Guy Pearce vs Canberra

Guy Pearce understands the currency of late night talk shows: convivial irreverence with a dash of self-deprecation. And just with theatre sports, you never shut a good riff down. So when US talk show host Craig Ferguson began making a sport of Canberra recently, Pearce obligingly grabbed the baton. “Yeah, there’s a lot wrong with Canberra!” he laughed. “People who are from Canberra usually deny they’re from Canberra.”

The response to Pearce’s asinine ribbing was astonishing, not least because it came from Pearce himself. “I feel horrible about myself for doing this and I’m truly very sorry… I have no excuse for what I did… Feel free to abuse me in the streets.”

Pearce seemed stunned by his own capacity for casual snark. Poor guy, his mea culpa quivered with earnestness—his contrition was outsized and voluble. It was also completely unnecessary. If Aussies can’t get stuck into our cities, there’s no bloody hope left.

We’ll never know how good Canberra’s designer would’ve been as a late night talk show guest. But it’s safe to say that Walter Burley Griffin would’ve been volatile talent—avuncular and expansive one night, reticent and contemptuous the next. What we do know is that Griffin thought he’d designed “the most beautiful capital in the world” and that what was artful in conception was sterile in the living.

Blame the Federation’s spirit of compromise. Blame Walter Burley Griffin’s idealism. Blame the bureaucrats who tinkered with Griffin’s design, making it a “mutant echo” of his intention. Hell, blame weapons of mass destruction. But leave Guy alone. There is a lot wrong with Canberra.

I worked as a speechwriter in the Bush Capital for three years. I was a full time Canberran. No fly in, fly out. Once there, the “unreality” Keating described descended. It wasn’t the size of the place. It was its design, its demographics, its spooky otherness. It’s an immaculately contrived space, with empty Napoleonic boulevards and a pallid concentration of wonks, hacks and acronyms. The places and people the hotly contested policies were intended for were a long way away, but a Country Road was just around the corner.

You hear “culture” repeatedly cited as a virtue in Canberra, but the culture spoken of is encased by concrete and institutionalised by government—it’s housed in the city’s many splendid galleries. Splendid as they are, it’s not the culture of its people, its places. The best culture is to be smelt, felt, listened to in the streets, in the spaces between things and try as I might, I’ve never been able to have a beer and a chinwag with a Sidney Nolan portrait.

There’s plenty of space between people though—too much for any sense of itself to fill. Walter Burley Griffin’s vision accommodated just 25,000 notional residents, not twelve times that figure. So, come to think of it, let’s not blame Walter either.

Canberra’s mandated green spaces, the generous reserves, the decentralised city (Canberra’s fractured into seven hamlets, rather than surrounding one city proper) conspire to push people away from each other, while restrictions on development means people are having to drive further and further to purchase a new pair of chinos.

Canberra’s real culture is to be found in the public service, Capitol Hill and the handful of bars in the inner north and southside. The culture is made by people from someplace else, who drink European beer while not listening to each other lament how spiritually debasing their jobs are.

There’s your culture. It’s the crescendo of ten thousand drunken jeremiads on a Friday night, each one gone unheard for the reason that somebody else is saying exactly the same thing at the same time. Now picture teenaged Ministerial advisors gallantly plotting in excited whispers while wearing Country Road sweaters, and you’ve got a powerful image.

Of course, a place is a place is a place, as warm or cold, rich or poor as the depth of your friendships and the deployment of your passions. As far as I know—and I might be wrong—no-one has referred to Canberra yet as the Baghdad of the Antipodes.

Well, not yet. But one indignant local seems bent on taking us to civil war. “Canberra takes arms!” yelped one brave defender online. But the acquisition of an arms license requires the penetration of 46 sub-committees and a carpe diem attitude long quashed by petty frustrations. No, do not fear the Canberra militia.

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