Let me begin this segment by stating two irrefutable facts about Canberra:
- Canberra is truly the Bush Capital. Australian flora and fauna are everywhere, with cockatoo flocks in the backyard, as well as the occasional kangaroo in the carport.
- It was a great place to raise a boy. Sports ovals of every kind for at least 5 different codes of football and various other activities from baseball to basketball to fencing are in abundance.
That being said, our past experiences in the Australian Capital made our return this time a bit angst-ridden. Not all trips down Memory Lane bring up happy or pleasant reminiscences. (I have written about our trials in Canberra in my blog entry on September 6, https://esauboeck.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/australia-my-australia/ . Drastic cuts in government funding have only increased the pressure on the cultural institutions and universities that we have loved. But that’s a story for another time ). Those feelings were probably initiated by the fact that we began our Canberra visit in Queanbeyan, the place where we lived when we decided we had to leave Australia. Except for a newly modernized Woolworth’s supermarket, the town looked about the same as it had before. Sadly, our funny little house–which had been a corner shop originally, and we had really fixed up both inside and outside–had been neglected, though we were heartened to see that the bushes and trees we planted were still there, but the garden itself was a mess.
Australia is also experiencing one of its hottest summers on record (climate change, anyone?), and Canberra, which normally never stayed simmering for too long, was sweltering. This did not improve our mood at all.
But oh, there were so many friends! Tony Cristofaro, fruiterer extraordinaire, was still spruiking away at Fyshwick Markets, looking unchanged at the age of 81. His daughter Lisa had been my student at ANU–and now her oldest is starting uni! Oh, my, how old are we???
We stayed first at Carol Croce’s house–the same place, by the way, that I had my last drink 21 years ago! We have known Carol since ANU Housing days in Garran, when she and her family arrived from Madison, Wisconsin. She went on to work very successfully for Australian NGOs, and her daughter Chloe, who was 6 when we first met, is now running organizations aiding the homeless in Melbourne. Carol looks fabulous, and has certainly found her niche in Canberra.
Maggie Brady, whose house we stayed in in Mystery Bay, also generously hosted us at her Canberra house, filled with Aboriginal art, and SOME air conditioning. George worked with Maggie at AIATISIS, and we have hosted her at our house in Pasadena. We planned wonderful meals, and went to a concert at the National Gallery of Art after which we viewed the museum’s extraordinary Aboriginal art collection (more on that later, when I write about Rover Thomas). Maggie takes up every offer to experience what many cultural opportunities Canberra has to offer, so she was a good reminder to us of what a cultural life one can have in the city.
My old friend Chris Bettle–one of the only old intellectuals I know who won’t use a computer and has no cell phone, so can only be reached by actual letters–was so kind to introduce me at last to Humphrey McQueen, one of Australia’s only public intellectuals, author of many books, and the one who criticized my appointment to the ANU faculty back in 1990 (I agreed with him: why were they hiring an American woman to teach Australian art?). We had a very lively and thought-provoking conversation over tea and cakes in
“Civic,” as downtown Canberra is known. He was delightful. One of the most interesting aspects of Canberra is that it’s very easy to get to know everyone, including all the artists, writers, and intellectuals.
We also had lunch at the National Library with my old colleague (from the English department) Gillian Russell, who filled me in on events of the last decade at the ANU and elsewhere (not a pretty story). It was really lovely to see her again, and to hear of her current writing project on the history of ephemera. She writes brilliantly.
As does my friend and colleague Gael Newton, now retired as Curator of Photography at the NGA. (She also recounted some of the horror stories of recent cuts to the arts and cultural institutions by the Australian government.) Gael can really be considered one of the founders of Australian photographic history, and continues to write and is involved in exhibitions, and still has her eye out for photographic treasures. Her focus for the last few years has been photography in Southeast Asia, but she still has her hand in Australian topics, too. She and her husband Paul had us over for lunch at their air-conditioned house (you can see a thread here–it was so hot that finding A/C was a mandatory endeavor), where I could gaze in awe at the prodigiousness of Gael’s archives, the volumes through which she is now trying to wade. We are exactly the same age, and are confronting the tasks at the end of careers in different ways but with the same sense of nostalgia and rumination. Her archives, however, are much more important and contain singular documents from most of the leading figures in Australian art of the 20th century.
George also worked at AIATSIS with Ros Percival, married to Keith, who are dinky-di old working-class lefties–a category that hardly exists in America anymore. Ros had, unfortunately, broken a vertebra in her back, so was a bit laid up, but they kindly invited us over for lunch in their Queanbeyan house. They haven’t changed one iota. What a relief.
Finally, it was a treat to visit our old Yarralumla friends Andy & Noelle Waugh and their now quickly expanding family of children, grandchildren, boyfriends and wives. They now live in Duffy, on the edge of Canberra where the “Perfect Storm” fire of 2003 came to their back door. As you can see from the photos, almost everyone in the family is a redhead, as are the family pets! Great fun to see them again.
Once we started feeling less alienated after having such inviting and warm visits with old friends, we ventured out to our favorite Canberra places, the Botanic Gardens and the NGA. The Gardens was the scene of many family expeditions, including one when a kookaburra came swooshing down and grabbed a piece of chicken right out of Max’s hand. The water dragons are still there, and a new native bee house, as well as a section for The Red Desert plants, has been added. And still an excellent bookshop.
If it hadn’t been so beastly hot–up to 42 C. degrees, or 108 F.degrees–we might have wanted to stay longer, but we really had to go. In the end, when we totted up all that Canberra has to offer against our personal anxieties evoked by the place, it really is the right size and has enough cultural attractions to make it a very livable town. Unfortunately, the housing prices are astronomical now–a small and not particularly attractive house in an inner suburb that sold for $170,000 in the mid 90s is now valued at over $800,000! So Canberra is out of the picture as a retirement venue for us. Nonetheless, we wouldn’t mind going back for visits if the opportunities arose. As for our considerations of Australia as a whole: I will wait to discuss them once we have finished our other travels to Mexico and in Europe again. Stay tuned!