Tag Archives: Canberra Hyatt Hotel

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.



Caphs count:




Filed under Classic Fiction, Women Writers

Christmas in Canberra

Nicole Taylor. Christmas in Canberra. Brunette Publishing 2011. ISBN: 9780646554242

Louise is a not-quite-30 year old career girl, Canberra born and bred, navigating simultaneously the public service hierarchy and the singles scene, whilst her comfortably established Canberra family is slowly disintegrating around her, thanks largely to her white trash sister-in-law from Lake Cargelligo. While Louise wants to break away and be her own woman, she still has to negotiate Christmas 1988 in Canberra.

Even after finishing Christmas in Canberra, I can’t quite decide what this book is for. Why write it at all? The reason people don’t write books about ordinary suburban lives is because they are boring. In books where characters have ordinary suburban lives, they give detailed explanations about their rules for when they will and won’t agree to dance with a man in a nightclub. They have long conversations with each other about how to dress for your body shape, conversations which have the power to transform their lives. They treat us to careful descriptions of the layout of their houses, which are decorated in pale gum-leaf green, with cathedral ceilings, balconies, upstairs playroom, and the sliding doors leading out to the patio which has been excavated from the slope of the yard and finished with quarry tiles. You get the drift.

Suburban life needs drama and tension to turn it into good fiction. Strangely, there is plenty of both in Louise’s family, and yet it’s still dull. You’d think unexpected pregnancies, looming bankruptcies, that nasty sister-in-law and Aunty Eve’s case of the clap would be enough to be going on with, but somehow they just don’t cut it. Part of the problem is that most of Louise’s family members are just not likeable, particularly the snipey women with their competitive pregnancies. I think the other problem is that the really dramatic stuff isn’t happening to Louise, it’s happening around her, and the extent of her involvement is to talk to people about it over lunch at Gus’s.

What I think this book is really about is a fond reminiscence of being twenty-something and single and having a good time in the 1980s. It’s a remembrance of the places that were special and the fun stuff we did when we were crazy kids. It’s probably only really of interest to people who were also twenty-something in the same place at the same time. Which I was.

Well, almost. Louise is a little bit older than me, so some of her cultural references are before my time, but others are familiar. We clearly moved in different circles, too. Louise is upstairs at the Private Bin, while I was almost exclusively downstairs. Louise went to Juliana’s, but by the time I was going there is was Bobby McGee’s. Ditto for the Boot and Flogger—I only ever knew it as Filthy McFadden’s, now also sadly departed. I did do the Friday night meat market at the Hyatt, but only occasionally, not as a ritual.

Christmas in Canberra is in some senses a documentary of that life at that time. There is in it a desire to record some of the peculiarities of the culture. Canberrans will understand the ubiquity of Louise’s landlords heading down to their beach house at Broulee, the recent Melbourne immigrants’ horror of having to spend Christmas in Canberra, the three degrees of separation from everyone else in town, the routine of spotting your television newsreader at the shops, and the intricacies of swatting for your next public service job interview.

This is a book about ordinary life in the suburbs. Unlike the uber cool Lauren, and Brad, Louise doesn’t live in Kingston or Manuka, although her sister Marie lives in Griffith (which Manuka really is anyway, but that is a discussion for another time I suspect). Sadly, no mention of Caphs, so the Caphs count is starting to look a little embarrassing after the early highs. Manuka remains well represented for dinner engagements at the Metropole, La Rendezvous and Chez Daniel. There is a moment when Louise in lunching at the Lawns with the enigmatic Aidan, who reveals

“I have a house in Deakin. Stradbroke St.”

“Oh,” Louise nodded. “I live in Aranda.”


They ate in silence for a minute.

Is this a relationship doomed by the north-south divide? Perhaps not, since Louise’s family and friends are helpfully spread all over Canberra, giving us great scope to discuss and document the broad sweep of town. Louise’s new friends live in Hall, “the domain of the gentleman farmer…of independent means and in no way reliant on the price of wool or wheat for their lifestyle.” Mum and Dad are in Farrer, Vera used to live in Braddon, and Margot is in Weetangera. This gives opportunities for Louise to party at the Old Canberra Inn, shop at Dimitri’s jewellers, and catch up with Dad and the Yacht Club.

There is some quite nice writing to describe this urban idyll:

Large windows overlooked a generous backyard and half a dozen apricot trees, still abundant with fruit. Off in the distance, the city and parts of Lake Burley Griffin were visible, dominated by the obelisk silhouette of Black Mountain Tower. It was a beautiful morning in early summer, with a clear blue sky and a tingle in the air.

In a few weeks’ time they would sit in the kitchen and watch hot air balloons crowding the sky like painted Easter eggs wobbling on a bright blue blanket.

Apart from the occasional interlude in praise of backyard landscapes, this is a pedestrian book, making unremarkable observation of the commonplace lives of people in an ordinary town. For better or worse, it is a time, a life and a town that I recognise.


I could have sworn that I read somewhere that this had won some popular-vote type award, but I can’t seem to retrace my steps.

Caphs count



Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers