This city's too good to be kept a secret
Canberra from the air: My, how it's grown in the past hundred years. Praise be to the pioneers who settled here and carved out a city; there's no need to be defensive.
I GET asked a lot to talk about Canberra, to audiences both within here and elsewhere. The home crowd invariably has pretty firm views about the place.
The speaking invitations began a couple of years ago - about the time I started to examine the city's beginnings, what came before it, how it fitted into Australia's colonial and post-federation story and, not least, what the joint has come to mean to me personally.
Among those who I'll refer to gently as ''Canberrans of a certain age'', the conversation can take a pretty serious turn when I get onto the subject of what Canberra means to people in other states. The curious thing is that while your Canberran of a certain age claims not to care two figs about the disparaging things that are sometimes said about this city, it is blindingly obvious that the contrary is often true.
''Well, I don't give a damn what they think - let's just keep it a secret because we don't want everyone coming here. Do we?''
I often respond: ''Err, don't we?''
I rarely respond angrily to negative jibes about my adopted city. Mostly, I just find it pretty boring when strangers to whom I'm introduced interstate say ''oh, I'm so sorry'' or ''you poor thing'' or ''so, putting your therapist's kids through grammar school, then?'' when I say where I'm from.
Once or twice I've publicly recounted how, when I stopped for petrol in rural Victoria a couple of years ago, a bloke at a neighbouring pump, sneering at my blue Yogi numbers plates, couldn't fight the primal urge to demand of me: ''Given yourself a pay rise too?''
It was clearly a potent combo of the bats in his belfry - and the recent Remuneration Tribunal ruling, which he'd heard about on Jackass FM, that had given federal politicians (and every-bloody-one else because, you know, they all live off the public teat up there!) more money.
''Mate, there's 226 MPs in Federal Parliament and only four live in Canberra,'' I said wearily. Then immediately regretted it. Because he did remind me of Ivan Milat, minus the hat and the mo - or at least of John Jarratt, the actor who played, with such sinister effect, the character based on Milat in Wolf Creek - and I wondered whose jokes my children would complain about when I was gone and whether they could possibly learn to ease up on their mother's cooking, why I hadn't mowed the lawn or agreed to give 15 bucks to that poor guy who knocks on my door same time every year asking if I want him to blue spraypaint or stencil my house number on the verge (I really don't), or stopped watching Midsomer Murders, sorted out the gas bill and whether I had actually really just dissed a seriously dangerous man or just another Hawthorn or St Kilda supporter.
And here's the thing - he didn't have a clue in the world what I was talking about. He just kind of looked at me sideways, bovine-like really, his eyes revealing a thought process that ran through a gamut of retaliatory options including whether to: (a) shape up; (b) dial 000; or (c) flash me his I drin, kshoot and I vote (sic) tattoo.
So kids, don't try that at home. Or anywhere.
Which goes to the point I'd like to make. While your Canberran of a certain age might get a bit prickly when it comes to how the rest of the country regards his city, the capital's kids are way less self-conscious. It's a good thing. I find it telling that the true signs of Canberra's maturity, as it celebrates 100, can be found in the attitudes of its young (by which I mean those aged 10 to 35), who tend to have a more holistic view of Canberra, for all its strengths and faults.
Teenagers look forward to leaving here as young adults - to study and to work elsewhere, and of, course, to travel the world and experience life in this continent's other fantastic ''big'' cities. But more and more return as global citizens with experience of ''city life'', to settle and raise their own families, mindful of the unique magic that a Canberra upbringing might offer their kids too.
The elders have paved the way, settling here and opening up the suburbs in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, planting their trees and establishing the tight communities that flourish from north to deep south across the Limestone Plain today. They have carved out a city about which the rest of the country might once have been hostile, but about which it is now, at worst, ambivalent and increasingly curious.
That generation is entitled to be a little defensive.
We talk a lot about ourselves here in Canberra. But I fear it's sometimes the wrong conversation. We know what's good about the place: we celebrate its distinctive seasons, delight in the bush all around and enjoy its rich cultural offerings. But I think it's true, perhaps, that we're a little oblivious to the weird, otherworldly machinations of federal politics, bureaucracy and the national security apparatus that happen around us. It doesn't hurt for others to shine a light on that aspect of who we are (such as in Annabel Crabb's forthcoming Canberra Confidential: Spies, Lies and Scandals), and to call it for what it is: odd and bloody interesting and, yes, funny.
But the broader Canberra story is a nuanced, complex tale about how a city might symbolise the peaceful Australian federation and the bold democratic, egalitarian ideal underpinning it - and the momentous tragedy of war that almost scuttled it. It's a story we need to tell to the whole country - not just retell ourselves - because it is a story of Australia.
The year-long celebration of the Canberra centenary is a good opportunity to do that. Robyn Archer is a fine storyteller and an excellent ambassador for what will be a nationally inclusive celebration.
Her welcome message is loud and clear: wherever you are in Australia, please come and sample the city - join the party and please listen to what it's all really about.
And then, when it's all over, we can talk about something else. And relax. And get over what anybody else may - or may not - think.
Happy birthday, Canberra.