Tag Archives: Albert Hall

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.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

16%

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5 Comments

Filed under Classic Fiction, Women Writers

Plumbum

David Foster. Plumbum. Vintage, 1995. ISBN: 0091832217. First published 1983.

I’m afraid I just didn’t get Plumbum.

Early on I felt that it must be saying something interesting, even profound, if only I had the smarts to understand the literary/religious/musical/drug references that must be just eluding me. My library copy bristles with bookmarks of pages and passages that I sensed might be significant once I got a grip on where it was all headed, what the underlying (or to the educated, the overlaying) messages were. Other page markers are for the passages I wanted to return to. Passages that evoke in their chaotic rhythms, their disintegrating language, their rambling logic and illogic, the anarchy of the Calcutta slums where much of the action takes place.

Almost 400 pages on, I just wanted it to be over.

The plot arcs from Canberra, where a group of dissatisfied musicians somehow coalesce into a band. Each of them is looking for one of the things that we might be tempted to believe that rock n roll fame and fortune can deliver us: love, sex, money, respect, enlightenment. From orderly Canberra the Blackman Brothers Band begins an accelerating descent into bedlam, first in a squat in seedy, street-wise Sydney, then to seedier Bangkok, where they sell themselves into slavery to make a buck, then sell their souls to a sound engineer called Nick, to fulfil their dreams.

Nick takes them to Calcutta, renames them Plumbum (it’s the Latin for lead. Get it? Worst. Band. Name. Ever.), draws from them unsuspected musical gifts, and disappears, leaving them to live on the doorstep of his studio. Pete, Jason, Rollo, Felix and Sharon slowly disperse throughout the city, each pursuing their own version of success, or at least survival, until Nick returns to make them gods.

Foster brings in each member of the band through their individual voices. Pete’s is a documentary narrative, Rollo has a superhero alter-ego, Felix speaks in a barely literate testosterone rave. Introductions out of the way, the narrative settles down into a normal enough telling of how the band members came together. Normal, although slightly odd in places, with Jason somehow responsible for his musical icon’s death outside the Albert Hall, and Felix’s near-blinding of Pete with a drumstick in a Fyshwick music shop.

Early on there seems to be a mania for pinning down the reality of Canberra, for naming every suburb, at times every street. Hackett Gardens, Turner. Groom Street, Hughes. Mugga Way, Red Hill. Gritty O’Connor. Scholarly Acton. There is sharp attention to the suburban details:

The window is fitted with a fly screen. Canberra, surrounded by cowpats, is in summer a city of flies. Through the window Pete can see a typical Canberra scene. Across two backyards of yellow grass is a house in the adjacent crescent….

Dotted around Spence are some stately old gums, remnants of the Aboriginal forest. In the shade of these trees stood ruminants ruminating before Canberra came. Spared by the farmer, they’ve been spared by the planner, though most have had limbs lopped, for making threatening gestures.

There are other interesting observations of Canberrans and the city they have made. Jason’s father Arthur is a holocaust survivor:

It’s not sufficiently realised today that Canberra in the 1950s was a city of reborn people. This artificial metropolis attracted reffos of a certain kind the way the blue light in a butcher’s shop does flies…

One of Arthur’s workmates began life in a Ukrainian hut…Today, you can find this man in the Commonwealth Club, hobnobbing with Oxford types. …Like it or not, when men have been through Hell, it is Canberra they desire, Canberra they create.

Later, in Calcutta, Pete tries his hand as a doctor, trying to make the lives around him somehow less horrific, perhaps more like that utopia, Canberra:

Sometimes at night, Pete has a vision of the lifestyle he wants for these people. Decent homes with sanitation. Parks with trees. A clean dry climate.

Free, compulsory education! Law and order! Medical Care! Pensions for the needy! Plenty of good food!

An artificial lake for recreation.

Despite the solidity of suburbia, even normal, dull Canberra starts to unravel for the members of BBB. Sharon’s husband throws her out. Felix’s car explodes in the middle of a Civic night. Rollo is somehow caught up in an ASIO sting, inadvertently passing bags of cash to Russian spies in the Curtin milk bar. Sacked, he’s no longer prevented from getting to rehearsal because “he’s too busy trying to decide which new fighter jet the Australian air force should purchase.” So, with nothing left for them in Canberra, the band begin their descent through the circles of hell, to be reborn as Plumbum.

BBB arrive in Sydney on page 138. From there to page 393 I became increasingly lost. As do the band members. I can appreciate the vibrancy, the suggestive power of Foster’s writing. As each band member’s individual obsessions overtake them, so the narrative and the language conveying it become more and more chaotic:

The convoy rolls into Utrecht. Pete, riding in Plumbum Three, is riding red and rigid. He saw that kiss, that craven-snatch of Polesblubber Maxmeat jellogore, offered under thin greaseworms on a Flandersfield halbersmack, and Sharon sucking up the yellow treaclepus.

Pages and pages of it. Perhaps I’m just old, but give me safe, suburban Canberra.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

18%

2 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction