There comes a point in January when people pause to consider what it means to be Australian. This usually occurs on or around the anniversary of a few hundred boatpeople from Great Britain arriving to “nothing but bush” (to quote the minister for Indigenous Australians and His Lordship Prime Minister of the Monarchical Colony of Australian Subjects). Considered writings of pride, of angst, of hope, of uncertainty litter the newspapers and infiltrate the electronic graffiti of the twittersphere. For the common man – let’s call him Shane – the Australian essence is commemorated through the bite of a lamb chop from a gas barbecue the size of a truck, a youthful discussion of rising intonation about the best 100 songs involving people with beards lamenting at life, or a day in front of the TV watching tennicrickcycletfooty with a so-cold-it-hurts beer.
While I could brave a venture into the question ‘What does it mean to be Australian?’ I neither have the will nor the current brainpower to go down this path. It may be I am suffering from that particularly laconic strand of Australianism that arises specifically at this time of year – the can’t really be arsed is it still the holidays period. I’m also in the dubious position of not really being a proper Australian, not really, even though the flag of my country of birth is still emblazed like some badge of imperial approval upon yours. All I can say is that I feel lucky, immensely lucky, to be a part of you, attached to your deep blue skies, your sandy shores, your withering white gum trees, and your mostly generous and progressive people.
I feel lucky, on most days, to be in Canberra. Yes really! A capital you have built in little over one hundred years from sun and frost-baked plains and bush-tangled hills. You really ought to be a little prouder of this achievement, especially because you have left some of those bush-tangled hills alone. The sweeping roundabouts and nationalist edifices now scattered across the plains are looking particularly fine as well, what with the regular stormy soakings keeping the grass nice and green. A summer of such generous rainfall that it could almost be British. How soothing.
Despite such impertinence, the sun still shines most days here, and for that I am grateful. The slight irony is that I write this looking out of my window on grey accompanied by a cool 17 degrees only. But this is surely a blip, for other days have offered ample warm sunshine before the storms. Conditions in which I can enjoy your verdant lawns and embrace your rising humidity. To climb bushland hills and swing golf clubs very amateurishly. To cycle alongside the water and sip coffee with the hipsters. To be that most Australian of creatures and watch sport; and not just any sport, but cricket, and cricket in an atmosphere of cleverly articulated critique of the opposing English team. Pommie-bashing I think you call it, and too bloody right.
Despite being curiously enamoured here, I feel lucky that Australia is a very big country beyond its capital. Just up the road, a mere three hours, is where – if you conveniently ignore 50,000 years of human occupation and quite ingenious cultivation and care of the land – it all started. 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, Australia. Ah Sydney, that icon of iconic sights on iconic marketing campaigns that seek to invoke envy. As much as I try to find holes in it, to unstitch its veneer of perfection, to cut down such a tall poppy, I stumble upon its harbour shores and return to a state of complicit adoration.
It’s been a little while since I have seen you Sydney, and I enjoyed your company. I enjoyed seeing friends and playing in parks and being temporarily transformed into a mermaid at Greenwich baths. I enjoyed nine more amateurish holes of golf and the cold beer that followed. I enjoyed Bondi lunch and Coogee brunch and Crow’s Nest salted caramel gelato (on two occasions). I enjoyed getting on a boat at Bronte, but, alas, not making it out onto the open sea. And I really, really enjoyed catching the ferry across the harbour on a warm Saturday night and having a few drinks as the sun set behind the old coat hanger and reddened the discarded prawn shells atop its giant typewriter.
From excess the next morning was consequently less enjoyable, as was the traffic on Military Road, and the frequent T-shirt changing humidity, and just the general busyness of beachside suburbs on warm and sunny January weekends. Such congestion in a continent with vast emptiness is a stark juxtaposition. There is no doubt comfort in this metropolitan hubbub – a civilisation, a taming, a sense of being and belonging to others. Perhaps it is a feeling of security and protection from the wild endless uncertainty of what lies inland that keeps you – that keeps us – mostly clinging onto the coastal extremities.
As a more recent entrant upon this giant landmass I feel blessed that I can maintain a comfortable, civilised, and invariably cultured urban existence while still being easily belittled by nature. I can live in a clean, safe, prosperous city scattered with sweeping roundabouts and take one of the exits towards nothingness. Though for nothingness read abundance. An abundance of gum trees and hills and high plains in Namadgi, from which rocky outcrops pierce an abundant blue sky. A plethora of grasses and wildflowers emerging in swampy hollows, the weeds also thriving in a show of acceptance and egalitarianism. A setting for black cockatoos and butterflies to float in the air, riding the breeze upon which small white clouds cluster and vanish.
Clouds which may reappear again to water the lawns around the National Gallery, or dispense rain into falls and gorges around Bungonia. Landscapes that were once seas and took 450 million years to come to this. Wildness and natural drama that is but 30 minutes from a coffee and a peppermint slice and an inexplicable giant concrete sheep. The developed and the untamed, living side by side in something hopefully approaching harmony. This is the fortune I feel at being in this place at this time, around Australia Day.