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Endings and Beginnings

I feel that after a year of reviewing I should have arrived at some universal truth about the nature of fiction set in Canberra. There should something profound and weighty I can say about what I have learned over the course of this 12 month journey. Somehow, though, deep insights are eluding me, so perhaps we could start with some statistics.

At a forum in October this year called Writing the History of Canberra, Frank Moorhouse made known that, according to his research, something like 19 works of fiction had been set in Canberra. I was able to set him right, of course. With an end-of-year final update, I’ve identified 83 on the list, and with the increasing ease of self publishing this number seems to be steadily rising.

My own reading amongst the 83 is of course not representative. It’s been influenced by what I was interested in, what I could get hold of, what I hadn’t already read, and what I felt it was important to include in the Dinner at Caphs project. For what it is worth, though, here’s a bit of a summary.

Over the year I’ve read 41 works of Canberra-based fiction, plus the non-fiction Canberra Red, published in honour of the Centenary, and the non-Canberra-mentioning Happy Valley. Of the 41, the majority I would just call contemporary fiction, but the other genres work out like this:

Anthologies:             1

Children’s fiction:    4

Classic fiction:          3

Crime & Suspense   10

Romance:                   3

Speculative fiction:  2

Young adult:             3

More than half – 61 per cent – of what I have read this year has been by women. A little under 20 per cent (although at times it seemed much more) has been self-published.

The most visited review on the blog has been Christmas in Canberra, helped out I’m sure by many people searching for recommendations for the best lunch spot on December 25. Second was Lightning, assisted by quite a bit of sharing on Facebook and a kind tweet from the author Felicity Volk. Interestingly, though, some enthusiastic tweeting by supporters of Christie Thompson didn’t result in the same level of traffic to my review of Snake Bite.

WordPress’ ability to share the search terms used to find a blog was always a bit hit and miss, and this has been further reduced, I understand, by increased protections put in place by Google. Nevertheless, it is flattering to know that the biggest group of search terms seems to have been people actually looking for the blog: about 11 per cent of identifiable searches used some variation on the term “Dinner at Caphs”, which is gratifying. Perhaps less gratifyingly, the next largest group, at eight per cent of searches, were people looking for brothels. I think my personal favourite from this group is the search for “transsexual brothels in fyshwick canberra”. My favourite search all year, though, was the person wondering “was captain cook hungry on his journey to australia”. I will eternally regret that Dinner at Caphs wasn’t able to provide the answer.

Like the types of books that I reviewed on the blog, the tags used to describe them are a bit of an artificial construct. Once a tag was used I tried to take opportunities to reuse them, and I did consciously work tag references in to reviews at times. I also regretfully left some references and tags out, as some reviews threatened to become dreary lists of Canberra place names. Some that I thought would be used regularly turned out to only be used only a couple of times – most famously, Caphs.

Notwithstanding this engineering on my part, by far the most common tag (excluding “Canberra” and “Reading”, which went on all posts) was “Brindabellas”, closely followed by “Lake Burley Griffin”. “Public service” came third, but other common themes were Old Parliament House, paddocks, and Mount Ainslie.

In terms of genre, it’s perhaps not very surprising that there is a preponderance of political and spy thrillers set in Canberra. Also perhaps not surprising that there are very few romances. Why set your romance in Canberra when you could have Paris? That most people search the internet for porn is a well established fact. That Lake Burley Griffin is one of the iconic totems of Canberra is also not surprising at all. I was, though, a little surprised and not just a little pleased that our encircling, enfolding Brindabellas are the things that denote Canberra more than anything else in fiction.

What does any of this mean? I’m not sure I know. I’d be interested in what trends and themes any of you regular readers might have identified. I do think that the three categories I came up with in May – Inevitable, Comfortable and Symbolic Canberra – have stood up pretty well, although they are hardly rocket science.

When I started out in January 2013 I said I wanted to “try to see this city the way others see it, and to examine how I feel about what they see”. I think I’ve done that, but I don’t think the process has moved me very far from the place I started. I’m still angered by lazy stereotyping of Canberra, although if it is well, or at least amusingly, written I can forgive much. I still warm to writing that is affectionate about the town. Although I like to think I’m open minded about criticism, I think I’ve got better at accepting that Canberra’s flaws as well as its blessings are part of an honest depiction. With 83 books about the place, there are also 83 views of what Canberra is, what it represents and what it might be.

Some readers have asked what I’ll be doing blog-wise now that the Centenary of Canberra is over. Dinner at Caphs will be going into a sort of suspended animation. There are some books on the list that I plan to get to at some time in the future, so there may be the odd intermittent addition, but I won’t be giving Caphs the regular attention it’s had during 2013.

Thanks to those of you who’ve followed along over the year, and particularly to those who’ve commented on and shared the posts. It’s been lovely to be part of a conversation with you, and to know that there are a few people out there reading and find something of value here.

To those of you whose interest goes beyond the Canberra theme, it’s time for the big reveal. I’ve had such a lovely time with Dinner at Caphs that I’ve decided to continue in 2014 with a slightly wider focus. If you are still peckish, perhaps you’d care to join me for Lunch at the Raintree Café?




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Murder on the Apricot Coast

Marion Halligan. Murder on the Apricot Coast. Allen and Unwin, 2008. ISBN: 9781741753844.

It seemed appropriate to come full circle at the end of the Centenary year, and finish the journey somewhere near where I began. So I’ve returned to Cassandra and the Colonel, to O’Connor and Tilley’s and the south coast to read Murder on the Apricot Coast.

It was also a blessed relief to return to Marion Halligan’s gentle, thoughtful prose after Rose’s tired complaining in The Tenants. To be entirely truthful, I read Murder on the Apricot Coast before The Tenants, intending as I said for it to be my last Centenary read. But I finished it with too much of the Centenary year to spare and so picked The Tenants to keep me going. Laker’s book was such an unsatisfying conclusion to the year that I went back to Apricot Coast and read it again, little more than a week after finishing it the first time.

You may recall that Cassandra Travers – now Marriott in some contexts – is an editor, and so she muses from time to time on the nature of writing and the experience of reading. At one point she contrasts two books she has been editing – one a joy and one a chore – and has this to say:

I have this theory, about reading books, it’s all to do with rhythm. Sometimes you find yourself in prose that has a rhythm that somehow suits yours and so you are carried along with your reading of it, it chimes beautifully with your own sensibility. It’s like what they call chemistry with a lover. It explains why some people love books that others can’t stand.

This sums up nicely my feeling about Harrigan’s writing that I’ve read this year – not just the two Apricot books, but her contributions to The Invisible Thread and Canberra Red as well. Of course, the differences between Halligan and Laker as authors can be put down to more than just my sympathetic rhythms, but there is certainly a lot of that to do with it.

I’m looking for interpretations of Canberra, and when you are looking for something you are much more likely to find it. And so I also I find in Halligan’s writing a need, like mine, to find and celebrate the reasons for loving life in Canberra:

Sometimes I think people have a gene that makes them love the land they are born in…. I grew up in Canberra and I love the place. That’s not difficult, whatever stupid outsiders say, blaming the city for the decisions of the politicians they elect. I love its high country light, its ancient hills at the end of new streets, it’s clear air.

To the story, though. Murder on the Apricot Coast finds Cassandra married to her Colonel, and sharing their time between her comfortable O’Connor home, the Colonel’s nearby flat, and his beautiful south coast beach house. They are to some extent still settling into their new life together, working out how it all fits. Some parts of Cassandra’s old life remain – visiting Paperchain, book launches at the National Library, possums in the garden, Vietnamese dinner in Dickson. Cassandra and Al’s friends live in apartments in Kingston and “spreading” houses in Forrest and are press gallery journalists and public servants and lawyers. The more stylish ones shop at edgy boutiques in Braddon. Of course they lunch in cafes in Manuka – one “a bit retro, with banquettes and booths and wall lights like pointed shells.” Could it be Caphs? Does Caphs have booths as well as tables? I can’t remember. It definitely has retro, shell-shaped wall lights.

The suburban calm is interrupted by the death, in her Lyneham group house, of a beautiful young woman, a daughter of Cassandra and Al’s friends. Fern’s death reveals some grim secrets about Canberra: women working as prostitutes to get through university, and glimpses of a heinous trade in young girls for the most heinous of purposes. But what is truth and what is fiction? Where does fact end and fantasy begin?

Having read it twice, I’m not sure that the murder mystery of Apricot Coast hangs together entirely satisfactorily. Without wishing to introduce spoilers, some elements of the story – major events and plot lines that seem portentous – turn out to go nowhere and have no real significance. I know this is part of the point of a murder mystery, but I felt the final explanation of the motivations behind many of the tangled events was a bit under-explained and somewhat unconvincing.

Somehow, though, this seems entirely appropriate for a Canberra story. The big stories going on around us often turn out to have no real significance. It is the mundane and the everyday that has real meaning. Cassandra observes a number of times that she believes in the truth of fiction. There’s a truthfulness in Murder on the Apricot Coast, with its gentle treatment of the ordinarily extraordinary Canberra, that appeals very much to me.

At one point Cassandra watches an SBS documentary on a poor Indian family who speak of their life:

So tranquil and rewarding a life. The words seem so wise… Tranquil and rewarding. I thought I could make a kind of charm out of the words, for myself, and say them over in my head as a measure, a test of worth, of what was happening.

What a fine measure of the quality of a life. Tranquil and rewarding. There are certainly many lesser ways to live. One of the constant criticisms of Canberra is that it is dull, and dull can be a synonym for tranquil. But if great cities are the opposite of tranquil, might they also be the opposite of rewarding?

I like Cassandra’s mantra very much. I think I’ll take it as my own measure, my own test of the worth of my adopted home and of the quality of the life that is possible here.



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Canberra Red

David Headon and Andrew McKenzie (eds). Canberra Red. Allen and Unwin, 2013. ISBN: 9781743315835

I’m reviewing something that’s not on the list because it’s not fiction. I decided when setting myself this challenge that there is no point trying to cover non-fiction about Canberra because there is just way too much of it. There’d be no focus, nothing to hang my reading and thinking off.

However. If the silly season isn’t the time to break rules, particularly self-imposed ones, then I’m not sure when it might be possible. And this is a centenary of Canberra blog, so how can I not make an exception for a book celebrating the centenary of Canberra?

I have found Canberra Red difficult to review, though. If nothing else, it has vindicated my decision not to cover non-fiction, although I’m not entirely sure why that is the case. In each of the works of fiction I’ve read this year I’ve found a theme or a thread that I could attach my thinking to and draw into my own conclusions. Somehow I’ve struggled to do that with Canberra Red, and I think may be that its points of view are too disparate and too personal to be drawn into a single story.

But I’ve not told you what it is about. The cover blurb says in part that

Canberra Red takes us beyond the elected reps and national landmarks, beyond the neat maps and ubiquitous aerial photographs that are the public face of the planned, political city. Some of Canberra’s best known writers reveal what it is that makes their special city tick, and what has become of the grand vision of Walter Burley Griffin and his extraordinary partner, Marion.

Frank Moorehouse imagines for us the dinner parties at Yarralumla and the other grand houses of the Limestone Plains as the new capital emerges around them. Andrew Sayers considers for us the view from Mount Ainslie, a sense of place, and its influence on our cultural institutions. Marion Halligan muses on the way Canberra is imagined into being by each of us.

There are more academic contributions too. Andrew MacKenzie recounts his fascinating but, I couldn’t help feeling, slightly judgemental analysis of the way various families chose to rebuild their homes after the 2003 bushfires. Stephen Dovers asks us to extend the concept of “settlement” to encompass our continued shaping of and impact on our landscapes, and to seek to do it in more sensitive and sustainable ways. Shanti Sumartojo examines the “illegibility” of the Parliamentary Triangle and its role in describing national identity.

Having reflected that the essays are perhaps too disparate to be a coherent vision, there are some interesting intersections between many of them. I can’t decide if some of them are deliberate. When Susan Boden and Nicholas Brown wrote of their childhood unawareness of the significance of Ethos, did they know that Glenda Cloughey’s very personal evocation of its creation would sit alongside their work? When they referenced Kylie Tennant’s observation that Canberra was a “landscape…carefully planned not for the convenience of human beings but of trees”, were they already familiar with Sumartojo’s observations about a lack of human scale? And when Sumartojo in turn wrote of the role children have in shaping the image of Canberra for their families, was she thinking already of Robert Freestone and Margaret Peak’s tracing of the role of the Regatta Point exhibition? Did Kate Rigby consciously seek to give us an additional perspective on Ethos and Cloughey’s production of The Gift of the Furies when she chose them as emblems of the environmental crisis she sees before us?

I felt at times that I had wandered into some kind of club meeting. One where the members, all longstanding, were delighted to recount their stories and shared histories to me, but to which I did not ultimately belong. Everyone was in placid concurrence with eachother, nodding gently to the other members. That sounds very critical, and I can’t quite say why I felt an outsider to the conversation. These essays are, as the blurb promises, often very personal perspectives, and yet there are so many common threads between them. A bit like our experiences of a city, I guess. Very personal but woven from common threads. There are, though, observations which I can share, which I would like to claim as my own. For instance, I have learned a little this year that Marion Halligan often speaks for me in her views of Canberra:

But I have fallen in love with the light of Canberra, its clarity and distance, its hills that turn pink at the day’s end. Of course people do love the places where they live, even the unprepossessing ones, and Canberra is hardly that.



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Who? What? Why? Where? When?

Seventy-five percent of novels set in Canberra include a scene where key characters have a meal at Caphs.

Ok, my sample size at the moment is only small and there may be room for statistical error, but it’s hard to argue with such a sizeable majority.

But let me go back a bit.

Late last year I moved, after spending much of my working life with the Commonwealth government, to being part of the ACT public service. It startled me a little how quickly my immediate workday concerns and interests moved from the national to the local. Despite having lived in Canberra since 1988 (with the odd short-term adventure elsewhere) I find myself for the first time reading the Canberra Times more often and more thoroughly than the Sydney Morning Herald. There were actually issues raised and commitments made in the ACT legislative assembly elections that caught my interest and were capable of influencing my vote. I sometimes listen to 666 even when there aren’t bushfire alerts.

The dual identity of Canberra is hard to avoid, though. I have been surprised at the strength with which my preoccupation with national affairs through my work has influenced my thought, or perhaps more correctly, my lack of thought, as to what Canberra might mean as a community. Now, coinciding with my re-awakened (or perhaps just awakened) interest in the local affairs of my adopted home, this city is celebrating its Centenary. It is causing me to be quite reflective about how I feel about this town, and how I feel about how others feel about it. I bought a Like Canberra t-shirt. And wore it in public. Outside Canberra.

What does it look like to see Canberra as a community, as just another place where people live their lives? Is it ever possible to divorce any of it from the Canberra-as-national-capital that Australians outside Canberra see? Do I, or should I care? When I encounter the usual and unavoidable Australian pastime of Canberra bashing, should I fume in outrage, or just feel smug that I know something that they don’t—what a warm, wonderful, intelligent, inclusive, accessible and easygoing place this is to live?

So, enough philosophising.

I have decided, as my own little Centenary project, that I will attempt to read in 2013 only fiction that is set in Canberra. I want to try to see this city the way others see it, and to examine how I feel about what they see. Four units of lit studies at the old College of Knowledge not withstanding, I am not a particularly critical reader. This isn’t necessarily about good literature, or good literary criticism. It’s just a bit of thinking-out-loud, tied up with some reading-with-a-focus, and perhaps leading to some pondering-the-meaning-of-things-sacred-and-profane.


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