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.”
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