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

Image of Scott Morrison

Isolation nation

The PM is looking like the odd man out

Caravaggio's Saint Jerome, the patron saint of scholars. Wikimedia Commons

The life not lived

Reflections on scholarship

Image of ‘Hamnet’

What dreams may come: ‘Hamnet’

Shakespeare’s son succumbs to plague as Maggie O’Farrell conjures Elizabethan England

Photograph

A month of plague

Voices from the coronavirus outbreak


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 Stormzy

Grime boss: Stormzy

The rapper and MC’s second album ‘Heavy Is the Head’ is another triumphant step bringing black British culture forward

Photo of Tennant Creek Brio artists

Desert bloom: The Tennant Creek Brio

The brazen art movement born out of the troubled legacies of substance abuse and dispossession

Cover of jenny Offill's ‘Weather’

Twilight knowing: Jenny Offill’s ‘Weather’

The American novelist brings literary fiction’s focus on the interior life to climate-change cataclysm

Image from ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Properly British: Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

A multicultural vision underscores the acclaimed British satirist’s endearing Dickensian romp


More in Noted

Image of Eimear McBride's ‘Strange Hotel’

‘Strange Hotel’ by Eimear McBride

A woman unceasingly travels to contend with the inertia of grief, in the latest novel from the author of ‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing’

‘Actress’ by Anne Enright

In a theatre setting, the masterly Irish writer considers the melting, capricious line between the truth and the fake

Image from ‘Stateless’

‘Stateless’: ABC

A probing drama about Australia’s mandatory detention regime focuses on the dehumanisation experienced on both sides of the razor wire

Image of ‘The Bass Rock’

‘The Bass Rock’ by Evie Wyld

The Miles Franklin–winning author’s latest novel expands on her interest in the submission and consequential fury of women amid the impersonal natural world


Read on

Image of ‘Hamnet’

What dreams may come: ‘Hamnet’

Shakespeare’s son succumbs to plague as Maggie O’Farrell conjures Elizabethan England

AFL names of the decade

Games may be cancelled, but the names play on

Language is a virus

With information on COVID-19 changing constantly, the government needs to fine-tune its delivery

Coronavirus: cancelling culture

How the COVID-19 crisis could be catastrophic for Australia’s already vulnerable arts sector


×
×