Blessed to be a witness

Wednesday, 17th August

It's all kicking off in Canberra

It was lovely to meet my cousin, her husband and my second cousin, a baby of less than one. The entire family is charming, and those who know me are aware that I'm not a baby kinda guy, but little Fin was such a cute baby, well behaved and jolly, that my hard heart melted a little.

My cousin pointed out that we'd only properly met twice, though I remember her birth vividly - which makes me feel old - because The Empire Strikes Back had just been released, and my ten-year-old self nagged her 25-year-old father to take me to see it, despite he being preoccupied by the birth of his first child. God I must have been an irritating child - which I guess explains why I'm an irritating adult.

Though she is a Kiwi by birth and we really don't know each other except by family repute, I was amazed to discover that, of all the hundreds of people I've met so far travelling, she is the only person who prefers Asian toilets, and we even said "I want to install one in my house" simultaneously, so I guess there is some genetic stuff going on there. She also had giardia while travelling, but that's just coincidence.

The next day we went to the Canberra museum, and learned a bit more about this decidedly odd place. At the time that Oz became federated, none of the states could decide upon where to site the country's capital - Sydney and Melbourne were particularly competitive about it. The government of the day therefore decided to find a new, relatively empty spot, and build a city there. A stretch of farmland on a plain ringed by gentle hills was chosen, about midway between Sydney and Melbourne.

An American architect, Walter Burley Griffin, working with his wife, one of the world's first licensed female architects, was the winner of an international competition to design the city from scratch. The streets radiate out from an equilateral triangle with the Parliament at its apex, around an artificial lake. To be honest, learning its history made me like the place a little more, but it is clear from driving around that the architect had designed his own vision of a "city of the future", not an Australian city. Despite a few nods to the landscape, and the vast profusion of trees and parks, it is laid out in geometric shapes and concentric circles, lacks a focal point that is a public, rather than a governmental, space, and is rather confusing to get around.

We then went to the national museum, which is a large ultra-modern building that rather resembles a World War Two bunker built out of broken lego. About its walls it has giant braille dots, presumably to cater for any visiting blind people with extremely long arms and gigantic hands (we were told later by a curator that the braille spells out various Aussie phrases such as "G'day"). Before venturing inside we grabbed a coffee and sat outside in the brilliant winter sunshine, by the artificial Lake Burley Griffin (named after the chap who designed it), having a cigarette.

Suddenly we were aware of the thwok-thwok-thwok of yet another helicopter. "It's the Smoking Police!" said M, since we suspected that smoking within X metres of a public building was almost certainly illegal in the capital of this hyper-regulated country. It hovered over the lake, making patterns on its still waters. Then we heard a mournful honking in the distance, and a long line of trucks began slowly over the bridge in the distance. Hardy looking men stood on the backs of the trucks, and they were flying large orange flags. I thought of recent events in Ukraine. Clearly the residents of Canberra had had enough of all this safety and cleanliness. Or perhaps the odious John Howard. Or both.

"My God," I said. "It's the Revolution."

Alas, because this is Canberra, it was nothing so exciting. We learned later that it was a protest about farm subsidies heading to Parliament. Not that there are too many subsidies, as is the trend in the rest of the world, but that the farmers in Australia want them too, since like Africa and South America they're having problems competing against US and European subsidised produce. Strikes me that it would be better in the long term to get the US and Europe to drop their subsidies and allow the third world, and Australia, to compete on a level playing field, but I guess that isn't the sort of consideration you're thinking of when the price of wheat drops through the floor and you might not make any profit this season.

The museum's architecture grew on me once we were inside. It was a good exhibition, though not quite linear in its storytelling, and with very heavy emphasis on aborigonal and Torres Island Straits islander cultural artefacts, rather than the exact story of what they suffered and are still suffering. Then we had lunch at the Botanic Gardens, which was charming.

We spent another evening with my cousin's family, this time opting to sleep on their living room floor rather than in the campervan, since there was a frost of -4 predicted for the morning. The next day we headed off towards Parkes, a little country town famous for being the site of a huge radio antenna that broadcast the first images of Apollo 11 walking on the moon, an event immortalised in the gently charming film The Dish.

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