Tag Archives: Canberra Yacht Club

Dead Cat Bounce

Peter Cotton. Dead Cat Bounce. Scribe, 2013. ISBN: 9781922072542

Back in May Laura Bartlett at the ACT Writers Centre asked me where I thought the literary imagination could be found in Canberra. In reflecting on the books I had read up until then, I came up with three categories: Inevitable Canberra, Symbolic Canberra, and Comfortable Canberra.

The first category, Inevitable Canberra, is for the books that are set in Canberra because they have to be, to make the story work. They tend to be politically based. I mentioned in May that this category was the one that had the least affection for Canberra, needing the place but not really knowing, loving, or understanding it.

Peter Cotton’s debut novel Dead Cat Bounce more or less fits into this category. Cotton is a former journalist and media adviser to federal cabinet ministers, with a ten year career based in Canberra. He knows his way around town. His novel, a police procedural about the murder of a senior minister in the middle of an election campaign, draws on Canberra for its momentum. There’s a little bit more going on here, though.

To begin with, Dead Cat Bounce doesn’t have to be in Canberra. The pollies are on the election trail, and not tied to the House and sitting schedules, so it really could have happened anywhere. Actually, now that I think of it, the fact that a minister would be in Canberra during an election campaign is a bit weird. So, Canberra is definitely the chosen setting, not merely the necessary one.

My second notional category was Symbolic Canberra. I used this to group together those books that use Canberra’s features as metaphors for their writing. Cotton’s work fits in here too. Our dead minister has been found on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin at Attunga Point, not far from the Yacht Club, and, as the police profiler helpfully points out for us:

Lakes feature in the mythology of a number of ancient cultures, where they’re generally linked to a transition to death. In Greek mythology, for instance, the god Dionysus descended into the underworld through a lake.

The killers may be using LBG as a metaphor for the journey to hell, and I think Cotton is also using the lake, and Canberra more generally, as the symbol of political power. Even though this story could happen anywhere, its location in Canberra concentrates our thinking on the consequences of this killing for the election and for our democracy. Later in the story when matters escalate further, the feasibility of continuing the election as a whole comes up for discussion, as Canberra virtually goes into lockdown. Our parliamentary processes, regardless of whether we currently have a parliament, are fragile, and that fragility, and the importance of preventing their fracture, is magnified by setting the story in Canberra.

Which takes me to category three, Comfortable Canberra. In my thinking, Comfortable Canberra is for those novels that ‘get’ Canberra. The city may be a necessary location or a symbolic motif, but it is also a place that they know and understand and can get around in plausibly without getting lost. Cotton knows his way around Canberra, getting around the usual sites of Civic, Kingston, Yarralumla, Red Hill, Forrest and Fyshwick. Cotton’s characters have drinks at the Kingo and the Hyatt, coffee in Garema Place. They lunch at a Manuka café (could it be Caphs?!?), they have working lives in Woden, and dark things happen on Mount Ainslie. Indeed, Cotton’s characters even wax lyrical, if stereotypical, about their lives in the city:

We both liked Canberra’s clean air, and its four seasons. That it had wide roads, and was relatively uncluttered.

Another symbolic, mysterious lake, Lake George, also has an important place in the story, as does the township named after it. North of Canberra, down Macks Reef Road, a little out of Bungendore, the village of Lake George is the home of a ‘person of interest’ to the investigation, as they say.

Weereewaa was the Aboriginal name for the lake… The word meant ‘bad water’, and the blacks, and the Europeans who took their land, had plenty of reasons for thinking there was something bad about the lake.

What I particularly like about Cotton’s story, is that, when the security types are getting all heavy-handed, he has one of his characters, remind us that there are people who live in Canberra and who don’t have or want anything much to do with what is going on on the Hill:

What I’d say to you Mr Redding is this. The people of Canberra are feeling very insecure in the wake of [these crimes]. They’re also very angry with the perpetrators. Combine anger and insecurity, and what do you get? Hysteria, of course, and the symptoms of it are everywhere in this town…. So, Mr Redding, as you consider your next move, please be mindful of the impact it’ll have out here in Australia-land.

So, in Dead Cat Bounce, Canberra is inevitable, symbolic, and relatively comfortable. A bringing together of all of its various elements. And dead politicians, which not everyone believes is a bad thing.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

10%

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1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense

Full House

Penelope Hanley. Full House. Simon & Shuster, 1993. ISBN: 0731802667.

I could escape Pavel and Sara’s crowded house by cycling into the serene silence around the lake. If I didn’t hurry I could have a whole hour’s solitude while gliding effortlessly past the yacht club, the field of fat cypress trees and sweet-scented pines of Westbourne Woods, …through the kissing gates at Government House. Pedalling up the gentle incline of the pine-thick hill, I’d reach a paddock of grazing horses and a panoramic view of the Brindabella Ranges. After flying down the hill I had the choice of veering off towards the woolshed, riding beside the Molonglo River… or heading back to the north for more pine forests and the shady grove of cork oaks before going home.

Holly is a flame-haired artists’ model and film reviewer who is, as the cover blurb tells us, running from her problems and running from the past. She dashes from Canberra to Sydney and back again, escaping her mad ex-boyfriend, her unbearable housemates and her going nowhere job. For Holly, Canberra is familiar and warm, whereas in Sydney

people are like the frogs in the experiment that don’t notice they’re gradually boiling to death… To people like me who visit Sydney after a lengthy absence, the increase in violence, traffic, noise and pollution is… unbearable. I thought: the poor people! … how can they bear it? …Bear it? They can’t even see it!

The contrast is set up for us, and, again, the cover blub for Full House instructs us to think about “the essential differences between Sydney and Canberra.”

I feel a bit failed by that Simon & Shuster cover blurb. It promises “zany” and “hilarious”, and “a tale of love, lust and food”. I’m afraid I didn’t find Full House zany or hilarious, but it is funny and quirky. Granted, there is quite a bit of love, lust and food throughout the story. While Holly spends time contemplating the differences between Sydney and Canberra and what they might offer her, I think Full House is less about the “essential differences” between the two cities and more about how Holly’s expectations shape her attitudes.

It is certainly rare to hear Sydney disparaged in favour of the delights of Canberra, and it is interesting to think through a little bit what the contrasts are. Holly loves Canberra for its fresh air, its great outdoors, fresh air, picnics at Casuarina sands by the Murrumbidgee. She hates Sydney for being the reverse, even though, as her young friend Demetrius points out, Sydney should be much more exciting for Holly, with her love of art and film. And despite her prejudices (and we know this from the prologue, so no spoilers here) Holly’s life, when we leave her, seems to be destined to be in Sydney.

The cover blurb does hit the mark when it refers to Holly as being on the run. “Had I really believed”, she asks herself towards the end of the novel “that a change of geography would solve my problems? That a change of place would change my life?” Full House sets up for us the contrasts between Sydney and Canberra, young lovers and older, work that is cerebral and work that is emotional. In the end, though, the contrasts are inside us. Home is where you choose to make it. Relationships are what you allow them to be. And, while wishing may not make it so, sitting on the lounge waiting for opportunities to arrive is rarely a recipe for success or happiness.

Caphs Count:

12%

Awards:

Nil

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

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%

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