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Monday musings on Australian literature: Canberra’s centenary

October 29, 2012
The invisible thread, by Irma Gold

Cover (Courtesy: Irma Gold and Halstead Press)

In 2013 Canberra, Australia‘s national capital, will celebrate its centenary. A whole raft of events and activities has been planned to keep us busy and buzzing all year – and I look forward to them – but for me, a reader, one of the most exciting projects inspired by the centenary is The invisible thread. It’s an anthology of fiction, non-fiction and poetry by writers, past and present, who have had an association with Canberra.

Some 75 writers are represented. Seventy-five! Even I, with my now rather long history in the capital, am surprised by the number, which perhaps gives you a hint to the meaning of the title. Robyn Archer, the Creative Director of the Centenary, writes in the foreword that much about Canberra is hidden or invisible but, she says, “just because you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there”. Like, for example, service stations! We do have them, contrary to popular opinion, we just like to keep them tucked away a little! Bill Bryson also noticed this feature of Canberra in his book Down Under. He wrote:

It’s a very strange city, in that it’s not really a city at all, but rather an extremely large park with a city hidden [my emphasis] in it. It’s all lawns and trees and hedges and a big ornamental lake [Lake Burley Griffin] – all very agreeable, just a little unexpected.

Hence The invisible thread!

Now, I haven’t yet read the book, having only acquired my copy last week, but I’ve given it a good look. And within its pages I’ve found many friends – personal and literary. Some are writers I have reviewed in this blog over the last three years or so, namely Francesca Rendle-Short, Alan Gould, Geoff Page, Alex Miller, Nigel Featherstone and Marion Halligan. Others are classic writers I’ve mentioned in various posts, particularly the Monday Musings series. These include some wonderful women, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, Kate Grenville, Miles Franklin and the collaborative team M Barnard Eldershaw. There are writers I’ve known for reasons external to their writing, like Michael Thorley and Sarah St Vincent Welch. There are young writers like the internationally published Jack Heath and rap artist Omar Musa, and older writers like historian Bill Gammage whose The biggest estate on earth won this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. And there are some of the grand men of Australian letters, like the poets AD Hope and Les Murray and the historian Manning Clark. If all these don’t tempt readers, I’m not sure who will, except perhaps those I haven’t mentioned!

The book is divided into four sections: Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards, Pts 1 and 2, and Looking In, Looking Out, Pts 1 & 2. Editor Irma Gold*, whose collection of short stories I reviewed earlier this year, describes the breakdown as “open-ended and kaleidoscopic”, and says that while Canberra features in the writings,

it is not the headline act. Rather, it supplies the invisible thread that links writers to each other, as one-time or full-time Canberrans, and to everyone who call Australia home. Like writers everywhere, the writers showcased here are looking both in and out, backwards and forwards, conveying the world through the lens of their experience.

Each of these sections is introduced with a delightful cartoon by Judy Horacek, one of my favourite cartoonists

I plan to return to this book, when I’ve had time to digest it more, so I’ll finish here on a little anecdote. In 1988, some good friends and I started a reading group, one that will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. Our initial focus was Australian women writers, and so in those early years we read Marion Halligan, Kate Grenville and more. We were Canberra women readers. However, also in 1988, a group of Canberra women writers (which included Marion Halligan and was known as the “Seven Writers”) produced a collection of short stories titled Canberra Tales. Several of those writers are included in this anthology, including Dorothy Johnston. Johnston’s story in that collection, “The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin”, is also in this anthology. Its opening sentence is:

To look at the lake, you’d think nothing dramatic, scarcely anything human happened there.

But how wrong you’d be …

Irma Gold (ed)
The invisible thread
Braddon: Halstead Press, 2012
256pp.
ISBN: 9781920831967

* To hear interviews with some of the anthology’s authors, check out Irma Gold’s You Tube page

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2012 3:15 am

    What an exciting year-long celebration to look forward to! And how fun that they’ve published such a book of writing as Invisible Thread. I’m sure you will have lots to say about it once you’ve read it through and I look forward to it!

  2. October 30, 2012 6:32 am

    Did you hear about the “Human Brochure” event that happened last weekend in Canberra? Big big tourism push, and from what I saw on my twitter feed, quite successful! And yay, Judy Horacek!

    • October 30, 2012 7:51 am

      Oh yes, I heard it was happening but am looking forward to seeing the outcomes. A great idea eh?

  3. October 30, 2012 7:41 am

    It sounds like an exciting book Sue.
    You know what would be good? Your almost-twenty-five-year-old reading group should do a little expose on each of the writers of the “seven writers”. You could pick one story from each of those writers and then your members could write individually about that. It would be most interesting when all the different perspectives came together, don’t you think?

    • October 30, 2012 7:54 am

      That’s a great idea, Karen Lee … Will see what they think of the idea as we have decided to have a bit of a Canberra focus next year … It would go on our group blog though, but I could always cross post couldn’t I.

  4. October 30, 2012 11:47 am

    A lovely muse, Sue. Canberra is definitely like that. I lived there very briefly in 1996 and enjoyed coming back to Sydney every weekend… okay, so not *every* weekend! ;) Seriously, I met lovely folk from all corners of Australia, many of whom I still call friends. I had a lot a fun and. I got to walk to work, too. There’s not many cities in the world you can do that in. Congratulations on your 25 years of book clubbing. That’s a wonderful thing. I look forward to your review of the anthology which sounds very interesting. Bring on 2013. Cheers, John.

    • October 30, 2012 5:49 pm

      Thanks John … and we like to visit Sydney every now and then but enjoy coming back to our hidden suburbs ;-) … I’m glad you had fun here. It’s a beautiful place though I recognise that many of its charms are hidden so sometimes you need a local to show them to you … next time you’re here you know who to ask!

  5. October 30, 2012 3:06 pm

    Thank you, Sue. A great acknowledgement to all of us who contributed to the anthology. I shared a link to your post on my facebook page. I don’t know whether you all had young families when you began your reading group in 1988, but half of us had small children, when 7 Writers started in the early 1980s. I remember Margaret Barbalet bringing her twin boys, and I quite often took my daughter – it was that, or not go to the meeting. I also remember that we held a small celebration when the combined number of our published books finally outstripped our total of children and grand-children!

    • October 30, 2012 4:25 pm

      A pleasure Dorothy! Yes, we did all have young families … in fact the reading group’s kernel came from our babysitting club and playgroup. We discovered that we liked to talk about books and so thought why not have some time for us! We’d meet at night and let the husbands look after the children though… Love your celebration!

  6. Matthew Todd permalink
    October 31, 2012 6:34 pm

    Had a quick flick through this at work today. It looks like an interesting collections of well-known and otherwise writers talking about Canberra. Nice to see the literature this part of the country getting some (comparatively) wider recognition.

    • October 31, 2012 8:49 pm

      It is isn’t it .. And I think the idea of a city-based anthology like this is a little unique. Hmmm, can you be “a little unique”?

      • Matthew Todd permalink
        October 31, 2012 8:55 pm

        There’s the new Tasmanian literature anthology, too – Deep South. I know Tasmania’s not a city, but the whole population of the state isn’t much larger than Canberra.

        But yes, it’s fairly unique. That’s a thing, right?

        • October 31, 2012 9:26 pm

          Oh that sounds good too … Must check with my Deep South brother. “Fairly” unique makes sense to me!

  7. November 1, 2012 8:25 am

    Thanks for that insight into your reading group, Sue. I do think it’s interesting the way women combine intellectual pursuits and intellectual discovery with their work as mothers. I think it’s a fascinating subject.

    • November 1, 2012 2:07 pm

      I agree … Shows that women have the drive, ability and will to use their brains as well as be maternal … Something that is way too often overlooked. It’s not an either-or thing but it does need careful balancing!

  8. November 1, 2012 8:45 am

    This is a PS to my last comment. On the question of a city-based anthology, of course the centenary is the ostensible reason for it; but I do think that Canberra being the ‘first’ is apt and right, given the widespread belief, sometimes openly expressed, sometimes expressed in a snide and backhand kind of way, that living and working in the national capital is synonymous with the death of the creative spirit.

    • November 1, 2012 2:08 pm

      Well said … What more can I say except thanks for saying it, Dorothy.

    • November 3, 2012 3:59 pm

      Dorothy and Sue, it was while living and working in the national capital that my creative spirit came to life!

      • November 3, 2012 11:57 pm

        That’s really great to hear Nigel … I really enjoyed Irma’s interview with Omar Musa and his comments on creativity.

  9. November 5, 2012 1:57 pm

    Well said, Nigel. I hope the anthology doesn’t bring out the Canberra bashers. That would be a shame.

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