Canberra is supposed to be a dull place but on a recent visit I found it interesting. I discovered monumental architecture, Australian-style; I noted the noisiness of sulphur-crested cockatoos about the War Memorial; I saw the effects of aggressive hail on trees; and I noted the geography of where the old and new parliament houses stand. I never knew that the old parliament house sits in front of the new one.
Old parliament house has some pleasant gardens on each side. New parliament house has a lawn on top. But the main thing that struck me was the contrast between the two buildings.
I swear I once heard someone say on tv that they preferred the old building to the new and I think I heard a relative express a similar view. I decided that this was just a matter of prejudice. The new building only dates from 1988 so for an older generation the original building is what they grew up with. The famous dismissal of the Whitlam Government on 11 November 1975 was announced on the steps of the old building. But times change, mine is a newer generation and the newer building is where it’s at.
But I had second and then third thoughts about this during my recent visit, and it comes down to the architecture. When I was much younger I just accepted that new Parliament House looks how it does. It never occurred to me that there had to be decision-making about its design. Nowadays I think about such things and from the exterior appearance I genuinely prefer the older building.
It’s not that it’s handsome, though it is not unpleasant to the eye. Nor is it that the building is exactly modest. Rather, it’s that it is not pretentious. It is exactly what it is. It is the building of a country that does not need to boast.
The newer building is much grander but it has the bluffness of a piece of modern monumental architecture making a statement. Which is exactly what it is. It is bold and confident, but also brash.
I eventually concluded that architecture is at least somewhat about storytelling and that’s why I prefer the old one. I prefer the story it tells. However the new building is also essential. Both buildings tell stories about the nation. Neither tells a lie, but nor does either tell the whole truth.
In other words, both accurately reflect the country. Make of that what you will.
One thing I never understood about Breaking Bad was how characters could be dumped in the desert but could always walk out of it. Admittedly my own perceptions of deserts were formed by the tragedy of James Annetts and Simon Amos in Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert in 1986 but my overall impression was that if you got lost there, you died. Nowadays things are sometimes different with the invention of personal beacons but overall deserts remain dangerous.
It’s not just deserts, either. The 2007 film Into the Wild is about Christopher McCandless, who died aged 24 in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. I understand the film puts a romantic spin on what was a tragic series of bad decisions.
Bad decisions can kill. In 2016 the remains of Geraldine Largay, aged 66, were found a scant two miles from the Appalachian trail in Maine. She had gone missing in May 2013 after leaving the trail to relieve herself. Marred by a poor sense of directions she hadn’t been able to find her way back again.
It took her 26 days to die and in the first 24 hours that she was lost she tried to sent two text messages to her husband. Due to non-existent phone signal those texts would not leave her phone – indeed, weren’t even known about until her body was found. It’s now known that searchers came within 100m of her camp at least three times.
But there are older cases. In mid-1979 the remains of 20 year old Tammy Mathre were found in the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. She had died the previous summer, believed to have succumbed to the effects of starvation and exposure. It was speculated from diary entries that she had been injured where she was and hence was unable to leave the remote area where her remains were found. She had seen aeroplanes flying overhead and speculated that maybe they were searching for her. In fact nobody even knew she was there. She has simply informed her family that she had gone on a long holiday.
There are probably a few more cases exactly like this that I don’t know about. Indeed, not to be gruesome but there are probably cases like this that nobody knows about. The World War II pilot Denis Copping crash-landed his plane in the Egyptian desert in June 1942 but his fate wasn’t known about until 2012 when his aircraft was found. There was nothing he could have done to save himself. He’d had a mechanical failure.
But the others, unfortunate as their fates were, had made bad decisions that got there where they were. The moral of the story: take care, and take precautions. And never, ever assume that things will not go wrong. Sometimes they will. Also, do not assume that you yourself will not make errors. The cases of Annetts & Amos, McCandless and Mathre come from a different era. Hopefully no one else will have to suffer their fate.