at a desk in the main reading room. It has the most incredible resources for any writer, reader, or just general book fanatic. It also looks out (as you can see from the photo) across Lake Burley Griffin, and has the most gorgeous view of Mount Ainslee and, (naturally) Black Mountain Tower.

Other fantastic National Monuments:

The National Gallery and new National Portrait Gallery are both great to walk around in. Seeing Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles hanging on its wall in the NGA is a must. The National War Memorial is a moving and at the same time fascinating museum of our involvement in international conflicts from the Crimean War onwards

Okay, now just a couple of more prosaic things I like about Canberra:

In Garema Place, in the middle of Civic (kinda like Canberra's CBD) you'll find this Historic Merry Go Round:
It was originally built in the early 1900's and for years operated on the St. Kilda Forshore in Melbourne until it was put up for sale in the mid-late 1970's. The people of Canberra all put in and purchased it, restored it to full working order and installed it in Garema Place, where it's been ever since. When, as a 12 year old, I visited Canberra with my family, one of my enduring memories of the entire trip was a ride on this merry go round which was The Best Merry-Go-Round-Ride Ever! (It was the middle of winter, about 3 degrees, and the operator didn't want to come out of his little office and turn the ride off, so we got about a fifteen minute ride). I love that the ride is still here, and a couple of months ago, we gave Toby his first ever merry go round ride on it:

Other things - out at the showgrounds there's a weekly Farmer's Market that has to be seen to be believed. Everything from fresh, locally grown truffles, to all the usual fruit and Veg is there, all grown in the immediate region, all bought direct from the growers and producers, all very, very yummy. One of the lovely things about living here is the proximity to lots of fresh, top notch produce.

There's the fact that the Snowfields are only an hour and a half drive south. Probably the only capital city in Australia where it's feasible to go skiing for a day.

The coast to the east is similarly easy to get to, and just as gorgeous. Bateman's Bay, Tathra, Eden - all stunning and easy to pop down for a weekend, or a summer camping trip.

I could go on... but I won't. This blog entry has already taken up too much of my day as it is. I guess the point I'd make is that Canberra is a place it's easy to mock, especially from a distance, but it's also a place where people live, work, play and have made their lives, and as such has a lot going in its favour, too. I'm probably being defensive here, but it'd be nice if that was remembered, some times....


  1. Did I ever mention that I spent four very happy years in Canberra as a teenager, Tony? and my brother lives there with his family, and one of my best friends, so am a reasonably frequent visitor. So I'd add to your list Tilly's in Lyneham, Weston Park, where I learned to drive, and my friend Annie's kitchen. Also, in our family the Black Mountain Tower is known as The Onion. Cheers! Judy

  2. Good point, Judy -

    Actually, this post is just a very, very abbreviated list of my major highlights. I didn't mention the woodwork gallery at Bungendore, the Balloon festival, Floriade, Old Parliament House (for anyone who grew up in Australia during the 70's and 80's, this is a great visit - it's been preserved exactly as it was the day the Hawke Govt moved out - right down to the hair dye in the PM's private bathroom...)

    Bascially, if you're not dead set on living in a huge metropolis, but still like your city conveniences, then it's not a bad place to find yourself.

    We've also had several lovely breakfasts at Tillys. I second that motion.



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