Tag Archives: National Museum of Australia


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.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Speculative Fiction

The Invisible Thread

Irma Gold (ed), Judy Horacek (ill). The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words. Halstead Press, 2012. ISBN: 9781920831967.

It would be naïve to think that the fact of living for a time in Canberra would automatically leave some indelible, detectable mark on a writer and her writing. The influence of having lived in one part of the world or other is often not singular enough to allow any of us to point to a piece of work and say “There. That bit is because of Canberra”. It’s part of who we are, not some specific aspect of our being, divisible from the rest of us.

If there is no single, discernible influence of place on any one of us, is it not also true that every individual influence leaves some trace on us somewhere? We are all the sum of our parts. Or more than.

And so to The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words, a centenary anthology of writings emanating from Canberra. This is not a selection of writings about Canberra, but of works by authors who are connected with the city.

The thread is, indeed, invisible at times. Many of the works reproduced in full or extracted here are not discernibly related to this part of this world, although some are. But, if the ties linking one work coming out of Canberra to another are at times invisible, other links are often shining and clear. I did enjoy very much the way that editor Irma Gold and her advisory committee have put this anthology together.

I felt in the beginning that I was playing one of those word puzzles where you change one letter in a word at each turn to make a new word. Somehow you get from ‘cold’ to ‘warm’, changing one letter at a time. Word ladders, I think they’re called. The progression through Part One: “Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards”, was so gentle that it was no surprise at all to find myself having moved effortlessly from CEW Bean’s “Anzac to Amiens” to Michael Thorley’s “Things”—“After their owners die, things die too”.

Bean’s poetic observations of the western front. His research at Tuggeranong Homestead, with the experience of war lingering for his correspondents in Peter Stanley’s “Quinn’s Post”. War pursuing, or never having left, Lesley Lebkowicz’s elderly “Good Shoppers”. Judith Wright asking us in “Counting in Sevens” to contemplate the markers of our lives, and which of them will we remember in our old age. AD Hope looking back in rage and love through “Meditation on a Bone”, refusing to give up on past hurt. John Clanchy’s “The Gunmen”, allowing ancient hurts to perpetuate themselves onward and forevermore. Penelope Leyland tracing perhaps one of the greatest of hurts and most primal of fears, the “Lost Child”, swallowed up by the unfamiliar Australian landscape. Roger McDonald’s solitary men, together, not devoured by the landscape but part of it, where the spaces are as important as the solid things, in “When Colts Ran”.

I dipped in and out of The Invisible Thread over a few weeks, which is what you should be able to do in an anthology. It did mean, though, that I lost the thread in places, or just forgot to look for it. It is a collection that pays reading in sequence, for the joy of finding those links in the chain, but the selections also introduced me individually to new friends, and allowed me to also revisit old acquaintances.

As I said, this is not an anthology about Canberra, but rather of, from, or maybe through Canberra. There is, though, the visible as well as the invisible trace. Bob Crozier, the Queanbeyan postie’s journey to deliver the mail to Bean. Buckler and Fred’s visit to “the national capital with its monuments – Parliament House, War Memorial, Civic Centre – held off in dry grass paddocks” on “one long, hot endless day”. Bill Gammage’s referencing of the 2003 bushfires, and how the loss of ancient management practices may have precipitated them. The Unknown Soldier, lying in state in King’s Hall at Old Parliament House before processing through the city and our consciousness to the War Memorial. Phar Lap’s heart in its glass case in the Museum: “’I don’t like cold dead places with old dead horses without hearts,’” Marian Eldrige’s Alvie mutters. Dorothy Johnston’s “Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin” giving a mysterious other life to the Lake, dividing us from the here and now and from each other, offering solace, leading some of us away.

The final piece is called “Luminous Moments”, extracted from Marion Halligan’s The Taste of Memory. It is a lovely work to finish on, I think, reflecting the thread that runs, visibly or not, through the rest of the writings. Halligan’s prose here is a stream of consciousness – one thought seamlessly seguing into the next without losing the train or the coherence of the story, until somehow we find ourselves back where we began, but having been enriched by the journey. This, like the rest of The Invisible Thread, is a series of luminous moments indeed.



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Filed under Anthology, Women Writers

The Day I Was History

Jackie French, Christina Booth (ill.). The Day I Was History. National Museum of Australia Press, 2007. ISBN: 9791876944551

You don’t really expect to cry reading kids’ books, do you? In my defence, it was late on a Friday night after a wine or three at the end of a long and stressfully-annoying week. And the kids’ book is about the 2003 Canberra bushfires.

I don’t want to overstate my experience of the day. I was scared and confused but, as it turns out, never really in danger, although it was hard to know at the time. The neighbours and I hosed our houses until the water pressure cut out. We listened to radios in the front yard, the car packed hurriedly and crazily with just enough room left for me and the dog.

In the end we didn’t have to flee, although I slept for a bit that night in my boots, the car keys and Dog’s lead beside the back door. For the next few days, with no gas or electricity, I pretty much just sat on the lounge and listened to 666 until the radio’s batteries ran out and I had to go out for more.

The thing that still makes me weepy about that time is not so much the fires themselves, but the extraordinary generosity and kindness that was demonstrated everywhere. Big things and small. The morning of January 19 the little supermarket near me at Rivett opened, with no electricity, to make sure people could get what they needed. The staff stood at the front door, took your request and went off with torches into the shop to get it for you, so that customers wouldn’t stumble around in the dark. Calls went out on the radio for generators needed at some location or other. Half an hour later they would have to announce “No more generators! We have enough!” Geoffrey Pryor’s 20 January cartoon, City Without a Soul, encapsulated those days, and I still can’t look at it without crying. The only place online I’ve been able to find a reproduction of it is in this curriculum kit from the National Museum of Australia. Look for cartoon 7D at the top of page 10.

The Day I Was History brings all of that back for me. This book is part of the National Museum’s “Making Tracks” series, which engages leading children’s authors like French to tell stories through objects in the Museum’s collection. What an interesting selection this one is. As the endpapers of The Day I Was History explain, the story draws on

a fire-damaged wheel and hub from the ACT Fire Brigade truck Bravo 3. The truck was destroyed in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, when the crew was forced to abandon it in the Canberra suburb of Duffy.

Not your traditional choice to tell a story about life in Canberra. French does wonderful work encapsulating that extraordinary, ordinary day. She traces the warning signs that many of us didn’t believe on that otherwise normal Saturday, the building anxiety of not knowing what was going on, or where loved ones might be, the rallying of the Canberra community, and the slow and lingering realisation of loss.

The Day I was History begins with Sam encountering the wheel on display at the Museum:

It was like I’d been knocked flat even though I was standing up. It was like the bushfires were back in my head, like they are in dreams sometimes. And this old lady, well, older than Mum anyway, came up and said, ‘Are you alright?’

There is a two-way conversation going on here. Not only does the Bravo 3 wheel hold a story, but it also draws from us our own stories. And that is one of the most important jobs of a museum, and also of a book. As Sam realises, “we’re all history, all the time. We just don’t know it.”



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Filed under Children's Fiction, Women Writers