December 2013 - January 2014

Arts & Letters

Bill Garner’s ‘Born in a Tent’

By Robyn Annear
NewSouth Books; $39.99

Bill Garner divides Australians into two camps: campers and non-campers. The progeny of a camper father and a non-camper mother, Garner inherited the camping gene – an essential precondition to pitching a history of Australia under canvas. But Born in a Tent does more than that. It proposes that “camping makes us Australian”.

And who would argue? After all, our best-known song has a jolly swagman camped by a billabong. What could be more Australian? Garner’s history, though, is a big tent. Far from confining itself to an account of making do and derring-do on the colonial frontier, Born in a Tent encompasses Aboriginal shelters and the camps of strikers, utopians, field naturalists and artists.

“The Australian foundation story is a camping story,” says Garner. Well, yes, but I found myself wondering whether all invading cultures – Roman, Viking, Spaniard, Puritan – weren’t initially campers, driven indoors only by climate and the passage of time. Mightn’t the relative shortness of our settler history, the extent of the frontier, and a canvas-friendly climate simply have meant that Australians hadn’t yet grown out of the camping habit before – thanks to the Scouting movement and motor cars – it caught on across the Western world early in the 20th century?

But Garner’s book trumped my misgivings. He convincingly asserts, for instance, that the spirit of egalitarianism on the goldfields had as much to do with camping as with gold. And that, in the 1890s, it was the communal camps occupied by shearers waiting to be assigned sleeping quarters that created a space for the sharing of grievances and into which the union could insert itself. Of his great-grandfather who camped out with a survey party for two years in the 1850s, Garner writes, “It helped him to settle in the sense of coming to deeply know country” – an experience common to tent-dwelling newcomers, he says, from 1788 until the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

To get a feel for the site of Australia’s future capital, Walter Burley Griffin pitched a tent there, on Camp (now Capital) Hill. Griffin’s campsite forms the approximate setting for the book’s most stirring chapter. In 1972, on the lawns opposite Canberra’s Parliament House, land rights activists planted several tents, declaring them an “Aboriginal Embassy”. Still occupied, and long known as the Tent Embassy, that camp is today protected as a heritage site. “Ephemeral yet indestructible …” As Garner writes: “It is difficult for settler Australians to deny the power of a ragged camp to represent a legitimate claim to sovereignty without denying their own colonial origins.”

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

December 2013 - January 2014

From the front page

Feeding the Muppets

What does the Morrison government have to offer in terms of serious policy?

Illustration

Islam on the inside

Queensland’s first Muslim prison chaplain has first-hand experience of the system

Pub Test: Bad News for Turnbull

Media moguls did not knife the PM, his party did

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple


In This Issue

Jonathan Teplitzky’s ‘The Railway Man’

Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman on the Burma Railway

We don’t want to believe in climate change

Fire, climate and denial

Ocean Drive, Miami. © Virginia Duran

Back to Miami

A dip into childhood

Credit Julia?

Rewriting the Gillard years


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein: show tunes and symphonies

Centenary celebrations highlight the composer’s broad ambitions and appeal

Still from Leave No Trace

The hermitic world of Debra Granik’s ‘Leave No Trace’

The ‘Winter’s Bone’ director takes her exploration of family ties off the grid

Image of Low

Low’s ‘Double Negative’: studies in slow transformation

Twelve albums in, the Minnesota three-piece can still surprise in their unique way

Covers of Motherhood and Mothers

To have or not to have: Sheila Heti’s ‘Motherhood’ and Jacqueline Rose’s ‘Mothers’

Heti’s novel asks if a woman should have a child; Rose’s nonfiction considers how society treats her if she does


More in Noted

‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer

The Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is an engaging story of love and literary misadventure

Hannah Gadsby: ‘Nanette’

Believe the hype about the Tasmanian comedian’s Netflix special

Cover of A Sand Archive

‘A Sand Archive’ by Gregory Day

Day grasps landscape as an intimate living thing

Cover of The Lebs

‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

A fresh perspective on Muslim youth in Sydney’s west


Read on

Feeding the Muppets

What does the Morrison government have to offer in terms of serious policy?

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple

Image of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Image of Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton

Turnbull fires back

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’


×
×