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Calling all Ladies of the Lake

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Columnist for The Canberra Times

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1973: Canberra's Lady of the Lake was not original, but we did it so well. See 41 seconds of film on National Film and Television Archive website. Photo: Courtesy Southern Cross Austereo

1973: Canberra's Lady of the Lake was not original, but we did it so well. See 41 seconds of film on National Film and Television Archive website. Photo: Courtesy Southern Cross Austereo

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there*, and one of the things they do is hold beauty contests like Canberra's 1973 Lady of the Lake tournament.

As previously reported, the National Film and Sound Archive's recently-shown bouquet of footage of old film of Canberra (shown outdoors, under the stars in the Senate rose garden) included a tantalising 10 seconds of a 1973 Lady of the Lake beauty contest.

In the unforgettable glimpse, young Canberra women posed in swimsuits. Eventually the one in almost the most negligible bikini of all won, although it may filmhave been her personality that mattered most to the five judges (four men, one woman). Those of us who saw the titillating 10 seconds gasped and giggled, for this was the sexist way we were before Germaine Greer and earnest sisters made us wake up to ourselves.

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Gang-gang announced a determination to find out more about this lost ritual (daring to hope, so far in vain, that some of the Ladies of the day might contact us). In Melbourne Helen Tully, the NFSA's Television Curator and Melbourne Office Manager, left twitching by what she'd read in Gang-gang, spent ''a day of intense research'' looking into that Canberra day (Saturday 17 March) in 1973.

She has done brilliantly.

Thanks to her you can see a slightly extended (but still only 41 seconds long) version of the teasing footage shown a few weeks ago in the rose garden. Just go to the National Film and Sound Archive website and scroll down to the right hand corner and look for the Lady of the Lake. Here on Gang-gang's page, from the Austereo film clip, is a still panorama of the 15 beauties (in the film you can see that they are windswept beauties, their hair flapping around their lovely heads).

AS NEW: The buggy shed, now restored, was once used as a cottage for migrants.

AS NEW: The buggy shed, now restored, was once used as a cottage for migrants. Photo: Rohan Thomson

It emerges that the contest on that March day was part of an Aquatic Carnival (part of the Canberra Week festivities) organised in just three weeks by the ACT Health Services National Fitness Council and held on and beside the uninvitingly beige lake's West Basin. About 8000 people attended.

Canberra's Cathy James, from Griffith, was the winner of the Lady of the Lake competition. In the film (it is silent film, which adds to the sensation of looking at something very, very dated and old) you see her showing delight as the announcement is made, and then sashaying forward to be draped in her sash by minister for the capital territory Kep Enderby. He was one of the judges, and in the film you can see he and the others earnestly writing down their impressions of the personalities of the contestants.

We know the names and ages and marital status and suburbs of all of the contestants. The contestant from far-flung Holt had made the longest journey. The youngest was 16 (she was one of five teenagers) and the oldest was 23. Six of them, aged either 22 or 23, were married. Both sexes married far earlier then and when (don't hold your breath awaiting this) the sorely-missed Lady of the Lake contest is revived (perhaps beside the urban, lakeside beach we've just been promised by the Gallagher government) the age and marital status (not that either is our business) of today's contestants is bound to reflect the fact that today the average age of an Australian woman at her first marriage is 29.

This columnist is calling the 1973 jamboree a ''beauty contest'' but in 1973 the female judge, Jo Spencer, called it something else. She told the Canberra Times the event was ''to be judged differently from normal fashion quests, the object being that it reflect the natural mood of the day''.

Does this mean, we will all ask ourselves as we watch the footage, that Cathy James has won because she is wearing the most fashionable swimsuit?

We repeat our request to anyone, especially a contestant, who played some part on the day to contact us.

Alas, the Lady of the Lake quest wasn't an original brainwave of the kind clever Canberra is famous for. It had often been done before. For example in 1938 there was what a Queensland newspaper called a ''quest for North Queensland's most popular and beautiful girl''. The winner won the title ''The Queen of the North - The Lady of the Lake''

* The famous opening line of L.P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between.

 

Buggy shed story brings back fond memories

Last Wednesday's story concerning the heart-warming news of the Australian National University's sensitive and successful restoration of the 1913 buggy shed (literally from our city's ''horse and buggy days'') was especially warming for the heart of Ray Hinton.

''My maternal grandparents were the long-term occupants of the Constable's Cottage (beautifully maintained on today's Liversidge Street) and turned the cottage's buggy shed into a rentable two-bedroom cottage for migrants, such as the Hungarian migrant family (of

the 1950s) you mentioned on Wednesday.

''I also lived with my grandmother in the main house for the first three years of high school in the mid 1960s and would visit another migrant family living in the buggy cottage on Friday nights to watch television.

''My wife and I had the opportunity last year to look through the cottage on one of the organised walks and we saw the poor state of the buggy shed [yes, in May last year when Gang-gang did a melancholy story on it the shed was a roofless ruin] which at the time looked to be on the way to demolition. So it's good to see it restored.''

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