A Capital read

Another book I’ve enjoyed in the last couple of years is Kristin Otto’s Capital, a terrific read that looks at Melbourne during its brief period as the national capital of Australia. Ok, so it’s not riveting subject matter to everyone, but I reckon it’s great!

Otto begins the story on New Year’s Day 1901 at the birth of the Commonwealth and ends in 1927 when the Federal Parliament packed its bags and headed to Canberra. Its an eclectic gathering of stories, but nicely tied together. The result is an entertainingly coherent narrative that moves along at good pace and reads easily.

First and foremost it’s a story of people. Otto favours the power brokers, the influencers and celebrities: the Prime Ministers, from Barton to Bruce; Australia’s first international megastar Nellie Melba; the queen of cosmetics Helena Rubinstein; wealthy socialite and philanthropist Janet, Lady Clarke; confectioner Mac Robertson with his white factories and matching suits; engineer and war hero John Monash; founder of the city’s beloved department store, Sidney Myer; writer and poet C.J. Dennis; and Murdoch the newspaper mogul. But interwoven with these are glimpses into the life of ordinary Melburnians, where they lived, what they were reading, how they shopped and what they did with their spare time.

It’s also a story of places; the grand Exhibition Building, host to the opening of Australia’s first Parliament; the Coles Book Arcade, the world’s largest book store; the city’s Public Library, an engineering feat; the instantly successful Luna Park; the Burley-Griffin’s Cafe Australia, ‘perhaps the most beautiful cafe in the world;’ and the Flemington race track, home to the city’s obsession, the Melbourne Cup.

And it’s a story of events, many of them life changing: the birth of a nation; the death of a beloved Queen and the enthronement of a King; and of course the War in which a third of a million Australian men volunteered to fight. In a country of less that five million, the sacrifice was defining and its impact upon this city extraordinary.

All in all, for those who love this city, Capital is a fascinating read and a good reminder that our hometown story is as captivating as any other.

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