“Canberra bubble” just announced by the Australian National Dictionary Centre as the 2018 word of the year is only meant to describe the insular habitat of federal politics and federal politics’ chronic navel-gazers.
And yet, is there a sense in which Canberra the city is a “bubble” in which all Canberrans live?
Even when you love this city (and for decades I have been singing its praises and celebrating its nuances in my unforgettable columns) it can feel as if it is a city in a bubble. It can feel, figuratively, as if it is one of those domed cities so popular in science fiction.
And even if Canberra is a bubble, a kind of bourgeois bubble in which we choose to live our First World lives, insulated from the wider world, perhaps, just perhaps, the city’s strange bubbleness is in some ways a wondrous thing.
I have an ajar mind on that but, well-travelled in recent years and visiting oodles of other cities I do have a strong sense of Canberra being unusually aloof from its geographical place, from its nation and even, for this bubbleness has its mystic dimension, from Real Life (whatever that is).
So for example I spent some time this year in Aberdeen, Scotland, and as usual (for I do this in every foreign city I visit) found myself doing my muddleheaded best to compare and contrast that city with my own metropolis, Canberra.
It is quite hard, in spite of my enviably huge vocabulary, to express the character-differences of the two cities in words. It is that, somehow, Aberdeen (like so many cities that are not Canberra) does seem to fit effortlessly, seamlessly, appropriately into its place(s). In Aberdeen’s case it fits first into its place in the whole of Scotland and then into its place in what is sometimes thought of by poets and geographers as The North.
Canberra by contrast feels less a true part of its places (first of Australia and then of the whole Sunny South) than a kind of decoration of them, like an out-of-context ornament (perhaps a valuable and beautiful one) on a mantelpiece, or like a gorgeous earring that adorns (but somehow doesn’t quite suit) its wearer.
Then, reinforcing this poetic impression, there is the way in which so many people seem to be living in cushioned Canberra exactly because the city is so enbubbled, so protected, so vaccinated against the nasty viruses of common Australia.
How one would like a dollar for every time one meets a Canberran who shudders at the thought of Canberra becoming more like a real city.
This love of this enbubbled city explains, in part, the almost supernatural power of NIMBYism in Canberra. The explanation that it must be due to something in Canberra’s water, though it has a superficial plausibility (we shouldn’t totally dismiss it) is less satisfying than the explanation that the bourgeois bubble that is Canberra attracts and keeps those conservative, vulnerable, unadenturous souls who love the enbubbled life. And for NIMBYs of course their neighbourhoods are precious bubbles within the bigger, protecting, hubba-bubble bubbledome of our insulated city.
Lest I seem entirely anti-bubble I commend to you the latest Quarterly Essay, Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age.
Lots of this column’s thinking readers (you are my favourites) will have already read this much-discussed and very timely discussion of how hard it is now to keep the precious bubble (my word, not the essayists) of our inner lives unpopped by the new inner-life-invading, inner-life-erasing digital forces of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Waze, Google Maps, YouTube and all the others.
“The companies shaping our new reality have powerful tools,” Smee grieves.
“They promise to connect us on social media; to entertain us on reality TV, YouTube and Facebook; to identify, target and even diagnose us through surveys, questionnaires and tests; to win our votes, enlist our support and market their wares and services. All this is being done. Meanwhile, the idea of a dark, inner being, silent, inaccessible – the part of us that comes into view while standing by a window at dusk, while walking in the suburbs at midnight or while listening to a melancholy song – has come to seem exotic and unfamiliar, like a rumoured lake in a forgotten forest … Is this idea of the self, from which whole histories of literature and art have been woven, a mere fiction? Or is it just a stagnant entity, a despised leftover of an exhausted and tattered humanism?”
As homework ahead of next Sunday’s column I ask thinking readers to read the essay so that we can discuss together whether or not we still have as a part of us that “dark inner being, silent, inaccessible … that [sometimes] comes into view …”
I know that I’m still in touch with that being because, darkly, silently, inaccessibly, he came into view this morning (I am writing this on Thursday) as I walked my dog (he, too, seems to have an inner life) in the immense, deserted bubble of a rainy Weston Park beside that living but melancholy body of water, Lake Burley Griffin.