Tag Archives: Architecture

The Tenants

Gwen Laker. The Tenants. c1998

When an author shares some basic biographical characteristics with her main character I sometimes find it hard to separate the two. I can’t quite decide if author Gwen Laker is her character Rose Attenborough.  To be fair, there’s maybe not that much they have in common, beyond age and gender. Rose tells us she is in her eighties, and judging by the author’s photo on the back cover Laker is probably of a similar age (I understand she has passed away since the book was published). The back cover also tells us that the book is “entirely fictional. All characters bear no resemblance to any living person or persons”, so I guess I’ll just have to take Laker at her word.

I hope that Rose is entirely fictional, because by about page seven I couldn’t stand her. My god, what a bitching, complaining noxious old woman. Every observation of her fellow tenants is critical or mean-spirited, every compliment is grudging or back-handed, every pleasure is noted with the expectation that it is only the best that can be expected, or simply cannot last. Here’s a sample. Rose has just had an unpleasant phone conversation with her more-or-less estranged daughter Elizabeth:

Well, I think. Not a very successful attempt to bring me out of my doldrums… Really, I’m getting as bad as Frieda. However [some coffee] might help to settle my nerves. I drink it, then prepare for bed. Not even the patchwork quilt on my double bed can cheer me up. It is a lovely quilt, alive with vibrant colours in a geometric design. My mother spent countless hours making it and gave it to me on my fortieth birthday. How long ago that seems. Elizabeth was just ten years old and as loving a daughter as you could wish for. How times have changed. Time seems to be the dominant factor for the majority of people these days. It’s all rush, rush, rush, and for what? Heart attacks, strokes, neuroses and often before ambitions have been achieved. When will it all end?

Rose is more or less housebound in the flat that has been her home for the past thirty years, and so her life revolves around the doings of the other tenants in her little block of four units. They are a strangely assorted group, but they seem to rub along together and have formed something of a community, Rose’s carping aside. Each is more or less alone, but they look out for eachother, take an interest in eachother’s lives, and offer help and advice when they can. It’s an interesting take, and a view of a life and a community not commonly portrayed in Canberra.

With the odd exception, such as Snake Bite and Riverslake, the Canberra revealed though Dinner at Caphs thus far has been overwhelmingly middle class. Laker’s tenants largely are too. Frieda’s a nurse, Reggie a retired public servant with business ambitions. Adam’s a librarian. Rose clearly sees herself as having refined tastes, dismissive of the modern art at the National Gallery – “a swindle for those gullible enough to believe the dealers’ blurb”, but “enthralled with Glover’s landscapes” – and grudgingly sharing her Haig Dimple with Reggie. The tenants live “in one of the quieter suburbs of Canberra” in something of a state of genteel poverty.

The Tenants also provides an unusual perspective from an older person. Rose’s views, infuriating though they are, bring an outlook on Canberra not provided in anything else I’ve read this year. It’s a very narrow one, to be sure, largely bounded by her view of the Brindabellas through her living room window, her ambulance trips to Woden hospital (“not in the Royal Canberra. The hierarchy have decided to close it down and force all patients in the north to travel many unnecessary kilometres”) and the visits of the meals on wheels ladies and her dissatisfied cleaning lady. It’s a familiarity, if not a contentment, and she observes the changing seasons through the changes in the trees in the garden outside.

Although I have witnessed much sadness and been consumed by my own misery within these walls, I wouldn’t like to live anywhere else. I’m so used to Canberra now that I think my very bones have absorbed its eccentricities and uniqueness. It’s a beautiful city with ultra modern buildings and rippling lakes. The parks and gardens are superb and the new Parliament House an architect’s dream. Five star hotels and restaurants abound and there’s even opulent brothels. Yet despite much of this glitterati and veneer, I still have a fondness for it I can’t explain.



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Crooked House

Peter Menadue. Crooked House. Harris Street Publications, 2011.

A few self-published works have turned up in the course of my Canberra journey, and I think Crooked House has been the most enjoyable so far. I’m pretty sure that Peter Menadue doesn’t like Canberra very much, but I can forgive in this case because of the bone dry wit he brings to his story.

Crooked House’s Paul Ryder settles comfortably into the mould of hard drinking, womanising, old-school journalist. He is barely keeping it together, although he’s found a good woman who may just keep him on the straight and narrow this time around. One of his more recent indiscretions has caused him to be sacked from his last job, and now he’s stuck as the Canberra press gallery reporter for the Launceston Herald, babysitting the boss’ son who only has to “keep breathing” longer than his father to succeed in life.

The Herald only keeps a Canberra political reporter on staff for the prestige of it, and keeps burying the big political stories under acres of coverage of lost bushwalkers. So Paul has little pressure and plenty of time to pursue other lines of inquiry when he finds himself caught up in the murders of two women associated with the man who is about to challenge his party’s leader for the prime ministership.

The story’s not that important really, and you can probably guess the major plot points. Ryder’s journalistic nosing around starts to uncover what looks like serious corruption and crime, but powerful people are on his case and soon his life is in danger. He’s got to use his smarts to outwit the vested interests of political hangers-on, the cops who may or may not be in their pay, and the shadowy underworld figures who have jobs to do and their own and others’ interests to protect. In the meantime he has a relationship to try to keep together, a daughter who is growing up in front of him, and a glimmer of career rescue on the horizon.

What stops Crooked House from being just another largely forgettable self published bit of pulp crime fiction is its humour. Mendue is a dab hand at the one-liner, and this wry look at the world and the pacey plot kept me going along fairly happily. Paul’s bureau colleague, the boss’ son is “almost too stupid to roll rocks down a hill”, and can’t be left alone on a story because “he probably wouldn’t notice if the army started shelling Parliament House.” In relaying his problems to his partner, Anne, Paul fears that she had “suddenly realised she’d never really known me at all, because I was a deranged fantasist.” His physical stoush with his nemesis and former boss involves “[rolling] around on the floor, punching the air and collecting carpet lint.” Their verbal confrontations run like this:

His face reddened. “Fuck off.”

“No, you fuck off.”

“No, you fuck off.”

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that we were professional wordsmiths.

I laughed quite a bit, although, as I said, Mendaue, or at least Paul Ryder, doesn’t like Canberra much:

Canberra is a strange, unnerving city in the middle of nowhere… If a competition was held to find the world’s most boring city it would win hands down, if the judges could be bothered visiting… Canberra has no centre, no ghettos, no ethnic quarters, no red light districts and no industrial zones. It’s just a vast archipelago of suburbs scattered through bushland and linked together by four- and six-lane expressways. In Canberra, it’s easy to drive anywhere, but there’s nowhere worth driving to.

I’ve often wondered at the recurring theme that you can’t have a real city without a ghetto, that somehow finding yourself in a zone filled with poverty and desperation makes living in a city worthwhile. And he’s wrong about the red light districts. They are in the industrial zones. Nevertheless. The Canberra-is-boring attitude also translates into the usual grab bag of references to actual places inaccurately described, or at least poorly understood. This imprecision isn’t important either, and there is nothing wrong with placing a seedy model in Yarralumla and a gym in Barton if that furthers the plot. The repeated references to the “Captain Cook Bridge” were annoying, though, and pointed me towards someone who has a superficial knowledge of the place but hasn’t taken the time to explore further.

Canberra architecture also comes in for Menadue’s deftly humorous criticism:

Most office buildings in Canberra are either outback neo-Stalinist or middle-of-nowhere modernist. Instead of being sympathetic to the landscape, they look like they hated it and wondered what the hell they were doing there.

It’s not all bad. On a “glorious” day Paul sits in the Queen’s Terrace Café at Parliament House, gazing at the lake, the High Court, OPH, the Library and War Memorial, and thinks of how in less pressured times he would have enjoyed the view. He has quite recently, though, been run off the road at Anzac Parade by a couple of thugs with guns, discovered dead bodies in Woden and in Campbell, and had to buy a whole new wardrobe in Manuka to replace his bloodstained suit. Given all of that, he could be forgiven for failing to see Canberra in its best light.



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The Tazyrik Year

Alan Gould. The Tazyrik Year. Sceptre, 1998. ISBN: 0733608361.

Viv and Kit, brother and sister, drift through their ‘real’ lives in their family home and their Foreign Affairs jobs after their parents—Pa and the Boss—have passed away. They invite the orphaned, ‘unprovenanced’ Jules into their garden flat and their home, and slowly reveal to him their world of Tazyrik and their essential selves. In Tazyrik, Kit and Viv can mend all hurts, make sense of all problems, overcome, or at least escape, all unpleasantness.

In this blog I’m focusing on Canberra as a setting for fiction. As I said in my introductory post, I’m interested in how authors portray Canberra, what messages they may be seeking to convey, and what images they paint, which add to the public perception of this town.

Sometimes the location of a story is not very important. Sometimes having a real, authentic and identifiable location in which the characters must move is unhelpful, or distracting, or limiting. Sometimes authors need, or want, to create a new world for their characters to inhabit, unrestrained by plausible depictions of known places. Locations might be hinted at, without needing to be specified.

The Tazyrik Year is, I think, a story that could inhabit any place. No particular place at all. It could have been a fictional town, or a fictionalised one, in Canowindra or Cottesloe or Campbelltown. A dreamed place, like the one Kit describes in one of his letters to Viv:

There I was in my dream, getting off a train at a country station, then following a laneway bordered by trees through which long slabs of late afternoon sunlight fell. This was not Australia, nor Harlstead. It was not anywhere particular at all. Like the garden in my reverie on the aeroplane, it was a place that didn’t need to refer to anywhere else.

The Tazyrik Year, though, needs to be grounded in a real place because Tazyrik is an other-world. By juxtaposing it with an authentic, concrete setting, author Alan Gould emphasises the unworldliness of Tazyrik. The fact that The Tazyrik Year is set in Canberra may be largely incidental. Chosen only, perhaps, because Gould lives here. Write what you know, as they say.

But there are hints that Gould is doing more than just writing what he knows when he references Canberra. Jules has come to work at the Australian National University looking for a fresh start. He thinks of Canberra as “newly minted”, a place which had “materialised on patches on ground that had not yet lost their identity as sheep paddocks”. This newness is in contrast to the ancient world the Kesteven siblings seek to keep alive within Tazyrik.

Canberra is the grounded reality underpinning the flights of fantasy within Tazyrik. It is also a city that is both real and imagined. Those who use the word ‘Canberra’ to mean both the city and the actions of the federal government within it often accuse that amorphous Canberra of not knowing what the rest of the country thinks. I agree that it is hard to have a sense in Canberra of what the mood of the whole country is. Because we remain a company town, we understand politics in a way that the rest of Australia may not, and it matters to many of us more, or perhaps just differently. To gauge public opinion in Canberra is to have no real insight into public opinion elsewhere. I suspect you will find the same phenomenon, for different reasons, in Darwin and Perth. Those opinions are no less real or valid or deeply held for that.

There is no addition to the Caphs count here. Jules lives and works northside, and by Canberra tradition and mythology would only venture southside to Manuka in moments of extreme necessity. The house is, I’m guessing, in O’Connor—walking distance from both the ANU and the Canberra Stadium. Black Mountain, Mount Ainslie and Mount Majura loom nearby, and Jules and Viv are able to sit outside the garden flat at night where the “sky was clear and starry, and the starry city below us was it its quietest”.

Jules ponders his new life in “rarefied, oddly superimposed Canberra.” A city superimposed on a landscape. A community that continues to operate under an overlay of a national capital.

In this pristine light Canberra seemed as if it were breaking free everywhere from the canopy of its suburban trees, these offices like space-age menhirs, hard-edged, streamlined, their surfaces of fawn stucco and smoked glass seamless and impenetrable. Beneath the foliage, of course, the suburbs, remained largely closed, but this further view that I enjoyed from my garden flat contributed to my sense of wellbeing.

The Kestevens, like Canberra, have two lives, one out in the world of government, and one at home on the Tazyrik rug.

One of them was a charade—a shrewd, brilliantly sustained charade. As I saw them drive off to work, I thought it was a toss-up as to which one it was.



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Ian Callinan. Betrayals. Boolarong Press 2011. ISBN: 9781921555879

Bucharest, Brisbane, Moscow, Canberra, Oxford, Vietnam. Cecily and Tim, with their assorted satellites Josh, Denis and Janice, rotate through these locations and spin around eachother without ever quite touching. Star-crossed lovers, as Cecily observes. They seem to be perpetually in eachother’s orbit but held apart by fundamental forces.

The forces between them are the betrayals of the book’s title. Betrayals inflicted by friends and family see their university days in 1960s Brisbane abruptly ended. Cecily embarks on a stellar career in Oxford as an historian of the economies of the Soviet states. Tim’s centre of gravity is also dislodged, and without enthusiasm or conviction he becomes a hero in Vietnam and then a spook in Canberra. It’s inevitable, though, that their paths will intersect again.

I don’t think Ian Callinan likes women very much. The betrayals of the book’s title are largely made by women. Denis betrays only himself. Of course, Tim’s is the greatest betrayal of them all, but his is done without selfishness, if naively.

Cecily’s end is unworthy of her, as if Callinan can’t imagine another recourse for a sensitive woman shabbily treated. He seems not to understand the strength of his own creation. Did she not make a quiet triumph out of her life following the betrayals inflicted on her by her mother, the hurts delivered by Josh? Her response in the end is a sad cliché. It does little justice to the rest of the book, which is brooding and intriguing.

If Callinan has little feeling for his female characters, he has even less for Canberra. While Brisbane is the landscape of Tim’s heady student days and his growing love for Cecily, Canberra is the scene of all that is dull and pedestrian in Tim’s sad married life and his lacklustre career. He reflects on “the unrealised promise of his youth, and all those arid years in Canberra”.

Tim believes that Canberra’s architecture “has an air of bombast”, just “a collection of pretentious buildings each in its own paddock”, “a mishmash…of misshapen masonry and glass”. He knows that Brisbane will always be his home, and this is the key to his view of Canberra. It is an outsider’s view, the view of someone who, despite making a life there for years, has never felt he belongs. Is that Tim’s fault, or Canberra’s?

Tim has spent most of his adult life in the town, raised a beloved son, forged a career and sustained a marriage in a comfortable home. He can recall happy days of skiing holidays, picnics, the tennis club, dinner with friends. Yet when describing Canberra to Cecily, the only compliment he can come up with is that it is “pretty” in autumn.

Tim’s inability to accept and adopt a life in Canberra stems ultimately from his separation from Cecily. His life has taken the trajectory it has and landed him in this public service town, and Tim, or perhaps Callinan, really hates the public service.

The glimpses of Canberra bureaucracy here are so at odds with my experience of public service that I find it hard not to be angry at what feels like a deliberate misrepresentation. Tim’s view is of an administration bent on gamesmanship, a city of 300 000 people “preoccupied with their own ascent, or the ascent and descent of other civil servants on the civil service ladder.” Twice he comments on the “contempt” he believes public servants have for those they serve. There are lots of small inaccuracies in Callinan’s public service anecdotes and vignettes. It may take a nitpicker to notice them, but they bother me because they are either born of, or designed to create, a vague outline of a clichéd public service bureaucracy that is bloated, lazy, insular and ineffective.

Of course, Tim, despite drawing his wage from the taxpayer, doesn’t appear to consider himself a public servant. And it is the career public servant who triumphs in the end. Tim’s colleague Aden takes management courses while languishing in the byway of the Middle East desk throughout the Cold War. He is overshadowed by the more respected analysts on the Eastern Europe desk. Then the Berlin Wall comes down, and everything changes.



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