Tag Archives: Yarralumla

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%

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Happy Valley

Patrick White. Happy Valley. Text Classics, 2012. ISBN: 9781921961175

I’ve expanded the borders again, this time to take in the Monaro and the Snowy Mountains district. We’ve been here before, of course. Erika passed through here all the time. And before there were borders and an Australian Capital Territory it was all known as the Monaroo or some other variation of the spelling.

This late in the Centenary year, the books left on the list are either becoming hard to acquire, or perhaps hard to contemplate. All of which combines to form my excuse for reading Patrick White’s Happy Valley, which contains no references to Canberra at all.

There are hints, though. Mrs Furlow muses with satisfaction on her connections with Government House, which much surely be the Canberra one, Sydney and Melbourne being so much further away? Later hints suggest it is Sydney after all, but when the conversation turns to “the European situation” and Mussolini, it’s clear that this is the late 1930s and likely to be well after Yarralumla became the full-time Government House. But would Australian-born Sir Isaac Isaacs have had an English ADC on hand, ready and willing to give his heart to the beautifully difficult Miss Sidney Furlow? I know, I’m grasping at straws.

Tharwa does get a mention. A drover met along the way, was “going down to Tharwa in the afternoon, he came from there, he would not come back for a year or two”. So Happy Valley is really quite apart from Canberra. Has nothing to do with it. But how might you read the book in the context of Canberra?

Happy Valley, White’s first novel, was originally published in 1939. It is a bleak landscape populated by White’s usual range of somewhat bleak and often unlovable figures. They are the usual ciphers of the isolated, dot-on-the-map town. The teacher at the one-room school, with no one to take over classes when he is sick. The bank manager and his wife, who might be called common except for their position in the town’s hierarchy. The doctor, finding connections with the community, his wife and son not. The youngish spinster sewing and giving music lessons to eke out her inheritance while saving to move to California. The local land owner and his rebellious daughter. The Chinese Australian girl, not quite ostracized but not quite accepted. They are the familiar props of the small town drama, although in White’s hands they are also something more than that.

Given these are such familiar outlines, the stuff of every town, why do I have so much trouble relating them to Canberra? My imagination is completely unable to move Happy Valley up the Monaro Highway and transplant it convincingly on the Limestone Plains, even at an earlier point in history when there must have been a school teacher and a doctor and a land owner.

Canberra’s history is overtaken by the national capital project. It seems from this distance to have leapt from scattered settler community to incipient city, without any moment of pause in between to be just a town. I’m unable to imagine the social hierarchy of Happy Valley transplanted to Canberra, and perhaps it was never there. Or, when it was, it was established according to a different set of rules of public service seniority, marked out by the construction and location of your house – tents at Westlake for construction workers, brick in Forrest for senior bureaucrats.

The capacity for scandal is still the same. Like Plaque with Laurel, written at around the same time, Happy Valley is centred on relationships, misunderstandings and infidelities. The sometimes awfulness of ordinary people, and their seemingly endless facility to do eachother harm without necessarily meaning any harm at all. These things I can imagine happening in Canberra.

If nothing else it has been something of a relief to read someone who masters the language after quite a lot of good storytelling but not much great writing. The foreword to the new edition by Peter Craven discusses how White is, in this first novel, experimenting with the styles of icons such as Joyce and Stein and “drunk with the technique of writing”. Even my unscholarly eye could detect these influences. Whether experimental, derivative or a clear, new and original voice, I do find White’s writing in Happy Valley wonderful. I want to give you a longish quote, the running of the local Cup, that I hope might show you what I mean.

They shuddered in a bunch against the barrier, then streamed out, that long trajectory of colour against an indifferent landscape, the muscle whipped by rain, by the sudden emotional compact of breath and wind. They urged into the wind and the flat, grey with trees. The colour broke fiercely on the grey. It whipped round the bend. The horses coiled back in a long elastic thread. You could hear their hoofs dulled by the mud. You could hear the approach of frantic breath. You could almost hear a flash of colour breaking through a clump of trees. And the crowd leant over the fence, drawing the horses on with their hands, so many puppets on so many strings, of which the jockeys, balled up on their saddles, had no ultimate control.

This moment of action is staccato and abrupt and quite different to much of the writing in the rest of the book, which is much a more fluid stream-of-consciousness, a following of the strange juxtapositions of his characters’ thoughts. Whether or not Happy Valley, separated from Canberra by a somewhat arbitrary boarder, is a mirror or a juxtaposition to the capital, I’m glad that I took the detour to visit.

Awards:

Gold Medal 1941: Australian Literature Society

Caphs Count:

8%

5 Comments

Filed under Classic Fiction

Crooked House

Peter Menadue. Crooked House. Harris Street Publications, 2011.

A few self-published works have turned up in the course of my Canberra journey, and I think Crooked House has been the most enjoyable so far. I’m pretty sure that Peter Menadue doesn’t like Canberra very much, but I can forgive in this case because of the bone dry wit he brings to his story.

Crooked House’s Paul Ryder settles comfortably into the mould of hard drinking, womanising, old-school journalist. He is barely keeping it together, although he’s found a good woman who may just keep him on the straight and narrow this time around. One of his more recent indiscretions has caused him to be sacked from his last job, and now he’s stuck as the Canberra press gallery reporter for the Launceston Herald, babysitting the boss’ son who only has to “keep breathing” longer than his father to succeed in life.

The Herald only keeps a Canberra political reporter on staff for the prestige of it, and keeps burying the big political stories under acres of coverage of lost bushwalkers. So Paul has little pressure and plenty of time to pursue other lines of inquiry when he finds himself caught up in the murders of two women associated with the man who is about to challenge his party’s leader for the prime ministership.

The story’s not that important really, and you can probably guess the major plot points. Ryder’s journalistic nosing around starts to uncover what looks like serious corruption and crime, but powerful people are on his case and soon his life is in danger. He’s got to use his smarts to outwit the vested interests of political hangers-on, the cops who may or may not be in their pay, and the shadowy underworld figures who have jobs to do and their own and others’ interests to protect. In the meantime he has a relationship to try to keep together, a daughter who is growing up in front of him, and a glimmer of career rescue on the horizon.

What stops Crooked House from being just another largely forgettable self published bit of pulp crime fiction is its humour. Mendue is a dab hand at the one-liner, and this wry look at the world and the pacey plot kept me going along fairly happily. Paul’s bureau colleague, the boss’ son is “almost too stupid to roll rocks down a hill”, and can’t be left alone on a story because “he probably wouldn’t notice if the army started shelling Parliament House.” In relaying his problems to his partner, Anne, Paul fears that she had “suddenly realised she’d never really known me at all, because I was a deranged fantasist.” His physical stoush with his nemesis and former boss involves “[rolling] around on the floor, punching the air and collecting carpet lint.” Their verbal confrontations run like this:

His face reddened. “Fuck off.”

“No, you fuck off.”

“No, you fuck off.”

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that we were professional wordsmiths.

I laughed quite a bit, although, as I said, Mendaue, or at least Paul Ryder, doesn’t like Canberra much:

Canberra is a strange, unnerving city in the middle of nowhere… If a competition was held to find the world’s most boring city it would win hands down, if the judges could be bothered visiting… Canberra has no centre, no ghettos, no ethnic quarters, no red light districts and no industrial zones. It’s just a vast archipelago of suburbs scattered through bushland and linked together by four- and six-lane expressways. In Canberra, it’s easy to drive anywhere, but there’s nowhere worth driving to.

I’ve often wondered at the recurring theme that you can’t have a real city without a ghetto, that somehow finding yourself in a zone filled with poverty and desperation makes living in a city worthwhile. And he’s wrong about the red light districts. They are in the industrial zones. Nevertheless. The Canberra-is-boring attitude also translates into the usual grab bag of references to actual places inaccurately described, or at least poorly understood. This imprecision isn’t important either, and there is nothing wrong with placing a seedy model in Yarralumla and a gym in Barton if that furthers the plot. The repeated references to the “Captain Cook Bridge” were annoying, though, and pointed me towards someone who has a superficial knowledge of the place but hasn’t taken the time to explore further.

Canberra architecture also comes in for Menadue’s deftly humorous criticism:

Most office buildings in Canberra are either outback neo-Stalinist or middle-of-nowhere modernist. Instead of being sympathetic to the landscape, they look like they hated it and wondered what the hell they were doing there.

It’s not all bad. On a “glorious” day Paul sits in the Queen’s Terrace Café at Parliament House, gazing at the lake, the High Court, OPH, the Library and War Memorial, and thinks of how in less pressured times he would have enjoyed the view. He has quite recently, though, been run off the road at Anzac Parade by a couple of thugs with guns, discovered dead bodies in Woden and in Campbell, and had to buy a whole new wardrobe in Manuka to replace his bloodstained suit. Given all of that, he could be forgiven for failing to see Canberra in its best light.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

9%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense

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