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.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

7%

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Bunyip of Haig Park

Kathleen McConnell, Jenny Yim (ill.). The Bunyip of Haig Park. Ginninderra Press, [c1997]. ISBN: 1876259000

Bunyips really do seem to have a tough gig. Alexander was one of only three remaining bunyips, driven from home by unrelenting pollution. After his disappearance from Canberra he must have moved to Black Mountain. The Bunyip of Haig Park tells us that a few bunyips still live there. One of them, a “big, mean bunyip” has driven a small bunyip out of his cave on the mountain, and now the small bunyip – we don’t know his name – is looking for something to eat. It seems that food is a pretty high priority for a bunyip.

We only know that our small bunyip is in Haig Park from the book’s title. All we learn from the text is that he decides to lurk under a bridge to eat passers by (I thought that was trolls? I guess there’s no reason why a bunyip can have the same modus operandi). From his place under the bridge the bunyip meets a cyclist, a businessman and a boy called Brendan.

That’s it really. It’s a quaint little story that I could easily reproduce in full here were it not for copyright laws. It is sweetly illustrated in pencil drawings by Yim, and I particularly like the bunyip’s prehensile and expressive antennae, or whatever they are. The Bunyip of Haig Park is a whimsical vignette of loneliness and belonging.

It also gives me a chance to ponder Haig Park, past and present. A heritage-listed park envisaged by Charles Weston to be a windbreak, protecting the new city on the Limestone Plains from the dusty northerly winds, with a design said to be unique in Australian parklands. Former gay beat. Evocative wedding venue. Junkie hangout. Crime scene. Anyone who thinks that Canberra doesn’t have the requisite city seedy side needs to visit Haig Park. And remind me why it’s important to have these no-go-at-night areas, because I’m still not entirely convinced by the argument that every good city must have one.

Haig Park is perhaps an example of how we make cities for ourselves. The Park was conceived for purely practical reasons, and laid out in rigid formal lines by Weston, with trees chosen perhaps to honour the dead of the recent war. Surely Weston never imagined it as a place where homosexual men would seek close human contact or perhaps just the frisson of danger. Where the disaffected would temporarily escape via  a needle whatever demons the ideal city had wrought for them. Where hoards of apparently otherwise sane people would run around pretending to shoot eachother.

Whatever your best laid plans for a place might be, people will bend it to their own purposes. A bit like the bunyip under the bridge, and a bit like those of us who have turned a capital city into a community.

Awards:

Canberra Critics Circle Literature Award: Winner, 1997.

Caphs Count:

8%

2 Comments

Filed under Children's Fiction, Women Writers

Riverslake

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.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

8%

1 Comment

Filed under Classic Fiction

Imago

Francesca Rendle-Short. Imago. Spinifex, 1996, ISBN: 1875559361

Molly Rose and Jimmy are ten pound poms, settling in the still-lakeless 1960s Australian capital to further Jimmy’s career as a soil scientist. Strange, awkward, terribly English Jimmy is never likely to fit in, though. Much later, Molly reflects that Jimmy had

never been in Australia, truly a part of the landscape, even though he’d tried. Jimmy had loved Australia as an armchair adventurer would, fairly trembling from want, from afar, as an idea…

Molly, though, is both discovering herself and making herself anew, in the image of this new land she finds herself in, and in that of her neighbour, Marj. Molly is virtually a child bride. She celebrates her 19th birthday on the ship voyage to Australia. While she is open-eyed about her life and her relationship with Jimmy, Australia, and Canberra, is her chance to move beyond the strictures of life with her mother, and of life in England.

The men in Marj and Molly’s lives are largely absent. Molly never knew her father, killed in the war before she was born. Strange, stuttering Jimmy is absent from the marital bed, and absent also from the house for long stretches, away on scientific expeditions ‘up north’. Marj’s husband Kevin is also away much of the time, on work gangs building roads and other infrastructure around the growing capital.

Molly’s experience of Canberra and of Marj are almost the same thing. The woman and the landscape overlap, merge, coalesce. The surrounding Brindabellas and the loud bulk of fat Marj are equally constant, protective marks in the landscape. What Molly wants most is to belong, to make a place for herself, both in Australia and in Marj’s life.

Their two houses are side by side on the slopes of Mount Ainslie, and the two women from time to time climb the hill to look out on the city.

Marj pointed out all the landmarks of the town, her fat arm swaying, digging holes in the air. Parliament House, bleached white, St John’s steeple, the War Memorial… The flood plain and meandering willow trees of the Molonglo River over which the planned lake would wash… She threw in the dome of the Science Academy, thinking Molly would be interested for Jimmy’s sake. Everything was detached and separated by grassy expanses and paddocks and rows and circles and trees, so that from where Molly and Marj were perched, it looked as if you could pick up the pieces and rearrange the monuments and avenues, like a child’s set of blocks.

For Molly, the land is feminine. One that afternoon when Marj shows her Canberra from Mount Ainslie, the Brindabellas

lay quite still, like lounging naked women pleased with their shapes, their legs and arms and torsos and behinds all knotted in an early evening haze…. It gave her goose pimples, similar to when she first met Marj.

Marj is for Molly inseparable from the landscape. She has always been there “pioneers really – when it wasn’t much more than a thought on paper”. And Molly seems also not to always know quite where she ends and Marj begins. The borders between Marj, Molly and the mountains are indistinct.

Later, when Molly has made another life for herself on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, she realises that, just like in Canberra, Marj has been looking over her, in the form of Mudjimba Island, also known as the Old Woman. The Brindabellas also are bush women, are protectors and friends. To love Marj is to love Canberra, because they are the same thing – round, protective, unashamed, confident women.

Awards:

ACT Book of the Year: Winner, 1997

Caphs Count:

8%

4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers