Tag Archives: Pioneers

Canberra Red

David Headon and Andrew McKenzie (eds). Canberra Red. Allen and Unwin, 2013. ISBN: 9781743315835

I’m reviewing something that’s not on the list because it’s not fiction. I decided when setting myself this challenge that there is no point trying to cover non-fiction about Canberra because there is just way too much of it. There’d be no focus, nothing to hang my reading and thinking off.

However. If the silly season isn’t the time to break rules, particularly self-imposed ones, then I’m not sure when it might be possible. And this is a centenary of Canberra blog, so how can I not make an exception for a book celebrating the centenary of Canberra?

I have found Canberra Red difficult to review, though. If nothing else, it has vindicated my decision not to cover non-fiction, although I’m not entirely sure why that is the case. In each of the works of fiction I’ve read this year I’ve found a theme or a thread that I could attach my thinking to and draw into my own conclusions. Somehow I’ve struggled to do that with Canberra Red, and I think may be that its points of view are too disparate and too personal to be drawn into a single story.

But I’ve not told you what it is about. The cover blurb says in part that

Canberra Red takes us beyond the elected reps and national landmarks, beyond the neat maps and ubiquitous aerial photographs that are the public face of the planned, political city. Some of Canberra’s best known writers reveal what it is that makes their special city tick, and what has become of the grand vision of Walter Burley Griffin and his extraordinary partner, Marion.

Frank Moorehouse imagines for us the dinner parties at Yarralumla and the other grand houses of the Limestone Plains as the new capital emerges around them. Andrew Sayers considers for us the view from Mount Ainslie, a sense of place, and its influence on our cultural institutions. Marion Halligan muses on the way Canberra is imagined into being by each of us.

There are more academic contributions too. Andrew MacKenzie recounts his fascinating but, I couldn’t help feeling, slightly judgemental analysis of the way various families chose to rebuild their homes after the 2003 bushfires. Stephen Dovers asks us to extend the concept of “settlement” to encompass our continued shaping of and impact on our landscapes, and to seek to do it in more sensitive and sustainable ways. Shanti Sumartojo examines the “illegibility” of the Parliamentary Triangle and its role in describing national identity.

Having reflected that the essays are perhaps too disparate to be a coherent vision, there are some interesting intersections between many of them. I can’t decide if some of them are deliberate. When Susan Boden and Nicholas Brown wrote of their childhood unawareness of the significance of Ethos, did they know that Glenda Cloughey’s very personal evocation of its creation would sit alongside their work? When they referenced Kylie Tennant’s observation that Canberra was a “landscape…carefully planned not for the convenience of human beings but of trees”, were they already familiar with Sumartojo’s observations about a lack of human scale? And when Sumartojo in turn wrote of the role children have in shaping the image of Canberra for their families, was she thinking already of Robert Freestone and Margaret Peak’s tracing of the role of the Regatta Point exhibition? Did Kate Rigby consciously seek to give us an additional perspective on Ethos and Cloughey’s production of The Gift of the Furies when she chose them as emblems of the environmental crisis she sees before us?

I felt at times that I had wandered into some kind of club meeting. One where the members, all longstanding, were delighted to recount their stories and shared histories to me, but to which I did not ultimately belong. Everyone was in placid concurrence with eachother, nodding gently to the other members. That sounds very critical, and I can’t quite say why I felt an outsider to the conversation. These essays are, as the blurb promises, often very personal perspectives, and yet there are so many common threads between them. A bit like our experiences of a city, I guess. Very personal but woven from common threads. There are, though, observations which I can share, which I would like to claim as my own. For instance, I have learned a little this year that Marion Halligan often speaks for me in her views of Canberra:

But I have fallen in love with the light of Canberra, its clarity and distance, its hills that turn pink at the day’s end. Of course people do love the places where they live, even the unprepossessing ones, and Canberra is hardly that.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

7%

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4 Comments

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Imago

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.

Awards:

ACT Book of the Year: Winner, 1997

Caphs Count:

8%

4 Comments

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

The House at Number 10

Dorothy Johnston. The House at Number 10. Wakefield Press, 2005. ISBN 1862546835.

Sophie’s husband has left her, not for another woman—she could become reconciled to a single woman—but for the freedom to pursue many women. Having left the public service to raise her daughter Tamsin, Sophie now finds herself needing to find work to pay the rent on the flat in quiet, unquestioning Mrs B’s garden.

It is the early 1990s. The newly autonomous Legislative Assembly is contemplating legalising prostitution in the ACT, “the little [government] carving out its own agenda”. Some entrepreneurs are gambling on the outcome, setting up quiet brothels in anonymous suburban houses, taking advantage of the interregnum in the law which the police seem to be observing. Holding their breath and waiting.

I had been under the impression that Canberra was a leader in this area, perhaps pioneering this route to legalisation and control “and… what was ‘pioneer’ if not an old word, an ancient, if not honourable one?”, observes Sophie’s colleague. A little googling tells me that this wasn’t the case, that the prostitution debate was happening around this time in many of the Australian states and territories, some heading towards similar outcomes. Still, Canberra has a history of sensible, liberal approaches to these thorny issues. Treating its citizens like grown-ups in relation to things like drugs, fireworks, gay marriage, euthanasia. Not all of these decisions have stuck.

So, Sophie finds herself working as a prostitute in the weather-beaten house at Number 10 Andover Street. Each working day, she crosses the lake from her life in O’Connor as suburban mother, to the one she has chosen in Kingston. On the north side she can walk her daughter to pre-school and meet friends for drinks at Tilley’s. On the south side she buys lingerie and contemplates her relationship with John the Cyclist, and Jack with the fish tattoo. Sophie is determined to keep her two lives separate, the lake in between. Of course, they run in parallel, as she seeks the same thing in both: confidence, autonomy, self-sufficiency, perhaps also revenge. Sometimes they intersect.

The cover blurb for the edition I read talks about “the complex relationships people develop with the buildings they live and work in”. The side room, where Sophie works, both in its current state and in the one imagined by her architect friend Ann, is Sophie’s “silent ally” as she learns her trade. In the arm chair in the kitchen at Number 10 Sophie recuperates between customers, wanting “only space and quiet, the unremarkable continuance of days”. These spaces, her garden flat, Mrs B’s garden and, later, the one at Number 10, are places of autonomy and self-discovery.

Sophie is, of course, discovered, and with a nightmare scenario before her, familiar places seem suddenly no longer safe:

The question Sophie kept coming back to was, Where will I go from here? The whole of Canberra seemed dangerous – not just Kingston, with its apartments round the shopping centre, couples young and rising in the world, Andover Street with its abandoned house, its backyard ready to be planted out for spring. Fyshwick and Mitchell, where the business future lay, seemed just as treacherous, as did the central triangle of parliament, family court and government offices, so clean and straight they might have passed from a design board to the air between kept trees – might have done this, been erected, without human intervention.

But places can be transformed, and they are often transformed through human intervention. The Griffins’ vision, not wholly realised, nevertheless leaves its mark on Canberra: “Ideals and visions remained, though turned into a dog’s leg broken in three places”. Mrs B remembers the transformation brought to Canberra by the flooding of the lake, and the transformation that had been made in her own life at that time. She, in turn, transforms the landscape in her garden from the “baked, unyielding Canberra suburban dirt”.

Looking at Number 10 from our vantage point of today, we know that it is a transformation that won’t stick. Brothels won’t be allowed in residential areas. Just as Sophie and her fellow workers, and Mrs B in the garden, have altered the place from what it was, so new changes will follow, both in the house at Number 10 and in those who pass through its rooms.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

25%

4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers