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Kristin Otto, Capital: Melbourne when it was the capital city of Australia 1901-1927.

Kristin Otto, Capital: Melbourne when it was the capital city of Australia 1901-1927, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009, 388 pages; ISBN 978 192152 077 8.

This is the story of Victoria's capital city during the quarter century it was also the national capital, from 1901 to 1927. 'Capital' is a word of several meanings. Here it refers to Melbourne, but it has an important secondary meaning: the stock of 'talents' (both monetary and intellectual) that accumulate in a place. By coincidence, I also used the same term this way in my 1983 history of Perth's 'capital' suburb, Peppermint Grove.

Kristin Otto wants to trace Melbourne's growing capacity to guide Australia through the challenges of the early years of the Commonwealth. It was here that the politicians met (while a permanent national capital was being planned). It was here that much of the new nation's economic rules and procedures were developed (think: Harvester judgment). And it was here that Australia's cultural development got its start (Melba, C. J. Dennis, the flag and postage stamps).

In her previous book, Yarra, Otto told the story of Melbourne's main and much-maligned fiver through a series of yarns that stretched out, much like the waterway itself, across Indigenous, official and folk narratives. Her writing has the cadence of a big river, flowing effortlessly, skipping over rocks, coursing around bends. Here is an author who uses storytelling as a strategy for drawing in the reader. Discussion and analysis take second place to eyewitness statements and a series of anecdotes.

Capital is not as successful. It too is a series of yarns about people who were the big personalities of this time and place, in a manner akin to Thomas Carlyle or Manning Clark. The author has read widely in the biographies of prominent Melburnians in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and has artfully arranged episodes in their lives that carry us through the period. Family and coincidental connections are the glue that hold this account together, and the reader is left to infer what needs to be understood as the dominant political, economic and cultural themes of the early Commonwealth.

We have met some of these people as characters in the Manning Clark version of our history, but here some of the new portraits are very revealing--particularly insightful are Otto's images of the confectioner Macpherson Robertson, Percy Grainger's engineer father John, and the princess of the modern beauty industry, Helena Rubinstein. About others--including H. B. Higgins, Alfred Felton and Squizzy Taylor--she has little new to say.

Several vignettes are not complete. Otto leaves out the role played by Katherine Susannah Prichard in the founding of the Communist Party. She does not explain that H. V. McKay's rule of Sunshine was so paternalistic it included the ringing of bells to summon his workers each morning. And there are careless mistakes: Australia was certainly not the only combatant nation in the Great War not to introduce conscription (p. 184).

The book would have benefited from a regional map of Melbourne--it assumes a geographical knowledge of metropolitan Melbourne and its surrounds that betrays its place of publication. The index is incomplete--it is hardly at all cross-referenced to the afterword, where the book's themes are brought together (like Manning Clark's coda to Volume IV).

There are some gaps. Melbourne's cricket and football traditions get no mention--although they are arguably as important as horseracing in the city in this period. The new Melbourne daily of the 1920s, the Sun News-Pictorial, is certainly more important than the papers quoted.

There is hardly enough detail on the actual administration of the state and the Commonwealth, including the key bureaucrats of the period. When they translated to Canberra in 1927 they took a good chunk of Melbourne's stored-up 'capital' with them. This legacy proved more enduring than much else that was the product of Melbourne in this era.

Robert Pascoe

School of Social Sciences and


Victoria University
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Author:Pascoe, Robert
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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