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Canberra love

Crikey decided to rule on the great debate over whether Canberra is a lovely place to live or a dud, so we asked some of the best writers around: you. On Monday we launched a comp for people to make the case for whether Canberra is wonderful or terrible (or something in between). We received a flood of entries, some in poetic form or set to music, some stretching to essay length. The overwhelming verdict? Canberra has a phalanx of supporters, and there are plenty of good things about it. And if you’re a Canberra-bagger — well, that’s exactly what Canberrans want you to do, because they don’t want you ruining their small-town haven. The winner, as judged by Crikey’s Alan Davies and Cathy Alexander, is Julian Zytnik, whose entry reminds us there’s more than one solution to a good city (“multiple equilibria” as an economist might say). Here are our finalists.

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Canberra is for Canberrans. Shops are hidden inside suburbs, you can’t really find anything by just wandering around. It’s not made for visitors, and that’s the way the locals like it, especially when those visitors all seem to hate Canberra so much – why cater for such bastards? Although it doesn’t really help on the tourism side. — Andrew Dempster

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Please don’t myth-bust the Canberra stereotype, it is a well-kept secret enjoyed by those of us who live here. We do not need a Sydney Morning Herald journalist’s approval. We like our short commutes and our 20-minute rush hour that allows full-time workers to have hobbies like underwater hockey and mediaeval battle re-enactment. We do not need the approval of a big-city art critic, we have the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Front and a myriad of random public art sculptures, often involving sheep and other animals … and we have skywhale. Each year in Canberra there is more music to see, coffee to taste, restaurants to eat at, shows to see and festivals to attend. It is a town that is intent on leaving behind its beige and vanilla beginnings, but please don’t tell anyone or everyone will want to live here. — Comfortable in Canberra

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An acquaintance of mine reckons if you’re going to drive drunk, Canberra is the place to do it. Wide roads, heaps of lanes and barely any people driving after 10pm. — Hugo

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At work I sit here with a frown
Wondering how I came to be in this God-forsaken town.
The streets here are dead at six;
This place really is out in the sticks.
I don’t find Canberra too pretty;
Was there not a better choice for our capital city?

Paul Keating was right about this place;
it is a great mistake, I agree with his case.
That our nation deserves a proper government seat.
A place where people want to live, now that would be a feat. — Dave Smartt

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I wake up to the sound of singing birds in the tree outside. The sun is shining as it does most days in the clear, high -altitude blue sky. I am warm as I eat breakfast outside  in my grove of citrus trees, which grow well in this climate. I get ready to drive stress free for 20 minutes to  park and and then view the movie Blue Jasmine in a trendy city complex. Time for a coffee first. Later I will lunch in an amazing renovated retro cafe with wonderful service and food. Maybe a wine? Where am I? In Canberra. — Barbara Dawson

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Having missed the deadline for the little Crikey contest about whether Canberra is a hellhole or a great place to live, I’ll leave it to the Greek Australians who have contributed so much to our national capital to set their countryman the Duke of Edinburgh right about the city he disparaged after a quick drive through. For me what makes Canberra a uniquely great place are the people who live here. The Canberra I know and love has at its heart, its reason for being, public service — a community where the principal purpose is not the pursuit of personal gain but of serving the public. Oh, that other parts of the nation shared its very unselfishness. Australia would be a better place. — Crikey writer and resident of the Canberra region Richard Farmer (hors concours) 

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(To the tune of Camelot)

The first sod turned a distant moon ago here:
July and August cannot be too hot.
And there’s not limit to bull-shit here
In Canberrallot.

While weddings are forbidden thru December
For allowances to be claimed from the pot.
By order, summer flies through February
In Canberrallot.

Canberrallot! Canberrallot!
I know it sounds a bit bizarre,
But in Canberrallot, Canberrallot
That’s how per-quis-ites are.

A leader must not fall till after sundown.
By eight, the mourning grog must disappear.
In Shorten, there is not
A more congenial spot
For Lead-ership shaftering than here
In Canberrallot. — KJ. Lewis

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I spent a week in Canberra one afternoon. — Alan Lander

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Canberra-bashers don’t get Canberra because they don’t look hard enough for it. It’s a garden city and public servants’ town, and therein lies its quieter, more reflective quality. It doesn’t need to be “urbanistic” by matching the private sector cities with their packed chaos, branded skyscrapers and marketed vibe. Before I went to work in Canberra for two years a friend told me (to enthuse or warn I don’t know), “You don’t meet people in bars there, but lounge rooms”. After months getting lost in the serpentine streets, hating the faded buildings and fake Irish pubs but making some friends, I started to figure out what she meant.

Canberra doesn’t leap out at you like some Big Piece of Fruit on the highway. Yes, it has flaws, but in falsely judging the entire city as not “humanised” or lacking a “sense of community,” critics ironically rely on some skin-deep observations. — Julian Zytnik (Hahndorf, SA, and formerly proud citizen of Gungahlin, ACT)

*For more anecdotes, suggestions and odes to our capital, click through to the website(A centennial year poem)

a crass grass ridden place
hidden behind civic sheen
empty streets laden
in publicservant

its conceit
that it counts, somehow
brown nosed cow
far away from the real game

choked by cloying carefully composted
conservatrite bullshite
dry in yr face death winds blowing
off the Monaro plain

the frost circles widen
around the roundabout parade
public carrion birds circling the hill
circling inwards for the kill

a compromise stillborn
grown into a classless tasteless suburbinane sprawl;
a junked-up townie wasteland;
a white commodore drawl-ville

come visit the inhuman theme park toy town!
see the horse tradin’
in political unobtanium!
do smell the stigma martyr and pistil!
about-face the subsidised pageant of national propagandorum!

chalk topped hills canter into summer fires
but a fillip inverts the entire scenario into
a cemented dangerous cancerous cantanker
and cold as a fuck in snow is Canberra. — Inchiki

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The night life’s uninspired. The food’s overpriced. There’s no beach. Tilley’s is popular. The CBD has all the charm of Kabul, only without the risk of excitement breaking out. Time- and cash-rich public servants trawl allhomes.com.au. Primary-school kids fill otherwise hollow museums within the city’s inconveniently sacred geometry. There’s no denying that the place is nothing like wherever you’ve come from. Yet, for mine, it’s exactly this “something to do” deficit that makes Canberra such a unique playland for the adventurous at heart.

Having so many nerds trapped and scattered throughout the bush inspires a beautiful desperation to create and share ideas and community. Social sports, board games, poetry slams, backyard gigs, anything. The city is refreshingly resistant to much of the commercial entertainment that dominates elsewhere.

Some complain that Canberra is planned. I hate to be a pedant (of course I don’t), but everywhere’s planned. Normally badly. It’s no romance to say that every day, while I’m cycling through clean air by the lake and watching the sun set over the mountains, hundreds of thousands of poor suckers are crawling along Australia’s capital city freeways. — Chris Endrey

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Canberra is usually bagged by people who don’t live here, who tend to see what they want to see (if they visit at all). Good planning means that Canberra has escaped much of the urban blight that troubles other cities. It is pollution free. It’s close to the countryside and the snowfields – truly the “bush capital”. It has four seasons — autumn and spring are spectacular, and even winter has an invigorating sharpness in the air. What everyone dislikes about politicians gets projected onto the Canberra community — which never elected them! — Ray Edmondson

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I live in a mid-priced house, two minutes’ walk from bush with kangaroos hopping through it. It’s a pleasant 15-minute bike ride to “town” and 30 energetic minutes to work. The Canberran landscape is affirmingly nourishingly beautiful. Particular favourites are:

  • The way the afternoon light caresses the folds of Black Mountain above the lake.
  • The Brindabella Ranges painted in 5 shades of receding Japanese blue.
  • The way the greens explode when the setting sun peeps in under grey clouds, turning new Parliament House into a pop Aztec ruin.
  • A newly added favourite: the view from the Arboretum, “Wide Brown Land” and Dairy Farmers Hill.

Canberra aspires to be a city but with rush quarter-hour we are actually a village, a global village. People know each other, but for esoteric reasons. Perhaps they were at Beijing No2 Language school in the 80s. It keeps it interesting. — Michael James

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When describing my Friday bushwalking playgroup “Bush Babes” to a friend in Melbourne, she said “only in Canberra”. Indeed! Where else do you find a collection of educated mums taking their wee tots, sometimes from as young as four days old as my daughter was on her first walk, out into the bush every week to a variety of locations all within easy reach of home? We have been going for four years and are still finding new spots to go within a short drive. Sometimes we go farther afield to Namadgi or other National Parks. I wouldn’t have it any other way! — Sally Kingsland

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Having just returned from 4 days and nights in Canberra for a work conference, I have recently had time to reflect on my feelings about the place. I have always found it somewhat cold and detached and I think this is a function of the planned nature of the place. It is still somehow oddly connected to nature; I saw a roo hoping down the sidewalk on one of my rides. The more time I spend there, the more I have found there are warm, interesting people and places but they do take seeking out. — Mike on a bike

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Things to Do in Canb’ra Before You’re Dead

  1. Smell the roses (or daisies); at the Floriade obviously (but see #10).
  2. Drive in circles until you get dizzy.
  3. Cruise the empty streets after 5.30 pm looking for something open.
  4. Celeb Pollie Spotting
  5. Do something, anything, on Lake Burley Griffin (hey, you’re almost dead, so what do you care if you attract the attention of the Canberra Water Police).
  6. Take in the views from the top of Mount Ainslie — the only place you can really appreciate all those mesmerising lines, circles and triangles of The Plan.
  7. Drink some Loose Rat Cider at the only Rat Patrol downunder.
  8. Pretend you’re Julian Assange at Make Hack Void.
  9. Feel smug and superior by checking out Canberra’s Walkscore.
  10. Run out of ideas? Overcome by ennui? Feel close to death? Time to go along to the war memorial to join up with all the other Permanent Canberrans (who knows, one day it might be as cool as those Permanent Parisians).

Oh and get married to your gay partner! — MRJ

Peter Fray

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