A view of Canberra from an early morning balloon ride. Photo: Simone DePeak
CANBERRA. By Paul Daley.
NewSouth. 327pp. $29.99.
Reviewer: IAN WARDEN
Canberra, by Paul Daley.
Perhaps it is because Canberrans are especially well-educated and ''clever'' (two truisms about us recited in this clever book) that this Canberran reviewer has done a lot of semi-scholarly homework before writing this review.
As well as Canberra, I've read some of the previous five books in this series of portraits of Australian cities, of which I think Daley's becomes the seventh. So far the NewSouth series of these eccentric, pictureless, small (but well-muscled) books has brought us essays about Hobart, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Alice Springs. Perth is coming soon.
The five, including Canberra, that I've read make a very stimulating quintet. The series, bless its volumes' eccentric covers (sepia-toned photographs), encourages us to delight in Australian diversities. Someone who saw me with Daley's Canberra wondered about the need for a whole book about a subject as allegedly small and dull as this city. But when you're clever, there's scarcely a street in a city (let alone the city itself) that isn't book-deserving. The person bored with any populated place (think of the life that swarms in Llaregubb, the dull-looking village of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood) is bored with life.
Daley's soliloquy about this city will give joy and disappointment. To the disappointment first, because, as a typical Canberran, I have more of a talent for whingeing than for rejoicing.
Daley wastes time and space on the weary old issue of non-Canberrans' stupid criticisms of Canberra. He wonders if he is being too ''glass-jawed'' about this, and, yes, he should worry about that. Canberrans fumed a bit about this in the 1970s when we were just a kind of Wagga Wagga and had no self-esteem. But today no one, other than him and the excitable Robyn Archer (who has only just discovered it) cares about it any longer.
The author takes lots of long walks on Red Hill, with his dog, but one would have liked him to have got out and about more to places where dogs can't go, to occasions and places where there's a roar of Canberra greasepaint and the smell of Canberra crowds. To analyse their Canberraness, he might have gone to Summernats, to a Canberra Symphony Orchestra concert, to the ice-hockey, to Belconnen, to a Raiders' game, to Canberra's prison and any occasion and place frequented by Canberra's tattooed and pierced. Instead, his is a rather sheltered, ''Old Canberra'' perspective (although to his credit Tuggeranong and Gungahlin do get some attention). Similarly, most of those he's chosen to interview about Canberra are the same old reliables and predictables.
It's not a criticism, but Daley's Canberra is the most passionless (not the most dispassionate) of the books I've read of the series. In the second-last sentence of the book, his wife Lenore Taylor weeps ''with happiness'' as the family arrives back here after living in London. But during the book, Daley shows only fondness for Canberra and doesn't weep for joy or gnash his teeth with anger at it.
Is this to do with Canberra's nature or with Daley's, or some blend of both? Perhaps Canberra is the problem. Some cities can be loved and hated with the intensity with which we love and sometimes simultaneously hate our human loved ones (Delia Falconer's feelings about her Sydney and Kerryn Goldsworthy's about her Adelaide feel like that). But Canberrans only appreciate Canberra in the way they appreciate a well-run gymnasium. Perhaps Canberra is especially hard, among cities, to love the way we love a beloved person. Some cities do feel made of flesh. And almost all cities, like all people, have distinctive smells. We love that about people and about cities. Falconer writes excitedly about Sydney's smells, as if they contain pheromones (which they do, of course). But Canberra, deliberately set in a ''bracing'' place with ruthlessly clean air, is an unnervingly odourless, meteorologically hygienic city.
Daley has had some special degree of difficulty the other authors in the series haven't. Each of them has some big somethings about their city that Canberra has no equivalent of. Goldsworthy has, and makes hay with, the pink-shorted Don Dunstan and his era (Daley has done his best with Jon Stanhope but it's not the same) and with the notorious dark ''weirdness'' of Adelaide's serial murders, abductions and disappearances.
But Daley has done brilliantly well with what Dunstan-less, weirdness-less Canberra does offer.
For example, his narration of the history of the place, and of the city erected on it, is done with flair and aplomb, making Canberra - among other things - the best concise, broad-brush Canberra history yet.
One major joy of the book is the way in which he gives Canberra's NIMBYs, who may be the world's nastiest and most unforgivable of their kind, some very hard slaps.
It would be good if all of Canberra turned into one big book club and read Canberra, so as to be able to natter about it, be stimulated by it and fight duels over it. The book is unique. Because Canberra is such a young city, it has never had a soliloquy like this written about it before.