Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading about Canberra

If you’re not already aware of it – through my blog or elsewhere – Canberra turns 100 this year. Tomorrow, Tuesday 12 March, is THE day. How does one date a city with such precision? Well, in Canberra’s case it’s pretty easy because it was (is) a planned city. I suppose a number of dates could have been chosen – the date the location was announced or when the design competition or its winner was announced, perhaps – but the date we use is the date it was officially named, the date a bunch of white people came riding across the sheep paddocks and declared this place would be Australia’s national capital and called Canberra. We have movie footage of the event – and the city has been well-documented in all media ever since.

The invisible thread, by Irma Gold

Cover (Courtesy: Irma Gold and Halstead Press)

I’m not going to dwell long on this, because I’ve talked about it before and will again during the year, but I thought I’d list three useful resources for those interested in the city’s literature:

  • The invisible thread, edited by Irma Gold, is the anthology I’ve written about several times already. It’s not exclusively about Canberra but the 70-odd pieces within are all by writers who have a connection with the city. It includes fiction (short stories and novel excerpts), non-fiction and poetry.
  • Meanjin Quarterly Vol 72 No. 1, 2013, The Canberra Issue. Meanjin, arguably Australian’s most venerable literary magazine, aims in this issue “to take the pulse of our elusive, much maligned-capital”, the city often dubbed, writes editor Zora Sanders, The National Capital of Boredom. Little do they know, we longstanding residents mutter, but quietly so (for we rather like our secret). This beautifully produced issue is organised into sections labelled Essays, Fiction, Gallery, Memoir, and Conversation, with poetry interspersed throughout. The contributors include Gideon Haigh, Drusilla Modjeska, Marion Halligan, Dorothy Johnston and Alan Gould. (Click here for subscription and stockist details).
  • Dinner at Caphs is a blogger whose Centenary project is to “attempt to read in 2013 only fiction that is set in Canberra. I want to try to see this city the way others see it, and to examine how I feel about what they see”. Dani has a page on her blog listing books she has identified as being set in or about Canberra. I’m hoping she’ll update it as she comes across more. My own reading group has decided on a (not exclusive) focus on Canberra-related writing this year so I was chuffed to come across Dinner at Caphs.

I started this post by mentioning how well Canberra’s history has been documented. I’ve mentioned film and writing, but music too has played a part. What better way to close this week’s Monday Musings than on the chorus from popular Australian songwriter Jack Lumsdaine’s song written in the late 1930s and titled “Canberra” or “Canberra’s calling to you”. Click this “Canberra’s calling to you” link to read more about the song and hear some old and new versions. (It’s a bit of a hoot.) The chorus begins:

Like a jewel so rare,
In a setting so fair,
A city of white was born.
With its gardens of blooms and its rare perfumes
That greet each sunny morn,
Australia’s creation the heart of a nation
‘neath azure skies of blue.

Very much of its time of course, but it’s part of our history. I am grateful to our national institutions – the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Library of Australia, the National Archives of Australia and the National Museum of Australia – for the work they’ve done to capture and preserve the history of this city I call home. Roll on the next 100 years …

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading about Canberra

  1. Hi Sue, once again you’ve done a great job in focussing on our literary (national) capital. I’m looking forward to reading Meanjin’s centenary issue.

    • Thanks Dorothy … it’s a really interesting issue … I nearly read yours out of order the other day but stopped myself, remembering how much work Irma put into ordering The invisible thread. But, having enjoyed your boatman story in The invisible thread, I can’t wait to read your contribution here.

  2. I heard the March Meanjin issue was a March one.. Happy Birthday! My son was taken by his grandparents for a visit last July on his solo Australian trip and was most impressed

  3. Hi Sue, I’ve started browsing therough The Invisible Thread which you so kindly sent me and am enjoying it very much:) xo
    May I recommend one other book which deserves attention in the centenary? It rejoices in the very long title Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, and it’s by Alasdair McGregor. It won the National Bio Award a couple of years ago. Although it’s a bio about these two, and it’s a whopping 545 pages long, it is a fascinating adjunct to the story of Canberra and has a lot about the philosophy behind the city and also about the difference between the dream and the sometimes penny-pinching reality. See

    • Thanks Lisa … glad you are enjoying it. My reading group is doing it this month so, while I’ve read quite a bit of it in bits and pieces, I plan to read it all from the beginning in the next couple of weeks. Am looking forward to it.

      The Griffin story is a fascinating one isn’t it. Thanks for reminding me of that bio. There are so many different viewpoints on the dream and the reality, some about the money and some about the philosophy. I was reading a local historian the other day on the conflict between the Griffins’ idealistic vision and a more bureaucratic vision by the “generals”.

  4. I like Canberra, I think it is a great place to visit. However, back in the 60’s, J R Rowland’s poem, Canberra in April, created the image I had in my mind. I hope to read Plaque with Laurel by M Barnard Eldershaw next month.

    “In their back gardens, hearty
    Bankers exchange golf-scores, civil servants
    Their after-office beers; the colony
    Of diplomats prepares its cocktail parties
    And politicians their escape to Melbourne.”

    I know it is a bit different now, and Happy Birthday to Canberra. I hope to read The Invisible Thread next week and Plaque with Laurel by M Barnard Eldershaw next month.

    • Oh dear poor Canberra, Meg … but even back then there was the ANU and an intellectual life going on, poets like AD Hope writing here, Manning Clark beavering away, but noone ever mentioned that, so people didn’t know!

      Sounds like a great reading plan … and I accept your birthday wishes on behalf of Canberra!

  5. Thanks, Sue, for your ongoing advocacy for Canberra and the writing that’s come out of the region. It really is a place of great cultural activity. More people need to know about it. More power to blogs like Whispering Gums.

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