Miles Franklin. All That Swagger. First published The Bulletin, 1936.
Since I’ve already arbitrarily redrawn Canberra’s borders to include Gundaroo, let’s linger a little while to have a look around the Brindabella Valley. After all, to borrow from Tom Stoppard, Canberra as we define it is just a conspiracy of cartographers.
Danny Delacy is looking for his own land, in the many senses that phrase may suggest. A family friend back in Ireland has settled around Bandalong, “one of the farthest-out stations, not far from Mount Bowning”. To get there, Danny and his “brave Johanna” travel through the already-settled districts from Sydney:
The Goulburn Plains were already held by families, which, in some instances, hold them still with prestige and comfort. Lake George was gone, likewise Gounderu. Limestone Plains was in the hands of first families, there to remain, in imitation of the English squirearchy, until dispossessed by an imperative democracy in favour of an ideally modelled city.
Danny falls in love. The landscape, “with a necklace of ranges beautiful as opals and sapphires”, infects him with a spirit which is ultimately the link between Danny and the generations to come. Harry, the dreamer who is torn away and must live apart from the place that is part of him. Darcy, “homing to his own place and people after exile” and looking “towards the wreathed blue ranges that lay as a glory on the day”. Brian, who, after experiencing the arrogance of Europe, returns to Burrabinga and Bewuck and Ferny Creek,
…commanding a view of the far piled ranges beyond Canberra, that lie dreaming for ever in blue forgetfulness. The hills were an altar, this a vigil of oblation in the worshipper’s private chapel with a choir of magpies, kookaburras, warblers – each after his kind – filling the invisible transepts with music.
Here he can leave a legacy of his own.
I started reading All That Swagger during week of the opening of the new National Arboretum, and the two together had me thinking about landscape and our relationship with trees. Danny is driven by the need to carve out his part of the landscape – burning and feeling trees is part of civilising and claiming. He loves the land and must possess it. The arboretum is also about living among trees and understanding them. On a lazy Sunday morning I slept in too late, listening to a 360 documentary about the arboretum, thinking about the bush capital, and our desire to shape our landscape.
Franklin seems to want to explore how the landscape in its turn shaped the Australian character and culture. Canberra seeks to be a physical expression of those things. Franklin uses the word ‘democratic’ frequently to mean equality and a lack of the usual prejudices of race, status and religion. We like to think these things are characteristic of our culture today, although you don’t have to think for more than a moment about the perennial asylum seeker debates to know that that is not true. The Griffins envisaged the Capitol building where Parliament House now stands as representing the people, sitting above the parliament. That, like much of the symbolism of the Griffin plan is lost, but some of it is regained in the Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp design for the new House that allows us to walk over the heads of our representatives and almost peer down on them in the chambers. I have always thought of the word ‘democratic’ when I have thought of that design.
I finished All That Swagger late at night after seeing the stage production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. Not very surprising, I guess, that two stories of the expansion of white settlement beyond Sydney would explore the same themes. It was, though, particularly striking how two writers, 75 years apart, might both meditate on what might have been, if more tolerance and generosity and humility had travelled with the new arrivals. Danny Delacy, following his instinct to treat all around him honestly and fairly, pays his rent in a few bullocks to the true owners of the land when they come to call. In time, “Graciously, peacefully they had ceded their territory to Delacy.” The Secret River’s William Thornhill tries this path, and in the end takes another. The end result, all these years later is, perhaps, much the same: an absence from the land of its original custodians, and a landscape now bent to different purposes.
Winner 1936: S.H. Prior Memorial Prize