For here have we no continuing city
But seek one to come
My father lifted me with straining arms. I was eye-to-nose with that man who was so familiar to me from the television. But he looked past me to the base of the steps below where a big white car waited, its front passenger door open and a chauffeur beside it. Expert in the unteachable political skill of non-engaged engagement, he was undoubtedly dealing with us. But his attention was focused 10 steps beyond; he gestured theatrically with those dark eyebrows, to the driver.
"Paul," my father Patrick said, although he was actually addressing the great man, "this is the next prime minister of Australia."
"Correct, comrade," he said. "I am."
"Shake hands," Dad said, again addressing – ordering – Edward Gough Whitlam. He extended his hand.
I watched from below as Dad, who had swiftly deposited me onto the ground, used both hands to envelop and vigorously pump that which he viewed no less reverently than God's. When Dad released Whitlam, my sister, five years older and a good deal taller than me, shook his hand, too. I didn't get the chance.
Then he bounced in great strides, a gazelle in grey flannel, down Parliament's steps and into the car. Dad watched admiringly as Whitlam's car disappeared into the mist.
Early memories become fickle with age. It's not always possible to inflame the flickering embers of recollection that smoulder around distant childhood experiences. But that chance meeting with Whitlam outside the provisional Parliament House during a family driving holiday from Melbourne to Canberra in early 1970 has always been much more than a mere smudge on my consciousness.
It is a defining childhood memory. I remember being irritated at not having shaken Whitlam's hand; that was, so I'd thought, the aim. But I was only six and incapable of fully processing what had passed between him and my father.
I recall, however, being unsettled by the sight of my solid, reliable father – modest, and always suspicious of fame and egotism – become a fawning, less certain somebody else in the glowing Whitlam aura. A discomforting unease visits me whenever that beautiful old building triggers the dormant memory.
But something else happened. It would take decades for me to divine the emotional place of that day in my parents' marriage.
Now I mostly understand.
Dad, an ALP man whose father served as a Labor councillor in 1930s Melbourne, was among the legion of fans under Whitlam's spell as the times propelled Gough to the prime ministership.
Mum, I recall, stood remote from the small group that surrounded Whitlam. She was small, ivory-skinned and raven-haired, strikingly beautiful in middle age. She reserved her intimidating dark-Irish stare for the most egregious offenders against the political, social and religious sensibilities that guided her. And so she glowered her daggers from the wings at the spectacle – at her entranced husband who'd abruptly dropped her son so he might clutch Whitlam, and then at her daughter shaking his hand.
Mum would have looked forward to that trip to Canberra. She had probably not been there since about 1955. Back when Robert Menzies was still tracking to become Australia's longest-serving prime minister. And back when Herbert Vere Evatt was making his mark as the most brilliant but flawed leader in opposition of a Labor Party that he was tearing apart. Our mother's memories of Canberra were vivid and mostly fond. In later life, she spoke of the Menzies charm and presence and of the avuncular Ben Chifley, who would bounce her brother Bill's daughter on his knee behind his desk.
As we walked to the car at Old Parliament House that day in 1970, Mum and Dad bickered about Whitlam, while Dad told us how, when the "stuttering idiot" Duke of York opened Parliament House in 1927, nobody had turned up and all the uneaten pies were buried at the spot where an administration building later grew. The public service, Dad said, was definitely built on meat pies. I believed him, of course. As we drove away, Dad raised his voice at Mum. I remember, because he did this so rarely. What he said didn't make sense to me. But I knew what I thought. I hated Whitlam. I hated politics. And I hated Canberra. I wanted never to come back.
Twenty-three years later I was moving in. Three sinewy men in black footy shorts, singlets and Blundstones unloaded from a truck what few possessions I hadn't either given away or sold in my haste to leave Melbourne. The truck was parked half on the clipped verge of a narrow crescent, canopied by mature exotic oaks in full, luscious foliage. We were out front of a block of copybook-neat apartments in Kingston, a suburb in Canberra's inner south that I had been assured (wrongly) was "lively" enough to provide me with the inner-city Melbourne trappings to which I was accustomed. I was 29, with shared custody of a little girl. I had just ended yet another relationship. I was in a deep funk, possibly – I realise now – due to my experiences in Bosnia, which I had recently visited for work. I was ready to walk away from a promising journalism career when I surprised myself by agreeing with my editor that I should move to Canberra to cover politics.
"Besides," he'd assured me, "there's heaps of single women there – you'll get loads of sex." This was the most compelling professional proposition that I'd had in a while.
"Excuse me gentlemen, but you can't park your lorry there," said a man of a certain age, wearing the standard garb of the retired Canberra public servant of that era: pastel polo shirt, pressed fawn slacks and loafers. "It's a public space and besides, the wheels will ruin the lawn."
Fawn Slacks was doing nothing to provide an auspicious start to my new beginning.
I was already an apostle of the cliche that Canberra was not of real Australia but existed to do things to it. My family had already been well and truly Canberra-ed. I was ready to tell the boys to take my stuff home to Melbourne.
That evening I went to the local supermarket. John Gorton, Australia's 19th prime minister, stood at the cash register before me, purchasing a flagon of cream sherry. He shuffled out on his walking stick and got into a Commonwealth car.
Hmm. Might be interesting after all, I thought.
Some people who live in Canberra genuinely don't worry about what anyone thinks of their city. And then there are those who say they don't care because Canberra is "a hidden gem" – "Australia's best kept secret" – and "we don't want everyone coming here, do we?" But when you've lived here for a while it's obvious that those who really don't care are few. Canberrans are notoriously satisfied with their lot. They also have a great sense of entitlement.
It's surprising, then, that they should be simultaneously so conspicuously self-conscious, hyper-defensive and incredulous that Canberra isn't Australia's envy. It's a tetchy defensiveness that is firmly rooted in Australia's underlying contempt for Canberra, a place that has been vilified and misunderstood since it was named a century ago.
Such contempt relies on a premise that bureaucracy is intrinsically useless because it is not profit-driven, and that there is no nobility in dedicating one's life to public service through the pursuit of civil society, scientific and environmental research, justice, defence, the arts or foreign service. I understand why so many residents find it deeply offensive and hurtful; the underlying viscerally held national sentiment is that not only is their city unworthy, but so, too, are its people.
But Canberra has no real option but to get over itself – to stop worrying about what everyone else thinks. Easily said.
Some things about Canberra irritate – even infuriate – me.
Nonetheless, after living here for 20 years I get angry when outsiders revert to the old cliches when criticising the city as a soulless place of endless roundabouts and meaningless public monuments, of sub-standard restaurants – a "lights-out" place populated solely by drone-like bureaucrats and politicians. That these criticisms are made by people who've rarely been here, learnt the city's story or its raison d'etre annoys me more because Canberra, as the national capital, is every Australian's city. "But it's boring," some of my friends say, condescendingly. "Nothing ever happens in Canberra – and its history is so dull."
I'm tempted to tell them about the aboriginal tribes that wandered the great plains upon which the city was built, about the tough-as-nails pioneers and Waterloo veterans who stole their land, whose convicts went wild and who then fought the bushrangers, and about the bushfires and the floods. I don't tell them about the stoic settler women, about the adventure of federation that led to a great battle of the potential capital sites, or about the World War I veterans, the sounds of shellfire still ringing in their heads, who constructed their capital.
I don't tell them because first they would have to understand Canberra is the manifestation of a dream – an ideal that a beautiful, well-planned and purpose-built city could represent the best of what Australian federation could aspire to. Canberra, it was envisaged, would be a display home for the country's anthropology and culture and learning, as well as its decision-makers. It would be Australia's objective historical memory and its conscience, its vanguard of scientific research and the showcase for its creativity. It would be a national monument to those who'd died in its conflicts and a repository of the archives, every Australian paper and book, the art and artefacts that signposted our complex road through nationhood. Canberra was supposed to symbolise the new Australian democracy.
But politics compromised it from inception.
Despite all the hurdles that Canberra has faced, its evolution comes – ironically and almost by accident – so very close to embodying the dreamers' dreams, and as a triumph of hope and enlightenment over cynicism.
Canberra is an accidental miracle.
In the beginning, the plains were a vast expanse of limestone. Then the native groundcovers transformed them into one great blanket of colour as the button daisies, bluebells and vivid yellow kangaroo grass took root in brittle, rich soil.
The eucalypt, melaleuca, casuarina and grevillea stuck to the edges of the rises and gathered in occasional thicker copses around the rolling hills bordering the plains. It was a perfect natural grassland furrowed with a series of bubbling streams and faster-flowing, darker brooks that connected a series of billabongs. The Ngambri were the first inhabitants. The Ngambri people wielded spears and boomerangs to take the emu and bustard, the kangaroo, wallaby and wallaroo, the bream and freshwater crayfish. They also needed weapons to fight off the others who trespassed to hunt and to steal their women.
It was Ngambri land originally. But others came, seeking permission to cross the rivers and in times of abundance to hunt the birds and animals and the fatty bogong moths that swarmed each spring. Some stayed.
This place could only have seemed like a woman: the two mountains to the north were her breasts, the basin – with its marsupials and moths, its birds and fish – was her fertile womb, and the wide expanse of snow-capped ranges to the south, her hips.
The argument about how Canberra earned its name will never be settled to everyone's satisfaction. But some insist, with good reason, that it is a derivative of the word "Ngambri", variously written by whites as Canbery, Canberry or even Kamberri or Kemberri, which might just mean a "woman's breasts".
Others maintain it means "meeting place", for that's what the plains were for the Ngambri who lived there and the many other peoples who passed by.
Most days I wander about Red Hill, a steep escarpment of protected native bush that stands behind my house. I go there to muse among the trees, to run through the elements with my dog, a black girl labrador who snuffles tentatively at the crevices beneath the volcanic boulders and around the great fallen trees that have been smoothed away, as if by sandpaper, by decades of sleet and breeze. The potent scent of the 'roos, blue-tongues, snakes and foxes arouses her twitchy senses. She chases the big eastern greys when they bounce into her pitifully short visual periphery. I sometimes think that even the dogs of Canberra are self-satisfied; in most other big Australian cities they must content themselves with ball and stick.
If I look north across the plains, it's easy to appreciate a decolletage, more gentle than buxom, between the mountains – Black and Ainslie. Because I know what to look for I can also discern the ghostly outline of a century-old cityscape – a utopia that would only ever find completion in Marion Mahony Griffin's breathtakingly beautiful pictures. Marion articulated the dream of her landscape architect husband, Walter Griffin, using a three-stage process that ended with watercolour and photographic dye images on roller-blind fabric. Wooed by her art, Australia chose the plan that Griffin somehow conjured in his office overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago over a period of just nine weeks. And then Australia mostly ignored the plan, abandoning the drawings along with the Griffins.
The land axis stretches out below me – an invisible line running from Parliament House and across the lake to the Australian War Memorial. This axis dissects a great inverted "V" that also begins at Parliament House. One of its triangular lines ends at an awkward place called City Hill that today stands isolated in the middle of a monolithic traffic roundabout. The other finishes at Russell Hill, the home of Australia's military leaders, who ignore and scoff at their political masters across a lake that, ironically, takes the name "Burley Griffin" from a man Canberra's ultimate planners so obstinately shunned.
A notional intersecting water axis cuts south-east to north-west across the Griffins' lake. The bones of the Griffin plan are subtly, though defiantly evident from up here on Red Hill, like the veins of a leaf when held to the light. Within and around the triangle you can still find elements of the faded geometric Griffin blueprint – in the wide boulevards, the hexagons and circles that have been filled in – with the more prosaic plans of others, with public monuments and buildings (along with suburbs in the name of prime ministers and early settlers) whose symbolism is largely lost on the country to which they were dedicated. Given Mahony Griffin's under-valued contribution, it seems appropriate that Canberra was thought of as woman from the Dreamtime.
I want to get closer to the truth, so I meet Ngambri elder Shane Mortimer at the National Museum at Acton – appropriately, he says, because long before and after the pioneer J.J. Moore started grazing there, the site of the museum was a sacred corroboree ground.
Mortimer is a direct descendant of Ija Ngambri, the Aboriginal woman who led perhaps the first settler James Ainslie from Boorowa down to the river at Pialligo.
Ainslie, the pioneer who settled Duntroon and had a child with Ija Ngambri, is his great, great, great, great grandfather.
I ask Mortimer: "Canberra comes from Ngambri, right?"
"So, what does Ngambri actually mean?"
Mortimer smiles. "No doubt whatsoever. Her womb is where Capital Hill is today."
Twenty years ago as the illegally parked removalists unpacked my possessions, Canberra had just turned 80. Nobody talked much about the identity of the place, let alone defended it.
The retired public servant in fawn slacks berating the removalists seemed to be some staged stereotype sent to test my resolve on my first day in the new city. "It's a public space and besides, the wheels will ruin the lawn."
I knew what was going to happen next.
One of the prison-tattooed heavy lifters cursed Canberra through missing teeth. "What are you movin' here for, you stupid bastard?" he demanded of me.
Fawn Slacks heard him. "There's no need for that. I'm happy to point you to the relevant ACT Government by-law about parking on a nature strip governed by a 'No Parking' sign," he said. "I should know – I am secretary of the body corporate here."
"Congratulations," jail tatts returned. "And I'm secretary of the Royal f---in' Australian College of Removalists. And I say the van's stayin' right put."
After unloading, the boys parted with a clutch burnout (no simple feat in a vehicle that size), tearing a length of lawn from the nature strip. Hours later the body corporate formally complained in writing.
I screwed the letter up, threw it off the balcony. It landed on the recently hosed terracotta tiles on the patio, immediately below, of the body corporate secretary.
Thus began my time as a resident here. Welcome. On that first day I vowed I'd give it six months. A year – tops.
We bought a house that looks down over the Limestone Plains, but restlessness was never too remote and we were never quite sure how long we'd stay. We moved to London, where I thought we might be forever.
But our Australian-born son became afraid of the outdoors and insects, as we structured his life around the European winter and formal play dates.
We watched the Canberra bushfires on TV in our London terrace while the snow turned to slush on our doorstep. We knew soon after we'd return.
As we flew back into a Canberra parched by drought, our terrified boy looked out the window and down at the dusty yellow plain below, scarred with the charcoal streaks of bushfire damage. The boy had no memory of Australia.
"Mum," he said, "you promised we were moving to a real city. There's no city here."
Yes, we had returned to a Canberra that was still unfinished, as it remains today. But a century after Canberra began, it is, miraculously really, a continuing city. My wife Lenore wept with happiness. We were where we should be.
This is an edited extract from Canberra by Paul Daley, published by NewSouth and released this week.
Paul Daley in conversation with Chris Hammer at the Copland Theatre, ANU, on November 15 at 6pm. See pauldaley.eventbrite.com or phone ANU Events on 6125 4144.