Tag Archives: North-South divide

The Tenants

Gwen Laker. The Tenants. c1998

When an author shares some basic biographical characteristics with her main character I sometimes find it hard to separate the two. I can’t quite decide if author Gwen Laker is her character Rose Attenborough.  To be fair, there’s maybe not that much they have in common, beyond age and gender. Rose tells us she is in her eighties, and judging by the author’s photo on the back cover Laker is probably of a similar age (I understand she has passed away since the book was published). The back cover also tells us that the book is “entirely fictional. All characters bear no resemblance to any living person or persons”, so I guess I’ll just have to take Laker at her word.

I hope that Rose is entirely fictional, because by about page seven I couldn’t stand her. My god, what a bitching, complaining noxious old woman. Every observation of her fellow tenants is critical or mean-spirited, every compliment is grudging or back-handed, every pleasure is noted with the expectation that it is only the best that can be expected, or simply cannot last. Here’s a sample. Rose has just had an unpleasant phone conversation with her more-or-less estranged daughter Elizabeth:

Well, I think. Not a very successful attempt to bring me out of my doldrums… Really, I’m getting as bad as Frieda. However [some coffee] might help to settle my nerves. I drink it, then prepare for bed. Not even the patchwork quilt on my double bed can cheer me up. It is a lovely quilt, alive with vibrant colours in a geometric design. My mother spent countless hours making it and gave it to me on my fortieth birthday. How long ago that seems. Elizabeth was just ten years old and as loving a daughter as you could wish for. How times have changed. Time seems to be the dominant factor for the majority of people these days. It’s all rush, rush, rush, and for what? Heart attacks, strokes, neuroses and often before ambitions have been achieved. When will it all end?

Rose is more or less housebound in the flat that has been her home for the past thirty years, and so her life revolves around the doings of the other tenants in her little block of four units. They are a strangely assorted group, but they seem to rub along together and have formed something of a community, Rose’s carping aside. Each is more or less alone, but they look out for eachother, take an interest in eachother’s lives, and offer help and advice when they can. It’s an interesting take, and a view of a life and a community not commonly portrayed in Canberra.

With the odd exception, such as Snake Bite and Riverslake, the Canberra revealed though Dinner at Caphs thus far has been overwhelmingly middle class. Laker’s tenants largely are too. Frieda’s a nurse, Reggie a retired public servant with business ambitions. Adam’s a librarian. Rose clearly sees herself as having refined tastes, dismissive of the modern art at the National Gallery – “a swindle for those gullible enough to believe the dealers’ blurb”, but “enthralled with Glover’s landscapes” – and grudgingly sharing her Haig Dimple with Reggie. The tenants live “in one of the quieter suburbs of Canberra” in something of a state of genteel poverty.

The Tenants also provides an unusual perspective from an older person. Rose’s views, infuriating though they are, bring an outlook on Canberra not provided in anything else I’ve read this year. It’s a very narrow one, to be sure, largely bounded by her view of the Brindabellas through her living room window, her ambulance trips to Woden hospital (“not in the Royal Canberra. The hierarchy have decided to close it down and force all patients in the north to travel many unnecessary kilometres”) and the visits of the meals on wheels ladies and her dissatisfied cleaning lady. It’s a familiarity, if not a contentment, and she observes the changing seasons through the changes in the trees in the garden outside.

Although I have witnessed much sadness and been consumed by my own misery within these walls, I wouldn’t like to live anywhere else. I’m so used to Canberra now that I think my very bones have absorbed its eccentricities and uniqueness. It’s a beautiful city with ultra modern buildings and rippling lakes. The parks and gardens are superb and the new Parliament House an architect’s dream. Five star hotels and restaurants abound and there’s even opulent brothels. Yet despite much of this glitterati and veneer, I still have a fondness for it I can’t explain.



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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.



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Christmas in Canberra

Nicole Taylor. Christmas in Canberra. Brunette Publishing 2011. ISBN: 9780646554242

Louise is a not-quite-30 year old career girl, Canberra born and bred, navigating simultaneously the public service hierarchy and the singles scene, whilst her comfortably established Canberra family is slowly disintegrating around her, thanks largely to her white trash sister-in-law from Lake Cargelligo. While Louise wants to break away and be her own woman, she still has to negotiate Christmas 1988 in Canberra.

Even after finishing Christmas in Canberra, I can’t quite decide what this book is for. Why write it at all? The reason people don’t write books about ordinary suburban lives is because they are boring. In books where characters have ordinary suburban lives, they give detailed explanations about their rules for when they will and won’t agree to dance with a man in a nightclub. They have long conversations with each other about how to dress for your body shape, conversations which have the power to transform their lives. They treat us to careful descriptions of the layout of their houses, which are decorated in pale gum-leaf green, with cathedral ceilings, balconies, upstairs playroom, and the sliding doors leading out to the patio which has been excavated from the slope of the yard and finished with quarry tiles. You get the drift.

Suburban life needs drama and tension to turn it into good fiction. Strangely, there is plenty of both in Louise’s family, and yet it’s still dull. You’d think unexpected pregnancies, looming bankruptcies, that nasty sister-in-law and Aunty Eve’s case of the clap would be enough to be going on with, but somehow they just don’t cut it. Part of the problem is that most of Louise’s family members are just not likeable, particularly the snipey women with their competitive pregnancies. I think the other problem is that the really dramatic stuff isn’t happening to Louise, it’s happening around her, and the extent of her involvement is to talk to people about it over lunch at Gus’s.

What I think this book is really about is a fond reminiscence of being twenty-something and single and having a good time in the 1980s. It’s a remembrance of the places that were special and the fun stuff we did when we were crazy kids. It’s probably only really of interest to people who were also twenty-something in the same place at the same time. Which I was.

Well, almost. Louise is a little bit older than me, so some of her cultural references are before my time, but others are familiar. We clearly moved in different circles, too. Louise is upstairs at the Private Bin, while I was almost exclusively downstairs. Louise went to Juliana’s, but by the time I was going there is was Bobby McGee’s. Ditto for the Boot and Flogger—I only ever knew it as Filthy McFadden’s, now also sadly departed. I did do the Friday night meat market at the Hyatt, but only occasionally, not as a ritual.

Christmas in Canberra is in some senses a documentary of that life at that time. There is in it a desire to record some of the peculiarities of the culture. Canberrans will understand the ubiquity of Louise’s landlords heading down to their beach house at Broulee, the recent Melbourne immigrants’ horror of having to spend Christmas in Canberra, the three degrees of separation from everyone else in town, the routine of spotting your television newsreader at the shops, and the intricacies of swatting for your next public service job interview.

This is a book about ordinary life in the suburbs. Unlike the uber cool Lauren, and Brad, Louise doesn’t live in Kingston or Manuka, although her sister Marie lives in Griffith (which Manuka really is anyway, but that is a discussion for another time I suspect). Sadly, no mention of Caphs, so the Caphs count is starting to look a little embarrassing after the early highs. Manuka remains well represented for dinner engagements at the Metropole, La Rendezvous and Chez Daniel. There is a moment when Louise in lunching at the Lawns with the enigmatic Aidan, who reveals

“I have a house in Deakin. Stradbroke St.”

“Oh,” Louise nodded. “I live in Aranda.”


They ate in silence for a minute.

Is this a relationship doomed by the north-south divide? Perhaps not, since Louise’s family and friends are helpfully spread all over Canberra, giving us great scope to discuss and document the broad sweep of town. Louise’s new friends live in Hall, “the domain of the gentleman farmer…of independent means and in no way reliant on the price of wool or wheat for their lifestyle.” Mum and Dad are in Farrer, Vera used to live in Braddon, and Margot is in Weetangera. This gives opportunities for Louise to party at the Old Canberra Inn, shop at Dimitri’s jewellers, and catch up with Dad and the Yacht Club.

There is some quite nice writing to describe this urban idyll:

Large windows overlooked a generous backyard and half a dozen apricot trees, still abundant with fruit. Off in the distance, the city and parts of Lake Burley Griffin were visible, dominated by the obelisk silhouette of Black Mountain Tower. It was a beautiful morning in early summer, with a clear blue sky and a tingle in the air.

In a few weeks’ time they would sit in the kitchen and watch hot air balloons crowding the sky like painted Easter eggs wobbling on a bright blue blanket.

Apart from the occasional interlude in praise of backyard landscapes, this is a pedestrian book, making unremarkable observation of the commonplace lives of people in an ordinary town. For better or worse, it is a time, a life and a town that I recognise.


I could have sworn that I read somewhere that this had won some popular-vote type award, but I can’t seem to retrace my steps.

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers