Tag Archives: Journalists

Murder on the Apricot Coast

Marion Halligan. Murder on the Apricot Coast. Allen and Unwin, 2008. ISBN: 9781741753844.

It seemed appropriate to come full circle at the end of the Centenary year, and finish the journey somewhere near where I began. So I’ve returned to Cassandra and the Colonel, to O’Connor and Tilley’s and the south coast to read Murder on the Apricot Coast.

It was also a blessed relief to return to Marion Halligan’s gentle, thoughtful prose after Rose’s tired complaining in The Tenants. To be entirely truthful, I read Murder on the Apricot Coast before The Tenants, intending as I said for it to be my last Centenary read. But I finished it with too much of the Centenary year to spare and so picked The Tenants to keep me going. Laker’s book was such an unsatisfying conclusion to the year that I went back to Apricot Coast and read it again, little more than a week after finishing it the first time.

You may recall that Cassandra Travers – now Marriott in some contexts – is an editor, and so she muses from time to time on the nature of writing and the experience of reading. At one point she contrasts two books she has been editing – one a joy and one a chore – and has this to say:

I have this theory, about reading books, it’s all to do with rhythm. Sometimes you find yourself in prose that has a rhythm that somehow suits yours and so you are carried along with your reading of it, it chimes beautifully with your own sensibility. It’s like what they call chemistry with a lover. It explains why some people love books that others can’t stand.

This sums up nicely my feeling about Harrigan’s writing that I’ve read this year – not just the two Apricot books, but her contributions to The Invisible Thread and Canberra Red as well. Of course, the differences between Halligan and Laker as authors can be put down to more than just my sympathetic rhythms, but there is certainly a lot of that to do with it.

I’m looking for interpretations of Canberra, and when you are looking for something you are much more likely to find it. And so I also I find in Halligan’s writing a need, like mine, to find and celebrate the reasons for loving life in Canberra:

Sometimes I think people have a gene that makes them love the land they are born in…. I grew up in Canberra and I love the place. That’s not difficult, whatever stupid outsiders say, blaming the city for the decisions of the politicians they elect. I love its high country light, its ancient hills at the end of new streets, it’s clear air.

To the story, though. Murder on the Apricot Coast finds Cassandra married to her Colonel, and sharing their time between her comfortable O’Connor home, the Colonel’s nearby flat, and his beautiful south coast beach house. They are to some extent still settling into their new life together, working out how it all fits. Some parts of Cassandra’s old life remain – visiting Paperchain, book launches at the National Library, possums in the garden, Vietnamese dinner in Dickson. Cassandra and Al’s friends live in apartments in Kingston and “spreading” houses in Forrest and are press gallery journalists and public servants and lawyers. The more stylish ones shop at edgy boutiques in Braddon. Of course they lunch in cafes in Manuka – one “a bit retro, with banquettes and booths and wall lights like pointed shells.” Could it be Caphs? Does Caphs have booths as well as tables? I can’t remember. It definitely has retro, shell-shaped wall lights.

The suburban calm is interrupted by the death, in her Lyneham group house, of a beautiful young woman, a daughter of Cassandra and Al’s friends. Fern’s death reveals some grim secrets about Canberra: women working as prostitutes to get through university, and glimpses of a heinous trade in young girls for the most heinous of purposes. But what is truth and what is fiction? Where does fact end and fantasy begin?

Having read it twice, I’m not sure that the murder mystery of Apricot Coast hangs together entirely satisfactorily. Without wishing to introduce spoilers, some elements of the story – major events and plot lines that seem portentous – turn out to go nowhere and have no real significance. I know this is part of the point of a murder mystery, but I felt the final explanation of the motivations behind many of the tangled events was a bit under-explained and somewhat unconvincing.

Somehow, though, this seems entirely appropriate for a Canberra story. The big stories going on around us often turn out to have no real significance. It is the mundane and the everyday that has real meaning. Cassandra observes a number of times that she believes in the truth of fiction. There’s a truthfulness in Murder on the Apricot Coast, with its gentle treatment of the ordinarily extraordinary Canberra, that appeals very much to me.

At one point Cassandra watches an SBS documentary on a poor Indian family who speak of their life:

So tranquil and rewarding a life. The words seem so wise… Tranquil and rewarding. I thought I could make a kind of charm out of the words, for myself, and say them over in my head as a measure, a test of worth, of what was happening.

What a fine measure of the quality of a life. Tranquil and rewarding. There are certainly many lesser ways to live. One of the constant criticisms of Canberra is that it is dull, and dull can be a synonym for tranquil. But if great cities are the opposite of tranquil, might they also be the opposite of rewarding?

I like Cassandra’s mantra very much. I think I’ll take it as my own measure, my own test of the worth of my adopted home and of the quality of the life that is possible here.



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Political Animals

Sonya Voumard. Political Animals. Ginninderra Press, 2008. ISBN: 9781740275026

There is a lot going on in Political Animals. I finished it with a hundred questions and ideas and impressions and comments, and I’m struggling to sort them all out in my head and come up with a single coherent view of the book. Struggling to find the right angle, as a journalist might say.

Journalist Alison Chesterton is living the jaded life of a Canberra press gallery journalist. Far too much alcohol. Promiscuity. A cheap flat that is a museum of ‘70s decor, shared with a ministerial staffer who she rarely sees. No real connections to other humans, or at least not connections that she wouldn’t sell out for a good contact or the next big story. Or who wouldn’t do the same to her. It’s a life run on nicotine and adrenaline and it’s taking its toll.

It’s a view of Canberra where Canberra equals government. But somehow, that inability to see beyond the bubble that is life on the hill, which many journalists seem unable to shake when they turn to fiction, didn’t drive me nuts here the way it did in books like The Marmalade Files.

People often ask me what I do in Canberra when I’m not working. It’s hard to answer because I am working most of the time. When I’m not at Parliament House I’m out at dinner with contacts or colleagues. And drinking. Even when I go for a bike ride around the lake on a Sunday that I don’t happen to be working, I’ll often end up running into someone, having coffee and talking work. Occasionally, on a hot day, a few of us will drive out to the river at the Kambah Pool Reserve for a swim. But that always leaves me feeling depressed and trapped and craving the ocean, where you can really swim. If you can’t have the ocean you may as well go to the Manuka pool and do laps.

I think there are a few reasons for my forgiveness of Alison’s view. One is that Political Animals is from and about a female perspective of the press gallery. The hard drinking, smoking, jaded, life-on-a-precipice male journalist, even when it’s done well is a cliché, but when it’s a woman it’s a newer perspective. I’m not sure that Alison behaves all that differently to the way I would expect a male character to respond in similar circumstances. But the female view, and the risks to a female in those circumstances, are inevitably different, and I found the story much more engaging and thought-provoking as a result.

The plot was also more plausible than some of the conspiracy and murder-fuelled Canberra-as-political-hotbed stores I’ve read this year. Alison has received a tip-off that one of the PM’s closest advisors, Matthew Green, has sexually abused an Aboriginal girl. Alison knows she’s being used by her informant for his own political purposes, but the story’s too important to let go. Then there’s her own sexual and emotional entanglement with Green. But it’s still a great story. Coincidentally, Alison has her own contacts that can get her close to the story and help her verify it. But how far can she risk her oldest and closest and yet most fragile friendship for the story of her career?

Alison’s dilemma is more nuanced that some of the other political stories I’ve read, and I was more sympathetic with her actions than I have been with the other fictional Canberra journos and cops I’ve met this year. I think this also is because Alison is a woman, as is her creator. Perhaps I’m over-reading it, but I think this allows for a more finely-tuned emotional response than would be plausible in a male character. Political Animals is as much about animal instincts and emotional responses as it is about calculated bastardry.

Although the key characters are mostly Canberra political players, the stories they are playing with are located elsewhere. For the politicians, journalists and staffers who circulate in Alison’s world, this isn’t real life. They shack up in unlikely combinations in frat house digs in Barton and Red Hill out of pure convenience. There is a poisonous, jealous and incestuous culture that grows out of mutual loathing and interdependence, and the fact that they all have real homes to go to somewhere else. Even though she describes herself as a Canberran, and shares Canberra’s joy in its lake, it is clear this is not really home for Alison.

I always feel dread returning to Canberra, a combination of sadness at goodbyes just said elsewhere and emptiness. This homecoming, and the dread that it promises, is even more depressing than usual. …

My flat is cold and smells unlived-in… This transient world is lonely and silent.

While the culture Alison finds herself in is attributed to the transience of Canberra, it’s possible to understand that this relates only that few square kilometres of Canberra that focus on the house on the hill. At one point Alison tells herself that she hates Canberra and everything it represents. Canberra readers will know that what Canberra is and what it represents can be two very different things.

And even in the end, when Alison has realised that she needs something that is not available to her in Canberra, her friend Kat is heading there, prepared to give it a go. Because it is a place where it is possible to make a difference. When Canberra is performing its seat of government role – the seat of power – amazing and terrible things can happen there, and seemingly anything is possible.



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Crooked House

Peter Menadue. Crooked House. Harris Street Publications, 2011.

A few self-published works have turned up in the course of my Canberra journey, and I think Crooked House has been the most enjoyable so far. I’m pretty sure that Peter Menadue doesn’t like Canberra very much, but I can forgive in this case because of the bone dry wit he brings to his story.

Crooked House’s Paul Ryder settles comfortably into the mould of hard drinking, womanising, old-school journalist. He is barely keeping it together, although he’s found a good woman who may just keep him on the straight and narrow this time around. One of his more recent indiscretions has caused him to be sacked from his last job, and now he’s stuck as the Canberra press gallery reporter for the Launceston Herald, babysitting the boss’ son who only has to “keep breathing” longer than his father to succeed in life.

The Herald only keeps a Canberra political reporter on staff for the prestige of it, and keeps burying the big political stories under acres of coverage of lost bushwalkers. So Paul has little pressure and plenty of time to pursue other lines of inquiry when he finds himself caught up in the murders of two women associated with the man who is about to challenge his party’s leader for the prime ministership.

The story’s not that important really, and you can probably guess the major plot points. Ryder’s journalistic nosing around starts to uncover what looks like serious corruption and crime, but powerful people are on his case and soon his life is in danger. He’s got to use his smarts to outwit the vested interests of political hangers-on, the cops who may or may not be in their pay, and the shadowy underworld figures who have jobs to do and their own and others’ interests to protect. In the meantime he has a relationship to try to keep together, a daughter who is growing up in front of him, and a glimmer of career rescue on the horizon.

What stops Crooked House from being just another largely forgettable self published bit of pulp crime fiction is its humour. Mendue is a dab hand at the one-liner, and this wry look at the world and the pacey plot kept me going along fairly happily. Paul’s bureau colleague, the boss’ son is “almost too stupid to roll rocks down a hill”, and can’t be left alone on a story because “he probably wouldn’t notice if the army started shelling Parliament House.” In relaying his problems to his partner, Anne, Paul fears that she had “suddenly realised she’d never really known me at all, because I was a deranged fantasist.” His physical stoush with his nemesis and former boss involves “[rolling] around on the floor, punching the air and collecting carpet lint.” Their verbal confrontations run like this:

His face reddened. “Fuck off.”

“No, you fuck off.”

“No, you fuck off.”

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that we were professional wordsmiths.

I laughed quite a bit, although, as I said, Mendaue, or at least Paul Ryder, doesn’t like Canberra much:

Canberra is a strange, unnerving city in the middle of nowhere… If a competition was held to find the world’s most boring city it would win hands down, if the judges could be bothered visiting… Canberra has no centre, no ghettos, no ethnic quarters, no red light districts and no industrial zones. It’s just a vast archipelago of suburbs scattered through bushland and linked together by four- and six-lane expressways. In Canberra, it’s easy to drive anywhere, but there’s nowhere worth driving to.

I’ve often wondered at the recurring theme that you can’t have a real city without a ghetto, that somehow finding yourself in a zone filled with poverty and desperation makes living in a city worthwhile. And he’s wrong about the red light districts. They are in the industrial zones. Nevertheless. The Canberra-is-boring attitude also translates into the usual grab bag of references to actual places inaccurately described, or at least poorly understood. This imprecision isn’t important either, and there is nothing wrong with placing a seedy model in Yarralumla and a gym in Barton if that furthers the plot. The repeated references to the “Captain Cook Bridge” were annoying, though, and pointed me towards someone who has a superficial knowledge of the place but hasn’t taken the time to explore further.

Canberra architecture also comes in for Menadue’s deftly humorous criticism:

Most office buildings in Canberra are either outback neo-Stalinist or middle-of-nowhere modernist. Instead of being sympathetic to the landscape, they look like they hated it and wondered what the hell they were doing there.

It’s not all bad. On a “glorious” day Paul sits in the Queen’s Terrace Café at Parliament House, gazing at the lake, the High Court, OPH, the Library and War Memorial, and thinks of how in less pressured times he would have enjoyed the view. He has quite recently, though, been run off the road at Anzac Parade by a couple of thugs with guns, discovered dead bodies in Woden and in Campbell, and had to buy a whole new wardrobe in Manuka to replace his bloodstained suit. Given all of that, he could be forgiven for failing to see Canberra in its best light.



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Turtle Beach

Blanche D’Alpuget. Turtle Beach. Allen & Unwin House of Books, 2012. ISBN 9781742699189. First published 1981.

I have found so far in this project that by the time I’m half-way through a book I’ve identified a theme that I want to follow through to the end, work with and write about. Of course, the refugee ‘problem’ (whatever you think that might mean) in Turtle Beach is the ‘unignorable’ theme that resonates for me. How is it that we are having exactly the same conversations all these years later?

I’ve resisted following this line, feeling ill-equipped to compare and contrast the post-Vietnam war Malaysia of the 1970s and the post-Iraq/Afghanistan/Sri Lankan wars Malaysia of the 2010s. It is though, as I say, unignorable. What occurred to me, almost at the very end of D’Alpuget’s novel, is that Turtle Beach is about deciding what we are prepared to fight for, and what we are prepared to lose. What power do we have, and what will we choose to use if for?

Canberra is the jumping-off point, the familiar anchor before we head to the unfamiliar world of Malaysia and its refugee camps. It is the logical place to begin the story, where we can expect political journalists, aspiring politicians, diplomats and other public servants to intersect.

All of Turtle Beach’s characters have battles to face. Not all of them are equal to the fight, and each must choose their own weapons. The first Lady Hobday concedes the field and retreats to her Red Hill home, but the second will use every tool within reach to fight for her family. Poor, sick Ralph the immigration official chooses to fight without really meaning to pay the consequences that result. Kanaan avoids conflict by invoking a fatalistic Hindu philosophy, believing that what will be will be. In the background, the refugees take any avenue they can to overcome their collective and individual struggles.

Judith Wilkes, Canberra political journalist, is in Malaysia to pursue the refugee ‘problem’ back to its source, or close enough. She, like her hostess, the second Lady Hobday, Minou, will make use of any lead and any contact to pursue what she is after. Whether she is chasing the story for its own sake, for her career, or for that of her about-to-be preselected husband isn’t always clear. It seems at moments that she will put more into this than into her unravelling marriage.

Canberra is a place to get things done, to make a difference, where you can access the tools that win wars. Politics is about power, and the power to pursue the things we believe are right. When Judith learns that her husband is on his way into the federal parliament, she has a moment of excitement about the possibilities:

He laughed modestly. ‘Come 1983 I’ll be Minister for … oh, I could take Immigration…’

‘No!’ Suddenly she was not in an Asian hotel room with an arrow on its ceiling pointing to Mecca, but back there in the thick of it. Jesus! She could write the policy herself. ‘No! Take Women’s Affairs! And Aborigines! Think how much good you could do for…’

In Turtle Beach D’Alpuget frequently returns to a theme of describing the colours and qualities of light —the soft greenish light of a garden, “grey refracted light” of dawn in Minou’s childhood Vietnam, the “tinselly light” of a drunken night on the town. In Canberra, that theme plays into the colours of the encircling mountains as the light changes:

The summer grasses had been bleached to straw, the purple mountains that ring the city had seemed to move closer in the harsh light

Sometimes the Brindabellas are “detached, spiky and black”, sometimes a soft lilac. I want to venture into a metaphor of the mountains around Canberra as a barrier—Judith thinks of them as a barricade—to seeing, or wanting to see, the plight of the refugees. Arriving in Malaysia, drowning off its beaches, being driven back from its shoreline by its frightened, angry villagers, living in its stinking, squalid island camps that are meant to represent refuge. I can’t help wondering how many of D’Alpuget’s largely faceless refugee families could still be waiting today in that so-called queue we keep hearing about. The one that people who arrive here by boat were supposed to be sent to the back of.

While musing on the metaphor of mountains, I came across TheBlackTwig, who introduces an account of climbing Mount Ainslie with these words:

I live in a city where the sunset bleeds deep red and yet it is beautiful…

I live in Canberra where mountains block us from the rest of the country and yet it is enlightening.

That’s it. Canberra is enlightening. Enlightened. Relatively speaking. And yet we are in many senses still cut off from the rest of the country. As I said in my review of The Tazyrik Year, to understand Canberra is not necessarily to understand the rest of Australia. We do, though, participate with much of the rest of this country in perpetuating myths and stereotypes about ‘boat people’. As Judith’s husband observes “We’re living in mean-spirited times”.


Winner, Fiction Category, 1981: Age Book of the Year

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