Tag Archives: garden flat

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.



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.



Caphs Count:



Filed under Romance

The Tazyrik Year

Alan Gould. The Tazyrik Year. Sceptre, 1998. ISBN: 0733608361.

Viv and Kit, brother and sister, drift through their ‘real’ lives in their family home and their Foreign Affairs jobs after their parents—Pa and the Boss—have passed away. They invite the orphaned, ‘unprovenanced’ Jules into their garden flat and their home, and slowly reveal to him their world of Tazyrik and their essential selves. In Tazyrik, Kit and Viv can mend all hurts, make sense of all problems, overcome, or at least escape, all unpleasantness.

In this blog I’m focusing on Canberra as a setting for fiction. As I said in my introductory post, I’m interested in how authors portray Canberra, what messages they may be seeking to convey, and what images they paint, which add to the public perception of this town.

Sometimes the location of a story is not very important. Sometimes having a real, authentic and identifiable location in which the characters must move is unhelpful, or distracting, or limiting. Sometimes authors need, or want, to create a new world for their characters to inhabit, unrestrained by plausible depictions of known places. Locations might be hinted at, without needing to be specified.

The Tazyrik Year is, I think, a story that could inhabit any place. No particular place at all. It could have been a fictional town, or a fictionalised one, in Canowindra or Cottesloe or Campbelltown. A dreamed place, like the one Kit describes in one of his letters to Viv:

There I was in my dream, getting off a train at a country station, then following a laneway bordered by trees through which long slabs of late afternoon sunlight fell. This was not Australia, nor Harlstead. It was not anywhere particular at all. Like the garden in my reverie on the aeroplane, it was a place that didn’t need to refer to anywhere else.

The Tazyrik Year, though, needs to be grounded in a real place because Tazyrik is an other-world. By juxtaposing it with an authentic, concrete setting, author Alan Gould emphasises the unworldliness of Tazyrik. The fact that The Tazyrik Year is set in Canberra may be largely incidental. Chosen only, perhaps, because Gould lives here. Write what you know, as they say.

But there are hints that Gould is doing more than just writing what he knows when he references Canberra. Jules has come to work at the Australian National University looking for a fresh start. He thinks of Canberra as “newly minted”, a place which had “materialised on patches on ground that had not yet lost their identity as sheep paddocks”. This newness is in contrast to the ancient world the Kesteven siblings seek to keep alive within Tazyrik.

Canberra is the grounded reality underpinning the flights of fantasy within Tazyrik. It is also a city that is both real and imagined. Those who use the word ‘Canberra’ to mean both the city and the actions of the federal government within it often accuse that amorphous Canberra of not knowing what the rest of the country thinks. I agree that it is hard to have a sense in Canberra of what the mood of the whole country is. Because we remain a company town, we understand politics in a way that the rest of Australia may not, and it matters to many of us more, or perhaps just differently. To gauge public opinion in Canberra is to have no real insight into public opinion elsewhere. I suspect you will find the same phenomenon, for different reasons, in Darwin and Perth. Those opinions are no less real or valid or deeply held for that.

There is no addition to the Caphs count here. Jules lives and works northside, and by Canberra tradition and mythology would only venture southside to Manuka in moments of extreme necessity. The house is, I’m guessing, in O’Connor—walking distance from both the ANU and the Canberra Stadium. Black Mountain, Mount Ainslie and Mount Majura loom nearby, and Jules and Viv are able to sit outside the garden flat at night where the “sky was clear and starry, and the starry city below us was it its quietest”.

Jules ponders his new life in “rarefied, oddly superimposed Canberra.” A city superimposed on a landscape. A community that continues to operate under an overlay of a national capital.

In this pristine light Canberra seemed as if it were breaking free everywhere from the canopy of its suburban trees, these offices like space-age menhirs, hard-edged, streamlined, their surfaces of fawn stucco and smoked glass seamless and impenetrable. Beneath the foliage, of course, the suburbs, remained largely closed, but this further view that I enjoyed from my garden flat contributed to my sense of wellbeing.

The Kestevens, like Canberra, have two lives, one out in the world of government, and one at home on the Tazyrik rug.

One of them was a charade—a shrewd, brilliantly sustained charade. As I saw them drive off to work, I thought it was a toss-up as to which one it was.



Caphs count:



Filed under Contemporary Fiction