Tag Archives: Fyshwick

Underground

Andrew McGahan. Underground. Allen & Unwin, 2007. ISBN: 9781741753301

You might think that this book doesn’t belong on a list of fiction set in Canberra when you learn that its premise is that Canberra has been nuked off the face of the earth. Still, as our narrator Leo James records his memoirs, addressing himself to his “dear interrogators”, he reflects at times on Canberra, and remembers it as it was before the whole city was evacuated in the face of the nuclear threat from the Great Southern Jihad.

Following the destruction of Canberra, Prime Minister Bernard James, Leo’s twin brother, declared a state of emergency. Years later, it’s still in place. The emergency powers have been used to put in place a range of harsh measures. All Muslims have been corralled into ghettos. South Africa has boycotted us in the cricket because of our inhumane treatment of refugees. A number of joint Australian-US bases help to enforce what is essentially martial law. Some kind of spy communications facility has been built on top of Uluru. Individuals must carry their citizenship papers with them, which must be updated regularly. If, at any of the Citizen Verification Stations – checkpoints – around the country, a person’s citizenship is in doubt, they may be asked to take the citizenship test and recite the oath to prove their loyalty. Anzac Day is now Anzac Week.

This would be a ludicrous story if it wasn’t so close to what we have, or very nearly had back in 2006, when Underground was first published. Remember the citizenship test introduced by John Howard? Pondered lately our escalating war on boat people? Had a moment’s pause at the number of American troops being posted to Darwin? Felt in any way uncomfortable about flag-draped thugs claiming that they determine what is Australian or un-Australian? The genius and terror of Andrew McGahan’s story is that, outlandish conspiracy theory though it is, many of its individual elements aren’t very far removed from where we’ve already been. Apparently Andrew Bolt called McGahan an “unhinged propagandist”, which is to me pretty good evidence that it struck a nerve.

For obvious reasons the Canberra references in the book are limited. Leo is a Queensland property developer, so he has no real love of Canberra:

It was such an inconvenient place. Off in the middle of nowhere. Stinking hot in summer. Freezing in winter. And totally soulless, all year round. Still there were one or two decent restaurants I would miss, and what would happen to the nation’s sex industry, once the mail order warehouses and porn studios of Fyshwick had been vaporised?

The usual ciphers of Canberra as a place are there: parliament house times two, LBG, the Captain Cook Fountain, Mount Ainslie, the Lodge, Anzac Parade and the War Memorial. It is what Canberra symbolises as the seat of government and the physical representation of our democracy that is more important here. The terrorists who planted the bomb in Canberra gave three days’ warning, enough time to get everyone safely out. And, as Leo’s car crawled up the Federal Highway to Sydney with the other evacuees, he watched

an unbroken stream of commandeered trucks passing by in the opposite lanes. They were heading into Canberra, destined for the National Gallery, or for the National Museum, or for various government archives, or for any other such place where the national treasures and records might be in need of rescuing.

…[A]fter forty-eight hours of the most frenzied activity imaginable, Canberra was stripped of virtually everything that mattered.

And that’s it really, isn’t it? The value you place on Canberra depends on the value you place on the things that it contains. Communities, our own personal histories and connections with a place and the people in it. National symbols, a place of debate and democracy, of tolerance and inclusion. Coincidentally, I finished reading Underground on the morning of the federal election. And I worry about how some value the things that Canberra contains.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

9%

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Speculative Fiction

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%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense

Plumbum

David Foster. Plumbum. Vintage, 1995. ISBN: 0091832217. First published 1983.

I’m afraid I just didn’t get Plumbum.

Early on I felt that it must be saying something interesting, even profound, if only I had the smarts to understand the literary/religious/musical/drug references that must be just eluding me. My library copy bristles with bookmarks of pages and passages that I sensed might be significant once I got a grip on where it was all headed, what the underlying (or to the educated, the overlaying) messages were. Other page markers are for the passages I wanted to return to. Passages that evoke in their chaotic rhythms, their disintegrating language, their rambling logic and illogic, the anarchy of the Calcutta slums where much of the action takes place.

Almost 400 pages on, I just wanted it to be over.

The plot arcs from Canberra, where a group of dissatisfied musicians somehow coalesce into a band. Each of them is looking for one of the things that we might be tempted to believe that rock n roll fame and fortune can deliver us: love, sex, money, respect, enlightenment. From orderly Canberra the Blackman Brothers Band begins an accelerating descent into bedlam, first in a squat in seedy, street-wise Sydney, then to seedier Bangkok, where they sell themselves into slavery to make a buck, then sell their souls to a sound engineer called Nick, to fulfil their dreams.

Nick takes them to Calcutta, renames them Plumbum (it’s the Latin for lead. Get it? Worst. Band. Name. Ever.), draws from them unsuspected musical gifts, and disappears, leaving them to live on the doorstep of his studio. Pete, Jason, Rollo, Felix and Sharon slowly disperse throughout the city, each pursuing their own version of success, or at least survival, until Nick returns to make them gods.

Foster brings in each member of the band through their individual voices. Pete’s is a documentary narrative, Rollo has a superhero alter-ego, Felix speaks in a barely literate testosterone rave. Introductions out of the way, the narrative settles down into a normal enough telling of how the band members came together. Normal, although slightly odd in places, with Jason somehow responsible for his musical icon’s death outside the Albert Hall, and Felix’s near-blinding of Pete with a drumstick in a Fyshwick music shop.

Early on there seems to be a mania for pinning down the reality of Canberra, for naming every suburb, at times every street. Hackett Gardens, Turner. Groom Street, Hughes. Mugga Way, Red Hill. Gritty O’Connor. Scholarly Acton. There is sharp attention to the suburban details:

The window is fitted with a fly screen. Canberra, surrounded by cowpats, is in summer a city of flies. Through the window Pete can see a typical Canberra scene. Across two backyards of yellow grass is a house in the adjacent crescent….

Dotted around Spence are some stately old gums, remnants of the Aboriginal forest. In the shade of these trees stood ruminants ruminating before Canberra came. Spared by the farmer, they’ve been spared by the planner, though most have had limbs lopped, for making threatening gestures.

There are other interesting observations of Canberrans and the city they have made. Jason’s father Arthur is a holocaust survivor:

It’s not sufficiently realised today that Canberra in the 1950s was a city of reborn people. This artificial metropolis attracted reffos of a certain kind the way the blue light in a butcher’s shop does flies…

One of Arthur’s workmates began life in a Ukrainian hut…Today, you can find this man in the Commonwealth Club, hobnobbing with Oxford types. …Like it or not, when men have been through Hell, it is Canberra they desire, Canberra they create.

Later, in Calcutta, Pete tries his hand as a doctor, trying to make the lives around him somehow less horrific, perhaps more like that utopia, Canberra:

Sometimes at night, Pete has a vision of the lifestyle he wants for these people. Decent homes with sanitation. Parks with trees. A clean dry climate.

Free, compulsory education! Law and order! Medical Care! Pensions for the needy! Plenty of good food!

An artificial lake for recreation.

Despite the solidity of suburbia, even normal, dull Canberra starts to unravel for the members of BBB. Sharon’s husband throws her out. Felix’s car explodes in the middle of a Civic night. Rollo is somehow caught up in an ASIO sting, inadvertently passing bags of cash to Russian spies in the Curtin milk bar. Sacked, he’s no longer prevented from getting to rehearsal because “he’s too busy trying to decide which new fighter jet the Australian air force should purchase.” So, with nothing left for them in Canberra, the band begin their descent through the circles of hell, to be reborn as Plumbum.

BBB arrive in Sydney on page 138. From there to page 393 I became increasingly lost. As do the band members. I can appreciate the vibrancy, the suggestive power of Foster’s writing. As each band member’s individual obsessions overtake them, so the narrative and the language conveying it become more and more chaotic:

The convoy rolls into Utrecht. Pete, riding in Plumbum Three, is riding red and rigid. He saw that kiss, that craven-snatch of Polesblubber Maxmeat jellogore, offered under thin greaseworms on a Flandersfield halbersmack, and Sharon sucking up the yellow treaclepus.

Pages and pages of it. Perhaps I’m just old, but give me safe, suburban Canberra.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

18%

2 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction

The House at Number 10

Dorothy Johnston. The House at Number 10. Wakefield Press, 2005. ISBN 1862546835.

Sophie’s husband has left her, not for another woman—she could become reconciled to a single woman—but for the freedom to pursue many women. Having left the public service to raise her daughter Tamsin, Sophie now finds herself needing to find work to pay the rent on the flat in quiet, unquestioning Mrs B’s garden.

It is the early 1990s. The newly autonomous Legislative Assembly is contemplating legalising prostitution in the ACT, “the little [government] carving out its own agenda”. Some entrepreneurs are gambling on the outcome, setting up quiet brothels in anonymous suburban houses, taking advantage of the interregnum in the law which the police seem to be observing. Holding their breath and waiting.

I had been under the impression that Canberra was a leader in this area, perhaps pioneering this route to legalisation and control “and… what was ‘pioneer’ if not an old word, an ancient, if not honourable one?”, observes Sophie’s colleague. A little googling tells me that this wasn’t the case, that the prostitution debate was happening around this time in many of the Australian states and territories, some heading towards similar outcomes. Still, Canberra has a history of sensible, liberal approaches to these thorny issues. Treating its citizens like grown-ups in relation to things like drugs, fireworks, gay marriage, euthanasia. Not all of these decisions have stuck.

So, Sophie finds herself working as a prostitute in the weather-beaten house at Number 10 Andover Street. Each working day, she crosses the lake from her life in O’Connor as suburban mother, to the one she has chosen in Kingston. On the north side she can walk her daughter to pre-school and meet friends for drinks at Tilley’s. On the south side she buys lingerie and contemplates her relationship with John the Cyclist, and Jack with the fish tattoo. Sophie is determined to keep her two lives separate, the lake in between. Of course, they run in parallel, as she seeks the same thing in both: confidence, autonomy, self-sufficiency, perhaps also revenge. Sometimes they intersect.

The cover blurb for the edition I read talks about “the complex relationships people develop with the buildings they live and work in”. The side room, where Sophie works, both in its current state and in the one imagined by her architect friend Ann, is Sophie’s “silent ally” as she learns her trade. In the arm chair in the kitchen at Number 10 Sophie recuperates between customers, wanting “only space and quiet, the unremarkable continuance of days”. These spaces, her garden flat, Mrs B’s garden and, later, the one at Number 10, are places of autonomy and self-discovery.

Sophie is, of course, discovered, and with a nightmare scenario before her, familiar places seem suddenly no longer safe:

The question Sophie kept coming back to was, Where will I go from here? The whole of Canberra seemed dangerous – not just Kingston, with its apartments round the shopping centre, couples young and rising in the world, Andover Street with its abandoned house, its backyard ready to be planted out for spring. Fyshwick and Mitchell, where the business future lay, seemed just as treacherous, as did the central triangle of parliament, family court and government offices, so clean and straight they might have passed from a design board to the air between kept trees – might have done this, been erected, without human intervention.

But places can be transformed, and they are often transformed through human intervention. The Griffins’ vision, not wholly realised, nevertheless leaves its mark on Canberra: “Ideals and visions remained, though turned into a dog’s leg broken in three places”. Mrs B remembers the transformation brought to Canberra by the flooding of the lake, and the transformation that had been made in her own life at that time. She, in turn, transforms the landscape in her garden from the “baked, unyielding Canberra suburban dirt”.

Looking at Number 10 from our vantage point of today, we know that it is a transformation that won’t stick. Brothels won’t be allowed in residential areas. Just as Sophie and her fellow workers, and Mrs B in the garden, have altered the place from what it was, so new changes will follow, both in the house at Number 10 and in those who pass through its rooms.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

25%

4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers