Tag Archives: cyclists

The Bunyip of Haig Park

Kathleen McConnell, Jenny Yim (ill.). The Bunyip of Haig Park. Ginninderra Press, [c1997]. ISBN: 1876259000

Bunyips really do seem to have a tough gig. Alexander was one of only three remaining bunyips, driven from home by unrelenting pollution. After his disappearance from Canberra he must have moved to Black Mountain. The Bunyip of Haig Park tells us that a few bunyips still live there. One of them, a “big, mean bunyip” has driven a small bunyip out of his cave on the mountain, and now the small bunyip – we don’t know his name – is looking for something to eat. It seems that food is a pretty high priority for a bunyip.

We only know that our small bunyip is in Haig Park from the book’s title. All we learn from the text is that he decides to lurk under a bridge to eat passers by (I thought that was trolls? I guess there’s no reason why a bunyip can have the same modus operandi). From his place under the bridge the bunyip meets a cyclist, a businessman and a boy called Brendan.

That’s it really. It’s a quaint little story that I could easily reproduce in full here were it not for copyright laws. It is sweetly illustrated in pencil drawings by Yim, and I particularly like the bunyip’s prehensile and expressive antennae, or whatever they are. The Bunyip of Haig Park is a whimsical vignette of loneliness and belonging.

It also gives me a chance to ponder Haig Park, past and present. A heritage-listed park envisaged by Charles Weston to be a windbreak, protecting the new city on the Limestone Plains from the dusty northerly winds, with a design said to be unique in Australian parklands. Former gay beat. Evocative wedding venue. Junkie hangout. Crime scene. Anyone who thinks that Canberra doesn’t have the requisite city seedy side needs to visit Haig Park. And remind me why it’s important to have these no-go-at-night areas, because I’m still not entirely convinced by the argument that every good city must have one.

Haig Park is perhaps an example of how we make cities for ourselves. The Park was conceived for purely practical reasons, and laid out in rigid formal lines by Weston, with trees chosen perhaps to honour the dead of the recent war. Surely Weston never imagined it as a place where homosexual men would seek close human contact or perhaps just the frisson of danger. Where the disaffected would temporarily escape via  a needle whatever demons the ideal city had wrought for them. Where hoards of apparently otherwise sane people would run around pretending to shoot eachother.

Whatever your best laid plans for a place might be, people will bend it to their own purposes. A bit like the bunyip under the bridge, and a bit like those of us who have turned a capital city into a community.

Awards:

Canberra Critics Circle Literature Award: Winner, 1997.

Caphs Count:

8%

2 Comments

Filed under Children's Fiction, Women Writers

Automaton

Alana Woods. Automaton. Woodsforthe Trees, [c2001]. ISBN: 9780957976702.

We’ve not had a courtroom drama before in our journey through fictional Canberra. I wonder why? Plenty of murders have happened, but up until now it’s the cops and the journalists who have had all the glory. But now we have legal aid lawyer Elizabeth Sharman, in Canberra to escape her recently failed relationship and to defend young Russell Montgomery, who is accused of murdering the owner of the supermarket at Narrabundah shops.

Russell’s case isn’t looking very hopeful, mostly because there are a number of witnesses to the murder, but also because he can’t remember a thing about it, or about himself. An ‘automaton’ case, as his lawyers refer to it.

Perhaps, though, it’s Elizabeth who is the automaton. Apparently alone in the world, apart from her friend Honey the leg model, Elizabeth seems unable to connect with anyone. Or perhaps to connect in the right way with the right people. Her instructing solicitor Robert Murphy is worried about her strange obsession with the defendant. He’s also more than a little miffed about her apparent lack of interest in a relationship with him.

Automaton has more plot twists than a country house whodunit, a strange, abbreviated style of prose, and an inability to correctly use apostrophes. Despite the enthusiastic reader reviews comparing author Alana Woods favourably to John Grisham, I didn’t quite see what the fuss might be about. The plot was enough to keep me turning pages, but as disaster after disaster befell Elizabeth and Russell, not least a Black Mountain car crash that leaves Elizabeth trapped for hours, I realised that I didn’t really care. Perhaps Woods has done too good a job at depicting the driven woman too strong to ask for help.

There are some nice connections with and observations of Canberra. Elizabeth has just arrived in town, and has rented one of the new apartments on Northbourne Avenue, walking distance from her London Circuit office. During her sleepless nights she can wander

the suburban back streets, the long twilight and wide-lawned stretches between hedge and road over which mature oaks spread their shade softening the heat’s effect.

Those rows of apartments, one layer deep along Northbourne, remind me of a Hollywood film set. Cardboard facades that give the illusion of a city when there is really all of that comfortable tree-lined suburbia behind it.

In Automaton there are lawyers lunches in Garema Place and drinks at the Wig and Pen, although the midnight café Elizabeth manages to find in Civic sounded fanciful to me, given the circa 2001 publishing date. Lawyerly investigations take us out to Belconnen to the remand centre, to Woden along the Tuggeranong Parkway tailing suspects, and over Clyde Mountain to Bateman’s Bay and the family beach house of the murdered man.

It was refreshing to read Canberra depicted as a cosmopolitan place. In Wood’s version of the city, Garema Place is bustling day and night, and the ANU bar and the Casino form part of a vibrant night life. Not all of these things are necessarily true. Somehow, though, even when the identity of the city is largely immaterial, Woods feels the need to centre Canberra on the lake.

In the early dawn she dressed and walked down to Lake Burley Griffin… Once there she sat in solitude, idly examining the pale lines of the public buildings on the opposite bank. The old Federation style and the flag-dominated new parliament houses, the blocked art gallery and high court… The occasional jogger, bicycle rider and fellow walker were out… With few people and fewer vehicles to spoil the serenity she thought how calmly beautiful it was. The light had a lucidity that stung the eyes.

Somehow, Canberra’s landscape always manages to assert itself.

Awards:

Winner 2003: Fast Books Prize

Nominated 2004: Davitt Awards

Caphs count:

8%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Women Writers

The Marmalade Files

Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann. The Marmalade Files. Fourth Estate 2012. ISBN 9780732294748.

Compare and contrast.

Canberra is freezing cold. It’s architecture is uniform and awful but is nevertheless snapped up by tasteless investors. No doubt these are the bureaucrats who were “paid to suck the marrow from the city’s soul”. It is “a city dedicated to the transient relationship”. This is what you see when you see Canberra only as a site for political warfare.

Caphs is “downbeat”, and “notorious cyclists” are hell-bent on “getting right up the noses of motorists”. These things are, sadly, true. Also true is the statement, regarding Woden, that “Most Federal MPs wouldn’t even know it’s a Canberra suburb”. Apparently most of the press gallery doesn’t know that it’s not a suburb but a district. A bit like calling the Hills or Hunter districts around Sydney suburbs. But now I’m nitpicking.

A politician in The Marmalade Files recalls Dame Pattie Menzies’ story about how she demanded of her husband better facilities for Canberra after struggling with a pram over non-existent footpaths to the Lodge. I’ve heard the story in other places, so it has the cache of either truth or legend. Our politician says that Dame Pattie lobbied Bob to give the capital “the attention it deserved.” One wonders exactly what that might mean.

Even unremitting Canberra haters like press gallery journalists can’t maintain such a level of negativity forever. Apparently Beess & Co does a latte and a Spanish omelette “decent” enough to warrant the nine minute drive from the House. Chairman and Yip is “excellent” and “discreet” if “a little pricey”. There is another “decent” offering of a blues band residency at the Press Club, and an annual film festival, on which judgement isn’t passed, but can’t be all bad since the wonderful Kimberley attends. Despite the earlier “harsh winter embrace”, we later have “one of Canberra’s finest days, the crystal-cut clarity of the sky guaranteed to lift your spirits from the depths of winter.” There are days of “uncommon beauty… that explained the allure of the bush capital.”

But there doesn’t seem to any allure here, although there is the odd grudging nod of acceptance. If the closing lines of the book can be read as a summing up, Canberra still exists merely to service the machinery of government, although that of itself isn’t a cause without nobility:

Outside, the orderly nature of the Canberra evening continued, a steady procession of public servants returning to their neat homes after another day of performing the tasks necessary to keep the Commonwealth of Australia ticking over. No more, no less.

Awards

Nil

Caphs count

50%

4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense