THE Lady Shore, not much more than a hundred years ago, set sail from England laden with supplies for the new convict colony at Botany Bay. I am glad I was not aboard. If I had been I should now be dead, instead of writing an essay in the serene privacy of a Mariposa stateroom, with a basket of cherries at my side fetched by a thoughtful steward. Nor should I have seen Australia, as I now have had the better fortune to do; rather, I should have been involved in a mutiny so scandalous that I cannot resist telling you something about it, in a veiled and hinty way. Let those of my readers who are movie scenarists here open their notebooks and poise their pens.
The Lady Shore carried not only cargo, but a contingent of women convicts. Also aboard was a detachment of recruits for the New South Wales Corps. Now the men convicts in those days were a mixed lot. Some were villains, others were martyrs to a too severe penal code. But out of deference to her sex no woman was transported, as a rule, unless she was a hussy of the deepest dye. She and her sisters on shipboard, however, called themselves ladies, and kept up the figment of respectability so far as looks went, plaiting straw bonnets, and putting the religious tracts distributed among them to good use as curl papers. As for the recruits on the Lady Shore, they were typical New South Wales Corps material. It had been found impossible to police the convicts of the colony with British regulars, who thought such an employment beneath military dignity. Thus a special corps was formed, into which were swept regulars who had been disgraced in their own regiments (this eased the overcrowding in English military prisons), and recruited ‘stay-makers, man-milliners, tobacconists and pedlars, that were called captains and lieutenants.’ Such was the passenger list of the Lady Shore.
Plaiting straw bonnets was an amusement that soon lost its thrill. The ladies’ minds turned to other things. When I say that social irregularities on convict ships were so usual as more fitly to be called regularities I tell no secret. A surgeon in charge on one such transport, who had endeavored to end these regularities, was chased from one end of the deck to the other by the furious ladies. They brandished their scissors in his face, and threatened in language of eighteenth-century plainness to teach him how it felt to live the life of virtue enforced. The Lady Shore’s surgeon was not so arbitrary. In fact, the ladies in his care were on terms of intimacy not only with the recruits but with the crew. Thus, when the recruits decided that they preferred not to go to Botany Bay after all, but rather to turn the voyage into a pleasure cruise, it was easy to enlist the support of the sailors: the convict ladies, who likewise were in no hurry to get to Botany Bay, wheedled them into it.
It was a model mutiny. They murdered the captain, they murdered the mate, and those others who were unenthusiastic about the new regime were set adrift. Then with a whoop and hurrah the rum casks were broached, and away sailed the Lady Shore on as uproarious a cruise as ever enlivened the Great Deep.
Now the Lady Shore never got to Australia, but other ships of a like character did. Thus she illustrates well enough how that great continent was first colonized, though for me to say so is perhaps a little risky. Some Sydney scholar even now may be giving the staff at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library the mortifying privilege of helping him in his search for source material for A Genealogical Inquiry into the Connection between Early Convict Immigration in Maryland and Present-Day Lynch Law in the Maritime Counties of That State. This monumental work would serve very well to remind us that there was a time when, at £20 a head, the British Government made an annual profit of £40,000 selling convict labor to our colonial forefathers, and that there is some convict blood in our own veins.
Actually, however, the study of these long-discarded colonial policies leads to the beaming smile of optimism rather than the blush of shame. To find so robust and buxom a blossom as presentday Australia grown from so unlikely a root is very reassuring. Here is proof of the strongest kind that either the depraved elements of society can and do reform, or the good elements mixed with them dominate at last.
A hundred years ago Tasmania was condemned as ‘that cage of unclean birds, that isthmus between earth and hell.’ Yet Hobart to-day, its city, for all that black history, drowses in rainbow-misty loveliness — the most charming colonial survival in all Australasia. Sydney’s transformation has been no less remarkable. Where the little colony shivered and starved for want of the supplies on the Lady Shore now stands the hugely populous mart of one of earth’s chief wooland food-producing areas. The village of prisons and chain gangs has become a city unique in all the world in the abundance and freedom of its sport. But stranger and more hopeful still is the promise of Canberra, a city founded and making its first growth in our own times. If Hobart could achieve loveliness and Sydney greatness from beginnings thus sordid, what shall we not expect of the new capital of so miracle-working a people?
Hobart will be insulted by my calling her a colonial survival. Cities are like ourselves: they prefer the lively reputation. And most certainly old Hobart is not without briskness. At the foot of even her dreamiest lanes the sailboats on the blue Derwent tilt at jaunty angles; it is to-day’s own breeze that drives them scudding. But the city’s colonial air is what gives it its special charm. Sydney is older, and equally full of gruesome or romantic stories; but Sydney’s huge growth has crowded the history out of her streets, whereas Hobart has been so lucky as to retain that age-mellowed treasure. When Father Time manages to travel to the far end of earth’s farthest road and so comes to Hobart, it really is too pretty a place to disturb. After pecking at it a little with his scythe, he rubs his thin belly with a thoughtful hand, then hangs up the scythe in the rose-choked wilderness of Trinity burying ground, and takes a nap.
Yet this pretty town was founded to absorb those criminals too infamous to put up with at Botany Bay. The sunny brown stones of these pleasant buildings were laid one on the other to the tune of the ‘cat,’ with bitter jest and bitterer laughter. The plane trees of Salamanca Place, the fiery geraniums of Napoleon Street, have fed on blood that ran down from lacerated backs. Here, too, were those grotesque executions, arranged as a lark from Macquarie Harbor prisons: one convict would murder another there, with convict witnesses to the deed, for the fun it afforded him and his friends to be sent to Hobart for trial. It broke the monotony. Of course the wretch would be convicted. He did n’t care. ‘Good-bye, Bob! Good-bye, Bill!’ he’d cry on the scaffold, kicking off his shoes to the witnesses who had procured his condemnation, and so be hanged; whereupon his friends, their picnic done, would be shipped back to the Harbor.
Hobart’s old history, however, is not all black. It is a pattern of dark and gay. Ladies and gentlemen made the voyage around the Cape to take possession of the great estates the convicts were to work for them; to a land of bush fires and bushrangers, convict vice, and the phantom menace of resentful blackfellows, they brought blood horses, asparagus roots, fine wines, fine china, and fine manners. With the British tenacity of habit they re-created a Britain of the Regency in the wild new land; they could imagine life in no other terms. Thus the streets of Hobart have pleasanter ghosts in them than those of the convicts merely. Dandies bow gracefully, ladies curtsy, who might have stepped out of Jane Austen. There is a whisk of lace parasols, the dainty scuff of kidskin slippers. From the cobbles ghostly sparks are struck by ‘chariot, landaulet, and britschka.’ Or here rides Parson Knopwood on his white pony, rather drunk, but every inch a gentleman.
The parson was the sporting kind. Born to a rich Suffolk inheritance, he gambled it away to the Prince Regent. The Regent, however, was no man to let the giver of so good and perfect a gift go naked. He made Knopwood the present of a chaplaincy in the navy. Thus when Governor Collins, who had fought at Bunker Hill, was commanded to found a colony in Tasmania, the young parson was sent along to look after its soul. He really did very well, and churchgoing during his long life took on a special interest thanks to the fact that during the sermon, looking out at the window, he might break off with some such exclamation as: ‘Damn that pony of mine! He’s loose again.’
When old St. David’s was built, in the parson’s time, the convict who set the stone ball atop the cupola celebrated the event by standing on his head on it: what impudence in a convict to be so spirited! One of the ladies, who could not resist looking through the lace of her parasol, was made positively dizzy. She complained to the authorities; the man was flogged.
Another story of old Hobart is the jolly one of the White Pheasant Inn. Now convicts were sent out in those days for very small offenses; a mediæval severity yet marked the code. The theft of anything worth more than a shilling was enough, or robbing an orchard, or selling firecrackers. With ‘combinations or conspiracies to raise wages’ the law was no less stern; if the old code were in force to-day, the Federation of Labor, entire, would be in the chain gangs. As for the proprietor of our inn, he was an ex-convict, who had served time for shooting a white pheasant on some nobleman’s hunting preserve. ‘ But there’s no such bird as a white pheasant in England,’ he would say, chuckling, as he drew a mug of ale. He liked Hobart and was glad a perjury-obtained conviction had brought him there.
In his inn bar was fought Hobart’s most spectacular duel. Late one night a French naval officer, returning to his ship from a party on shore, stopped in for a nightcap and soon fell to arguing with an American whaler who was drinking with his cronies. It was an argument of some heat, and, to the delight of the onlookers, went so far that presently there was a challenge. What excitement! It was insisted that honor required an immediate satisfaction; the landlord’s coaching pistol was fetched down from the wall, a wide-bore piece, which the seconds privately loaded with raspberry jam and paper wadding. Since there was but one weapon, it was necessary for the principals to draw lots for the first use of it. The whaler won.
There was a magnificent silence. The Frenchman, quivering with rage, threw off his cloak, so baring a shirt of flawless white; the whaler grimly took aim, and fired.
Oh, what a massacre! The poor whaler, seeing his adversary apparently blown quite to pieces, fell flat backwards in a faint, while the Frenchman stared in horror at his red-spattered bosom, not knowing whether he was dead or alive. As for the conniving onlookers, they were nearer death than either duelist, their laughter was so excessive.
The White Pheasant is one Hobart building Father Time unfortunately has mowed down. But there are old inns left. When I found the Ocean Child, I wished I were stopping there; the name seemed very appropriate to a wanderer from beyond the broad Pacific. However, I was already established at the Carlton Club, where there was much to hold me, such as the very superior cold corned beef (with lettuces) at luncheon, the delightfulness of the old carved and inlaid chess table that was brought to my room for me to write on, or the echo of fiddle music of a hundred years ago, when plays were given in the square innyard.
In Hobart I was the complete tourist, gawking in admiration. The cottages, though built in stone, put me in mind of Cape Cod’s: they were built to be plain, low, and snug. I never tired of their simple geometry, nor of their polished knockers and white-scoured steps. As for their bright dooryard gardens, I loved them more and more. Hollyhocks nodded, fat roses nestled in fat rose trees, fuchsias poured out torrents of parti-colored bells, white lilies stood in sheaves. In the grander gardens on Battery Point were flagpoles rigged in nautical style, where retired sea captains could run up every signal from the Blue Peter to the cholera warning, with the red Australian flag fluttering over all. Elsewhere parrots turned one eye upon me from fancy cages; the tiny Australian terriers, seemingly made of darning cotton, would bark as was their bounden duty; or some tot in a pink sunbonnet would take three dancing steps toward the stranger, then shyly smile. All these things pleased me very deeply, and I made such a gawk of myself peering at them over the garden gates that it seemed only courteous, when I left town at last, to insert a notice in the Mercury thanking people for their forbearance.
I strolled the gum-tree groves of the hill Domain at twilight; while the valley yet shone green, and Mount Wellington still loomed a rich grape-blue, and the clear calls of after-supper hide-and-seek still came up blithely from the red-roofed town, presto! all at once the valley and harbor would break out in a rash of twinkles.
I prowled the curiosity shops, Ali Baba caves from whose dark ceilings hung Empire chairs in dusty groves; there was old Doulton smouldering in deep blue and rich sienna, latticework Minton, curious engravings, books of glees and part songs. I bought plates that had come around the Cape with the Page family, whose Royal Mail Coaches in the old times made the Main Road gay with whip and horn. Jenny Comyn of Pageant rode in one of their coaches. In the Museum I looked at figureheads and ship models, remembering with almost local pride that the Derwent was the most historic harbor in all Australasia; Tasman, greatest of Dutch explorers, discovered it, Cook camped there, and Bass and Flinders, best-loved and gallantest of all Australian navigators, joined their young talents in exploring it after having proved that Tasmania was an island. I read the epitaphs in St. David’s Park, and in the cathedral heard most perfect choir and organ music.
‘This really is too good,’ I decided one night, listening to the chants; the congregation did not dare to spoil such singing with any bleats of its own, but stood silent and respectful, like rows of fishes. It put me in mind of the old story, how the Devil once cheated the Lord out of a certain monastery’s praises by singing in the choir there with such seeming divinity that all the monks fell silent. But in that instance the Lord asserted Himself, and told the abbot very plainly (in a dream) that He preferred praises sung sincerely, even if through the nose, to all this devilish perfection; whereas now . . . But now it was time for the anthem; the organ broke into a quiet warbling, the choir lifted hushed chords — merciful Heaven! it was ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,’ a Bach chorale I had known and loved for fifteen years, but never before heard sung. I thought I should blow up. ‘I have had to come all the way to Hobart for this!’ I inwardly cried, quite forgetting my late complaints. Yet in the old St. David’s it was that Parson Knopwood punctuated his sermons with worldly ejaculations, while the convict women, on the benches before him, wore iron horns for a reminder that they were sinful.
But Hobart’s enchantment, in which white lilies and the horns of sin are thus strangely mingled, does not end at the city boundaries. The countryside, too, richly partakes in it. There are the great forests beyond Russell Falls, of a history longer than even the convict settlements’; as for the falls, in their tree-fern setting, they are of that outrageous prettiness that makes picturepostcard buying a joy. At Browns River, where duels were fought in the old days, golf is played now on a course so famously handsome that the painters’ easels are a hazard to the game. On the Peninsula stand the huge ruins of Port Arthur, greatest of prisons in the land of prisons; it is no place for the fearful on a moonlit night, when ghosts go mad again in the dark Dumb Cell, or with splash of ghostly oars bear a comrade killed on the triangle to his Isle-of-the-Dead grave. Over the ridge is the Huon, where orchards tilt at playful angles on the valley sides, and the scent of cider presses rises in the sun; white everlastings, flaunting red lilies, mingle in the bracken; the bright blue wren, darling among Australian birds, dodges in and out among the rambler roses on the gray rail fences. But Hobart is the key and clue to it all, on its blue bay, under its green hills.
I find that I think rather selfishly of Hobart, like a mother who prays that her child may never grow up. When I come back again I do not want to find it changed. I shall jump into one of the landaus waiting at the foot of Elizabeth Street, if dreams come true, and call, ‘Driver, take me into the past!’ And with a flick of his whip he will do it.
Sydney’s past was bedeviled not so much by the convicts as by the military. In fact the First Fleet of convict ships, under that remarkable man Governor Phillip, brought not the scum of the English prisons, but men selected with some care. All the same, the administration of the colony was very hard. There were not enough farmers among the First Fleeters to supply food to the settlement; Phillip abandoned Botany Bay at once because of its toosandy soil and took his convicts to the next inlet, now Sydney’s famous harbor; but farming was a perplexity in the new land, and, most tedious of all, the troops sent along for police were sulky and mutinous. Starvation faced the end-of-the-world colony that first year, and very starkly too; while the governor ate the same rations as the meanest convict, the soldiers robbed the stores.
At last a supply ship came. It was a cause for real rejoicing. The First Fleeters celebrated the event with a play, and that they were men of spirit was clear from the choice they made, not tableaux out of The Pilgrim’s Progress, but a satire on the military, Farquhar’s lusty comedy, The Recruiting Officer. It must have been hard for the governor not to smile more than was officially wise when plume (the officer) and Kite (his sergeant) on the stage discussed the men they had managed to recruit for His Majesty’s forces:—
KITE. The butcher, Sir, will have his hands full, for we have two sheep-stealers among us. — I hear of a fellow too committed just now for stealing of horses.
PLUME. We ’ll dispose of him among the dragoons. — Have we never a poulterer among us?
KITE. Yes, Sir, the king of the gipsies is a very good one; he has an excellent hand at a goose or a turkey.
If these sly digs made the convicts chuckle and the soldiers redden, how much more apropos would they have been in the days of the New South Wales Corps! Phillip, broken in health by the too-cruel difficulties of his colonial task, was relieved, and sailed away to England; his place was taken by a man named Grose, and with Grose came the corps which had been formed to supplant Phillip’s sulky regulars.
The newcomers were ‘a set of men whose actions proved them to have been cast in the coarsest mould of genteel viciousness.’ Their insubordination, vice, and racketeering were so firmly entrenched in the colony before Grose was retired that the subsequent governors one after another were humiliated in their attempts to reëstablish decency. Last of all Bligh, hardfisted genius of the Bounty, celebrated for his stern and overmastering command of men, came and was vanquished. The New South Wales Corps, in an extraordinary breach of discipline, threw the old sea hero into prison for attempting to curtail their privileges. Thus the Bounty mutiny was not the only one that stiff-necked man had to endure. Sydney treated him to a second.
This was going too far. Whitehall dissolved the New South Wales Corps in a hurry, and sent down Lachlan Macquarie with his own honest Scotch regiment to take charge; and though Macquarie was a vain man and carried the idealistic policies of Governor Phillip sometimes to an absurd extreme, the brighter phase of Sydney’s history begins with him. Ex-convicts were made state architects, or magistrates, and when the self-righteous free settlers protested he said, ‘ I have only convicts, and others who should have been, to choose from.’ With this to ponder, the ‘ Pure Merinos’ went home sucking their thumbs.
But, if the new phase was brighter, the dark old days are the ones most fascinating to read about. What a place Sydney was in its Dark Age! The select First Fleeters were followed by floods of convicts by no means so select. While the ‘females’ at the woolen mills stripped an unpopular guard naked and beat him from head to foot with bunches of nettles, the Corps privates, to satisfy a grudge, pulled down a free settler’s cottage after breaking every dish and piece of furniture in it. When Bligh came to Sydney, two thirds of the children annually born in the colony were illegitimates. As for the Corps officers, their business was extortion rather than soldiering. They had obtained the monopoly of all stores brought in by ship, and sold them at a 500 per cent profit. They made rum the medium of exchange; a freeman’s wages were paid in gin and brandy; and, since they controlled all such imports, they controlled the supply of money. They cornered the best lands, working the fields with convict labor fed, clothed, and housed at government expense — and then sold their produce to that same government at monopolistic prices. Oh, marvelously complete system — which dealt out flayed backs for punishment and drunkenness for a reward, among its servants, while heaping up riches for itself.
Macquarie’s arrival marked the end of the military’s disgraceful history. But convict transportation went on, until the system broke down, thanks to its growing unpopularity in Australia and the absurdity and expense of it as a means of building up a distant colony.
‘It is curious to observe with what nonchalance some of these fellows will turn the jingling of their chains into music whereto they dance and sing,’wrote one man aboard a convict ship.
The truth was that ‘some of these fellows’ were there by choice. Times were hard in England; if a man stole a thimble and managed to get caught at it, he would be given a sentence at Botany Bay, and so have his fare paid to the new world by the government. Good behavior there would entitle him, with luck, to a ‘ticket of leave’; he could start working ground of his own before he was a free man, and so establish himself at public expense.
At the exciting period of the great Australian gold rush, when news of nuggets spread like wildfire through the slums of London, the number of petty felonies was a caution. The Thames was choked with convict ships setting sail. When the ships got to Australia the passengers, who had had good reason to dance to the tune of their chains’ jingling, were too many to imprison, police, or use; so they were granted pardons wholesale on the wharves. The system was a farce — even Whitehall could see that. Melbourne too, the ‘ good ’ city, had proved that a community born in virtue1 and reared without convict labor could grow rich and great. The evil of continuing to drain England’s criminal class into the colonies was obvious enough to the people already there, especially those who had been convicts themselves; they clamored for cessation. And, at various dates in the various colonies, cessation came; ‘the system ’ for many a long year now has been a mere historical thing, to be studied in the scholarly calm of Sydney’s great Mitchell Library.
The jingling of those convict chains foretold a little what Australia’s national character was to be. Devil-maycare Jack, singing to the tune of it, knew that the trip might end quite as readily in the Dumb Cell at Port Arthur as in the Bendigo gold field. But tra-la-la, la-la, it was worth taking a sporting chance on, and he took it. How Australian! How in the spirit of a Sydney man! Nowhere in all the world does any city enthrone sport so wholeheartedly as Sydney does. Its very bridge is in the bold tradition. Though miles inland, it is visible miles out at sea, soaring up in an arch of grand audacity. ‘It’ll be a jolly good thing; and we can pay for it if luck’s not too bad,’ said the man in the street, and so it was built.
The harbor this bridge so grandly spans is no mere port, but a huge playground. Speedboats, sailing yachts, use it for a racing course; its miles of green-banked or rocky windings bring the idler yachtsman to swimming coves; billy teas send little spirals of smoke drifting up from turfy headland or gray gum-tree grove. But more to the taste of a Sydney swimmer are the ocean beaches, from Curl Curl to Cronulla. The glass-clear rough-and-tumble of surf gives him the sport he loves. Life-saving Clubs march in picturesque review, compete in lifeboat and life-belt races, surf sprints, and sand relays; a Sydney beach carnival is a picture of athletics at its goodhumored best.
The importance of cricket and Australian rugby is immense. Bowls is a religion, golf an art, tennis a science, each demanding the whole-souled devotion of the man who practises it. As for horse racing, important throughout all Australasia to a degree an American can scarcely grasp, much less understand, it reaches the very climax of full-hearted madness in Sydney. An astute Imperial Government in the Honors List this New Year’s conferred a knighthood on the president of Sydney’s racing association.
Where the pedigree of a horse is so burningly the public concern, other things run some danger of being ignored. ‘The second largest city in the Southern Hemisphere’ has no symphony orchestra. It has an art gallery, however, like a window into the soul of a sport-loving public. Good gracious, what zest! What a splendid gamble on all these ‘foreign masters’ that nobody ever heard of! The battle scenes, the Queens of Sheba, are painted on canvases large enough, if laid flat, to give a ball on, complete with grand march and refreshments. Randwick Racecourse is not the only place in which sporting Sydney can be studied. . . . But who ever went to Sydney to feast on music and the fine arts? And while there is the harbor for a picture, or the bush beauty of KuringGai Chase, or sleek horseflesh, or a koala curled up fast asleep at Koala Park, why mope over paint and canvas? Sydney’s world is an outdoor world, with the brisk sea wind blowing through it.
Petty’s Hotel, there, is a landmark. When I tasted the roast beef with Tasmanian cider, and the plum pudding, I knew how it happened that old Petty’s had survived: it was too good to discard. Horses were discussed over the desk, latest ‘results’ were studied. My room looked into a courtyard where Mr. Langley, the proprietor, bred coachdogs; one morning I was taken to see the eight newest pups at their breakfast, like a row of fat white sausages. On another day this gentleman was to draw the high prize numbers in the current State Lottery and invited me to come watch the process. Thus when the curtain rose in Australia Hall that morning, and the great barrel with the numbered wooden marbles in it was noisily churned, there sat the little American visitor on the stage, with the press, radio announcer, Auditor-General’s staff, and police. I felt very nifty.
This feeling gave way to amazement, however, when Mr. Collins, the manager, was so kind as to show me the State Lottery offices. Here were twenty-six ticket sellers, not counting cashiers, dealing out tickets, at a dollar each, so fast that they looked like Hindu goddesses with ten arms apiece. A tall traffic officer kept the flow of buyers in some kind of order, in one door and out another. On the next floor were the bulk ticket sales — buy as many as you like. The third and fourth floor were given over to the mail-order business, at which an army of clerks were working as if the devil stood behind them with an exceptionally hot pitchfork. On the top floor was the bookkeeping department. My eyes popped to see the prodigious activity of it all.
On the way down I told Mr. Collins I had once read Ashton’s History of English Lotteries, and asked him what he thought about the complaint that had formerly led to the suppression of lotteries as a tax policy — that they rob the poor, who, having caught the fever, rob themselves. This was a tender point, but he answered it eloquently enough by ushering me into a cashier’s cage to watch the crowd, which was overwhelmingly of the middle class. Everybody looked as if, after investing five shillings in a ticket, he’d have a shilling left over to spend on something foolish. Such people — women as well as men — every five days pour a hundred thousand dollars in taxes into that office with enthusiastic willingness. If such gambling is a vice, and such vice is a fetter, here was the jingling of chains whereto the modern Sydneyite does his dancing and singing.
Australia is a country as large as our own. Since it is cut up into only six states, most of these are of a size that makes Texas look a peewee. The union of these states is recent; the power they individually retain is great. Roughly, half of the population of each state lives in its capital city. Each of these capitals has a character and mind of its own, decidedly. The stage is well set for a little jealousy, eh?
With the federation of the states, at the century’s beginning, came the question of a federal capital. Since jealousy forbade giving any existing capital precedence over the others, a new city was decreed. A site of exceptional beauty was chosen for it in a broad mountain valley, and to obtain a city plan of suitable utility and splendor a competition was announced, in which the architects of the world were invited to take part. Australia’s new capital, Canberra, was to be a city built near to the heart’s desire.
It is interesting to remember that Washington came into being for like reasons and in a like way, except that its design was entrusted outright to an appointee, Major L’Enfant, a Frenchman.
In the Canberra competition second prize fell to the great Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen; first prize — and immortality with it — was won by an American, Walter Burley Griffin of Chicago. According to the Griffin plan Canberra’s streets are rigorously laid down.
Basically the plan is a triangle that straddles a chain of lakes. In the portion of the triangle above the lakes will be the government departments, with the capitol on a hill at the apex. Below the lakes, along the triangle’s base, will be grouped amphitheatres, museums, libraries, and such public buildings, from the Civic Centre at one lower corner to the Transportation Centre, with its railway station, at the other. Adjoining this triangle will be the campus of the Commonwealth University, the drill grounds and military architecture of Australia’s West Point, and the several residential areas, each with its own sports and shopping centre. A clear-eyed reasonableness pervades the plan, and the ingenuity with which each part has been worked out is a pleasure to study. The finest mountains rise at the ends of the most important vistas, and such humdrum details as street drainage have been given the thorough attention they deserve. Such is the Canberra Plan.
But poor Canberra! Born of the union of national idealism with state jealousy, she has been suckled on the colicky milk of the latter. May she soon be weaned! Her history, in a way that future historians may find quite poetic, strangely parallels that of Australia itself. Instead of convicts to lay her foundations there were the jealous ministers of jealous states. Instead of the deplorable New South Wales Corps to lead her to a stable maturity there has been dim-eyed bureaucracy, each little official pulling strings to his own myopic satisfaction. You would think Australia a land of a thousand years’ burden of inertia, rather than one of radiant youth, if I told you the tale of Canberra’s mismanagement.
Dear reader, put a little cotton in your ears. It is impossible for me to talk on this subject without raising my voice. But I shan’t linger on it. Before I go on to pleasanter things, however, let me cite one toothache Canberra has put up with: Melbourne’s attitude. Now Melbourne is a fine large city, of a proud tradition. Having read the Encyclopedia at Fawkner’s Hotel at an early age, she has known how to make a good home for the infant federal government, until the time when the habitable beginnings of the government’s own Canberra home were ready. You would think so intelligent a guardian would also know how to give the charge up, when the time came, without making a scene. But here you are mistaken. More than once I blushed for the honest old city while I was in Australia.
For example, the Wood-Products Laboratories, intended to be a part of the Forestry School at Canberra, were suddenly made permanent in Melbourne. The old lady, it would seem, had been doing some clever work behind the scenes. And the AuditorGeneral, whose offices (according to a plan familiar to him for the last twenty years) are this year to be moved from the interim capitol to the permanent one, was rending the air of Melbourne with surprised bellows of protest. In the same tone, if not in the same words, he was calling Canberra what Tasmania was called a hundred years ago, ‘an isthmus between earth and hell.’ ‘Very little could be worse than eating one’s Christmas dinner in Canberra,’ I read in the Melbourne Argus, and, since I was traveling to learn, I thought I might well go up to this accursed place, to find out what real misery was — where, of course, I found not misery, but flowers and kindness, and the very hopeful beginnings of one of earth’s finest cities. The Christmas pudding had not bitterness in it, but a lucky threepenny piece. The sparkling hock was downright jolly. There were paper caps. At matins rosemary scented the church; ‘No more let sin and sorrow grow,’ we sang. If Christmas is the feast of Glad Hope, what place could be better for its celebration than Canberra?
Parrots, out of a cage, the Minnesota traveler is not used to seeing. Yet here they were, perched on the gate at the foot of Mount Ainslie. A kookaburra in a gum tree was telling his mate a joke in loud gabbling tones, and then broke out laughing at it himself. A flock of galahs wheeled, all their rose-pink breasts shining in sudden unison. There was no doubt about it: I was in Australia. Looking round at the subtle colors of gum tree and wattle and silver grass on the mountainside, I guessed what homesickness must assail an Australian in the too-green landscapes of our northern world. As for the sky, it as usual was half limpid blue, half cameo cloud heaped up in negligence away to the deeper blue of mountain ridges. Good gracious, what skies Canberra has! A thunder-showery day there is like a visit to some supernatural sculpture gallery, whose complex lighting varies according to the whim of an Olympian electrician. ‘Special! Apollo and Mercury at the switchboard this afternoon,’ I rather expected to read in the morning’s paper.
But this day was the usual sunny kind. I peeled off my shirt to enjoy it more whole-hidedly; and when I had climbed to the mountain top, since it was a fine lonely place for mouth-organ playing, I unpent the harmonies in mine, while looking down fondly on the young city.
From Mount Ainslie the future Canberra is best seen. In the valley, the nonsensical scattered way in which the city is being built is a tease and a discouragement. But from above it is not hard to perceive how these scattered items, some temporary, some incomplete, ultimately will be joined to make a true city. The position of the future lakes is plainly marked by the flood basin of Molonglo Creek; the temporary Parliament House, seemingly hewn from one solid block of plaster of Paris, very nearly marks the position of the future capitol. At the end of another vista rises the tree-crowned knoll of the Civic Centre. Yes, it is easy to see the beautiful orderliness of the plan from Mount Ainslie. It made my heart swell. I wished I were a citizen of the place, for the splendid fun of throwing my energies into that pioneer life de luxe. Much depends on these first thousands of Canberrans: they form the best-educated and most intelligent large community in Australasia. But will their children’s city have chamber music? Festivals? Rowing clubs? A first-rate bookstore? A memorable restaurant? How many splendid enterprises there are to attempt! And how necessary it is to attempt them if they are to be! And how hopeful it is to find, already in existence and enthusiastically used, a spick-and-span swimming bath, and a museum of anatomy that must take rank as one of the best scientific displays in any country. The first unit of the Federal Library, the first unit of a War Museum, are now being built; the air tingles with the vitality of a growing thing. The very flowers rush into a riot of blossoming as if they too were anxious to play a generous part. There is something inspiring, even joyful, in a visit to Canberra.
But restraint and the calm large vision are as necessary in a growing city as enthusiasm is. The Canberra Plan is not merely a street diagram, but organic groupings of buildings. I am afraid Mr. Griffin might find the latter aspect of his scheme rather lost sight of. It never was taken very seriously, perhaps. He had the misfortune for a while of watching, at close range, the unhappy progress of his ideal city in the hands of government pettifoggers: he was made Superintendent of Construction, and so forth and so forth, with everything but epaulets and a sword; however, during the years he held this honorable title, not one stone was laid in Canberra. Pettifoggery invented one hindrance after another. Wiser are those geniuses who win great competitions and fall dead in the hour of their rapture: they avoid all the inevitable disappointments. The city owes to its first superintendent, thus, only its planting. But here was a grand task, and in no other way could he so quickly have outlined, on the site, the ultimate beauty of his city. And it is to the experiments in soil adaptability he made that Canberra’s plantations of young trees — bewilderingly extensive — owe their robust health.
Very likely Mr. Griffin, who seems to be a man of abundant energy and teeming imagination, would like nothing better than to see his vision of Canberra consistently coming true, with every shop, cottage, and government building designed and placed according to his own ideas. And very perfect a city Griffinsville would be, too, I’ll bet a cookie. But just here it seems rather wiser, somehow, to let some imperfection, even some incongruity, creep in. After all, the grand general scheme has been laid down. Perhaps this is where the designer’s task should end. Now is the time for this or that Australian to play his part as well as he knows how, filling in the details. This, of course, is what is being done, though not, I hope, without repeated and prayerful study of the city plan as a whole.
Very significant is a new attitude of the Australian people generally toward their capital: long out of patience with it for the balky, hind-end-foremost, expensive way in which it was being realized, they are beginning to find themselves proud of the place. They have discovered, too, that it makes an excellent base for excursions into some of their country’s finest mountains. They even come for Christmas dinner now; the hotels bulged at holiday time when I was there. And with a new shy pleasure they lend a hand toward bringing it near to the heart’s desire not merely by paying taxes, which is a glum and heartless matter, but by sending roses to the National Rose Garden. A man with five shillings invested in such a gift has a new interest in the good destiny of the city, if I know my own heart.
Some cities are loved because they hold the past in an enchantment — as does Venice or Hobart. Others are fascinating because the present pulses in them so vigorously — as it does in New York or Sydney. But Canberra stirs the visitor in a new way. It is no mere monument to man’s aspiration toward the finer life, but an active attempt, on a splendid scale, to fulfill that aspiration. It is the future’s own city.
When I go back to Hobart I shall be saddened, I fear. Father Time will have mowed down something that I shall miss. Sydney I shall find its usual breezy self. But Canberra — there is the city I shall hurry to, because I know I shall find it grown in power and beauty. I think with excitement of that next visit. Will the lakes have come into being? Will the capitol be started? Will there be pageantry in the just-completed amphitheatre, to tell the story of how a nation born in convict ships can rise to the fulfillment of splendid dreams?
‘You should see it when the wattles are in flower!’ said an old man to me proudly. Bless him, he was a Melbourne man, too, who had come up to live his old age in Canberra with the son whose garden he was watering. Born in a tent where skyscrapers now loom, he never had lost the ardor of the pioneer. ‘Lovely!’ he said, thinking of wattle time, and waved the hose in a glad and ample gesture. And the spray, just in an instant then, caught the bright sun in a drift of rainbow colors.
- An advertisement in Melbourne’s first newspaper offered the traveler who sojourned at Fawkner’s Hotel ‘mental recreation of a high order.... A very choice selection of books, including Novels, Poetry, Theology, History, etc. N. B. a late Encyclopedia.’ — AUTHOR↩