I’ve rarely met an Australian who doesn’t feel given a happy licence, as soon as I say where I’m from, to tear into my hometown, or offer condolences. For many of them, their only experience of Canberra is as a metonym in the news for the government, Labor or Coalition, alongside some dubious decision of policy. Or, if they were unlucky, their experience might extend to the infamous, bleak ‘Year 6 trip to Canberra’, where students are dragged through the miserable, lightless warrens of Parliament House. That trip seems to have been created to disaffect the Australian population from the workings of parliament and instil in them a kind of Pavlovian boredom on hearing the word ‘Canberra’.
Then, there’s the large population of non-Canberra expatriates imported in for public service and making regular, pining trips back to the outside world, complaining about the lack of things to do, the freezing winters, and the excess of roundabouts.
By the time I reached high school in Canberra, most kids would refer gloomily to where we lived as a hole they couldn’t wait to leave. The first time I heard the term ‘hole’ used like that it impressed me greatly. When I moved to Melbourne for the first time at age 18 to start my undergrad, I found I could win a quick laugh and accelerated inclusion by answering where I came from while hanging my head in mock-shame.
After some years of acting ashamed, I moved back to Canberra for a little while and finally let myself love the place. And how I now love the place. I love the roundabouts. I love the weather. The traffic runs smoothly without the constant interruption of red lights, and, look, honestly there’s an element of the playground to getting around when your stomach drops a few times on your way anywhere. Although it may be cold in winter, it’s just about always sunny, so the coldness is cheerful—and you can thaw very efficiently. And I love Fyshwick, I do. Famous home of brothels and fireworks. But also of bleak and beautiful warehouses and wide roads that are eerily empty on the weekends, a hundred practical hardware stores, and an excellent fresh food market.
Shane Danielsen wrote a great review in June’s edition of The Monthly, complaining about the under-representation of a real and complex suburbia, rather than the simplistic ‘dismal purgatory’, in Australian art. Among some of the people I’ve copped Canberra-shaming from, their scorn could be notched up to the fact that Canberra is still more suburbia than city, and that its vocal detractors are finding a short-hand way to signal their cultural capital—along the accepted lines ‘city is culture, suburbs are ignorance’.
But Canberra has a brilliant little arts scene. There’s the spaces and funding to do it, and will and resourcefulness where there isn’t. It’s small enough that it doesn’t really make sense for artists to split off into sub-genres, so gigs and exhibitions show a kind of diversity and variety that seems for the most part stimulating to me. It’s hard for a uniformity of aesthetic to take root in Canberra, as I feel it so often does in big-city arts scenes, because there are too few artists, of too disparate visions, and, although it may be for lack of alternatives, audiences are supportive of the strange and odd-ball mixes that result—the crowds at nearly any opening or gig are big and cheerful.
House gigs in Canberra are common, which makes them more affordable and adds the kind of conviviality or intimacy that comes from being hosted. On a cloudless winter night when the stars were so close, but the frost was making quick work of my ears, the way to keep them was to find the house where most of the Canberra arts people were drinking cask wine from mugs in a few small rooms. I made friends and accidentally became part of a band myself while standing in the door frame on the edge of a packed lounge room as a two-piece thrashed away on drums and guitar and someone offered around vegan caramel slice. That night on the bill there was also a folk singer-songwriter, a noise musician, and a hardcore band.
Canberra’s visual art world can be just as unlikely. A couple of weeks ago, a fledgling gallery in Fyshwick called Tributary, run by and mainly exhibiting new artists, was able to put on an exhibition by the great Australian artist Peter Maloney. Besides drawing a different kind of audience to the gallery and causing a good mix-up of the budding and the blooming, Maloney welcomed the input of a young local musician, who developed a mixtape to be played alongside the work. I’m sure these crossovers between new and established artists happen elsewhere, but the odds seem in their favour in this small city where worlds can overlap so easily.
For all types of artist, I think there’s something about the physical place of Canberra itself that is strengthening.
There’s an unparsable part of my love for Canberra that’s nostalgia. I smell the air, the certain angle and quality of the light filters through my eye, and I feel returned to myself—to the smells and colours of my childhood. Linked to that, I love the special loneliness of Canberra: the suburbs, separated by nature reserve, with barely any other foot traffic, but big native trees and bird calls, and mountains underfoot or gracing your line of view in the distance. The air, in a city built on a plateau among mountains and surrounded by bush, is clear and still and tastes good, and you feel a little bit closer to the top of the sky. Aloneness in Canberra takes on so much poetry and dignity that when I lived there I’d much more often and comfortably choose to be alone instead of in company.
In Melbourne, with fewer tall trees and no visible horizon, your own loneliness is an ugly thing that reverberates between you and the buildings closest to you. There’s no sense of a beyond–mountains, gums—that you could walk to–pull yourself up and towards. There’s no visual cue for a greater perspective than the one you woke up with. A walk in Canberra offers your mind something else to rest on. Its suburbs are not on a grid, but full of curves and cul-de-sacs and strangely shaped blocks. It is very possible to get lost in Canberra, even in a suburb mostly known to you. To me, the ability to lose your way is the ability to feel free.
I don’t know whether it’s something related to cultural cringe that has led to the national scorn of Canberra—that we can’t believe we’d have a capital that was worth much. Or whether it’s as it should be—that’s it’s healthy for the home of parliament to be the butt of the joke, to keep our parody lively and to keep our measure of our government strictly in step with the value of the work it does. But Canberra, as a place, has got some stuff. It’s not so bad.
Anna Thwaites is an editor at Scribe Publications who lives in Melbourne, but was born in Canberra.