Towards the end of 1998 I went looking for postcard portraits of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony to forward to the friend with whom I had stayed in Chicago. Interested though he was in his city’s architecture, he did not know about its Canberra connection. Postcards of the Griffins or of their plans were not to be had, not even at the visitors’ centre on Regatta Point, not at the Archives, not at the City Museum.

This failure in shopping points up one half of what I want to say. The prime responsibility of a local history society is for its our backyard. Hence, I hope you will influence the commercial card makers or institutions such as the National Library to release postcards of Griffin, Mahony and their designs. In this vien, your Society could also explain to the proprietor of the Maid Marian which plies the Lake why his boat’s name should be Maid Marion. In brief, one duty of the Canberra and District Historical Society is to make the local visible to residents and visitors, to decipher ‘the palimpsest of successive strata, one inscribed below another, of human impression’, as Squire Urquhart instructs Wolf Solent in the 1929 eponymous novel by John Cowper Powys.

Urquhart desired a scandalous history of his county - ‘for the sort of perspective on human occurrences that the bed-posts in brothels must come to possess – and the counters of bar-rooms – and the butlers’ pantries in old houses – and the muddy ditches in long-frequented lovers’ lanes’. Those vantage points not be to everyone’s taste, yet his fascination with the prurient involves one strand in what makes us human, namely, our attachment to places.[1]

The train crash in the Blue Mountains earlier this week was no worse than a thousand other multiple deaths across the planet, yet it affects most Canberrans in ways that the news of a capsized ferry in the Philippines with the loss of 600 lives can not. The difference is not heartlessness but rather that our hearts are nourished by the experience of places. News of the collision between a commuter train from the Blue Mountains and the Indian-Pacific evoked multiple memories for me. First, my mind leapt back to the 1977 Granville disaster which I still remember as leaving me shaken for a couple of days. My thoughts then spread to trips to the Blue Mountains, stays at the Carrington, a visit to Eleanor Dark in 1973, a one-way trip on the trans-continental in 1987, and Streeton’s ‘“Fire’s On”’, depicting a fatal accident to a worker on the Lapstone tunnel in December 1891. Streeton’s letter to Tom Roberts voiced out bonding to place as powerfully as did his painting: ‘a passing corpse does chain your eyes & indeed all your senses just as strongly as love’.[2]

Behind this association of place with empathy stands the historiography that Giambattista Vico advanced his New Science in 1725 when he argued that, while only God could comprehend the natural world because he had created it, humans could understand social life because we had made that. The first of Vico’s propositions, I would judge as too modest. We may never know the origins of the universe, but we already know very much more than Vico thought possible of the mind of god. The second half of Vico’s approach claims too much. Yes, human beings can know about the dynamics and structures of history because we have made our past, and have, in the process, continuously remade ourselves. But we work those ends in particular places and at specific trades. What we make is not the entirety of human experience, but limited parts thereof. Hence, we gain self-awareness, both as individuals and as a species, from our transformation of the areas where we farm, mine, fabricate, build and breed. [3]

Since my ears prick up at the mention of a place where I have been no more than a day tripper, how much more must I be made up from the localities where I have lived? In reading novels about Canberra, from M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Plaque with Laurel (1937) to Sara Dowse’s West Block (1983), helps me make sense of the thirty years I have lived here. The history of the Manuka Pool, a few hundred metres from where I have lived since 1974, connects my place to a time before I was born. The impulse behind family history, in which I have no interest, finds another expression in a need to know how the few hectares around which I stroll came to look the way they do.

The writing of local history has proceeded far beyond the chronicle, far beyond the scissors-and-paste by retired shire clerks of which Geoffrey Blainey complained in 1960.[4] If local history is to be done badly, it is best for it to be done as badly as possible. The memorialist who reprints unedited slabs from newspapers and municipal records provides re-usable primary sources, whereas the would-be historian so muddies the information with prejudice and discretion as to be of no use to the professional researcher, which doubles our loss when original documents are destroyed.

The Canberra and District Historical Society shares the responsibility for preserving more than files and photographs. As repositories of knowledge about what has been imagined and done here, your membership can inform discussion of how the city should look and function in the future. That aspect of your work involves more than preserving recent ruins. It includes the protection of contemporary glories such as the new Parliament House from the vandalism of occluding its sight-lines with office blocks. As examples of barbarism, graffitists have nothing on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

So far, I have talked about the Canberra part of your Society’s name because, as I proceed to elaborate the meanings of ‘and District’, I have no intention of reducing the importance of Canberra in your activities. On the contrary, my aim is to enrich the significance of Canberra through deepening our recognition of what ‘and District’ means, of how broad a scope that appellation acknowledges.

Your organisation’s name, Canberra and District Historical Society, gives us a negative clue about the meaning of ‘and District’. The Society is not called the Canberra District Historical Society. The insertion of that ‘and’ requires a view beyond the backyard. Nor is your organisation called the Australian Capital Territory Historical Society. So, ‘and District’ is not determined by borders on a map.

The name Canberra has associations with prior occupants, the Ngunawal and Ngarigo  peoples. The extent of their country at the time of contact is quite unlike the shires set up by the settlers, or the Territory ceded by New South Wales. Nonetheless, for some essays into Canberra and District, those tribal and clan zones will be essential markers for telling it how it really was. More recently, Canberra has acquired a diverse population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have come to work in the public service. This mingling of tribal and language groups repeats the experience of driving peoples together on reserves. The relations between the Aborigines whose country this is and those from thousands of miles away are topics for social scientists, but the historian will perceive in these changes an extension of the term ‘Aborigine’ towards a continental experience so that the boundaries of country acquire a new focus for all Aborigines.

If a history of European Australia can be no more than the four hundred or so years since the early maritime explorers, the history available to a Canberra historical society is even more truncated because the national capital was not proclaimed until 1908-11. Perhaps, the significance of ‘and District’ is not spatial but temporal, intended to gather in what had happened on the lands now within the A.C.T.  during the ninety years between the first overland explorers left Goulburn and the birth of the Territory. As Lyall Gillespie put it in his opening volume on the history of Canberra:

Also included are details of the history of Queanbeyan and other townships in the region. Although they do not form part of the Australian Capital Territory, they are an integral part of a modern urban region serving the domestic, commercial and industrial needs of the capital city of the nation.[5]

The brush was less broad in the next two volumes.

The drawing of the A.C.T. borders had less impact on the District than did the decision not to select one of the existing towns as the capital city – Tumut or Delegate. One way of telling the story of the District would be through the historiographical method known as counter-factual condition analysis whereby the researcher measures the impact of what did happen by taking it out of the story. The most famous example of this approach was into the impact of railroads on the US economy in the nineteenth century. Imagine that the rail network had not been constructed and then calculate how the National Product would have grown. In our case, what would have been the impact on the Canberra District had the national capital been put at Eden?

The town that would have been most affected had Canberra not been chosen is Queanbeyan. Would it now be more than a stopover on the way to the snowfields if Canberra were not here? I have more than once referred to Queanbeyan as the Soweto of Canberra, a comment that a Canberra Times journalist misread as a criticism of that city. If I were a motorist, I would have moved to Queanbeyan and driven in to the National Library. My shaft was aimed at Canberra’s administrators who have used Queanbeyan as a reserve army of builders and cleaners without bearing the social costs that fall on that community every time Canberra booms and slumps. Schools and hospitals there are strained whenever Canberra expands, and its caravan parks over-fill. Property values plummet when the Department of Finance turns the tap off. In 1996, for example, a flat could be bought in Queanbeyan for hardly more than a deposit on a house in Canberra. The relation between Canberra’s affluence and Queanbeyan’s squalor can be treated as a microcosm of the social divisions within all of Australia. That juxtaposition spotlights the difficulties that policy makers here have in realising that not everyone lives as well as they do.

My pleasure at speaking to Queanbeyan’s Historical Society, and my enthusiasm for Susan Mary Withycombe’s history of its post-war experience, ensure that I propose no imperialist designs on its history. But neither side of the border can be understood outside the experience of the other.

The same applies to lesser extent to Bungendore, Yass, Cooma, Braidwood and Goulburn. Each has its particular connection to the Canberra economy but all are part of its constellation. One way to manage the ‘and District’ aspect of your organisation, without forgetting your own place and without stepping on toes, could be through joint issues of journals and regional conferences on how the growth of Canberra has affected Yass etc, and vice versa, published in joint issues of journals.

Beyond those bipolar studies, a longer-term project, in the manner of Keith Hancock’s Discovering Monaro, but involving geographers and ecologists, could consider the networks that criss-cross all these communities. The South Coast as terminus for holiday-makers and retirees from Canberra have created Wanniassa-by-sea. How appropriate then that Jim Gibbney should have written both a volume of the history of Canberra and a history of the Eurobodalla shire.

If Canberrans need to be careful about the sensitivities of the smaller neighbours, we can never forget that Canberra is itself a tiny pond compared with Melbourne and Sydney. From that perspective the meaning of ‘and District’ becomes “Melbourne/Sydney and District’, where the appendix is Canberra. Canberra started as a northern suburb of Melbourne as the Parliament and later the Public Service moved up between the 1920s and 1970s. The teaching part of the university began as a college of the University of Melbourne. Yet, it is no longer a joke to say that we are one of the western suburbs of Sydney, as our prime minister demonstrates by commuting to work here. One sign of that refocussing is how the dominant football code shifted from Australian Rules to League. If the very fast train ever runs, the trip from Kingston to Central will be quicker than the journey on public transport from Banks to Fraser.

The Internet promises to make propinquity as obsolete as the typewriter. People can work from home, we are told, designing in one hemisphere while manufacturing it in another. Yet, if place has lost its prominence, why has Steve Jobs just bought a helicopter to get to his office at Apple? The answer is that computer whizzes cluster together in Silicon Valley because they still need to talk their creativity through over a beer at the country club. They appreciate that knowledge is absorbed and acted on through human networks as much as via electronic ones. Technologies are social practices as well as bits of machinery. Indeed, core centres such as Paris, Sydney and Tokyo are attracting service industries, not shedding them.

Do those kilometres matter in the age of the Internet? Yes. Invention is not the same as its application. A friend, Paul Kuske, operates his firm, Digital Alchemy, out of a penthouse apartment in the Lakeside Towers. He misses out on jobs in Sydney because, as much as firms there admire his work, they want him to pack up his machines and move to an office around the corner from them in Chatswood. He tells these prospective customers that the materials can be e-mailed back and forth in seconds. Often as not, that fact does not reassure the clients who fear that they will lose control if the work is done in another city. This concern is not wholly irrational because detail and subtleties do get lost in the electronic transfer, as in a version of the schoolyard game, Chinese whispers. No doubt, the day will come when executives will be as at ease with virtual documents as they are with mobile phones. Meanwhile, Canberra will suffer from the tyranny of non-distances as imagined by retards in management.

As the National Capital, Canberra’s writ runs clear across Australia, giving an alarming dimension to ‘and District’. Political and administrative decisions here impact on lives from Broome to Bruny Island. Conversely, parliamentarians and public servants come from every State to shape Canberra ‘and District’, choosing the site in the 1900s and finally agreeing to build the permanent parliament on Capital Hill. Imagine post-war Canberra without the Perth contingent of H. C. Coombs, Dorothy Tangley, Paul and Alexandra Hasluck, Bob Hawke, Pat Troy, John Stone, John Dawkins, Peter Walsh and Kim Beazley. Or, try to think of Canberra Rep without Ric Throssell. Canberra is more a society of immigrants than is Australia as a whole because we not only have ethnic diversity but the city remains a magnet for the brightest and best from declining areas, such as Adelaide.

Canberra has become pivotal to Australia’s relations with the rest of the world and thus its District reaches beyond these shores. Officers trained at Duntroon landed at Gallipoli, with its first commandant, General Bridges, killed there and buried here. ADFA today has its graduates in East Timor. The line runs in reverse when the names on the walls of the Australian War Memorial draw visitors from every street in the country.

The history of every district in Australia makes sense only within the contest of a succession of imperiums: the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, English, German, US and Japanese, and not just one by one but as a focus for their shifting contests and alliances. These connections were not just between Australia and the Mother Country, but linked parts of the Empire, such as Tasmania and New Zealand, Perth and Durban.

Time was when the history of Australia was lucky to feature as an optional tutorial in courses on the expansion of Britain. Much as I welcome the ending of that bias, I worry that the corrective has gone too far. The story of the planning of Canberra is incomplete without Chicago and New Dehli. Brian Fitzpatrick was one of the pioneers of Australian studies who never forgot that the story of settlement was a global design as is obvious from his titles British Imperialism and Australia and The British Empire in Australia. Contexts are essential for understanding. Our open the way to the biggest questions, as Manning Clark revealed when the first volume of his history treated the village of Sydney as a stage for the contest among the three great Ideas of European civilisation - Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Ascendancy and the Enlightenment. Comparable lines cross the history of Canberra and District. To be accurate about this place, an historian can be neither provincial nor parochial. That is why the Bicentennial Committee to Report on Australian Studies in Tertiary Education, of which I was a member, called our final report Windows onto Worlds.

Darwinians stress the connection between regionalism and species differentiation, which supplies another reason why a sense of place informs our self-awareness. The twentieth century has seen the culmination of a rupturing of this way of living. As the biologist Niles Eldredge puts it: ‘Taking control over production of our own food supply, we became the first species in the 3.5-billion year history of life to live outside the confines of the local ecosystem’.[6] Hence, the import of ‘and District’ has been transformed for all human beings. That biological change was made possible by social changes, that is, by Vico’s history. We can draw our resources from around the world because of the global pathways of commerce, such as the air freighting of flowers from nurseries in Zimbabwe to auction houses in Amsterdam and then over the Artic to households in Japan.

As a term, ‘globalisation’ is a public relations make-over for imperialism, usually US Imperialism. But globalisation also relates to changes within the cycles of production, distribution and consumption. These changes are arriving at different rates to each realm of the economy. A Canberran can order a book from Amazon.com more readily than she can sell her house and move her family to work for a publisher in Ottawa. The disjuncture was summed up by the Spanish urban theorist Manuel Castells: ‘People live in places, power rules through flows’.[7] Historians have the privilege and challenge of dealing with both time and space, with the place and the flow, with the dynamic and the district.

[1] John Cowper Powys, Wolf Solent, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1929, pp. 50-1.
[2] Ann Galbally and Anne Gray (eds), Letters from Smike, OUP, Melbourne, 1989, p. 40.
[3] Humphrey McQueen, ‘No Baedeker for Australia, A Materialist Defence of Provincialism’, Praxis M, (Perth), 8, Autumn 1985, pp. 17-23.
[4] Blainey’s commissioned accounts of companies suffer from that very failing which his elegance as a writer cannot conceal. He shows no awareness of the development in business history around the work of Alfred D. Chandler, notably his The Visible Hand, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1977.
[5] Lyall Gillespie, Canberra 1820-1913,  AGPS, Canberra, 1991, p. xvi.
[6] Niles Eldredge, Dominion, Henry Holt, New York, 1995, p. xiv.
[7] Manuel Castels, The Informational City, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1989, p. 349.