Canberra

Canberra gets a lot of bad press. Some of it is deserved, but less that you might think.

Being the capital of Australia, it suffers the same curse which afflicts Washington DC and Brasilia; namely that it is an invented settlement which has been located for reasons of politcs rather than practicality. In the case of Canberra, a political tussle between Sydney and Melbourne at the time of Federation resulted in the capital being placed somewhere between the two.

The site couldn’t be considered to be particularly prime. In a country where all the major settlements are on the coast, Canberra is several hundred kilometres inland. Prior to to being the site of the national capital it was an enormous sheep station, of which remnants are still visible. Far from the moderating influence of the coastal breezes, Canberra is monstrously hot in summer and bitingly cold in winter. Supply of water is an ongoing issue. Even apart from these impairments, Canberra’s relatively small size (around 400,000 people) and location within New South Wales means that it often ends up being an appendage of Sydney, both politically and logistically. The population is pretty much a 50/50 split between working class rural New South Welshpeople and people from other states who have moved to Canberra to work for the Federal Government.

2jLVchmDRZm8RB4IaTDDUA_thumb_31df
View across the “Parliamentary Precinct”

Canberra’s crime, in the eyes of the rest of Australia, is twofold. Firstly, as the home of Australia’s government, it is the obvious target of the Australian population, who like nothing better than to whine and snipe about the politicians which they selected to represent them. Pollie-baiting is a national sport, pursued with enthusiasm by the vast majority of the population, most of whom could do a better job. When asked why they don’t volunteer, a common ground for refusal is having to live in Canberra. Circularity ensues.

The second great failing of Canberra, universally agreed upon, is that it is boring.

SO BORING.

CANBERRA IS SO BORING, I COULD NEVER LIVE THERE.

I think this is interesting. What exactly do people feel they lack?

The place is monstrously over-endowed with cultural institutions of the National variety. The population are in general highly educated and interested in such things as art, beauty, and the meaning of life beyond their tragic office potplant. As a result there are no shortage of cultural events happening, seemingly all the time. So it can’t be that, although it must be said that Canberra isn’t exactly¬†edgy, despite the large student population.

Is it the architecture? Perhaps. The Canberra suburbs mostly look like they were constructed in around 1965 and are under a misguided heritage overlay. It’s an ocean of cream brick and tidy front nature strips out there, with the exception of the houses where nanna has clearly gone to seed along with her garden. The government buildings are either grim 1980s brutalist horrors or 1930s faux-Westminster, but they’re not without their charm. As they’re scattered around the city there is no ghetto of particularly terrible architecture.

Y8z9RPTWQ1Sfl93UG11EDw_thumb_31bb
The National Library, laterally. 60s civic architecture at its finest.

The city is surrounded on all sides by mountains and a gigantic national park, so there’s clearly no excuse for boredom on the part of the adventurously-inclined. I recall a school camp I went on in said park – I walked for two weeks and had no conception that I was half an hour’s drive from the capital.

I think that when people say that Canberra is boring, they mean that there’s nowere fun to get a drink. I’m not entirely convinced that this is a vital component of a good urban existence, but I may be in the minority here. Nightclubs and late-night drinking venues are thin on the ground. The hidden ones in basements are particularly lacking. And it must be said that Canberra’s cafe culture, although developing, is not quite there yet.

When it comes down to it, I wonder whether it isn’t one of those shorthand terms for a city that perhaps once was true, and is now stuck. Think Paris and romance, New York and excitement, Sydney and traffic.

fECIDExpQfebx4TYMnHM%g_thumb_31bf
The relatively un-maligned National Carillon

If so, it’s become pretty ingrained into the cultural mindset, even for the locals. I went on a boat ride around Lake Burley-Griffin, the artificial lake in the centre of town around which are clustered the major institutions. Surprisingly, the captain drove us round for an hour describing the sights in terms of the utmost cynicism and disdain. For him, the High Court resembles a stack of shipping containers and the National Museum is a hodgepodge of lame symbolism with a crane stuck on the top. Only the National Carillon escaped global condemnation, although there were some acid commets on the choice of music and the closure of the function room within the tower.

I do feel that Canberra is under-appreciated as a destination. Most of the frustrations of major cities are absent and as my friend Tommy says, it’s basically massively over-funded country town. For those who are considering a tree change, you could do worse than move to Our Nation’s Capital.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_319a
Saturday night at 7 PM, Braddon

 

14 April 2019, Canberra

Sometimes I drink instant coffee at work. I joke that I do it because sometimes I need to hurt myself in order to feel something. The truth is really that I just like coffee.

It’s tough to live in Melbourne and not have strong views on espresso style coffee. I mean, I like it, and I can detect a bad cup. But a lifetime of nasal dysfunction and a general lack of interest in culinary culture means than Melbourne’s febrile cafes are mainly interesting for the interior design.

I feel that becoming a connoisseur of something, or any other kind of refined aesthete is a risky business. It’s a radically effective way to reduce your enjoyment of mediocre products and to overall decrease life satisfaction. Why would you create in yourself a need that can never be fulfilled?

Anyway, sometimes you find yourself in a situation where a quality product is simply unavailable. Apartment hotels in Canberra on a Sunday morning are just such a place.

7 April 2019, Union road, Surrey Hills, Victoria

In this election season I have been forced to conclude that Clive Palmer’s electoral office are trying to sabotage him.

I mean, look at that poster. Looks like it’s been put together by the year nine work experience kid. Awful Photoshopping, lurid colours, typography that could only be worsened by the addition of WinDings. It’s like the graphic designer hated Palmer’s guts and is playing a gigantic prank on him.

Let’s not forget the slogan. Clearly Clivosaurus wants to be Australia’s Donald Trump, hence the slavish imitation. But in Australia, I don’t think the Cheezel-in-Chief is a sensible role model.

This election may be tragic. It’s already comic.

6 April 2019, Surrey Hills Uniting Church, Victoria

Most churches in Australia give off a strong air of swimming against the tide. The buildings are spic and span, gardens watered and mantels dusted by a committee of keen parishioners. But the demographics are inescapable. There are no young people.

There are twee little poems posted on the bathroom wall about not leaving the lights on. The notice board lists various worthy causes about which the parish should write to the government, with the subtext that what those brown people need is a dose of religion. There is even a magazine extolling the virtues of the church’s youth wing and its members. Yes, they’re exactly the kind of people you’d expect.

Increasingly the church halls are being used for community purposes, just as they always were. But now it’s rehearsal space for the local ballet school, rather than a cake sale or knitting bee. How else to keep the lights on? Money talks.

I wonder whether I’m seeing the last gasp of mass organised Christianity in this country. No doubt many people will still believe. But between child abuse scandals and the even more devastating curse of irrelevance, I suspect that church-going as we know it is fading away, fast.

5 April 2019, Camberwell, Victoria

In these peri-Brexit days, the imperial tide is pretty far from the shore. But you still come across a few pieces of flotsam, washed up and left stranded in an ocean of transnational sameness.

The stern Victorian aesthetic is a bit out of place in a country that prides itself on being egalitarian and easy-going, but the truth isn’t hard to find. The foundry that spawned this cast-iron erection was in Castlemaine, 90 minutes drive away, amongst the eucalypts.

No matter how hard the immigrants try, the echoes of the old country keep rattling round your head. Culture is malleable, but it’s also immortal.