Category Archives: Classic Fiction


TAG Hungerford. Riverslake. Angus and Robertson, 1953.

Riverslake, arose from a deep-seated concern at injustice. It was the period of post war immigration in Australia. A friend working at one of the Canberra migrant camps had mentioned the prejudice that was rife there. Hungerford took a job as a kitchen hand at Eastlake camp, near present Narrabunda [sic] in Canberra, to see it for himself and to write about it.

“Eastlake was a jungle – a jungle,” Tom Hungerford says emphatically. “There was murder there; rape, buggery, suicide. The lot. And a terrible feeling of desperation and disillusionment among the migrants. The Australians lumped them all together as ‘BaIts’ and vented their anti-Balt feeling on them. I saw a lot of the active xenophobia of the good old Aussie labourer. I watched uncouth, beer-sodden sots lording it over educated men. It made my blood boil. That’s what Riverslake came out of.”

TAG Hungerford’s boiling blood is embodied in former teacher Bob Randolf, running away from we-don’t-quite-know-what after the war, and burying himself as a cook in the camp kitchen at Riverslake. It’s a poisonous atmosphere.

The camps like Riverslake house the workers who are building the new capital, now finally starting to hit its straps after the delays of the depression and the war. Chifley is prime minister, and the unions are feeling and testing their influence in this new world order. Bob Randolf – Randy as he prefers – likes none of it. He is suffused with an abstract love of his country, but not for many of his countrymen. In his time at Riverslake he comes increasingly to understand what the European migrants who work alongside him have lost, and what circumstances have forced them to choose to submit to the demeaning work and routine racism that is Riverslake. While Randy stands on his principles beside these men, he is in danger of failing a more intimate test of his moral courage in the form of Mrs Linda Spain.

Riverslake is an important depiction of post-war Australian political and social conditions. Indeed, a bit of googling seems to indicate that it has been an important source for the Australian National Dictionary Centre in documenting the Australian slang of the time. It’s certainly not only about Canberra. There are references to similar camps in other sites of post-war reconstruction and enterprise, such as the Snowy Scheme. Riverslake does, though, give us a fascinating glimpse of the Canberra landscape – both social and geographical – between the war and the lake.

As Hungerford revealed to Graeme Kinross Smith in 1974 for Westerly, and quoted above, Riverslake is Eastlake. In reality Eastlake was dismantled in the 1920s, although there were plenty of other workmen’s camps in the area, notably Causeway, that continued after World War 2. Given that even the locations for some of the early camps are a bit of a mystery today, something like Riverslake which to some extent brings them to life, is important.

There are two worlds in 1940s Canberra – the world of the construction camps and the world of government – although their borders are remarkably permeable. Randy and some of his friends are able to cross the boundaries to visit the house “a large, pleasant home, quite near, if not actually under the shadow of, Red Hill.” of public servant Paul Spain and his wife Linda. They regularly have Paul’s Minister Hanrahan over for drinks, while Hanrahan’s driver, referred to with casually appalling racism as Blackie, waits outside in the car.

Randy, though, is part of the workers’ camps, which means he is also privy to the world of the Causeway:

The Causeway sprawled in a welter of unpainted shacks and unpaved roads beside the railway yards. It was hidden from the highway by a belt of mushroom factories, hardly less an eyesore than the slum they hid, since they were run up to no particular plan amongst muddy lanes and smouldering rubbish tips. It was the inevitable shanty-town that springs up beside any city, however well planned, because there are always people who could not be happy outside a slum.

Paul Spain works at Parliament House, and while his story is something of a sideline, it gives context to why the Canberra of Riverslake exists at all:

The House was sitting, and to him at least, perhaps because he knew what was going on in the Members’ rooms and in the Party rooms, the corridors and the lobbies and the chambers, it was enveloped in an air, a sound of something doing. It was the heart awakened of this sprawling city that existed for no other reason than to feed to its pumping valves the departmental plasma that kept armies of girls pounding at their typewriters, kept the secretaries whispering importantly in corridors, kept the cleaners polishing and dusting in King’s Hall under the benign gilt smile of George V, and kept the Members dancing attendance in the strident summons of the Division bells.

Separate again from those two worlds is the world of the immigrants. With Randy’s growing sympathy for his European workmates – referred to uniformly, regardless of nationality, as “bloody Balts” by most Australians – he is part of that world too. Alongside their Australian workmates they and their families contemplate single rented rooms at the shops in Kingston if you are a Balt, or perhaps half a house in Narrabundah for a newly married Australian. Work in service at the Hotel Acton and Gorman House. The rounds of the hotels – Civic, Kingston, Acton – where some of the cooks spend their hours between the lunch and dinner shifts. All of it separated only by some lucerne paddocks waiting to become a lake, with Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain looming over it all.

It’s a grim world, although Randy’s friend Murdoch is able to see the good in it, remarking that “’You even get to like it after… It even looks, well, pretty, sometimes. I think so.’” It is also Murdoch who has the explanation of why Canberra is so inhospitable to Novikowski and the other ‘Balts’:

Canberra’s a tough place, even for Australians, if they’re new to it. Everybody’s here for what he can get out of it without working more than he can help. They don’t care for the place, they don’t put anything back for what they take out.

Soulless. I can see here the origin of the cliché about Canberra. The people who continue to call Canberra soulless today are perhaps the ones who continue to be here for what they can get, without putting anything back. For those who do have a connection with Canberra, we do invest something of ourselves, and in return we perhaps reap the rewards of community and belonging. It’s something that evolves, that can’t be manufactured. Sixty-odd years on, I believe it is now a place where, should you wish to belong, you can be welcomed and included and valued for your own identity, with much less of the careless labelling and cruel suspicion that Hungerford saw in Riverslake.



Caphs count:



1 Comment

Filed under Classic Fiction

Happy Valley

Patrick White. Happy Valley. Text Classics, 2012. ISBN: 9781921961175

I’ve expanded the borders again, this time to take in the Monaro and the Snowy Mountains district. We’ve been here before, of course. Erika passed through here all the time. And before there were borders and an Australian Capital Territory it was all known as the Monaroo or some other variation of the spelling.

This late in the Centenary year, the books left on the list are either becoming hard to acquire, or perhaps hard to contemplate. All of which combines to form my excuse for reading Patrick White’s Happy Valley, which contains no references to Canberra at all.

There are hints, though. Mrs Furlow muses with satisfaction on her connections with Government House, which much surely be the Canberra one, Sydney and Melbourne being so much further away? Later hints suggest it is Sydney after all, but when the conversation turns to “the European situation” and Mussolini, it’s clear that this is the late 1930s and likely to be well after Yarralumla became the full-time Government House. But would Australian-born Sir Isaac Isaacs have had an English ADC on hand, ready and willing to give his heart to the beautifully difficult Miss Sidney Furlow? I know, I’m grasping at straws.

Tharwa does get a mention. A drover met along the way, was “going down to Tharwa in the afternoon, he came from there, he would not come back for a year or two”. So Happy Valley is really quite apart from Canberra. Has nothing to do with it. But how might you read the book in the context of Canberra?

Happy Valley, White’s first novel, was originally published in 1939. It is a bleak landscape populated by White’s usual range of somewhat bleak and often unlovable figures. They are the usual ciphers of the isolated, dot-on-the-map town. The teacher at the one-room school, with no one to take over classes when he is sick. The bank manager and his wife, who might be called common except for their position in the town’s hierarchy. The doctor, finding connections with the community, his wife and son not. The youngish spinster sewing and giving music lessons to eke out her inheritance while saving to move to California. The local land owner and his rebellious daughter. The Chinese Australian girl, not quite ostracized but not quite accepted. They are the familiar props of the small town drama, although in White’s hands they are also something more than that.

Given these are such familiar outlines, the stuff of every town, why do I have so much trouble relating them to Canberra? My imagination is completely unable to move Happy Valley up the Monaro Highway and transplant it convincingly on the Limestone Plains, even at an earlier point in history when there must have been a school teacher and a doctor and a land owner.

Canberra’s history is overtaken by the national capital project. It seems from this distance to have leapt from scattered settler community to incipient city, without any moment of pause in between to be just a town. I’m unable to imagine the social hierarchy of Happy Valley transplanted to Canberra, and perhaps it was never there. Or, when it was, it was established according to a different set of rules of public service seniority, marked out by the construction and location of your house – tents at Westlake for construction workers, brick in Forrest for senior bureaucrats.

The capacity for scandal is still the same. Like Plaque with Laurel, written at around the same time, Happy Valley is centred on relationships, misunderstandings and infidelities. The sometimes awfulness of ordinary people, and their seemingly endless facility to do eachother harm without necessarily meaning any harm at all. These things I can imagine happening in Canberra.

If nothing else it has been something of a relief to read someone who masters the language after quite a lot of good storytelling but not much great writing. The foreword to the new edition by Peter Craven discusses how White is, in this first novel, experimenting with the styles of icons such as Joyce and Stein and “drunk with the technique of writing”. Even my unscholarly eye could detect these influences. Whether experimental, derivative or a clear, new and original voice, I do find White’s writing in Happy Valley wonderful. I want to give you a longish quote, the running of the local Cup, that I hope might show you what I mean.

They shuddered in a bunch against the barrier, then streamed out, that long trajectory of colour against an indifferent landscape, the muscle whipped by rain, by the sudden emotional compact of breath and wind. They urged into the wind and the flat, grey with trees. The colour broke fiercely on the grey. It whipped round the bend. The horses coiled back in a long elastic thread. You could hear their hoofs dulled by the mud. You could hear the approach of frantic breath. You could almost hear a flash of colour breaking through a clump of trees. And the crowd leant over the fence, drawing the horses on with their hands, so many puppets on so many strings, of which the jockeys, balled up on their saddles, had no ultimate control.

This moment of action is staccato and abrupt and quite different to much of the writing in the rest of the book, which is much a more fluid stream-of-consciousness, a following of the strange juxtapositions of his characters’ thoughts. Whether or not Happy Valley, separated from Canberra by a somewhat arbitrary boarder, is a mirror or a juxtaposition to the capital, I’m glad that I took the detour to visit.


Gold Medal 1941: Australian Literature Society

Caphs Count:



Filed under Classic Fiction

Plaque with Laurel

M Barnard Eldershaw. Plaque with Laurel. George C Harrap, 1937.

Blogging disaster! I got to the end of Plaque With Laurel and had absolutely nothing to say. I put this down to three main factors.

First, I read Plaque With Laurel from a somewhat inexpertly kindle-ised scanned copy of an old edition. This meant that most of the introductory pages and all of the afterword commentary and essays were missing. It also meant that there were strange gaps in words, mistaken letters, idiosyncratic punctuation and mysterious extra line breaks, or missing ones, which took a bit of deciphering in places.  Serves me right for not hunting out the 1995 Australian edition. What all this meant was that I was at times concentrating too much on just what the words were and not enough on what they were saying.

This compounded the second problem, which is my long-standing inability to keep track of a multitude of characters in any given book. Give me more than four or five individuals whose names, backgrounds and personalities I need to remember and understand, and I start getting a bit lost. There are lots of characters in Plaque With Laurel, something that apparently I’m not alone in finding a bit bewildering. The variously intersecting and parallel lives of the fictional members of the Australian Writers Guild were a bit too much for me. Apart from some key characters such as Imogen Tarrant, Jim Walters, Owen Sale, and the dead Richard Crale, whom the Guild has  come to Canberra to honour, I struggled to understand the motivations and machinations of many of the protagonists.

This in turn had an impact on my ability to cope with the third factor, which was the passage of time since the novel was written, and the gulf between the social mores and expectations of then and now. My little bit of reading about Plaque With Laurel says that the 1937 publisher was fearful of libel cases, and the authors where in fact forced to pay out to someone who shared a name with one of the less pleasant characters. I struggled to understand why this might be. While, as in every interesting piece of fiction, each of the characters has their own flaws and failings, I couldn’t detect anyone in Plaque With Laurel who was so nasty that I would sue if the character had shared my name. I think this is in part because what would be considered polite behaviour in 1937 is markedly different at times from what we might think today. It’s also a function of the fact that I struggled to remember who was who at times, and as a result failed to get a really good appreciation of how each of the characters was responding to the world around them.

None of this is telling you very much about the book, but that’s ok. Patricia Clarke has already written a lot of what I wanted to say about Plaque With Laurel, along with a whole bunch more that I may not have thought of saying. As Clarke shows us, Plaque With Laurel provides an intriguing glimpse of Canberra before the lake.

There seems to be a particular obsession with views: Red Hill, Cotter Dam, Mount Ainslie. Arriving by the busload at Red Hill lookout, the writers remark:

“Isn’t it lovely! “Isn’t it wonderful!” “Isn’t it magnificent!” “Talk about the old world, but where would you get a prospect like this, I’d like to know?” “What a setting for a novel! It would be a good spec to write a Canberra novel, don’t you think?”

Seeing this view, as the plains “stretched empty, a tabula rasa” ahead of her, earnest Ailsa says “[it] has gone to my head a little. There’s so much of it – and the light. This would be a splendid place to come to think things out”.

Whist contemplating one view or another, one of the writers comments that

if they had planted gumtrees in Commonwealth Avenue Canberra wouldn’t have been Canberra at all. The gumtrees would have laughed and laughed and laughed at all the by-laws and red-tape and the tin-pot bureaucratic gods, till Canberra fell down like a card-house. They had to get tame exotic trees to keep them in countenance.

Plaque with Laurel is disparaging in this way about Canberra in many of its moments. It has that terribly annoying gift of seeking out and pointing to the uncomfortable facts that make us squirm. This city that is, in the late 1930s, not a city at all, is “inscrutable”. The “long, unchanging, leafy roads with [their] implacable, equidistant lamp-posts” join the pool of civilisation at the Hotel Canberra and the Albert Hall with those at the “clusters of shops, brightly lit, but no customers” in Civic and the old St John’s church, the Kingston Powerhouse and Parliament House. It is hard to deny that Canberra at this time must have appeared as a strange assortment of grand and not-so-grand buildings somewhat randomly interspersed in some paddocks.

The Writers Guild members, like all of us, bring their various views and histories and biases with them to their conference in Canberra, and these colour their individual images of the city. In Plaque With Laurel, the characters share a moment in time, and in doing so, share with us a view of Canberra in its early years. That the city was then a gangling, half-formed pre-teen with limbs too long for its body, and emotions too strong for its mind, is one of those embarrassing memories that perhaps we must just look back on today with a fond if wry smile.



Caphs count:



Filed under Classic Fiction, Women Writers

All That Swagger

Miles Franklin. All That Swagger. First published The Bulletin, 1936.

Since I’ve already arbitrarily redrawn Canberra’s borders to include Gundaroo, let’s linger a little while to have a look around the Brindabella Valley. After all, to borrow from Tom Stoppard, Canberra as we define it is just a conspiracy of cartographers.

Danny Delacy is looking for his own land, in the many senses that phrase may suggest. A family friend back in Ireland has settled around Bandalong, “one of the farthest-out stations, not far from Mount Bowning”. To get there, Danny and his “brave Johanna” travel through the already-settled districts from Sydney:

The Goulburn Plains were already held by families, which, in some instances, hold them still with prestige and comfort. Lake George was gone, likewise Gounderu. Limestone Plains was in the hands of first families, there to remain, in imitation of the English squirearchy, until dispossessed by an imperative democracy in favour of an ideally modelled city.

Danny falls in love. The landscape, “with a necklace of ranges beautiful as opals and sapphires”, infects him with a spirit which is ultimately the link between Danny and the generations to come. Harry, the dreamer who is torn away and must live apart from the place that is part of him. Darcy, “homing to his own place and people after exile” and looking “towards the wreathed blue ranges that lay as a glory on the day”. Brian, who, after experiencing the arrogance of Europe, returns to Burrabinga and Bewuck and Ferny Creek,

…commanding a view of the far piled ranges beyond Canberra, that lie dreaming for ever in blue forgetfulness. The hills were an altar, this a vigil of oblation in the worshipper’s private chapel with a choir of magpies, kookaburras, warblers – each after his kind – filling the invisible transepts with music.

Here he can leave a legacy of his own.

I started reading All That Swagger during week of the opening of the new National Arboretum, and the two together had me thinking about landscape and our relationship with trees. Danny is driven by the need to carve out his part of the landscape – burning and feeling trees is part of civilising and claiming. He loves the land and must possess it. The arboretum is also about living among trees and understanding them. On a lazy Sunday morning I slept in too late, listening to a 360 documentary about the arboretum, thinking about the bush capital, and our desire to shape our landscape.

Franklin seems to want to explore how the landscape in its turn shaped the Australian character and culture. Canberra seeks to be a physical expression of those things. Franklin uses the word ‘democratic’ frequently to mean equality and a lack of the usual prejudices of race, status and religion. We like to think these things are characteristic of our culture today, although you don’t have to think for more than a moment about the perennial asylum seeker debates to know that that is not true. The Griffins envisaged the Capitol building where Parliament House now stands as representing the people, sitting above the parliament. That, like much of the symbolism of the Griffin plan is lost, but some of it is regained in the Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp design for the new House that allows us to walk over the heads of our representatives and almost peer down on them in the chambers. I have always thought of the word ‘democratic’ when I have thought of that design.

I finished All That Swagger late at night after seeing the stage production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. Not very surprising, I guess, that two stories of the expansion of white settlement beyond Sydney would explore the same themes. It was, though, particularly striking how two writers, 75 years apart, might both meditate on what might have been, if more tolerance and generosity and humility had travelled with the new arrivals. Danny Delacy, following his instinct to treat all around him honestly and fairly, pays his rent in a few bullocks to the true owners of the land when they come to call. In time, “Graciously, peacefully they had ceded their territory to Delacy.” The Secret River’s William Thornhill tries this path, and in the end takes another. The end result, all these years later is, perhaps, much the same: an absence from the land of its original custodians, and a landscape now bent to different purposes.


Winner 1936: S.H. Prior Memorial Prize

Caphs count


1 Comment

Filed under Classic Fiction, Women Writers