Date: August 19 2012
My cousin Anthony O'Brien once built a bridge so that he could travel across the Merri Merri Creek to Quambone when there was any water in the Merri Merri, which was seldom.
We used to say of this fine creek, flowing for I guess about 145 kilometres between Gulargambone and Sandy Camp in central western NSW, that generally water didn't flow in it, but on it. This was, alas, a part of the design dilemma. One of the design problems in the flat country where Anthony lived was that if there was water on the Merri Merri there was a good chance that there was also water on the ground nearby, and, the roads being dirt, you did not much reduce your chance of being bogged simply by bridging the creek. Yet the Merri Merri, in rare flood, could move water fast enough: the fall of altitude averaged half a metre to the kilometre, which was phenomenal in country where the fall of the not-so-far-away Darling averaged 15 millimetres to the kilometre.
In any event, Anthony had to tie his bridge to a tree, lest it float away if there was a flood, which was about the only time he needed it. Otherwise, one cut through a track across the creek without wondering whether the next creak of the bridge's timbers would be its last.
That fine bridge, and several others, used only in the direst emergencies, across the Back Creek in the near vicinity sharpened my interest in bridgework from an early age, an interest heightened, from the time I first went to school as a 10-year-old boarder near Tarben Creek in Sydney. I was a bit of a myall so far as cities were concerned, but this did not faze Mother Geraldine of St John the Baptist Preparatory School for Boys who told me, a few days after I arrived, that my mother had made arrangements for me to visit a dentist in Macquarie Street. She gave me two shillings and firm instructions, if not in writing.
I was to walk up Gladesville Road until I came to the end, and turn left and walk up Salter Street until I got to Victoria Road. Then, at the bus stop I was to wait for a 500 bus, pay the sixpence fare and ask the conductor to tell me when the bus, then travelling along George Street, had crossed King Street. I was to get off, cross the road and walk up King Street until I got to Macquarie Street, and then walk along until I found the number 235. After the fang-snatcher had attended to me, I was to reverse the process and come home. All things being equal I should still have a shilling, because the fare was sixpence.
My completion unscathed of this exploration was, I still think, a feat something akin to the boy's finding his mum's house in London in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. I suspect the average modern social worker would look somewhat askance at a mother, or even mother superior, who set such a task for a 10-year-old stranger to bitumen roads today, but I do not resent it. Along the way I got to see a lot of bridges, including one at the very beginning of its construction, the modern-day Gladesville Bridge.
The old Gladesville Bridge, about 300 metres south of the modern wonder, was a nondescript affair, if a very important connection, because it was, at one time, the only crossing of the Parramatta River, as Sydney Harbour was there called, before Parramatta. It was also a matter of intense interest to me because I had never before seen, or even imagined, a bridge that could be raised so that big ships could pass underneath. That happened several times a day, causing traffic jams on Victoria Road, and happened on both sides of my first trip on a double-decker bus.
That delay made easier the sight of construction of the bridge in progress - a magnificent concrete arch still, I think, the longest of its type in the world. Behind it in clear sight was the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one of the most recognisable in the world. Nearby too was Figtree Bridge - soon to be linked to Gladesville Bridge by Tarben Creek Bridge, and further along the trip were the Iron Cove Bridge, the Glebe Island Bridge and Pyrmont Bridge, all fine enough in their ways but not by any means as memorable. In due course, the Anzac Bridge replaced Glebe Island, and that too is a fine bridge. Throw in one of Australia's earliest sandstone bridges, the Landsdown Bridge still forming part of the Hume Highway, and one realises that Sydney has some of the best bridges in the world. They are better than in New York, Chicago, London or Paris, other great cities with memorable bridges.
I am moved to write of them because Thursday marked a day of progress in one of Canberra's bridgeworks, a flyover across Canberra Avenue for the Monaro Highway. It is a very ordinary construction of no particular artistic or engineering merit, resembling in theory, design and execution rather more the bridge Anthony built than any of Sydney's bridges, though it seems to me, in my dotage, that it has taken longer to build than any of Sydney's masterpieces, and - I should not be in the least surprised - probably cost more. It is an altogether undistinguished and completely forgettable addition to the stock of the national capital, along with such recent predecessors as the equally expensive yawn, also taking as long to build as Chartres Cathedral, caused by putting a third dimension into the Kings Avenue-Parkes Way junction.
Sardonic interest in each has been heightened, as was the building of the Gladesville Bridge, by the unaccountable delays caused by bridge work. On most days, of course, there would seem to be about a kilometre of road closed to a single lane while a single worker dusted a bolt, and several others drank tea well away from the road. As with much Canberra house construction, there would seem to be short fits of prodigious energy, followed by long periods of apparent inactivity - never, however, permitted to cause any unblocking of the highway.
But on Thursday we arrived at the point where the long-blocked side road off Canberra Avenue into Ipswich Street was reopened, suggesting that a formal opening - we all hope by bold Gary Rake of the National Planning Authority himself - will occur imminently in the next decade.
Meanwhile, in parts around Quambone and areas near where I was born, most of the public bridges have been replaced as a function of public works, drought or unemployment relief over the past decade. I could readily think of a dozen that, if not particularly uninspiring, were of no greater complexity than the Canberra Avenue flyover, but, I expect, built at a fraction of the cost in a fraction of the time.
Perhaps the stately progress was a result of NCA or ACT government panic after one of their bridges collapsed during a concrete pour on the Barton Highway. It could not owe anything to an unwillingness to spend unlimited amounts of public money and public time. But it owes as much, I suspect, to a want of vision, of boldness, of taste. For Canberra, it seems, if we cannot have the second-rate, we must have the forgettable. Bring on Anthony O'Brien, I say.
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