Tag Archives: Cotter

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.



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Filed under Classic Fiction, Women Writers

And a Time to Die

Sheelah Egan. And A Time to Die. Book Pal, 2010. ISBN: 9781921791840

And a Time to Die isn’t an especially great book. It is, though, a deeply felt, personal contribution to community understanding of what it is to suffer a mental illness, or to care for someone who does. A hunt around the interwebs for author Sheelah Egan reveals that she is an advocate for sufferers of mental illness, a passionate gardener and an active Christian. All three of these elements are evident to varying degrees in And a Time to Die.

The story charts the gradual disintegration of one woman’s ordinary suburban Canberra life. It is a slow, almost imperceptible slide, so that the strange becomes normal life almost without anyone noticing. Liz seems always to have heard the voices all around her, criticising her, taunting, and threatening her. She is amazed not that they are there, but that the people around her, even those who care for her, seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the voices or act against them. Her friend’s husband Simon is the only person she has met who is prepared to admit that the voices and their complaints and instructions to him are hard to separate from the rest of the world. When Simon dies in an accident soon after their conversation, Liz knows it is her fault, because he spoke to her the unspeakable truth.

The only place the word schizophrenia appears in And a Time to Die is on the back cover. The word is not thought or spoken at all in the story, because Liz’s illness is never diagnosed. Her tormenter is never identified, although it slowly takes her career, her love of music, her marriage, her husband and her children. This for me is the most powerful aspect of Egan’s work, attempting to give us some small understanding of what it may be like to experience schizophrenia from the inside, where the voices, the anxiety and the confusion are real, and are not explained with a name.

Egan says on her blog that “I write about life as I have seen it, but I write fiction, using metaphor and symbol.” I didn’t, though, feel there was much metaphor or symbolism in And a Time To Die. This is a workmanlike telling of a narrative of a suburban life in Canberra, with gardening in Garran, football at Manuka Oval, picnics at Cotter, and a lonely apartment in Woden that is walking distance from the police station, with the Southcare helicopter churning overhead carrying another life in the balance. Parliament House may “loom” and the Brindabellas may be “distant mountains of various shades of blue [that] enticed the travellers ever forward” but the conversations between characters were for me often stilted and unnatural, and their interior monologues repetitive and protracted.

The book’s cover calls this a novella, but at 243 pages it’s not, really. It could have been, with a good edit. There are some very long scenes where characters, particularly Liz’s husband Mark and his work colleague Jim, each ponder their own feelings, motivations and options. In one paragraph Jim asks himself no less than ten questions, and answers three of them, and the device becomes tedious fairly quickly. A chapter is devoted to Jim’s musings on religion and death without, in my opinion, doing anything much to further the story or our understanding of Liz and Mark’s worlds.

A copy edit to get rid of all of the stray punctuation would have been good too. I guess this is one of the difficulties of self-publishing, when your words are too familiar to you to allow you to see the tiny errors in the proof.

I was very troubled by the religious overtones at the very end of the book. I don’t believe for a moment that it is Egan’s intent, but I fear that Liz’s jumbled thoughts, when read with the book’s postscript, could be interpreted as meaning that death is the only way out that God may offer to sufferers of mental illness. There are other options, but they need to start with recognition, understanding, diagnosis, treatment and support. These are things that Liz never receives. Egan’s book may just, though, contribute a little to them being given to others in the future.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers


Jan Borrie. Verge. Molonglo Press, 1998. ISBN: 1876827033.

Hannah and Alister sit on Mount Ainslie at night, watching the lights of the traffic heading north out of Canberra. Their families think they are aimless and drifting, but one day Hannah and Ashley will be among those cars on the Federal Highway. Escaping. From this vantage point, Hannah can believe that nothing is inescapable. What they are running from is not so much Canberra, but Canberra as the place where their respective demons found them.

Each night, Hannah and Alister each wait for their individual monsters. Hannah’s protection is the light—if she can see the face that comes searching for her, she may be able to keep him at a distance, and someone may hear her cry out. For Alister it is the reverse. In total darkness, his night creature perhaps cannot find him. Neither of them will be caught unawares again.

Somehow Alister and Hannah have found each other, and found a measure of confidence and protection in each other. It will be some time before they each find confidence in themselves. They have each allowed their worlds to narrow until it is only the two of them. Friends and family drift away, misunderstand them, stop asking them to be part of the wider world.

Borrie uses Canberra’s geography to continually evoke Hannah’s sense of being trapped. Seeing beyond the usual lame joke about a city of roundabouts, Hannah sees:

a series of curves and loops on the map, and the whole city becomes a graceful, twisting pattern of roads, the rounded edges of suburbs pushing out on the map like spilled liquid running between the higher hills and green spaces, pooling around the base of the mountains, moving out and away from the centre of the circle.

The loops and curves of the city enmesh Hannah, seeming to present a way out but in the end curving back on themselves. So too, the forest roads that go nowhere, which send Hannah and her family home again to Kaleen after weekend drives to Coppins Crossing and the Cotter.

As for Judith Wilkes in Turtle Beach, the surrounding hills form a barrier around Hannah’s Canberra, “the long, sleeping body of the Brindabellas guards the western horizon from the eyes of the city…holding from us a view of something else, something I want to see”. From her view on top of Mount Ainslie, though, Hannah comes to understand that the city, and perhaps also her fear, is “conquerable”.

The chapters of Hannah’s life run in fits and starts, like the city that stops for the night after the movies and the Terrace Bar, the merry-go-round and the Pancake Parlour. Autumn leaves “seem to catch fire”, and the mountains turn silver-blue as the seasons turn on Hannahs’ life, the lives of her friends, as she waits to escape, watches others do so.

I find myself wanting to reproduce whole pages of Verge here, to share with you its beautiful writing. Similar and still very different to Alex Miller in The Sitters, Verge is floating and dreamlike. The cover blurb, as well as a review of another book of Borrie’s use the word ‘lyrical’ to describe her writing, and I do find it difficult to find a better one.  Hannah’s despair is made poetic, the shocking made bearable, perhaps, by the slow, detached lyricism of Borrie’s prose. So indulge me a bit further with a few paragraphs that capture Hannah’s feeling for Canberra:

We turn away from the city of monuments and offices and important, peopleless buildings and lookouts and curving, circular streets and shopping malls and orderly rows of houses and orderly, human-made lakes and picture postcard sunsets and long, breathless twilights.

We leave the view from Mt Ainslie, the futile maze of roads into the mountains, the biting cold winters and the sharp, dry heat of summer, the picturesque divisions of autumn and spring, which the tourists come to experience.

We leave a city that always seemed to me to be just a series of landmarks–the entire city a landmark, symbol of something important to someone, but never a home to me.



Caphs Count:



Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

Always the Boss

Victoria Gordon. Always the Boss (An Australian Romance Classic). Mills & Boon, 1981. ISBN: 0263735389.

I need you to understand that I am making sacrifices for this project.

I used to half joke that one day I would take my long service leave from work to write a Mills & Boon. In the end I took LSL to study museum curatorship. Both the trodden and the untrodden paths have contributed equally to my income. Nevertheless, I suspect that the engagement with lecturers and students and museum objects was a better choice for me than a lonely life slogging away at a computer with the how-to-write-a-Mills-&-Boon guidelines in front of me.

Victoria Gordon has much more successfully engaged with the M&B formula, delivering 22 titles for Harlequin Mills & Boon between 1980 and 2010. These include a series of ‘Australian Romance Classics’ set in locations such as Tasmania, the Pilbara, Bundaberg, and Canberra. How very, very, fascinating then, to learn that Victoria Gordon is in fact Canadian-Australian Gordon Aalborg.

According to Amazon, Aalborg

was told by his editor to “keep your head down, your mouth shut and remember you don’t exist” — because Harlequin policy at the time was to claim that no man could write Harlequin-specific category romance.

This tempts me to read all sorts of additional gender politics into Always the Boss. Given that every other scene between protagonists Dinah Fisher and Conan Garth involves something on a continuum between sexual harassment and sexual assault, what am I to make of the fact that the author is a man? To make any cogent arguments I would need to read a few more examples. And frankly, I’m not prepared to do that.

Always the Boss starts promisingly:

The rollicking gossip of magpies coaxed Dinah out of a restless sleep while the sun still climbed hidden behind the imposing bulk of Black Mountain … she wasn’t quite fully awake when the frenzied, maniacal braying of kookaburras brought her suddenly upright in the strange bed…

Dinah has come from the UK to Canberra to work in a television news room and to try to fulfil the wishes of her dead uncle who, in return for a moderate bequest, desired that she come to Australia and “at least give it a go”. Her new boss, Conan Garth has a “lithe, catlike walk”, “sheer magnetism”, is “extraordinarily handsome” and is a bizarre psychopath with dangerous mood swings. You may have guessed that this last description is mine. Dinah of course falls fairly comprehensively in love.

After that promising beginning, each scene goes something like this: Dinah is overcome by Conan’s presence and feels awkward and flummoxed. She says something stupid that makes him angry, but his anger inexplicably turns to amusement and/or desire. Dinah melts. Conan recovers himself and returns to aloofness. Dinah cries. Rinse. Repeat.

The fact that the book is set in Canberra is somewhat incidental. Interestingly, even in the setting of a Canberra newsroom, there is no attempt to connect with the political world. There are some references to some contemporary issues such as the NCDC and the building of the Tuggeranong Parkway that help to authenticate the scene. I could get all defensive or analytical about a dismissive reference to the Legislative Assembly, which at that time would have been the non-elected, pre-self government advisory group. Covering it from a news angle probably was fairly anodyne, but couldn’t be any less career destroying for an up and coming journalist than the strange coverage Dinah gives to a jewellery exhibition.

Dinah and Conan set out on some weekend drives through the Australian high country, passing through the Brindabellas, the Cotter Reserve and Tharwa, noting titbits of local knowledge as they go, but it could just as easily have been the Blue Mountains. The Australian National University, scene of Dinah’s first on-air story, could be any other campus. The not-quite-accurate Paco’s Carousel on Red Hill could be a posh restaurant in any city. To my knowledge the National Press Club isn’t quite reproduced anywhere else in Australia, although how Gordon thinks they would fit upwards of 300 people in the dining room and still have room for a dance floor I’m not sure. No visit to Caphs, although Dinah does duck out to Kingston for a fleeting moment.

This is the first book I’ve come across during this project that is set in Canberra without in any way needing to be. Having chosen Canberra as a setting, Gordon doesn’t really make anything of it—he makes little attempt to draw on the unique features of the locale he’s chosen as a part of his plot. Canberra is just a background like any other, where people can do their jobs and take country drives and fall in love. Which is, to some extent, what I was looking for when I set out on this project. How very odd to find it here.



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Filed under Romance