Monday 18 May 2015

the Australian Federation: your open-house guided tour

The Australian Federation is an odd creation.

Much like a rickety old 19th century mansion, this country is divided up into far more rooms than required.

New South Wales, Australia’s oldest state, might well be the kitchen around which the rest of the house is built, where visitors are often taken for a cup of tea and a chat.  Lots of Serious House Discussions occur in the kitchen, most of which end in biscuits disappearing from the biscuit jar when nobody is looking.  

Naturally, the kitchen is a bit busy at times.  When this happens, one must go to another room.  If one wishes to surround themselves with ferns and palms while sweating at a rate so far on the wrong side of comfortable that even doing a crossword becomes a tiresome exercise, then one goes to Queensland, the house’s conservatory, to sit in an old chair and gaze aimlessly out the window.

If, however, one prefers relaxation of the more solemn variety, one can descend the stairs to Victoria, the house’s old coal cellar, now well-stocked with dusty books and obscure artefacts.  There, lit by a single lightbulb from Thomas Edison’s original collection, it is possible to spend one’s entire life in the damp half-light, poring over old leather-bound tomes.  Many a resident has emerged from the cellar on their death bed, wrapped in nothing else but a black overcoat and feverishly proclaiming that the old cellar is the “greatest room in the house, if not the entire street”, before keeling over perfectly dead, without another soul having paid the scantest bit of attention.

But the house is not just an indulgent place.  Real work happens there on a daily basis!  Take, for example, Western Australia—the house’s laundry.  A good working laundry is crucial for the continued day-to-day running of any respectable house.  However, a laundry tends to be noisy. For this reason, the laundry is kept as far away as possible from the house’s other rooms.

Equally unglamorous—but important!—is South Australia, the house’s toilet, where all manner of hazardous substances are unearthed and disposed of for the common good of the house.  The toilet is popular with all comers—occupants of the house often like to disappear there with the weekend paper and a glass of red for some peace and quiet, while on the more lively end of the spectrum, overseas visitors to the house are rumoured to have caused numerous explosions in the toilet from the late 1950s onwards.

One would be remiss to forget Tasmania, the old shed out the back.  Almost as old as the house itself, the shed is often looked upon with scorn for its decaying roof, frequent animal infestations, and rumours of a hideously deformed mutant boy living behind the paint tins.  House residents often question why they must pay for the upkeep of the shed—but quickly change their tune once they venture across the backyard to find that the shed is packed full of whisky and apples.

The house also features a variety of lesser spaces.  There is the Northern Territory, or the house’s attic.  Stifling hot despite being entirely rebuilt in 1974, visitors are told not to attempt the climb up to the attic, despite there being stairs and a handrail installed for that very purpose.

Even smaller in size (and often more properly thought of as part of the kitchen) is the house’s pantry, known as the Australian Capital Territory.  This little room is stocked each week by an expert, self-appointed committee tasked with determining the nutritional needs of the entire house.  Most residents ignore this advice and order take-away.

Finally, what would a charming old mansion be without a variety of crawl-spaces, cat-boxes, and children’s play-houses?  Ferreted away throughout these spaces are a vast array of secrets and follies, including a rumoured 1,000 people crammed into ostensibly the happiest treehouse in the entire suburb, “Christmas Island”.  

The house has an interesting history.  It was not built from scratch, but cobbled together over time by different owners and builders, to the extent that each room in the house now features its own water supply and has its own electricity connection.  Not surprisingly, a small army of tradesmen is required to maintain the house, each contracted to work on a different room, and each paid for out of separate accounts.

These arrangements present many challenges. One year, for instance, it was announced that new electrical sockets and floor lamps were to be installed in the kitchen.  It was agreed that a bulk order should be placed to also allow the cellar and the toilet to benefit, but when the shipment arrived, it emerged that the sockets had been changed at the last minute for the benefit of the kitchen, and the lamps were now inoperable in all the other rooms.

Another year, with the house needing a serious lick of paint, it was determined that the main rooms of the house (and the shed) would be painted in the shade of "uniform off-white".  Accordingly, six different house representatives placed six different orders with six different paint companies supplying six different painters. The results were catastrophic.  

The paint destined for the kitchen disappeared unexpectedly, coinciding with the mysterious nighttime painting of a resident's car in "uniform off-white".  The toilet and the shed were painted, but with drastically varying interpretations of the term "off-white".  The painting of the conservatory caused a major furore, as it was claimed that the shade chosen was much too white, so much so that the extra light reflected off the paint during summertime would prematurely fade the curtains.  The cellar was painted, subsequently stripped of that paint mid-way through the paint job, and then (following a quick vote) painted entirely black.  Those working in the laundry complained that all this painting wouldn't be possible without a laundry there to wash the paintbrushes and the work clothes, and made great agitations to pack up the laundry and move it to a separate block of land unless others bloody well pitched in with the washing-up.

While numerous plans have been drafted to bring the house into the 21st century, for instance, knocking down most of the interior walls to create an open-plan dwelling with more shared, central space, the house is beset by serious planning issues.  The property’s certificate of title (drawn up over a century ago and stored in an old castle some distance away) contains numerous caveats that prohibit any meaningful renovations. 

There are also political challenges.  Sensible proposals to renovate the house are defeated time and time again with the well-worn argument that the house is a grand experiment in finding out which of the house’s eight different styles of light-switch is everybody’s favourite.   Others protest that any renovations would no doubt interfere with the house’s annual backyard cricket competition.

This is not to say that attempts at progress aren’t made.  A couple of years ago, for example, the house agreed to pool its resources and share one high-speed internet connection amongst the entire household.  Unfortunately, the money set aside for the installation of new internet cabling was instead diverted to the expansion of the treehouse, and the house was left to share a wireless dongle.

Then someone in the house signed up to Netflix, and the dongle's bandwidth—much like this post's pained metaphor—was stretched beyond the point of reason.


  1. You should caption the photos

    1. Hello -- there are (somewhat hidden) captions on this and on most other posts -- mouse over the pictures to display them. Some are more informative than others.

  2. your post is really nice and informative but I agree with the above given comment that you should caption the photos.