A capital idea that went horribly wrong By JOE HILDEBRAND August 13, 2005 LAST weekend I did something dodgy, deviant and downright un-Australian. I went to Canberra. I was not even going for business, I was going for pleasure - and not even the kind of pleasure you get at Fyshwick. (Locals know what I mean.) Canberra is a weird place and it does funny things to your head. Not in the way that being Tasmanian does funny things to your head - extra ears and whatnot - but things on the inside of your head, what scientist-types call in their jargon "the brain". Every time I go to Canberra I get scared I'll never get out again. Once when I took the bus one night I called my friend Darrin in a panic. "The sign says it's just 9km to the city centre but it's still all black," I said. "Don't worry," he replied. "It's just the same in Washington DC." I don't really know what Darrin meant by that but my fears were clear: The capital city of our fine nation is basically a building parked underneath a shrub. My very wise uncle once described Canberra as a suburb in search of a city. True as this is in itself, it also means that Canberra's suburbs are suburbs of a suburb in search of a city. Given Canberra's road network they are unlikely to ever find it. In fact Canberra is a miracle of modern town planning in that its roads are actually designed to reflect the character of the capital. Like the politicians themselves, they go round and round in circles, meandering along endlessly without ever actually getting anywhere. The only straight road in Canberra goes to Parliament House, which ironically is the only crooked building. Then there is the ambience of the city itself. Canberra tourism types boast that while many cities have parks scattered through them, "Canberra is a city scattered through a park". What they neglect to mention is that it is a city scattered through a car park. For reasons best known to themselves, the city planners decided to put huge slabs of bitumen car parks all over the inner city. In Sydney we call them arterial roads. The car parks in Canberra are necessary because everybody drives cars everywhere. Driving is necessary because if you are waiting at a bus stop you are more likely to catch arthritis than a form of transport. A friend of mine who lives in Canberra once successfully caught a bus and was bragging about it for weeks - which was also the amount of time it took her to get back. When I was driving in last Friday night, the carload of Sydneysiders was thrilled when we spotted a bus lane on Northbourne Ave, only to have our excitement crushed when it ran out 30m later. It was a damn good bus lane though. In Canberra there is plenty of room for bus lanes because the roads are as wide as a Texan on The Jerry Springer Show. Legend has it that it took Cathy Freeman 45 minutes to cross one intersection. The good thing about this is that you can play footy on the median strip without the ball ever going out of bounds. The bad news is that in the decades to come the median strips might be turned into tram lines, which will prevent you playing footy but is still probably a better bet than waiting for the bus. Another peculiarity of Canberra is that all the suburbs are clearly signposted in big black letters. This is so as not to confuse people, as in: "Look honey, it's not just a clump of trees, it's Watson!" (Interesting Canberra fact No. 43: Those who knock Canberra as being a cultural wasteland may not know that Canberra was once the inspiration for a song by a great Australian band called The Bedridden. Entitled Lost in Watson, the song was about the author repeatedly getting lost in Watson and not being able to get a bus because they had all stopped. That should silence the critics.) The history of Canberra is as inspirational as the city itself. Basically there was a royal commission to decide on a good site but it couldn't make up its mind. So then it said the parliamentarians should all decide on a site and, blow me down, they couldn't make up their minds either. Eventually the NSW Government settled the matter by handing over a piece of land it didn't want and a capital city was born. Then we needed somebody to design it so of course we chose an American who, as it turned out, forgot to bring a ruler with him and so made all the roads wobbly. There is a myth that the site of Canberra was chosen because it was out of range of the missiles of the day and was therefore a secure capital. This theory is in fact an elaborate ruse for the far more cunning plot to make Canberra so unattractive that no foreign power would actually want it. As an extra ingenious diversion, it was also designed so that anybody who came to bomb the place flat would think they had arrived too late. I once got a hold of an Australian atlas that was published before Canberra was even a twinkle in Walter Burley Griffin's eye. To provide a map of Australia's capital, it offered a selection of some of the towns being considered at the time. So next time you want to slag off the national capital just remember: It could've been Yass.