Saturday, 27 October 2007

Australian Capital Territory

JOHN Batman was a very strange man. In 1835 he sailed from Tasmania to the Port Phillip district of mainland Australia and found beautiful and valuable lands. He decided he wanted them, so he gave the local peoples twenty pairs of blankets, thirty tomahawks, one hundred knives, fifty pairs of scissors, thirty looking glasses, two hundred handkerchiefs, one hundred pounds of flour and six shirts. In return he claimed possession of 500,000 acres of land from the port to the mountains behind. He drew up a 'contract', so-called sealed by the local tribes inscribing a symbol relating to the group on a tree. They probably just thought he was being curious.

Batman named the river Batman Creek and the town which he planned to build there Batmania. Today we know it as Melbourne.

Sydney and Melbourne are traditional rivals. Sydney was the first colonial settlement, after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, and the state of Victoria - in which Melbourne is located - did not receive independence from New South Wales until Queen Victoria got bored with residents campaigning in 1850. Melbourne had greater wealth and a larger population for many years, with Victoria the location of the first Australian gold rush. Melbourne also held the first ever Olympic Games in the southern hemisphere. Comparatively recently however, Sydney has become the number one city once more. It has the internationally recognised monuments, it held the succesful year 2000 Olympics. I cannot hide the fact that it was Sydney I was looking forward to seeing, not Melbourne.

Such a rivalry posed a problem when choosing a location for the nation's capital. In 1913 a new city was built, approximately equidistant between the two. Named Canberra after a local Aboriginal word, it is one of only two state and territory capitals not named after a person (the other is Perth in Western Australia). Canberra is the butt of many jokes, and is not internationally renowned as a holiday location. Which, I suppose, is why I was taken there on Wednesday.


My first impressions weren't good. It was not that there was anything particularly wrong with it, but there wasn't anything particularly interesting about it either. It had everything you could need, and within an accessible distance. It was set in parkland, so it was clean and airy and spacious. The shopping centre in which we had lunch was very clean, and also a lady playing a grand piano (which I almost walked into). It was just very sterile, perhaps androgynous.

But then we were taken to the excellent National Museum of Australia, which stuck out as an architectural anarchist - it was red, black and yellow; curved with spirals; it was showy and bold. It was everything that Canberra is not. After an hour and a half there we were off to Parliament House, which was once again everything Canberra did not appear to be. It was set into a hill, an enormous 4,700-room complex with Aboriginal and Greek stylings in the foyer, leading on to halls and debating rooms with tapestries of bush scenes. Just like Westminster, the House of Representatives and the Senate had green and red seating - but these are gum-green and red ochre, the colour of the outback. We were led around by a guide who told us of Australian policies, and the scandals and mysteries of Prime Ministers (Harold Holt, for example, went swimming in the sea one day and never came back). A portrait gallery of important figures refused to present politicians as stuffy, by-the-book characters but as genuine people - many had their arms open in embrace, were sat in unconventional poses or sat at desks covered in clutter.

So I realised, sterile and characterless as Canberra may appear, at all levels it is trying to be something different. It doesn't have the harbour that Sydney has; it wasn't built on a gold rush like much of Melbourne. It was designed to be a new capital. It is based around a triangular grid for goodness sake!

For these reasons, I like Canberra. I just won't be going back in a hurry.

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