Suddenly, it’s 1970 again… but without the beer

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1970 and the living was easy… a family barbecues at the top of Black Mountain. Photo: ACT Archives

“Whatever the future holds, our wondrous capital city, rich with character, learning and politesse, is undoubtedly the place to be,” writes “The Gadfly” columnist ROBERT MACKLIN.

​ON New Year’s Day, after a splendid dinner with the extended family, we headed home along Adelaide Avenue. Suddenly, we were propelled back 50 years in time – there were so few cars on that beautiful smooth road that it was 1970 once again.

Robert Macklin.

That was when Canberra’s “rush hour” was 10 minutes around 8.30am and 20 from 4.53pm to 5.13pm. And the most dangerous time, we joked, was mid-morning when ladies of a certain age went shopping in their Morris Majors.

It wasn’t exactly the same. Instead of the bellyful of beer that used to be de rigueur for the typical Canberra male, I’d had no more than two glasses of a delicious Murrumbateman white. But it powerfully evoked the days when we lived as though it really was bush week in the bush capital and we had Sunday afternoon parties bottling big reds from the Barossa.

That was the time when, in Jack Waterford’s memorable observation, “Canberrans believed it was their inalienable right to park within 50 metres of their destination, for free”. And we did.

By the ’70s my wife Wendy and I were practically old Canberra hands. We had arrived in the early ’60s – she from Temora via Sydney teacher’s college and the mandatory trip to London’s Earl’s Court; me from Queensland, Melbourne and “The Age” bureau in Old Parliament House.

We’d bought our first home in Pearce – then the outskirts – rarely locked up when leaving and on Friday evenings found it rather exotic to stroll down to the local Vietnamese. Over the years, the owners’ children topped their classes and went on to uni. Their father had been on the staff of the Vietnamese Prime Minister and in 1967 the same fate befell me when my new boss, John McEwen took over after Harold Holt plunged into the Victorian surf never to return.

Sir John retired in 1971 and, after an interlude with the Asian Development Bank in the Philippines with our two baby boys, we returned in 1975. By then I’d begun my writing career with a coming-of-age novel, “The Queenslander”. So we bought a little place on the south coast where two more novels arrived.

But it was a struggle, so in the ’80s we came home; Wendy returned to teaching and after a disastrous flirtation with the video production business, I combined reporting on “The Canberra Times” with books exploring our hidden history. That was when I discovered the true joys of living and working in Canberra.

My journalism included a weekly heritage page where I discovered the pre-settlement period with historian Lyell Gillespie, then the formative days of the capital through the magnificent Mildenhall photographs and the National Archives. Together they brought the city and its environs alive for me and our growing family. I cherished the privilege it afforded us all to live among it.

Then, as arts editor and restaurant reviewer, a whole new dimension opened through the plays and great exhibitions mounted by Betty Churcher at the National Gallery, and the expanding cuisine throughout the city. And all the while the books piled up via the extraordinary research treasures of the National Library.

By then we’d long lived down that nasty scoff from the Duke of Edinburgh that we were “a city without a soul”. As a columnist, I covered the “bringing them home” gathering to honour the Vietnam Vets and helped organise the 2000 People’s Walk for Reconciliation across Commonwealth Bridge.

The city grew like Topsy, both up and out, especially the northern side that in earlier times ended for us southerners at the ANU… or maybe Kaleen on freezing Saturday soccer mornings.

Then came the 2003 fires when night arrived at 3pm, power failed and neighbours joined us over the barbecue; and last year the blazing catastrophe that almost engulfed us, followed by the virus. And though they hurt like hell they brought in their train a wonderful sense of community, one with a generosity that flowered in the darkest days to get us through that damnable year.

I wish we could say that we’re over the worst, but it doesn’t feel that way. The coming vaccines will at least give us some breathing space before the next climate crisis. However, one thing’s for sure – whatever the future holds, our wondrous capital city, rich with character, learning and politesse, is undoubtedly the place to be.

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