Tag Archives: National Press Club

Venom

Dorothy Horsfield. Venom. Pandanus Books, 2005. ISBN: 1740761790

We tend to think of Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory synonymously, but in reality the city of Canberra takes up only a small part of the land mass of the ACT. Even setting aside the sliver of coast at Jervis Bay which remains part of the Territory (for now, anyway), about 46 per cent of the ACT is taken up by the Namadgi National Park. The Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve is significantly smaller, but also contributes another goodly chunk. Then there’s Brindabella National Park and the Bimberi Nature Reserve.

We aint called the Bush Capital for nothing. The other night driving home from the theatre I had to dodge a fox on Adelaide Avenue and a kangaroo on Streeton Drive. Neither of these are particularly uncommon occurrences. One creature that I haven’t encountered, indeed, which I thought I had left behind forever in Sydney, is the funnel-web spider. Turns out they are here too, although apparently they aren’t so easy to find, if Dr Paddy Jones’ research is anything to go by.

Paddy has taken a diversion from the usual work of the CSIRO Forestry division at Yarralumla to concentrate on identifying and describing the species of funnel-web in the Canberra region. He hires single mum Madeleine as his research assistant, and the pair spend Saturdays combing the bush for those elusive specimens.

Their relationship is hesitant and self-conscious at first, dotted with misunderstandings and embarrassments, as each of them tries to work out what the nature of their attraction might mean and where their friendship might head. It’s not very surprising, then, that Madeleine’s ex, Doug, misconstrues the rapport between them, and plots revenge.

Venom is really about relationships. Tentative, awkward ones like Madeleine and Paddy’s. Twisted, poisonous ones. The instant and eternal relationship between mother and child. Unlikely but solid ones. But these relationships happen in a landscape, and many of the relationships in Venom happen in the bushland of the ACT.

It was weeks before Paddy again raised the issue of an overnight camp-out. The next half-dozen Saturdays were spent in fruitless hikes through Namadgi and the Tidbinbilla Reserve and the next couple along overgrown trails beside the Murrumbidgee River. Their expeditions involved an unvarying routine — a walk to a designated spot, an hour or so’s meticulous search through an area of bush, then a cuppa over a camp fire. As the weeks wore on and they achieved nothing, Madeleine’s confidence waned. It wasn’t simply that, despite her dutiful reading of Paddy’s research file, she had no idea how to find the fabulous funnel-web. She also suspected that the good doctor might be a rank amateur like herself.

But already they were friends of a kind and she looked forward to their afternoons together.

While Madeleine and Paddy are sweeping the bush for spiders, Madeleine’s ex-partner inhabits the poisonous atmosphere of the parliamentary triangle, the landscape much more often associated with Canberra. When he and Madeleine first arrive in Canberra they find a home in Yarralumla,

close to the high-rises that passed as the capital’s city centre and close as well to the lake’s foreshore with its forests and the sparse sheep paddocks that people referred as parkland. And, in a city of manicured lawns and hedges, the house’s big back garden was wildly overgrown and various.

This is a middle ground. Madeleine finds herself here, somewhere between Doug’s muckraking at the Press Club and Paddy’s denial of economic and political reality on the bike paths crossing the Molonglo at Scrivener Dam. She is looking for a model that works for her of what a marriage, a long-term relationship might be, and she’s not finding it. It’s not in her parents’ marriage, and not in her own short-lived relationship with Doug. She’s also looking for answers to her relationship with her father, and with Doug. What did each of them recognise in the other that she has missed? Perhaps the spiders have the answer.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

11%

Leave a comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

West Block

Sara Dowse. West Block: The Hidden world of Canberra’s mandarins. Penguin, 1983. ISBN: 0140067310

Why do people choose the careers they pursue? Why do people become doctors or teachers or shop assistants or bank tellers or HR managers or mechanics or truck drivers or physicists?

I can think of lots of plausible answers to this question. Money, skill, enjoyment, fulfilment, the job was available, advancement opportunities, it fits with my lifestyle, it’s what my father did, the careers adviser suggested it, that was the course I had the exam marks to get into, I have a passion for this work, it just kind of happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

I became an archivist quite by accident. My particular response to the ‘why this job?’ question is a series of answers that moves from ‘the job was available’ through ‘actually, I seem to be ok at this’ to end up with ‘I have a passion for this work’. As it happens, I am an archivist who is also a public servant—and that is also a part of the role that I feel passionate about—but I could equally have ended up in the private or community sector and feel fulfilled by the work I do.

Most of Sara Dowse’s public servants in West Block seem to be in their jobs because they are passionate about causes. Perhaps they pursued public service to advance those causes. Perhaps they pursue causes because they see opportunities to do so from within the service. However they may have arrived where they are, each of them gives us a glimpse of how life and work intersect. For some they are inseparable. For some they seem to be worlds apart.

I could go on analysing this myself, but I couldn’t explain it better than Dowse has herself in Meanjin:

Most Canberra fiction writers have been keen to make the point that the people they write about are people like any other, with loves, hates, disappointments and all the rest. They are eager to show that Canberra is just like any other Australian city and Canberrans are no more affected by the city’s major industry than other Australians are. Whereas my project, so to speak, had been the very opposite. I wanted to celebrate that industry, to show that while it could be frustrating and demanding and too often seemingly pointless, it was also important, its participants at times heroic, even—dare I say it ?—noble.

In earlier reviews I’ve been defensive when writers have disparaged the public service. Dowse’s handling of the working lives of feminist Cassie, refugee advocate Catherine, careerist and soon-to-be-father Jonathon, old school machine man George, and nascent environmentalist Henry manages to expose the failings without caricature or generalisation. The flaws have a context, and while we may rail against the system, Dowse gives us some insights into how it might have come to be as it is. Perhaps this is because Dowse is not a journalist or a judge, but has lived the public service herself and understood its possibilities and its limitations. Henry Beeker says “I’m a public servant, Cassie, not an evangelist.” But Cassie corrects him. Calls him a crusader.

I like that Dowse has taken pains to show Canberra as rounded, whole. We see all of the seasons, not just the clichéd cold. George Harland walks to work at West Block from his home in Forrest—about a 30 minute walk according to Google, but perhaps shorter in 1977 when you could have cut over the top of capital hill without Parliament House in the way:

The air filled with summer odours: massing clouds, wet grass and the sharp smell of the cedars, baking asphalt and the faint fiery scent of the gums. His ears were crowded with the song of cicadas. Everywhere there were birds, and sprinklers whirring.

Later, Catherine sees “the trees in their prime”, the “russet leaves” and the “white and gold” light of a Canberra autumn from West Block’s windows. Later still Jonathon watches frost form on the windscreen of his car in the night air. The seasons turn, not unlike George Harland’s vision of government as “an intricate engine turning the wheels of a country. Where it was going was beside the point.”

The action moves around the various points of power in Canberra. Of course, the now Old Parliament House, the Press Club, imagined meetings in the Lodge, remembered sites of protest for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, against the Springboks tour. There are other more subtle sites of power too. Like, the Yacht Club, where networks and alliances form and dissolve. Importantly, for me anyway, the Archives, where Cassie:

spent afternoons in a reading room beside a lake, piecing together a story. How it came to be that a building in a city in a nation stopped growing. As if there was only enough sap to get it so far, far enough to waken hopes and dash them. As if all a shoot can expect is a limited, fitful growth when planted in hostile soil.

Canberra’s soil is not sufficiently prepared for Cassie’s ambitions for women and for her branch. It is more accepting of Jonathon’s accommodation of career and family, and of and Catherine’s selfless, selfish act on behalf of Vietnamese refugees. The cycle of seasons, like governments, continues inevitably. West Block may be in elegant decay in Cassie’s time, but today it is recognised as a site of pioneering government, and its sister building, East Block, is now home to the National Archives.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

21%

1 Comment

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.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

30%

5 Comments

Filed under Romance

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