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Delicious descriptions from Down under: Lebkowicz and Moorhouse on 1950s Canberra

November 15, 2013

At the beginning of this year I reviewed Frank Moorhouse‘s Cold light (my review) which commences with the arrival of his protagonist, Edith Campbell Berry, in Canberra in 1950. The Petrovs, the subject of Lesley Lebkowicz’s The Petrov poems (my review), arrived in Canberra in 1951.

Lebkowicz’s description of Canberra accords very much with Moorhouse’s. The second poem in her verse novel is “Canberra”. It is one of the unrhyming couplet poems in the book – and is also one of the poems that concludes on a single (and significant) line. I’d love to quote it all but I’m not sure about the copyright rules regarding individual poems in a verse novel – so I’ll assume I can quote a goodly percentage of the poem but not all of it*. The poem begins with a lovely description of  the quiet, the space, the birds, and uses that colour most associated with Patrick White, “dun-coloured”, to describe the grass. It then continues

… Their house is between

Kingston and Manuka where shops
for clothing and food squat close to the ground.

There’s a news agency, a shop for sewing materials,
a furniture store – but no cafés, no restaurants.

Civic has two-storey buildings with cloisters
where in winter the wind from Cooma sharpens the cold

into blades. She shivers. All around sheep huddle
and graze, but in Griffith they have a whole house

to themselves: a whole house and plenty of food.

Compare this with Moorehouse’s Cold light. Edith has been offered the honorary (!) job of town planner. She does a lot of reading, and appreciates Walter Burley Griffin‘s** passion and is awed Marion Mahony Griffin‘s gorgeous drawings:

She even had a small vision of her own – about the lucerne. Why not have a working farm in the heart of the city? With cows and and sheep and haystacks. Didn’t Marie Antoinette have her farm – the petit hameau?

She doesn’t voice this to her “boss”, Gibson – “she might not mention this idea at this moment” – which is just as well:

He said, “What we need are more verticals, more variation of skyline, blocks of flats, spires.”

She thought not. Gibson did not have the awe of the plans there in his office; maybe he was past that.

Gibson said, “Griffin didn’t want skyscrapers because he wanted low, large buildings so that light and air could play their parts. Now we have too bloody much of both. Pardon my French. We have too much light and too much air and too many trees and too little else.”

She smiled to put him at ease.

Sixty years later, we are still planning Canberra. We are still arguing about the verticals. How high or how low should we go? And about the green (or dun-coloured as the case may be) spaces. Should we fill some in? But perhaps all cities are like this? In Meanjin‘s The Canberra issue (my review), journalist-author Chris Hammer says, “The city is evolving as the nation it serves is evolving …”. And that, I think, is as it should be.

* The full version is, however, on line at Verity La, albeit not formatted the way it is in the book.
** To read more about the Griffins and Marion’s drawings in particular, see here and here (click on the illustration to see it in better detail.)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2013 4:24 am

    Wonderful descriptions. I think every city that is alive continues to evolve. If it didn’t I think that would be something to worry about.

    • November 16, 2013 9:19 am

      Agree totally Stefanie … And it’s good to have controversy about design. Means people care about their city doesn’t it.

  2. November 16, 2013 4:38 am

    See now I’m in a daze of happy reminisces about the restaurants that DO exist in Kingston and Manuka now.

    But mostly I miss Sage.

    • November 16, 2013 9:21 am

      Sage is nice … But what a change in Kingston. I think in fact there was a cafe in Manuka then but her point is still true.

      • November 16, 2013 12:23 pm

        When I was writing ‘Canberra’ I was thinking of Kingston not Manuka, but of course that’s not what the poem says. On the night of the Canberra launch I realised: the Manuka cafe that’s at the mouth of the arcade, opposite the cinema – it’s been there for ever! But there was my book, all beautifully printed, with the mistake. Which I’ll just have to live with. Thanks for the generous acknowledgment of the underlying point.

        • November 16, 2013 12:38 pm

          That’s the one I was thinking of Lesley! But really in a poem you can’t say “except for one”! I’m a reader who doesn’t worry about small details like this – it is fiction after all – if the point holds, and it does.

  3. lesley lebkowicz permalink
    November 16, 2013 9:18 am

    Dear Ms W Gums

    I don’t know the copyright rules either but I’m so delighted with your reading of TPP that I’m happy for you to quote whatever you like.

    It’s a rare gift to a writer that a reader gets so much of what she’s doing.


    Lesley L

    • November 16, 2013 10:43 am

      Oh thanks Lesley … I really appreciate that. I won’t take advantage – in the sense of not overdoing it – but it’s good to have that permission.

  4. chillcat permalink
    November 17, 2013 7:09 pm

    I remember reading ‘dun-coloured’ all the way through Patrick White!

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