Tag Archives: Gundaroo

All That Swagger

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

Caphs count



1 Comment

Filed under Classic Fiction, Women Writers

The Gundaroo Pony

Libby Anderson, Ronald Revitt (ill.) The Gundaroo Pony. Australian National University Press 1979. ISBN 0708110088

A little detour outside the borders to Gundaroo, and outside adult fiction into children’s books. Antoinette has loaned me her not-yet-accessioned copy of The Gundaroo Pony, and how can I refuse?

I suspect Canberrans feel about some of our surrounding villages the way most Australians think about New Zealand musicians and sports people. When there is something to admire about them, we just call them our own. Canberra has been famously called a good sheep paddock spoiled, and often has much of the feeling of a big country town. Gundaroo is a small country town, with a population in the hundreds and an infeasibly high proportion of good eating establishments, so I for one am happy to adopt it as part of Canberra for my own selfish purposes.

In The Gundaroo Pony our small friend Dianne and her grey pony prepare with excitement for the historical picnic proposed by Mr Marconi to honour the town’s pioneers. In the process Dianne learns about her own connections with the town’s past.

Although written in the 1970’s, The Gundaroo Pony had me thinking how close our history sometimes is, when we go looking for the links. And, I guess, the obvious but still sometimes surprising notion of how young our settler history is, particularly in this region, only now celebrating 100 years of having an official name.

The 1979 version of Gundaroo depicted here has a breathless admiration for pioneering. Dianne and her mother give us something of a definition to work with:

‘Pioneers,’ Dianne said thoughtfully, ‘were the people who came out to Australia a hundred or more years ago.’

‘That’s right,’ Mother said, ‘they had a very hard and difficult life. They had first to discover and then develop this big island we call Australia.’

‘Pioneers must have been very tough and brave,’ Dianne said.

Been here less than 100 years, or more than 1 000? No pioneering from you, thanks very much. The Gundaroo Pony has a narrow naivety that may be a product of its time, or its childish focus, or more probably both. I don’t feel particularly qualified to review children’s books, although this one reminds me of the quaint, starchy, goody-two-shoes Milly Molly Mandy stories I loved as a kid. I wonder how many children’s authors would write like this today, (only?!) 34 years later?

If The Gundaroo Pony finds history in the recent past, it also made me marvel at how times have changed. What community event today would risk a public liability apocalypse by handing out packets of nuts as prizes for the kids? Which 2010s eight year old would beg to stay longer after looking for an hour at old photos at the “historical library”, where “the old and precious documents and photos about the town’s history were carefully stored… in glass cased cabinets”? And does anyone say ‘golly’ ever, anywhere, at any age, any more?



Caphs count



Filed under Children's Fiction, Women Writers