Tag Archives: Red Hill

Riverslake

TAG Hungerford. Riverslake. Angus and Robertson, 1953.

Riverslake, arose from a deep-seated concern at injustice. It was the period of post war immigration in Australia. A friend working at one of the Canberra migrant camps had mentioned the prejudice that was rife there. Hungerford took a job as a kitchen hand at Eastlake camp, near present Narrabunda [sic] in Canberra, to see it for himself and to write about it.

“Eastlake was a jungle – a jungle,” Tom Hungerford says emphatically. “There was murder there; rape, buggery, suicide. The lot. And a terrible feeling of desperation and disillusionment among the migrants. The Australians lumped them all together as ‘BaIts’ and vented their anti-Balt feeling on them. I saw a lot of the active xenophobia of the good old Aussie labourer. I watched uncouth, beer-sodden sots lording it over educated men. It made my blood boil. That’s what Riverslake came out of.”

TAG Hungerford’s boiling blood is embodied in former teacher Bob Randolf, running away from we-don’t-quite-know-what after the war, and burying himself as a cook in the camp kitchen at Riverslake. It’s a poisonous atmosphere.

The camps like Riverslake house the workers who are building the new capital, now finally starting to hit its straps after the delays of the depression and the war. Chifley is prime minister, and the unions are feeling and testing their influence in this new world order. Bob Randolf – Randy as he prefers – likes none of it. He is suffused with an abstract love of his country, but not for many of his countrymen. In his time at Riverslake he comes increasingly to understand what the European migrants who work alongside him have lost, and what circumstances have forced them to choose to submit to the demeaning work and routine racism that is Riverslake. While Randy stands on his principles beside these men, he is in danger of failing a more intimate test of his moral courage in the form of Mrs Linda Spain.

Riverslake is an important depiction of post-war Australian political and social conditions. Indeed, a bit of googling seems to indicate that it has been an important source for the Australian National Dictionary Centre in documenting the Australian slang of the time. It’s certainly not only about Canberra. There are references to similar camps in other sites of post-war reconstruction and enterprise, such as the Snowy Scheme. Riverslake does, though, give us a fascinating glimpse of the Canberra landscape – both social and geographical – between the war and the lake.

As Hungerford revealed to Graeme Kinross Smith in 1974 for Westerly, and quoted above, Riverslake is Eastlake. In reality Eastlake was dismantled in the 1920s, although there were plenty of other workmen’s camps in the area, notably Causeway, that continued after World War 2. Given that even the locations for some of the early camps are a bit of a mystery today, something like Riverslake which to some extent brings them to life, is important.

There are two worlds in 1940s Canberra – the world of the construction camps and the world of government – although their borders are remarkably permeable. Randy and some of his friends are able to cross the boundaries to visit the house “a large, pleasant home, quite near, if not actually under the shadow of, Red Hill.” of public servant Paul Spain and his wife Linda. They regularly have Paul’s Minister Hanrahan over for drinks, while Hanrahan’s driver, referred to with casually appalling racism as Blackie, waits outside in the car.

Randy, though, is part of the workers’ camps, which means he is also privy to the world of the Causeway:

The Causeway sprawled in a welter of unpainted shacks and unpaved roads beside the railway yards. It was hidden from the highway by a belt of mushroom factories, hardly less an eyesore than the slum they hid, since they were run up to no particular plan amongst muddy lanes and smouldering rubbish tips. It was the inevitable shanty-town that springs up beside any city, however well planned, because there are always people who could not be happy outside a slum.

Paul Spain works at Parliament House, and while his story is something of a sideline, it gives context to why the Canberra of Riverslake exists at all:

The House was sitting, and to him at least, perhaps because he knew what was going on in the Members’ rooms and in the Party rooms, the corridors and the lobbies and the chambers, it was enveloped in an air, a sound of something doing. It was the heart awakened of this sprawling city that existed for no other reason than to feed to its pumping valves the departmental plasma that kept armies of girls pounding at their typewriters, kept the secretaries whispering importantly in corridors, kept the cleaners polishing and dusting in King’s Hall under the benign gilt smile of George V, and kept the Members dancing attendance in the strident summons of the Division bells.

Separate again from those two worlds is the world of the immigrants. With Randy’s growing sympathy for his European workmates – referred to uniformly, regardless of nationality, as “bloody Balts” by most Australians – he is part of that world too. Alongside their Australian workmates they and their families contemplate single rented rooms at the shops in Kingston if you are a Balt, or perhaps half a house in Narrabundah for a newly married Australian. Work in service at the Hotel Acton and Gorman House. The rounds of the hotels – Civic, Kingston, Acton – where some of the cooks spend their hours between the lunch and dinner shifts. All of it separated only by some lucerne paddocks waiting to become a lake, with Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain looming over it all.

It’s a grim world, although Randy’s friend Murdoch is able to see the good in it, remarking that “’You even get to like it after… It even looks, well, pretty, sometimes. I think so.’” It is also Murdoch who has the explanation of why Canberra is so inhospitable to Novikowski and the other ‘Balts’:

Canberra’s a tough place, even for Australians, if they’re new to it. Everybody’s here for what he can get out of it without working more than he can help. They don’t care for the place, they don’t put anything back for what they take out.

Soulless. I can see here the origin of the cliché about Canberra. The people who continue to call Canberra soulless today are perhaps the ones who continue to be here for what they can get, without putting anything back. For those who do have a connection with Canberra, we do invest something of ourselves, and in return we perhaps reap the rewards of community and belonging. It’s something that evolves, that can’t be manufactured. Sixty-odd years on, I believe it is now a place where, should you wish to belong, you can be welcomed and included and valued for your own identity, with much less of the careless labelling and cruel suspicion that Hungerford saw in Riverslake.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

8%

1 Comment

Filed under Classic Fiction

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.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

9%

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

Dead Cat Bounce

Peter Cotton. Dead Cat Bounce. Scribe, 2013. ISBN: 9781922072542

Back in May Laura Bartlett at the ACT Writers Centre asked me where I thought the literary imagination could be found in Canberra. In reflecting on the books I had read up until then, I came up with three categories: Inevitable Canberra, Symbolic Canberra, and Comfortable Canberra.

The first category, Inevitable Canberra, is for the books that are set in Canberra because they have to be, to make the story work. They tend to be politically based. I mentioned in May that this category was the one that had the least affection for Canberra, needing the place but not really knowing, loving, or understanding it.

Peter Cotton’s debut novel Dead Cat Bounce more or less fits into this category. Cotton is a former journalist and media adviser to federal cabinet ministers, with a ten year career based in Canberra. He knows his way around town. His novel, a police procedural about the murder of a senior minister in the middle of an election campaign, draws on Canberra for its momentum. There’s a little bit more going on here, though.

To begin with, Dead Cat Bounce doesn’t have to be in Canberra. The pollies are on the election trail, and not tied to the House and sitting schedules, so it really could have happened anywhere. Actually, now that I think of it, the fact that a minister would be in Canberra during an election campaign is a bit weird. So, Canberra is definitely the chosen setting, not merely the necessary one.

My second notional category was Symbolic Canberra. I used this to group together those books that use Canberra’s features as metaphors for their writing. Cotton’s work fits in here too. Our dead minister has been found on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin at Attunga Point, not far from the Yacht Club, and, as the police profiler helpfully points out for us:

Lakes feature in the mythology of a number of ancient cultures, where they’re generally linked to a transition to death. In Greek mythology, for instance, the god Dionysus descended into the underworld through a lake.

The killers may be using LBG as a metaphor for the journey to hell, and I think Cotton is also using the lake, and Canberra more generally, as the symbol of political power. Even though this story could happen anywhere, its location in Canberra concentrates our thinking on the consequences of this killing for the election and for our democracy. Later in the story when matters escalate further, the feasibility of continuing the election as a whole comes up for discussion, as Canberra virtually goes into lockdown. Our parliamentary processes, regardless of whether we currently have a parliament, are fragile, and that fragility, and the importance of preventing their fracture, is magnified by setting the story in Canberra.

Which takes me to category three, Comfortable Canberra. In my thinking, Comfortable Canberra is for those novels that ‘get’ Canberra. The city may be a necessary location or a symbolic motif, but it is also a place that they know and understand and can get around in plausibly without getting lost. Cotton knows his way around Canberra, getting around the usual sites of Civic, Kingston, Yarralumla, Red Hill, Forrest and Fyshwick. Cotton’s characters have drinks at the Kingo and the Hyatt, coffee in Garema Place. They lunch at a Manuka café (could it be Caphs?!?), they have working lives in Woden, and dark things happen on Mount Ainslie. Indeed, Cotton’s characters even wax lyrical, if stereotypical, about their lives in the city:

We both liked Canberra’s clean air, and its four seasons. That it had wide roads, and was relatively uncluttered.

Another symbolic, mysterious lake, Lake George, also has an important place in the story, as does the township named after it. North of Canberra, down Macks Reef Road, a little out of Bungendore, the village of Lake George is the home of a ‘person of interest’ to the investigation, as they say.

Weereewaa was the Aboriginal name for the lake… The word meant ‘bad water’, and the blacks, and the Europeans who took their land, had plenty of reasons for thinking there was something bad about the lake.

What I particularly like about Cotton’s story, is that, when the security types are getting all heavy-handed, he has one of his characters, remind us that there are people who live in Canberra and who don’t have or want anything much to do with what is going on on the Hill:

What I’d say to you Mr Redding is this. The people of Canberra are feeling very insecure in the wake of [these crimes]. They’re also very angry with the perpetrators. Combine anger and insecurity, and what do you get? Hysteria, of course, and the symptoms of it are everywhere in this town…. So, Mr Redding, as you consider your next move, please be mindful of the impact it’ll have out here in Australia-land.

So, in Dead Cat Bounce, Canberra is inevitable, symbolic, and relatively comfortable. A bringing together of all of its various elements. And dead politicians, which not everyone believes is a bad thing.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

10%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense

The Memory Room

The Memory Room. Random House, 2007. ISBN: 9781741667295.

I usually try to avoid reading others’ reviews of a book until I settle on my own initial opinion, but I was feeling a little directionless when I finished The Memory Room, so I thought I’d tool around the interwebs a bit to see what others thought of it.

I have to say that some of the reviews are a bit lukewarm. Michael Williams in The Age says that Koch “doesn’t hit the high notes in his latest spy novel”. I guess when you’ve set the bar as high as two Miles Franklin Awards and had another novel made into an acclaimed film, it may be hard to sustain that level for every outing.

The reviewers also generally agree that Koch is a master of landscape, and particularly single out his evocations of Tasmania in The Memory Room. Of course, with my particular preoccupation, I’m more interested his treatment of the landscape around Canberra.

Lake George, and plains around the Monaro and southern highlands are recurring themes in The Memory Room:

The car rounded a bend, and Lake George appeared on our right: waterless at the moment, but green with grass. Far out in the middle, white dots that were sheep showed bright in the morning sun; cattle grazed near a tawny stretch of sand. The lake extended to a long line of hills in the east, light-blue and mauve and very far off, looking like hills in a dream, or in some other country.

Vincent, Derek and Erika have a shared history, starting with intersecting childhoods on the outskirts of Hobart. In Peking they are posted together to the Australian Embassy. Vincent is now a spy with the Australian Security Intelligence Service, while Derek and Erika have more conventional Foreign Affairs roles. Later, after a miscalculation of Vincent’s disrupts their careers and fractures their fragile relationships, they find themselves crossing paths again in Canberra.

In Canberra Derek joins the spook community, becoming an analyst at the Office of National Assessments. Vincent’s Peking misjudgement has landed him back at ASIS head office, where the Director-General makes him the ‘master of the registry’:

‘The innermost secrets of the Service are all at my personal disposal,’ he said, and his voice had taken on a throaty, gloating, almost caressing sound, as though he spoke of some private and perhaps shameful passion. ‘The most secret of all files are in my care, Derek. Can you see what trust has been placed in me? And what it means?’

It is Erika, though, who never loses her childish, childhood fascination with spying. Despite her success as a political journalist, Erika has never really grown up. She remains the child looking for her father’s love, spying on other people’s lives from their back gardens. She is still thrilled by secrecy, but isn’t mature enough to grasp fully the import of those secrets.

Erika craves drama, and the Monaro plains are a fitting landscape for this:

When she flees in her red Toyota,… it’s because flight itself secretly stimulates her… and these southern tablelands, with their wide grasslands, their distant hills and mountains, their big skies and scattered little towns, provide the perfect landscapes for her flights. She can stop in one of the townships and have a coffee or a drink; she might even have a little adventure, flirting with a man in a bar or a café, or simply talking to a woman serving behind a counter. She has then become someone else; she has escaped into her other life. Once, she went as far as Jindabyne, in the Snowy Mountains.

There is a melancholy air throughout The Memory Room which is echoed in the landscapes Koch chooses. While there is a contented life sketched out in the background for Derek, Vincent is essentially alone. As is Erika, even in the midst of her most passionate relationships. There are metaphors here also, I think, about hiding in plain sight, that make each Canberra location apt for the conversations that take place there. On top of Red Hill, Vincent and Erika’s lover Rykov look down on the city and Lake Burley Griffin, their private worries much greater than the tussles for political power below them. Erika tries to shrug off her growing stardom in a booth at Tilley’s – transformed here into Diamond Kate Carney’s. Rykov meets Vincent on a lonely road beside honey-coloured paddocks at Captains Flat, stark figures in a landscape, there to be unobserved.

The novel acknowledges the usual jokes about Canberra, and segues for a moment into an examination of its strange city-as-monument landscape. It is a critical examination, but not an unkind one:

And the grand design worked: its vistas were impressive, even handsome. But they were also strange, [Derek] thought, and somehow eternally subdued – partly because the ancient continent had thrown its blanket of primeval quiet over them…

I was quite annoyed then, in my skimming through online reviews, when I found Jake Kerridge’s in the UK Telegraph where he mentions Koch’s evocation of “the drudgery of life in Canberra”.

What the? Derek has come to Canberra for some peace and permanence after the superficial diplomat’s life, and has found work he finds absorbing and satisfying. Vincent has arrived expecting to be in disgrace, to find that he has been made “absolute master of the Service’s innermost room.” Erika has demanded her commercial television bosses to let her base herself in Canberra over Sydney so that she can be with the man she believes is her spiritual twin. Where the $%#* is the drudgery in any of that? It seems the lazy clichés about Canberra extend half way around the world. It is obvious that Kerridge and others who leap straight to the equation of Canberra equals boredom never felt the connections that Vincent feels with the landscape:

I wanted to climb through the barbed-wire fence and lie down in the grass out there: in the pale, dry, comforting grass, among the strange rocks of the grasslands.

Koch is indeed a master of landscape, and Canberra’s is evoked with dignity and solemnity, fitting it to the story, and the story to the landscape, “here on these plains… under these wheeling constellations.”

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

11%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense