Tag Archives: Aboriginal Tent Embassy

The Exhibition

Marg Girdwood. The Exhibition. Books & Writers Network, [2004]. ISBN: 1740183010

If Riding on Air was an illustration that successful writing has its own voice, The Exhibition, for me anyway, is an example of that other writers’ aphorism, “write what you know”. I’m not convinced that Marg Girdwood knows very much about curatorship. Admittedly, my training in the discipline probably leaves me knowing enough to be dangerous, but much of the storyline in The Exhibition seemed implausible to me. I even tested it out on my mechanic partner, and he too thought that bits of the narrative just didn’t make practical sense. All of this was just became a distraction from what was otherwise a good story of female friendship, love and solidarity.

The back cover calls The Exhibition “[a] fast-moving story that explores the nuances of work, friendships and influence in Canberra’s political hothouse.” I’m afraid I didn’t find it fast moving or nuanced. The Minister’s drunken bet which sets up the story, and the odd grumpy public servant do not for me make a political hothouse, and the narrative of Pearl’s workplace, which makes up much of the story, felt clunky and, frankly, dull.

Pearl is putting together an important art exhibition in pressured circumstances. This is meant to be intellectual, even sexy work, and yet we understand little of what Pearl actually does, and most of it seems to involve dreary details about procurement processes and meetings to monitor progress. What we do understand often just doesn’t make sense. She hires her friend as curator, but the custom-built cabinetry for the exhibition space is already being built, and the curator’s role seems to be to somehow ‘sort’ the collection. There is an awful lot of lunching at the National Library’s café, quite a bit of wandering off for a walk around the lake at odd times of the day, and some offices apparently quite well stocked with wine. Please, please, don’t believe that this is how the public service usually works.

That leaves the exploration of friendship. The exhibition of the book’s title is a device to bring to bring a group of women together and explore their relationships. Pearl is currently single, and a bit bored by her job at the Library, until she’s called upon over the dog days of a Canberra summer to pull together an exhibition at short notice on the whim of her Minister, or risk losing an important collection to New South Wales. In the meantime, Pearl’s relationships with old flames and new are flickering around her. She examines her feelings as her old friend Helen and new colleague Lee become attracted to each other, and wonders about her own need for companionship as she helps her high school friend Lisa out of her marriage and into her first lesbian relationship.

The real message of the book is of a group of women supporting each other through difficult times, and in particular the prejudice women in lesbian relationships sometimes face from families, workplaces and society more generally. When Lee is in hospital her new partner Helen can be ordered out of the ward by Lee’s controlling mother, and the women bemoan the lack of recognition of the status of their relationships. I couldn’t help thinking that a recently acquired male partner would have been given the same secondary status by the hospital, but the point is, however ,validly made.

Meanwhile, Pearl’s developing relationship with Lisa is bringing out the worst in Lisa’s husband, giving us the opportunity to examine male ego in the face of lesbian relationships. The scene where Pearl, Lee and Helen arrive at Lisa’s house in Chapman to check on her safety is the only part that I did find fast-paced and dramatic. The later stalking of the women by various male family members, thwarted only by their (female) canine protectors could also have been dramatic but doesn’t really go anywhere. There is also a surprising twist to the story of the exhibition at the end, giving us another opportunity to contemplate the duplicity and ego of some men, and the grace of the women around them.

Girdwood’s understanding of exhibition curatorship may or may not be limited, but her knowledge of Canberra geography is stronger. Lake Burley Griffin and the astonishing Leonard French stained glass windows at the National Library are recurring motifs throughout the story, but somehow these also lack the drama they might have had. They are markers in the landscape, part of the background scenery, rather than elements of the story in their own right.

Nevertheless, we do through The Exhibition, get to visit some parts of Canberra we’ve not explored before in this blog, such as the Boathouse Restaurant, the Wig & Pen, Yarralumla Brickworks and the National Gallery. We also revisit some old haunts like Woden, Old Parliament House, with the attendant Tent Embassy, and the Yacht Club. Of course, because this is summer in Canberra, important parts of the story happen outside Canberra, with the women decamping to the south coast and a beach house for New Year’s Eve.

There is an interesting scene towards the end of the book, where Pearl’s boss, Peter, reveals that his marriage may be over, and he is contemplating moving to Hobart where “[ho]uses are cheap, life is slower, no one cares what level you are in the public service.” Pearl asks “Can’t you change your life and still live in Canberra?” Peter grudgingly agrees, but the point is an interesting one that seems to run underneath many discussions of Canberra. So many people, writers and otherwise, seem to think that there is only one life available to us in Canberra, that if we want a different life we must leave. Pearl and her friends, though, give the lie to this, facing new challenges and taking new directions while Canberra, with the lake as its centrepiece, continues on in the background.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

14%

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1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

West Block

Sara Dowse. West Block: The Hidden world of Canberra’s mandarins. Penguin, 1983. ISBN: 0140067310

Why do people choose the careers they pursue? Why do people become doctors or teachers or shop assistants or bank tellers or HR managers or mechanics or truck drivers or physicists?

I can think of lots of plausible answers to this question. Money, skill, enjoyment, fulfilment, the job was available, advancement opportunities, it fits with my lifestyle, it’s what my father did, the careers adviser suggested it, that was the course I had the exam marks to get into, I have a passion for this work, it just kind of happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

I became an archivist quite by accident. My particular response to the ‘why this job?’ question is a series of answers that moves from ‘the job was available’ through ‘actually, I seem to be ok at this’ to end up with ‘I have a passion for this work’. As it happens, I am an archivist who is also a public servant—and that is also a part of the role that I feel passionate about—but I could equally have ended up in the private or community sector and feel fulfilled by the work I do.

Most of Sara Dowse’s public servants in West Block seem to be in their jobs because they are passionate about causes. Perhaps they pursued public service to advance those causes. Perhaps they pursue causes because they see opportunities to do so from within the service. However they may have arrived where they are, each of them gives us a glimpse of how life and work intersect. For some they are inseparable. For some they seem to be worlds apart.

I could go on analysing this myself, but I couldn’t explain it better than Dowse has herself in Meanjin:

Most Canberra fiction writers have been keen to make the point that the people they write about are people like any other, with loves, hates, disappointments and all the rest. They are eager to show that Canberra is just like any other Australian city and Canberrans are no more affected by the city’s major industry than other Australians are. Whereas my project, so to speak, had been the very opposite. I wanted to celebrate that industry, to show that while it could be frustrating and demanding and too often seemingly pointless, it was also important, its participants at times heroic, even—dare I say it ?—noble.

In earlier reviews I’ve been defensive when writers have disparaged the public service. Dowse’s handling of the working lives of feminist Cassie, refugee advocate Catherine, careerist and soon-to-be-father Jonathon, old school machine man George, and nascent environmentalist Henry manages to expose the failings without caricature or generalisation. The flaws have a context, and while we may rail against the system, Dowse gives us some insights into how it might have come to be as it is. Perhaps this is because Dowse is not a journalist or a judge, but has lived the public service herself and understood its possibilities and its limitations. Henry Beeker says “I’m a public servant, Cassie, not an evangelist.” But Cassie corrects him. Calls him a crusader.

I like that Dowse has taken pains to show Canberra as rounded, whole. We see all of the seasons, not just the clichéd cold. George Harland walks to work at West Block from his home in Forrest—about a 30 minute walk according to Google, but perhaps shorter in 1977 when you could have cut over the top of capital hill without Parliament House in the way:

The air filled with summer odours: massing clouds, wet grass and the sharp smell of the cedars, baking asphalt and the faint fiery scent of the gums. His ears were crowded with the song of cicadas. Everywhere there were birds, and sprinklers whirring.

Later, Catherine sees “the trees in their prime”, the “russet leaves” and the “white and gold” light of a Canberra autumn from West Block’s windows. Later still Jonathon watches frost form on the windscreen of his car in the night air. The seasons turn, not unlike George Harland’s vision of government as “an intricate engine turning the wheels of a country. Where it was going was beside the point.”

The action moves around the various points of power in Canberra. Of course, the now Old Parliament House, the Press Club, imagined meetings in the Lodge, remembered sites of protest for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, against the Springboks tour. There are other more subtle sites of power too. Like, the Yacht Club, where networks and alliances form and dissolve. Importantly, for me anyway, the Archives, where Cassie:

spent afternoons in a reading room beside a lake, piecing together a story. How it came to be that a building in a city in a nation stopped growing. As if there was only enough sap to get it so far, far enough to waken hopes and dash them. As if all a shoot can expect is a limited, fitful growth when planted in hostile soil.

Canberra’s soil is not sufficiently prepared for Cassie’s ambitions for women and for her branch. It is more accepting of Jonathon’s accommodation of career and family, and of and Catherine’s selfless, selfish act on behalf of Vietnamese refugees. The cycle of seasons, like governments, continues inevitably. West Block may be in elegant decay in Cassie’s time, but today it is recognised as a site of pioneering government, and its sister building, East Block, is now home to the National Archives.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

21%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

Manhattan Dreaming

Anita Heiss. Manhattan Dreaming. Random House 2011. ISBN: 9781864715804.

I read somewhere, but can no longer find it (bad scholarship, I know), that Anita Heiss is committed in her fictional writing to depicting Aboriginal people as ordinary individuals living their lives. This is an approach I wholeheartedly support, so I was quite excited about reading Manhattan Dreaming.

Heiss’ non-fiction writing, particularly Am I Black Enough For You?, has gained a lot of praise and attention, as well as some fairly spectacular vitriol. If Andrew Bolt hates you, you are a superstar in my book. I just wish Manhattan Dreaming was better written.

This book’s target market is clearly 20-something women, which I am not. Reading it during the recent public debate on how modern societies treat women, I wanted to shake the beautiful, accomplished, neurotic Lauren of Manhattan Dreaming and tell her she is not measured by the degree to which men admire her, either for her mind or her body. The references to men noticing and apparently desiring women are relentless.

However. None of this has much to do with Canberra, so let’s move on.

What interests me most is Heiss’ imagined role for Old Parliament House:

Emma had been at the forefront of the fight to get the site of Old Parliament House as the National Aboriginal Gallery back in 2006. She said she knew the government would never hand it over for an Aboriginal embassy but they could be persuaded to hand it over for a national gallery because of the success of our visual arts movement internationally…. As soon as we moved in she invited the Tent Embassy mob to take up residence in the old Country Party Rooms…

Colonising the colonisers. I mentioned this parallel universe to a colleague who works at OPH. She talked of the wide range of emotions and responses that Indigenous people who visit the House reveal. The Museum of Australian Democracy, the current interpreters of OPH, asked Indigenous community members to perform a smoking ceremony to try to heal some of the conflicted history of the building (smoke detectors off, of course). While some who now visit feel at peace, others still detect the spirit of dispossession. It is certainly contested ground. A site that each of us can look at and each see something different.

Apart from this wonderful alternative vision of a national monument, for much of Manhattan Dreaming Canberra exists to be different from New York. Can you believe, Grand Central Station is nothing like Kingston Station in Canberra? Century 21 is so much better than DFO and the Canberra Centre (emphasis added). Although Macy’s is a little bit like David Jones.

I’m being unkind, though. All the comparisons are made with affection, rarely judging better or worse, just different. Canberra and Goulburn are home for Lauren, and these bigger-smaller-busier-quieter-stranger contrasts are just a way of sizing up the unfamiliar against the known quantity of home. New York may have a funky bar on every corner, and Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread, but Canberra has breakfast at Caphs, and Goulburn has special family dinners at the Paragon Café. And all three are freezing in winter.

Awards

Winner 2010: Deadly Award for Outstanding Contribution to Literature

Caphs count

66%

4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Romance, Women Writers