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

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg

Cold comfort

The Morrison government gave us a recession we didn’t have to have

What elitism looks like

Flagrant conflicts of interest abound at the top

Image of Guy Sebastian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, June, 2020

And now for something completely indifferent

The Morrison government is yet to fully realise that sidelining the arts hurts the economy

Image of Anne Ferran, Scenes on the Death of Nature I, 1986

‘Know My Name’ at the National Gallery of Australia

An exhilarating exhibition considers a persistent gender bias in the visual arts


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 Dhambit Munuŋgurr's Bees at Gäṉgän, 2019

Blue is the colour

The idiosyncratic work of Yolngu artist Dhambit Mununggurr

Image of ‘Empire and the Making of Native Title’

Dividing the Tasman: ‘Empire and the Making of Native Title’

Historian Bain Attwood examines the different approaches to sovereignty in the New Zealand and Australian settlements

Image of Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard’s wider world

The celebrated Australian author’s ‘Collected Stories’ sets private desperation in the cosmopolitan Europe she revered

Image from ‘Mank’

Citizen plain: ‘Mank’

David Fincher’s biopic of Orson Welles’s collaborating writer favours technique over heart


More in Noted

Image of ‘Jack’

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

History and suffering matter in the latest instalment of the American author’s Gilead novels

Image from ‘The Dry’

‘The Dry’ directed by Robert Connolly

Eric Bana stars as a troubled investigator dragged back to his home town in a sombre Australian thriller

Image of ‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan

The Booker Prize winner’s allegorical new novel about the permanence of loss

Image from ‘Kajillionaire’

‘Kajillionaire’ directed by Miranda July

A family of con artists are the American writer-director’s latest offbeat protagonists in a surreal but heartfelt film


Read on

What elitism looks like

Flagrant conflicts of interest abound at the top

Image of Anne Ferran, Scenes on the Death of Nature I, 1986

‘Know My Name’ at the National Gallery of Australia

An exhilarating exhibition considers a persistent gender bias in the visual arts

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Morrison’s climate flip

Australia has a lot of catching up to do on emissions reduction

Image of album artwork for Brazen Hussies soundtrack

Song sisters

The soundtrack to documentary ‘Brazen Hussies’ shows a breadth of feeling about women’s liberation in Australia


×
×