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.
“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.