Jim Davidson reviews 'Capital Designs: Australia House and visions of an imperial London' by Eileen Chanin

Jim Davidson reviews 'Capital Designs: Australia House and visions of an imperial London' by Eileen Chanin

Capital Designs: Australia House and visions of an imperial London

by Eileen Chanin

Australian Scholarly Publishing, $49.95 pb, 436 pp, 9781925801316

In the 1970s, before Malcolm Fraser (ahead of his time) tightened security and made most of the place a no-go zone, Australia House – a regular embassy – also functioned as an informal social amenity for visiting Australians. There was a howling disjunction between their friendliness to compatriots, and the sombre, almost processional formality of the central hall. Newspapers were spread on long tables: manna from Oz. The fustian nature of the place was a constant reminder of how removed Australia then was from the rest of the world. In four years of living in England, I heard ‘God Save the Queen’ at public functions only twice: once at Covent Garden for Princess Margaret, and then at a concert in Australia House.

Eileen Chanin’s exhaustive study of the building makes it plain that such convergence was its prime purpose. Australia (contrary to the common view that it became a nation in 1901) was still largely seen as ‘an imperial unit’ – albeit one with its own distinctive character. Chanin draws attention to the way that George V personalised the link. Twice he had been to Australia, once to open the first Federal parliament in Melbourne’s Exhibition Buildings. So it was entirely appropriate that he should both lay the foundation stone and return to open the building in 1918. On that occasion shouts of ‘Cooee!’ echoed down the Strand. Australians felt they had a home in the imperial capital.


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Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson is an historian and biographer, and a former editor of Meanjin. He is the author of A Three-Cornered Life: The historian WK Hancock (2010) and the memoir A Führer for a Father: The domestic face of colonialism (2017). His biographies Lyrebird Rising (of the musical patron Louise Hanson-Dyer) and A Three-Cornered Life (of the historian Keith Hancock) have won major awards. His most recent books are Moments in Time: A Book of Australian Postcards (2016) and A Fuhrer for a Father (2017). He is currently writing a double biography of two literary magazine editors, Clem Christesen of Meanjin and Stephen Murray-Smith of Overland.

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