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Launching Ian Warden’s Book on Canberra

I launched Ian Warden’s new book on Canberra tonight. Here’s my speech, complete with a newly-uncovered 1977 ACT Anthem by Philip Grundy.

Launching Ian Warden, A Serious House on Serious Earth
Electric Shadows Bookshop, Canberra
4 April 2013

I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, on whose lands we meet.

It is a pleasure to be here today to launch the book of a great Canberra icon, Ian Warden (also known as the Beige Bombshell).

If you travel today to Dalgety, a town of 75 people and one pub, it strikes you that there might exists a parallel universe to our own in which Australia’s capital is on the banks of the Snowy River, and Canberra is a sleepy town of 1700 people (as it was in 1911).

In that parallel universe, we would likely be standing in a paddock filled with cow dung. From that paddock, we would be able to see across to St John’s Church, built in 1841-1878. It is around this building that Warden tells the tale of Canberra.

His title, ‘A Serious House on Serious Earth’ comes from Philip Larkin, but it undersells the quirkiness of the Canberra story.[1]

Let’s start with the possible sites for Canberra. Warden notes that the search for a federal capital site in the early-C20th was focused on ‘bracing places’: locations such as Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Bombala, Lake George, Lyndhurst, Orange, Tumut and Dalgety. Believing that cold air was good for one’s health, coastal cities were excluded.

And so the search began.

Senior NSW public servant Alexander Oliver noted in each case ‘the unswerving loyalty of the witnesses to their local climate. No matter what the day temperature might be, the nights were always cool… Where such enclosures as cemeteries existed I was assured that nine tenths of the occupants had been ‘undesirables’… An immense pumpkin… chased me around several sites’.

Canberra-boosters made assurances that the district could readily supply the stone required for building, and all the food the city would need to consume. But the prize for boosterism must go to Mr A Evans, who proposed that the capital be built atop Lake George, saying ‘Here we may create a new Venice, only a perfect one.’

What Ian Warden calls ‘the Battle of the Sites’ also saw plenty of trash-talking. Billy Hughes told Parliament of his visit to Dalgety: ‘When I observed [to the local sergeant] that it was fearfully cold… he informed me ‘This is the warmest winter we’ve had for 17 years. … only one man and myself ventured into the Snowy River and personally, I have never been the same man since, while the other gentleman has retired from parliament’. Fortunately, such negativity would never be tolerated in today’s parliament.

Meanwhile, Warden describes how the Bulletin magazine crusaded against Canberra, describing Dalgety as ‘a paradise of waters’, and Canberra as ‘a dry, waterless, rabbit-ravaged, howling inhospitable wilderness’. Again, we are lucky that strong editorial views do not shape the objective reporting of today’s news outlets.

Ian Warden’s book reminds us how unfair is the naming of Canberra’s suburbs. Victorian Senator James McColl, who switched his vote in the Senate to break a deadlock in favour of choosing Canberra, has no suburb named after him (even McColl street in Ainslie was named after his father). John Gorton, the only Prime Minister to live here in his retirement, has no suburb named after him.

Meanwhile, we have Canberra suburbs named after Western Australian John Forrest (who preferred Dalgety because he thought Canberra too flat) and West Australian Senator George Pearce, who harangued his colleagues in favour of Dalgety, and – Warden argues – fabricated reasons as to why Canberra was unsuitable.

And yet the name of the city itself is fitting – especially alongside alternatives such as Cooeeoomoo, Eros, Federata, Malleyvista, Piscatoria and Shakespeare. Ours is the only Australian capital city named in the language of its traditional owners rather than after a European dignitary.

In his Foreword, Warden thanks ‘that ectoplasmic companion, the amiable ghost who was usually my only company down underneath the Library in its Controlled Access Collection area where I spent so much time researching and writing’.

In the same spirit, I decided to conduct a little dusty research of my own. At a function last year, someone came up to tell me about a competition that Warden had run back in 1977, to coincide with the plebiscite that would choose our national anthem (you know, the one where the rest of Australia chose Advance Australia Fair, and Canberra chose Waltzing Matilda).

The competition asked Canberra Times readers to come up with an ACT anthem. Armed with only the information that ‘it was sometime in 1977’, the blessed researchers at the Parliamentary Library began digging. Eventually, they hit gold. The joint winners had been the great ANU economic historian Noel Butlin, and Fisher resident Philip Grundy (both now sadly deceased). Despite my love of Butlin’s historical economic data, I confess that I preferred Grundy’s anthem.

So here it is. From the archives of Ian Warden’s 1977 Gang Gang column in the Canberra Times, I present to you, ‘Hymn to Canberra, Queen of the Plains and Hills’.

Hymn to Canberra, Queen of the Plains and Hills
Philip Grundy
Published in the Canberra Times on 7 April 1977 (26yrs ago this Sunday)

When God beneath the South Cross created land and sea
The choicest spot His Finger touched was called the ACT.
Our hills bedecked with eucalyptus, our Lake is girt by land.
Within our City’s noble streets imposing buildings stand.
Here mighty statesmen labour for our country’s common weal
And public servants work to show the loyalty they feel.

Chorus:
Brisbane and Sydney and Melbourne and Perth

Hobart and Adelaide – what are they worth?
Villages all of them! Greet them with mirth!

We’ll fight for Canberra, land of our birth.

In glorious homes our people dwell, both humble and aloof.
Their sturdy walls of brick veneer, of solid tiles their roof.
Each suburb here with quiet pride our heroes’ fame proclaims,
While bosky streets preserve for aye the mem’ry of their names.
For where God’s handiwork reveals the beauty of his Plan
The NCDC daily adds the handiwork of man.

Chorus:
Brisbane and Sydney and Melbourne and Perth

Hobart and Adelaide – what are they worth?
Villages all of them! Greet them with mirth!
We’ll fight for Canberra, land of our birth.

Who would our land’s armorial pride in Tidbinbilla view
May there the stalwart emus see, the sturdy kangaroo.
Whilst midst the melaleuca of our native habitat
One may behold the possum and the lissom feral cat.
Nor lacks our Lake the finny tribe that swims there without fuss,
And in our streams float monotremes, the loyal platypus.

Chorus:
Brisbane and Sydney and Melbourne and Perth
Hobart and Adelaide – what are they worth?

Villages all of them! Greet them with mirth!
We’ll fight for Canberra, land of our birth.

O Canberra! O Canberra! Where mighty mountains roll,
Our planners made thee beautiful, Our City with a Soul
Yea Canberra! Thy people are a great and happy band
Of citizens rejoicing that thou hast been fully planned!
Let lesser breeds within the States in envy scoff and sneer;
We know that if they had the chance they would be living here!

Chorus:
Brisbane and Sydney and Melbourne and Perth
Hobart and Adelaide – what are they worth?

Villages all of them! Greet them with mirth!
We’ll fight for Canberra, land of our birth.


[1] It also makes me wonder: will Warden’s next book will follow in the same vein, perhaps drawing on the opening line of Larkin’s famous poem ‘This Be the Verse’?

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