Tag Archives: Parliament House

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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Francesca Rendle-Short. Imago. Spinifex, 1996, ISBN: 1875559361

Molly Rose and Jimmy are ten pound poms, settling in the still-lakeless 1960s Australian capital to further Jimmy’s career as a soil scientist. Strange, awkward, terribly English Jimmy is never likely to fit in, though. Much later, Molly reflects that Jimmy had

never been in Australia, truly a part of the landscape, even though he’d tried. Jimmy had loved Australia as an armchair adventurer would, fairly trembling from want, from afar, as an idea…

Molly, though, is both discovering herself and making herself anew, in the image of this new land she finds herself in, and in that of her neighbour, Marj. Molly is virtually a child bride. She celebrates her 19th birthday on the ship voyage to Australia. While she is open-eyed about her life and her relationship with Jimmy, Australia, and Canberra, is her chance to move beyond the strictures of life with her mother, and of life in England.

The men in Marj and Molly’s lives are largely absent. Molly never knew her father, killed in the war before she was born. Strange, stuttering Jimmy is absent from the marital bed, and absent also from the house for long stretches, away on scientific expeditions ‘up north’. Marj’s husband Kevin is also away much of the time, on work gangs building roads and other infrastructure around the growing capital.

Molly’s experience of Canberra and of Marj are almost the same thing. The woman and the landscape overlap, merge, coalesce. The surrounding Brindabellas and the loud bulk of fat Marj are equally constant, protective marks in the landscape. What Molly wants most is to belong, to make a place for herself, both in Australia and in Marj’s life.

Their two houses are side by side on the slopes of Mount Ainslie, and the two women from time to time climb the hill to look out on the city.

Marj pointed out all the landmarks of the town, her fat arm swaying, digging holes in the air. Parliament House, bleached white, St John’s steeple, the War Memorial… The flood plain and meandering willow trees of the Molonglo River over which the planned lake would wash… She threw in the dome of the Science Academy, thinking Molly would be interested for Jimmy’s sake. Everything was detached and separated by grassy expanses and paddocks and rows and circles and trees, so that from where Molly and Marj were perched, it looked as if you could pick up the pieces and rearrange the monuments and avenues, like a child’s set of blocks.

For Molly, the land is feminine. One that afternoon when Marj shows her Canberra from Mount Ainslie, the Brindabellas

lay quite still, like lounging naked women pleased with their shapes, their legs and arms and torsos and behinds all knotted in an early evening haze…. It gave her goose pimples, similar to when she first met Marj.

Marj is for Molly inseparable from the landscape. She has always been there “pioneers really – when it wasn’t much more than a thought on paper”. And Molly seems also not to always know quite where she ends and Marj begins. The borders between Marj, Molly and the mountains are indistinct.

Later, when Molly has made another life for herself on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, she realises that, just like in Canberra, Marj has been looking over her, in the form of Mudjimba Island, also known as the Old Woman. The Brindabellas also are bush women, are protectors and friends. To love Marj is to love Canberra, because they are the same thing – round, protective, unashamed, confident women.


ACT Book of the Year: Winner, 1997

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Alana Woods. Automaton. Woodsforthe Trees, [c2001]. ISBN: 9780957976702.

We’ve not had a courtroom drama before in our journey through fictional Canberra. I wonder why? Plenty of murders have happened, but up until now it’s the cops and the journalists who have had all the glory. But now we have legal aid lawyer Elizabeth Sharman, in Canberra to escape her recently failed relationship and to defend young Russell Montgomery, who is accused of murdering the owner of the supermarket at Narrabundah shops.

Russell’s case isn’t looking very hopeful, mostly because there are a number of witnesses to the murder, but also because he can’t remember a thing about it, or about himself. An ‘automaton’ case, as his lawyers refer to it.

Perhaps, though, it’s Elizabeth who is the automaton. Apparently alone in the world, apart from her friend Honey the leg model, Elizabeth seems unable to connect with anyone. Or perhaps to connect in the right way with the right people. Her instructing solicitor Robert Murphy is worried about her strange obsession with the defendant. He’s also more than a little miffed about her apparent lack of interest in a relationship with him.

Automaton has more plot twists than a country house whodunit, a strange, abbreviated style of prose, and an inability to correctly use apostrophes. Despite the enthusiastic reader reviews comparing author Alana Woods favourably to John Grisham, I didn’t quite see what the fuss might be about. The plot was enough to keep me turning pages, but as disaster after disaster befell Elizabeth and Russell, not least a Black Mountain car crash that leaves Elizabeth trapped for hours, I realised that I didn’t really care. Perhaps Woods has done too good a job at depicting the driven woman too strong to ask for help.

There are some nice connections with and observations of Canberra. Elizabeth has just arrived in town, and has rented one of the new apartments on Northbourne Avenue, walking distance from her London Circuit office. During her sleepless nights she can wander

the suburban back streets, the long twilight and wide-lawned stretches between hedge and road over which mature oaks spread their shade softening the heat’s effect.

Those rows of apartments, one layer deep along Northbourne, remind me of a Hollywood film set. Cardboard facades that give the illusion of a city when there is really all of that comfortable tree-lined suburbia behind it.

In Automaton there are lawyers lunches in Garema Place and drinks at the Wig and Pen, although the midnight café Elizabeth manages to find in Civic sounded fanciful to me, given the circa 2001 publishing date. Lawyerly investigations take us out to Belconnen to the remand centre, to Woden along the Tuggeranong Parkway tailing suspects, and over Clyde Mountain to Bateman’s Bay and the family beach house of the murdered man.

It was refreshing to read Canberra depicted as a cosmopolitan place. In Wood’s version of the city, Garema Place is bustling day and night, and the ANU bar and the Casino form part of a vibrant night life. Not all of these things are necessarily true. Somehow, though, even when the identity of the city is largely immaterial, Woods feels the need to centre Canberra on the lake.

In the early dawn she dressed and walked down to Lake Burley Griffin… Once there she sat in solitude, idly examining the pale lines of the public buildings on the opposite bank. The old Federation style and the flag-dominated new parliament houses, the blocked art gallery and high court… The occasional jogger, bicycle rider and fellow walker were out… With few people and fewer vehicles to spoil the serenity she thought how calmly beautiful it was. The light had a lucidity that stung the eyes.

Somehow, Canberra’s landscape always manages to assert itself.


Winner 2003: Fast Books Prize

Nominated 2004: Davitt Awards

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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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