I like Canberra. I’d like it even more if it had been named ‘Shakespeare’, one of the options on the long list of possible names for the nation’s capital over a century ago. What’s in a name? Consider some of the other possibilities: Eucalypta, Kangaremu, Wheatwoolgold, even Thirstyville. Walter Burley Griffin wouldn’t have come near the place. At least the Shakespeare moniker would legitimise the drama of parliament.
Canberra means ‘meeting place’ in the local lingo. It may also mean ‘woman’s breasts’, after the twin peaks of Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain. Perhaps that’s the meaning Lady Denman, the Governor-General’s wife, had in mind when she pronounced the city’s name as ‘Can-bra’ in 1913. The Bard didn’t miss out completely. The founder of the Canberra Times was Arthur Thomas Shakespeare. So, all’s well that ends well.
All Canberra roads currently lead to Rome: City and Empire, the stupendous exhibition of ‘treasures from the British Museum’ on display at the National Museum of Australia. The same roads are also bringing cane toads, with two amphibians found in the city recently, prompting the ACT government to warn its citizens to ‘exercise caution’ around the toxic hoppers. The capital’s chilly winters might be its saviour, with the Queenslanders unlikely to hang around during the cold months. Where’s our Border Force when you need it?
Where else in the developed world would you encounter a sign on the road to the capital offering ‘Sheep manure $4 a bag’? That’s why Australia’s already great. The most disturbing sign was the volume of roadkill. I counted one fox, no toads and scores of kangaroos and wombats. It’s another cost of the drought, with the marsupials lured to the lusher but more dangerous pickings roadside. I wondered about the colourful crosses spray-painted on their bellies. It indicates that the body has been checked for a joey (baby wombats are joeys too). What a happy-sad task for wildlife rescuers.
From the roamers to the Romans. The exhibition’s more than 200 objects include coins and carvings, weapons and household ware, jewellery and sculpture. They are exquisite and show the spread of the Empire, with pieces plucked from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Nothing from Down Under of course, but Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome novels and Russell Crowe’s star turn in Gladiator have done much to keep swords and sandals popular.
No wonder the Romans were successful conquerors. The sharp bits on the heads of javelins were made of softened steel so that they bent on impact, making them useless to throw back. They were also ahead of their time on gender diversity, with a marble relief in the show depicting gladiatrices – female gladiators. Some of their other ‘social licence to operate’ measures fall short, however. The need to satisfy the demand for exotic animal hunts in the Colosseum caused a number of wildlife extinctions. Not toads, though.
I did my bit for the local economy at the gift shop. I confessed, when asked, that the Lego Roman soldier was ‘for my eldest child’. A featured quote from Marcus Aurelius neatly explains the value of studying history: ‘Look closely at the past and its changing empires, and it is possible to foresee the things to come.’ Our kingmakers on Capital Hill should heed these words. Coincidentally, we were booked into the Turnbull Suite at the historic Hotel Kurrajong, famous for being Ben Chifley’s abode while in Canberra and the place where he died in 1951. Not long after arriving we were ejected from the room. The door wouldn’t lock. Confidence was lost. With expectations unfulfilled, we shifted to another room.
For every roundabout in Canberra there’s a monument or memorial. One of the most significant and least known is the grave of Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges. It’s on the slopes of Mount Pleasant, overlooking Duntroon Military College, where he was the inaugural commandant. Bridges led the first division of the Australian Imperial Force. He died from sniper wounds received at Gallipoli in May 1915, aged 54. He has the distinction of being the only soldier killed in WWI brought home to Australia for burial (other than the remains of the Unknown Soldier). Adding to the symmetry, his horse, Sandy, was the only (living) Waler to come home too. Lest we forget, the remains of diggers are still being recovered and ‘laid to rest’ today, 100 years after the war ended. The simple and solid memorial was designed by Burley Griffin and is surrounded by wattle and gum. Very Canberra. To complete my homage, risking trespass (and the road-rage of my family), I drove around Throsby Park at Moss Vale, the home of Bridges’ Mum, on my way back to Sydney.
One of the newer must-sees in Canberra is the National Portrait Gallery, between the High Court and Questacon. The Gallery is celebrating its 20th birthday and presents the ‘human face of Australia’ through a fascinating display of paintings, drawings, photographs and busts. There’s always learning to be had. For example, Samuel Griffith, the first Chief Justice of Australia, translated Dante in his spare time. Ellyse Perry is the only Australian to have competed in the World Cups for both cricket and football. Senator Patrick Dodson was Australia’s first Aboriginal Catholic priest. And game show pioneer Reg Grundy, whose name is part of rhyming slang vernacular, sold ‘reg grundies’ before making his fortune in television.
It goes to show, Canberra’s well worth a Captain Cook.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free