Does anyone care about the 100th birthday of the National Capital?

This is the start of the celebratory weekend in Canberra, with Tuesday 12th being the official birthday, one hundred years having passed since Lady Denman, the wife of the then Governor-General having named the new city on the site of the old Parliament House. At 11.00 on Tuesday those of us who live in Canberra — and perhaps everyone else in Australia — will toast the 100th birthday with whatever libation we happen to have before us.

Lady Denman did her job in a style anticipatory of the Oscars ceremony, taking out a card from a golden box and reading out the name, which was until then a tightly held secret. Apparently the agreement in Cabinet was that however she pronounced the name ‘Canberra’ would be the official pronunciation, and she placed the stress on the first syllable, not the second.

Lady Denman sounds like an interesting dame (and she became one in her own right later in life). Born Gertrude Pearson, she tried to avoid being married to Tom Denman, whom she met when she was 18 and had just come out. Her family was rich, but untitled, and he was ten years older and a Liberal peer. But her parents kept at her, and Trudie finally gave in. She was only 27 when she performed the naming task, in front of a crowd of 5,000, almost all of whom arrived from elsewhere, mostly by train.

The marriage wasn’t much chop, and Tom didn’t like Australia  much, because he was often ill with asthma and hay-fever, though Trudie and the kids enjoyed the experience in the colonies. They got back to Great Britain just before the start of the Great War, where Trudie, a feminist and woman of much energy, became involved in war work and suffrage politics.

Her main task during the war was in today’s terms entirely politically incorrect, being the Smokes for Wounded Soldiers And Sailors Society, which put together packages of 256 million cigarettes for beneficiaries before the war’s end. After the war she was, among other things, the first Chairman of the Family Planning Society and President of the Ladies Golf Union. During the Second World War she was Director of the Women’s Land Army. You can’t find out much about Tom, who went to war for a year and then retired into private life, dying three weeks after Trudie in 1954.

Trudie had a Sydney ferry named after her, and  a street in Canberra. Tom seems to be unrecognised. The town in the Upper Hunter in New South Wales that bears his name was named after his great-grandfather, who was Chief Justice of Great Britain in the first half of the 19th century. On the face of it, she would have been a much better Governor-General than her husband.

It is not clear that as many as 5,000 will come to Canberra on Tuesday to commemorate the naming event, and interest in all this is understandably tepid outside the city itself. After the ACT gained a form of self-government in 1988, Canberra was seen mostly as just another jurisdiction, with its own government, and a competitor for whatever funds the Australian Government was spending.

And from time to time it receives buffeting from critics about not really being a city, or being a form of unreality, or being full of bloated public servants, or all of that, usually by people who have only visited the place, or had spent only a brief time there. One such is a writer for the Age, Martin McKenzie-Murray, who also referred to its ‘weird remoteness’, a geographical description whose meaning escapes me. His diatribe got the backs up of correspondents in Canberra, and their anger puzzled him, though why he was surprised in turn surprises me.

My own response to this sort of empty-headed sledging is to agree at once. ‘Oh, I’m sure you’re right!’ I reply. ‘In fact, I wonder why I go on living there.’ After all, who would want an idiot like that as a neighbour? We left Sydney yesterday morning after a visit to the opera (yes, Canberra doesn’t have a decent theatre capable of staging opera or ballet) and passed a static three-lane queue that seemed to stretch from the airport, through the M5 tunnel, for ten kilometres or so. ‘Why would you live here?’ I asked myself. yet again. Sydney is an impossible city unless you have lots and lots of money, and can choose where to live.

Melbourne is a good deal better, mostly because of its topography, but it too suffers from the disadvantages of scale. No Australian city has the benefits of density that would allow really good public transport. And if it did, we would mostly be living in apartments, families as well as singles and couples, like those in European cities. There are costs to go with the benefits. Most people don’t live in Sydney or Melbourne anyway — they live in a part of whatever suburb their house or apartment is in. Our Melbourne children and grandchildren live an hour from the CBD, and live well too — but ‘Melbourne’ is a construct for them, not a reality. Yes, they can go to the footy, but that is an expedition.

I am grateful that I live in a beautiful city that is well planned, and small enough at 400,000 to be available to all its inhabitants. It has an extraordinarily powerful creative energy, which I enjoy a great deal. Yes, we pay a lot in rates to help pay for the benefits (no, the federal government does NOT pay for everything), and our petrol always seems to be much more expensive than it ought to be. We don’t get the benefits of great scale in prices for fruit and vegetables, and we have to go to Sydney for opera.

But as a model for what you can do with good planning and foresight it is famous around the world, though not in our own country, even though its suburban planning has been imitated in every other capital city. I’ll drink the toast on Tuesday, and thank my lucky stars that I have been able to live in such an enjoyable, lovely place — currently, I understand, judged Australia’s second most liveable city after Adelaide. I like Adelaide, too.


Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Fay Thomson says:

    So we have Lady Denman to blame for the addiction to nicotine by so many soldiers, many of whom developed emphysema or lung cancer. I’m thinking of my father WW1 and now my brother WW11 has emphysema although he quit a long time ago.
    I was always charmed by my mother-in -law’s story of how as a young apprentice tailoress, was given time off to collect threepences to buy cigarettes for the troops and as they marched down George St to the awaiting warships the pretty girl basket on arm, handed out packets to whoever reached out for them.

  • Terry Stokes says:

    I don’t suppose there’s much to be done about anti-Canberra prejudice. Some of it certainly derives from envy of the long gone generous funding of the city by the federal government – a lot more, I suspect, from what emanates from federal politicians. I have lived there several times, once for three years, and like it a lot. Sydney and Melbourne are certainly far to large to be in the least liveable and, for my money, the opera is not worth the traffic – hence I live in Hobart. I must say I feel ambivalent about over-development of Canberra’s Civic – on the one hand it generates what passes for a peak hour traffic jam and undermines the other centres, Belconnen, etc., but it also gives Canberra a real CBD and makes it feel more city-like. Also I don’t think its relatively small size limits the cultural opportunities in Canberra so much as proximity to Sydney. Wellington, New Zealand, where I also lived happily for several years, and which is about the same size as Canberra, is much further from Auckland and actually has a superor cultural life than that three times larger city.

  • donaitkin says:

    Thanks, Terry. Good points, all. I too enjoyed Wellington when I lived there very briefly, and agree that its cultural life seemed better and more creative than that of much larger cities (couldn’t speak of Auckland).

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