Tag Archives: bushfires

Small Moments

Harry Saddler. Small Moments. Ginninderra Press, 2007. ISBN: 9781740274258

Small Moments is a memento of everyday life and the preciousness of ordinary days. In the days following the 2003 Canberra bushfires, a Deakin family go on with their lives, getting ready for a long-ago-planned party. The smoke haze that continues to hang over Canberra, and the momentousness of what has gone on the last few days, has them each thinking of what they have, and also of what they have perhaps lost.

If I was going to recommend a single book amongst those I’ve read this year to give a stranger some small understanding of Canberra, it might just be Small Moments. It is a book about the simple pleasures and mundanities of suburban life, observed in a context of something important but external. Life changing events that exist alongside and slowly merge with daily life.

Many of the small moments in the book are very small indeed. Robert’s bus ride through Manuka, and his minutes in the office going page by page through his report are the commonplace in the extreme. I did wonder at times just how much dull detail might really be needed to set the scene or make the point. But there are moments of poetry even in this.

Unseen behind the two men, unheard as the world receded into silence around them, the paper of Robert’s report drifted softly from the printer; drifted, rocked in the air and settled like birds on a ledge. But the pigeons beyond the window showed little interest in settling; the slowly warming air made it ideal for gliding higher and higher between the buildings…

The book follows each family member in turn as their thoughts drift between the humdrum now and various points in the past. While even the dog, Amy, has a viewpoint, the majority of the reflection comes from father Robert and daughter Sacha, whose thoughts meander from today to their weekend bushwalk through Namadgi the year before.

From each of the characters we hear an inner voice, observing and remembering and following whatever progressions that thoughts might take. It did make for some confusing moments at times, as the thoughts of Robert or Sacha in particular drift from the past to the present without any markers or borders, much as our own train of thought might do.

If they both stopped to listen, and there was no longer any crunching of boots in the twigs and dry leaf litter on the track, they could hear a faint trickle of a creek somewhere among the grass in the middle of the small valley, perhaps twenty metres away.

Robert stretched and turned towards his computer and switched it on.

What is slowly revealed, through the inner reflections of each character and the narrative of the days, is a measure of what was lost, or almost lost, by Canberra in that time. And a little of what was gained.

As the family members go about their business, they learn of friends and colleagues, friends of friends, who have lost their homes. There are words of condolence and encouragement, but little that anyone can really do. Sacha and her mother, Helen, detour from shopping in Woden and Phillip to head to Weston Creek and the fire zone. There they find houses stopped forever at some small moment before the world changed.

Opposite the hi-fi was a bookshelf. Opposite the hi-fi there had once been a bookshelf. Stuffed in a cupboard in a hallway had been a box full of Christmas decorations, recently put away for another year.

Small Moments voices well what I think much of Canberra went through in those days and weeks immediately after the fires. Shock, and grief. Thankfully for most of us, for the grief is for the loss of something unspecified. A feeling as we contemplate the seeming randomness of it all, that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. A grim satisfaction that Canberra was making the news as a place where people live, not as a synonym for unpopular decisions.

Helen feels guilty, feeling she might be “jumping on the grief bandwagon”, but Sacha has a response: “The whole city lost something. Just think of Mount Stromlo, say, or Tidbinbilla.”

The whole city did lose something in those days. But perhaps we also gained some things, like an appreciation of the small moments.



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Felicity Volk. Lightning. Picador, 2013. ISBN: 9781743289099.

I loved Lightning. Those three of you who have been following this blog closely will have realised that I am enchanted by thoughtful, dreaming, poetic prose, and stories that explore inner selves as much as outer worlds. My favourites so far have been books like Jan Borrie’s Verge, Alex Miller’s The Sitters, Dorothy Johnson’s The House at Number 10, and Joanne Horniman’s About a Girl. They all have a lilting, floating feel to them, and Lightning is also there with them. Wistful and at times whimsical, Lightning is about grief and the need to belong. To belong to others, to belong to places, and to belong to traditions and histories.

Persia’s friend Salome describes her as a “letter-goer”. As opposed to a “holder-onner”:

‘You know, if you stayed in one place long enough to have the phone put on, you wouldn’t have to run your friendships on loose change.’ She had intended it affectionately.

And Persia does find it hard to put down roots of her own, despite her careful nurturing of the gardens, and especially the daphne, she plants at each place she comes briefly to rest. It’s natural, then, that Persia would plan a home birth, with no one beyond a midwife beside her. Natural also, that this coming child would be the one she expects will ground her, and will belong to her entirely. “With you I’ll be a holder-onner”, Persia whispers.

When Persia goes into labour on 18 January 2003, Canberra is in the midst of its greatest crisis, and Persia must manage alone.

Angry winds blew ash across the city; the air was sooty and hot. I am not going to give birth on such a day, Persia thought as she looked through her bedroom window to where the Brindabella Range sulked under a wilting sky.

In the terrible aftermath, grief-stricken and still alone, she starts to follow a vague plan to go to her child’s father, perhaps to share her grief with him. Along the way she meets Ahmed, a refugee who has griefs and secrets of his own. Together they travel through a landscape that is not theirs, but through it find ways to tell eachother stories that both heal and reveal. Somewhere along the way Persia forms a new plan, to travel to the place where she does have roots – Hermannsburg and the home of her Afghan cameleer ancestor.

Lake George is an early marker on Persia’s route:

an expanse of landscape she found stirring, first for its physical beauty and later… its metaphysical. The steep escarpment of scraggy snow gums opposite the lake, along which the highway stretched, became a topographical milestone in Persia’s journeying…

When Persia first arrives in Canberra, it is a city of strangers, and she has little intention of changing that. “Instead of acquiring a social circle, Persia joined the local photographic society”. So, when she finds herself adrift in Grafton, Persia realises that there is nothing for her in Canberra:

Home. Disfigured by grief it was a foreign, unwelcoming destination. Loss makes you look at a place differently, thought Persia. The architecture of it resembled an Escher print. All staircases going rightly in the wrong directions, mostly to basements beneath idyllic parks…

Ahmed’s loss is older, and more familiar to him. He understands more clearly where Persia is heading, perhaps, than Persia does:

He’d thought of Ruth and Naomi… Old Testament Ruth and Naomi. The Moabite and the Israelite. The widowed daughter-in-law leaving her own tribe behind to accompany the widowed mother-in-law back to her land. How home is a person, not bricks and mortar; not tribe, nor custom, nor bloodline, but a person. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God



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The Invisible Thread

Irma Gold (ed), Judy Horacek (ill). The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words. Halstead Press, 2012. ISBN: 9781920831967.

It would be naïve to think that the fact of living for a time in Canberra would automatically leave some indelible, detectable mark on a writer and her writing. The influence of having lived in one part of the world or other is often not singular enough to allow any of us to point to a piece of work and say “There. That bit is because of Canberra”. It’s part of who we are, not some specific aspect of our being, divisible from the rest of us.

If there is no single, discernible influence of place on any one of us, is it not also true that every individual influence leaves some trace on us somewhere? We are all the sum of our parts. Or more than.

And so to The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words, a centenary anthology of writings emanating from Canberra. This is not a selection of writings about Canberra, but of works by authors who are connected with the city.

The thread is, indeed, invisible at times. Many of the works reproduced in full or extracted here are not discernibly related to this part of this world, although some are. But, if the ties linking one work coming out of Canberra to another are at times invisible, other links are often shining and clear. I did enjoy very much the way that editor Irma Gold and her advisory committee have put this anthology together.

I felt in the beginning that I was playing one of those word puzzles where you change one letter in a word at each turn to make a new word. Somehow you get from ‘cold’ to ‘warm’, changing one letter at a time. Word ladders, I think they’re called. The progression through Part One: “Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards”, was so gentle that it was no surprise at all to find myself having moved effortlessly from CEW Bean’s “Anzac to Amiens” to Michael Thorley’s “Things”—“After their owners die, things die too”.

Bean’s poetic observations of the western front. His research at Tuggeranong Homestead, with the experience of war lingering for his correspondents in Peter Stanley’s “Quinn’s Post”. War pursuing, or never having left, Lesley Lebkowicz’s elderly “Good Shoppers”. Judith Wright asking us in “Counting in Sevens” to contemplate the markers of our lives, and which of them will we remember in our old age. AD Hope looking back in rage and love through “Meditation on a Bone”, refusing to give up on past hurt. John Clanchy’s “The Gunmen”, allowing ancient hurts to perpetuate themselves onward and forevermore. Penelope Leyland tracing perhaps one of the greatest of hurts and most primal of fears, the “Lost Child”, swallowed up by the unfamiliar Australian landscape. Roger McDonald’s solitary men, together, not devoured by the landscape but part of it, where the spaces are as important as the solid things, in “When Colts Ran”.

I dipped in and out of The Invisible Thread over a few weeks, which is what you should be able to do in an anthology. It did mean, though, that I lost the thread in places, or just forgot to look for it. It is a collection that pays reading in sequence, for the joy of finding those links in the chain, but the selections also introduced me individually to new friends, and allowed me to also revisit old acquaintances.

As I said, this is not an anthology about Canberra, but rather of, from, or maybe through Canberra. There is, though, the visible as well as the invisible trace. Bob Crozier, the Queanbeyan postie’s journey to deliver the mail to Bean. Buckler and Fred’s visit to “the national capital with its monuments – Parliament House, War Memorial, Civic Centre – held off in dry grass paddocks” on “one long, hot endless day”. Bill Gammage’s referencing of the 2003 bushfires, and how the loss of ancient management practices may have precipitated them. The Unknown Soldier, lying in state in King’s Hall at Old Parliament House before processing through the city and our consciousness to the War Memorial. Phar Lap’s heart in its glass case in the Museum: “’I don’t like cold dead places with old dead horses without hearts,’” Marian Eldrige’s Alvie mutters. Dorothy Johnston’s “Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin” giving a mysterious other life to the Lake, dividing us from the here and now and from each other, offering solace, leading some of us away.

The final piece is called “Luminous Moments”, extracted from Marion Halligan’s The Taste of Memory. It is a lovely work to finish on, I think, reflecting the thread that runs, visibly or not, through the rest of the writings. Halligan’s prose here is a stream of consciousness – one thought seamlessly seguing into the next without losing the train or the coherence of the story, until somehow we find ourselves back where we began, but having been enriched by the journey. This, like the rest of The Invisible Thread, is a series of luminous moments indeed.



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The Day I Was History

Jackie French, Christina Booth (ill.). The Day I Was History. National Museum of Australia Press, 2007. ISBN: 9791876944551

You don’t really expect to cry reading kids’ books, do you? In my defence, it was late on a Friday night after a wine or three at the end of a long and stressfully-annoying week. And the kids’ book is about the 2003 Canberra bushfires.

I don’t want to overstate my experience of the day. I was scared and confused but, as it turns out, never really in danger, although it was hard to know at the time. The neighbours and I hosed our houses until the water pressure cut out. We listened to radios in the front yard, the car packed hurriedly and crazily with just enough room left for me and the dog.

In the end we didn’t have to flee, although I slept for a bit that night in my boots, the car keys and Dog’s lead beside the back door. For the next few days, with no gas or electricity, I pretty much just sat on the lounge and listened to 666 until the radio’s batteries ran out and I had to go out for more.

The thing that still makes me weepy about that time is not so much the fires themselves, but the extraordinary generosity and kindness that was demonstrated everywhere. Big things and small. The morning of January 19 the little supermarket near me at Rivett opened, with no electricity, to make sure people could get what they needed. The staff stood at the front door, took your request and went off with torches into the shop to get it for you, so that customers wouldn’t stumble around in the dark. Calls went out on the radio for generators needed at some location or other. Half an hour later they would have to announce “No more generators! We have enough!” Geoffrey Pryor’s 20 January cartoon, City Without a Soul, encapsulated those days, and I still can’t look at it without crying. The only place online I’ve been able to find a reproduction of it is in this curriculum kit from the National Museum of Australia. Look for cartoon 7D at the top of page 10.

The Day I Was History brings all of that back for me. This book is part of the National Museum’s “Making Tracks” series, which engages leading children’s authors like French to tell stories through objects in the Museum’s collection. What an interesting selection this one is. As the endpapers of The Day I Was History explain, the story draws on

a fire-damaged wheel and hub from the ACT Fire Brigade truck Bravo 3. The truck was destroyed in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, when the crew was forced to abandon it in the Canberra suburb of Duffy.

Not your traditional choice to tell a story about life in Canberra. French does wonderful work encapsulating that extraordinary, ordinary day. She traces the warning signs that many of us didn’t believe on that otherwise normal Saturday, the building anxiety of not knowing what was going on, or where loved ones might be, the rallying of the Canberra community, and the slow and lingering realisation of loss.

The Day I was History begins with Sam encountering the wheel on display at the Museum:

It was like I’d been knocked flat even though I was standing up. It was like the bushfires were back in my head, like they are in dreams sometimes. And this old lady, well, older than Mum anyway, came up and said, ‘Are you alright?’

There is a two-way conversation going on here. Not only does the Bravo 3 wheel hold a story, but it also draws from us our own stories. And that is one of the most important jobs of a museum, and also of a book. As Sam realises, “we’re all history, all the time. We just don’t know it.”



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