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“When the leaves burn, summer ends”
– Buffalo Tom, 1994

Leaves are falling around Canberra, a reminder that all things, good or otherwise, must come to an end.

Strange things were afoot in Dickson last Monday night.

Walking from the autoteller next to Woolies around to Canberra’s mini-SouthEastAsiaTown to meet the Bald Man for a cheap & cheerful dinner, the first thing I noticed was that MacDonalds was shut. More precisely, I noticed dozens of bewildered would-be customers loitering about, peering through the windows at the deserted dining room, wondering why a 24-hour junk joint would be closed.

Not to worry; the notice on the door said it was just a temporary closure for Drive-Thru renovations. Tough luck loiterers, wog food for you then.


Just down the street there was an almighty racket. Outside the Dickson Tradies, another era was passing under big spotlights, to the sounds of shouting workers and the straining of a giant red crane.

The old tram, long a feature of the Tradies’ dining room, was being extracted from a maw knocked into the club wall.

For years children climbed over its wooden seats and swung from its lights while their parents tucked into the schnitzel with salad, chips and a beer, grateful for a Friday night break.

Early into our Berra residency, Bald Man and I had dinner in that very tram. The steak was quite forgettable, but as I stood in the street last Monday with a gathering crowd of locals, I was glad to have spent that $12. Never guessed I could say I’d experienced a special bit of suburban Berra.

It’s ANZAC Day this Sunday. According to local wisdom, the day to turn on your heater. In my view, most locals must be hypocrites; everyone I know turned their heater about two weeks ago with the first light frost. But this week just gone has been a glorious balmy autumn, the kind of thing that makes living inland attractive. The rain forecast for ANZAC Day will bring a smart end to that.

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We’re the last to leave the party
The first to ask for more
– The Choirboys, 1987

It was at Woolies in Dickson that I first realised Summernats 23 was here.

Wednesday afternoon and more than the usual quota of feral children were being dragged through the vegetable section by hatchet-faced women. The deli was three-deep with blokes in thongs, shorts, tats and stubble. At the checkouts, Woolies staff were actually working as traffic control, waving customers towards the least lengthy lines. In the carpark there were a lot of 80s-model Commodores with mags.

Summernats has undergone a makeover in the last 12 months according to organisers. Founder and roughnut raconteur Chic Henry sold the festival to Australia Day Concert producer Andy Lopez, who this week pledged to make the festival more “family friendly” (though he stopped short of making it an actual family event, saying “It’s not meant to be like a day out with Humphrey B Bear”). In addition to the usual burnout competitions and street machine parades, the program offered highlights including fireworks and the Choirboys. The ACT Government offered free chlamydia tests.

Thursday evening and green lights on Northbourne Avenue were met with squeals as clutches dropped. Arms dangled out windows, holding stubbies. The Bald Man and I were driving across town when a bunch of blue lights caught our attention. A group several hundred strong were converged on a servo in Braddon, along with several dozen police. It was unclear what was going on, but there didn’t seem to be much action so we rolled on. What was clear was that for those who didn’t fancy heading out to EPIC showgrounds and paying a fat fee to get through the gates, a kind of mini-Summernats parade was happening downtown.


So Friday evening we made a special trip back to see it for ourselves. Although it was still light when we arrived at Braddon, hundreds of spectators were already lined up on the footpaths to watch the passing parade of cars. Many had folding chairs and eskies to ensure comfort. And surprisingly, it was a family event. Along with the many (bearded and bellied) blokes, there were a lot of children (with extraordinary mullets), women (with hard, hard faces) and teenagers (with tattoos and muffintops). We stationed ourselves diagonally opposite the Debacle and breathed deeply of the petrol fumes.

Bald Man is an unreconstructed petrolhead, so he had quite a good time looking at the cars and crowds. Frankly the informal parade was pretty motley, but there were a few gems amongst both cars and drivers. The highlight was Roger, a genial local bloke with a genuine GTHO which he bought from the original owner right here in The Berra a decade ago for a tenth of what it’s worth now.

I soaked up the atmosphere, of which there was plenty. For a start, the landmark Mandalay was actually open for business, the first time I’ve ever seen it so since moving here. It was so remarkable I felt we had to buy and eat something from it, which turned out to be a Canberra Dog for Bald Man and a Dagwood dog for me, and no, I am not ashamed. It was all part of the experience. Walking down Lonsdale St one admired cars parked in little family groups: XYs, Celicas, Toranas, Monaros, Mustangs and so on.

At some point in the evening a roar went up from the servo across from us. A meathead decked out in white trackpants and bling had pulled up in a hotted up Mazda RX3 and was revving the engine when some rozzers snuck up behind him and ordered him and his mates out of the vehicle. The police then wheeled out an RTA inspector, who started to go over the car, and then it began to escalate. A crowd gathered, first dozens and then hundreds. More police arrived, and then more – no less than eight cars and more than 30 uniformed bods.

It was a very long half hour while the car owner argued aggressively, various cops stared back at him impassively and the crowd hooted and jeered. Finally they let him go without a canary, but looking at the width of those tyres it was probably a close thing. Had they been the fashion police though, this bloke and his mates would have got life.

Perhaps what’s so fascinating about the Summernats is the side of Canberra it brings out. Most of the cars doing laps of Braddon were local. A friend commented over dinner on Saturday night that a bogan car show wasn’t the kind of thing you’d expect to see in the Berra, which did take me aback. Summernats shouldn’t be a surprise at all, for like every other Australian city the Berra has plenty of outer suburbs where bogan culture thrives, and the layout of this town actively supports a strong car focus. But there is definitely a so-called-cultured and affluent middle class here that has no idea or interest in what goes on beyond the Parliamentary triangle and inner suburbs, and that’s not healthy. Boganism may not be in good taste, but willful ignorance is inexcusable.

Finally after a few hours we had had enough. We attracted only a few jibes as we hopped on our bicycles and rode away.

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Sounds of laughter shades of life
are ringing through my open ears
– The Beatles, 1967

“I KNEW IT!” Miss K shrieked. I held the phone away from my ear. “THE FREAKIN’ VALLEY!”

That’s the response I got when I told her we were driving to Tuggeranong.

By a superb alignment of the planets, Miss J (now a resident of Toowoomba) and Miss K (mostly based in Darwin) were both in Canberra last weekend. It’s the first time we’ve all been together since Tamworse, where we bonded over work, dinners and knitting classes some 4 or more years ago. We were looking forward to a reunion. Miss J had her small toddler in tow, so enquired as to whether we’d be happy to head out to where she was staying. Sure. Where?

‘Where’ turned out to be Tuggeranong. Known to Berran locals as ‘Tuggers’, it’s the outermost suburb in the city’s southern growth corridor. Tuggeranong is the notional and emotional equivalent of Dandenong, I thought as I drove the 20 minutes down the Tuggeranong Parkway. Tuggernong – Dandenong: they even sound the same. (The Parkway is actually an oddly-named highway; in fact, ‘Parkway’ would be a better descriptor for the South Eastern Freeway, an arterial which if ever you used it to get to Dandenong at peak hour you’d appreciate is grievously misnamed. But I digress.) I could understand Miss K’s distress – a Berran by birth, she has an instinctive horror of what used to be known as Nappy Valley back in the 80s. But the howling – you’d think Miss J had asked her to travel across the universe, not across town.

I had actually been to Tuggeranong once before, to have the Good Guys extort me for a fridge, but as it was dark I didn’t notice much about the area. I certainly had no idea the place had a lake. But it turned out to be quite picturesque. Miss J was staying right opposite Lake Tuggernong, so we went for a walk in the bright spring afternoon onto the lush green lawn areas at the water’s edge. And there we noticed a revolting outer suburban failing: no-one picks up their dogshit. No-one. The grass was rigid with it. Every step was a hazard. If I had not seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it; be thankful I decided not to post a photo here. No wonder, despite it being a lovely place on a gorgeous day, there were no families picnicing on the foreshore and letting their rugrats loose. Filthy.

The National Museum foyer, looking out onto Lake Curly-Gherkin

The National Museum foyer, looking out onto Lake Curly-Gherkin

You’ll be pleased to know that I got back on the bike and rode the 14km to the National Museum and home on Sunday. The Berra has some marvellous bike paths which are independent of the road system and therefore take you through areas you’d never see by car. The target was Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye. The exhibition is remarkable for being a major retrospective of one of Australia’s great artists that may never have been staged – but for Japan. A Japanese art professor, viewing Emily’s work at a Brisbane exhibition, was captivated; cutting a very long story short, after years of wrangling Utopia was featured at Japan’s two premier art spaces in Tokyo and Osaka to rave reviews and mass audiences. They literally went wild for her work. And on viewing this exhibition it’s easy to see why. Emily’s works, impressive in concept and scale, have enormous power. Not all the works featured in Japan were on show here; the Museum space simply wasn’t big enough.

I was very interested in the discussion about how Emily viewed her paintings, and how Japanese and Australian and international art audiences do. I’m sure I don’t understand it fully. For example: if Emily was painting her Dreaming, is what she painted figurative or literal? Is it an illustration, or a narrative? If Emily lived in the desert and remained largely unaware of western or eastern art traditions and history, is it valid to compare her work to other masters, or indeed to give it labels such as abstract or impressionist? One interesting footnote I heard from more than one noted art critic was the belief that at least one of the featured paintings was a fake. But that also begs the question, what is fake? If Emily started the painting, outlined the idea to a relative to do the bulk of the work and then finished it off, is this work now a ‘fake Emily’? Did the use of apprentices render Michelagelo’s frescos ‘fakes’? As I pondered these questions, I considered which work had upset the critics. I think I guessed the one.

This exhibition won’t be travelling, so I humbly recommend you see Emily’s work wherever you can; in particular, next time you’re in Melbourne take the time to visit the National Gallery of Victoria to see Big Yam Dreaming, a painting of overwhelming depth as well as size. And keep an eye out for the Ronin Films doco, working title Emily In Japan, due to air on the ABC later this year. Bald Man and I saw some preview footage at one of the free lectures reflecting on the journey of Emily’s work, and it looks like a good yarn.

The National Museum itself is a very impressive building, designed by Howard Raggart, the bloke who ripped down the old Building 12* at RMIT to make way for the strange green redevelopment of Storey Hall. I like the Museum better; it has a cathedral-like foyer with great pod-shaped glass windows letting in abundant natural light, as well as an enormous loop sculpture several storeys high (part of the Uluru Line), and even giant braille saying all sorts of Australian words and phrases such as “mate” and “she’ll be right”, (plus some unAustralian ones like “Sorry” and “forgive us our genocide”, which have been obscured) on the walls. There’s a lot of very good bike racks outside the main entrances. Even more impressive were the friendly museum staff, who joked with us visitors as well as amongst themselves – hats off to you.

Just goes to show the Berra isn’t all (dog) shit.

* home of excellent student media organisations then known as SRA and RMITV.

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