Zora Sanders writes in her Editorial for Meanjin‘s Canberra Issue that Canberra has (or, is it had) a reputation for being The National Capital of Boredom. This is just one of the many less-than-flattering epithets regularly applied to Canberra: A Cemetery with Lights, Fat Cat City, and the pervasive, A City without a Soul. For me though it’s simply Home … a home I chose back in the mid-70s when I applied for my first professional job at the National Library of Australia. I was consequently pleased when Meanjin offered me their special Canberra edition to review.
Sanders describes the issue as being “full of the usual eclectic mix of fact, fiction and poetry” and says it aims to “offer a taste of Canberra as it is now, 100 years after its founding, as viewed by the people who live there, who’ve left there and who never meant to find themselves there in the first place”. The result is something that’s not a hagiography, if you can apply such a word to a city, but that offers a thoughtful look at Canberra from diverse angles – political, historical, social, personal.
With the exception of poetry which is interspersed throughout, the issue is organised straightforwardly by form, rather than by theme or chronology. This is not to say, however, that there is no sense of an ordering hand. The first essay, for example, is, appropriately, Paul Daley’s “Territorial disputes” which explores Canberra’s complex and sometimes controversial indigenous heritage, including the thorny question concerning Canberra’s name. Is it derived from “Ngambri”, which means the “cleavage between the breasts of Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie“?
The issue includes a Meanjin Papers insert comprising an essay by ACT historian David Headon titled “The genius and gypsy: Walt and Marion Griffin in Australia and India”. So much has been written about the Griffins over the decades, and particularly this year, that it’s a challenge to present them in a handful of pages. Headon’s approach is to focus on the Griffins’ idealism, on what drove them to do what they did, and bypass the complex story of what happened to the plan. That story is explored a little later by Chris Hammer in his essay “A secret map of Canberra”. Griffin, like the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman, was, Headon writes, inspired by the prospect of “a prosperous egalitarian future for the new democracy in the south”. He planned his “ideal city” to serve such a nation. It didn’t, as we know, quite turn out that way, but I love that our city has such passion in its genes.
Anthologies are tricky to write about, particularly one as varied as this (despite its seemingly singular subject). The main sections are Essays, Fiction, Memoir and Poetry. There’s also a Conversation and a Gallery – and an opening section titled Perspectives. These pieces provide a fittingly idiosyncratic introduction to the volume. First is novelist Andrew Croome (whose Document Z I reviewed a couple of years ago). He writes of the 2003 fire – Canberra’s worst disaster – and its impact on the observatory at Mt Stromlo. There was a terrible human cost to this disaster but, without denying that, Croome takes a more cosmic view, and turns our eyes to the future. It’s nicely done. Writer Lorin Clarke follows Croome with her cheekily titled perspective “The love that dare not speak its name”. She ferrets out, without actually using the word, some of Canberra’s soul, seeing it in small spaces rather than showy institutions and in, if I read her correctly, the gaps that appear between carefully planned intentions and reality. The third perspective comes from a previous Meanjin editor, Jim Davidson, who, like Clarke and other writers in the issue, starts with the negatives – “a public service town” etc etc – but suggests that “the city is beginning to acquire a patina”. He argues, rather logically really, that Canberra is still young. Other planned cities, like Washington DC and Istanbul, have got “into their stride” and Canberra probably will too.
These perspectives – and the way they test Canberra’s image against reality – set the tone for the rest of the issue. I’m not going bore you – though the contributions themselves are far from boring – by summarising every piece. There is something here for everyone – and they show that the real Canberra is more than roundabouts and public servants. Dorothy Johnston‘s short story “Mrs B”, though set in Melbourne, reminds us of the hidden world of “massage parlours” and migrant workers, while Geoff Page‘s poem, “The ward is new”, addresses mental illness. Michael Thorley’s poem “Bronzed Aussies” reveres some of Canberra’s (and Australia’s) top poets, AD Hope, David Campbell and Judith Wright, while award-winning novelist Marian Halligan‘s memoir “Constructing a city, Constructing a life” recounts how a move to Canberra for a year or so turned into half a century and still counting. Several pieces describe Canberra’s natural beauty, including Melanie Joosten’s bittersweet short story, “The sky was herding disappointments”. And Alan Gould’s poem “The blether”, pointedly but wittily the last piece in the volume, suggests we could do with less aimless chatter and more of the “sweet unsaid”.
Of course, as this is Canberra, there has to be some politics. I particularly enjoyed Gideon Haigh’s essay, “The Rise and Rise of the Prime Minister”. Looking at the recent development of prime ministerial libraries à la America’s tradition of presidential libraries, he argues that the political landscape is being personalised, resulting in a shift in focus from ideology to leaders and their personalities.
Many of the pieces interested me, and I plan to write separately about one or two of them in future posts, so I’ll end here with architects Gerard O’Connell and Nugroho Utomo. In their essay “Canberra LAB – a mythical biography; or the art of showing up”, they say:
One has to understand that Canberra is a dream. It doesn’t exist. It is an ideal unrealised. A half-finished work on the way to becoming a masterpiece.
I like that. Meanjin has compiled an anthology that shows, as contributor Yolande Norris puts it, how “rich and strange” Canberra’s history is. It’s hard for me to be objective, but I’d say this volume has enough variety and good writing to appeal to a wide range of readers – whether or not they know or care about Canberra.
Meanjin, Vol 72 No.1 (Autumn 2013); or,
Meanjin 1, 2013, The Canberra Issue
University of Melbourne
(Review copy supplied by Meanjin)